As the Gujarat Govt Downplays COVID-19 Crisis, People Suffer in Silence
This story first appeared in m.thewire.in
Ahmedabad: Residents of Gujarat, India’s ‘model’ state, were shocked on Thursday when they read news reports that their government had given Uttar Pradesh 25,000 vials of the antiviral Remdesivir at a time when stocks of the drug in Ahmedabad appear to be low.
In Ahmedabad, the families of people in need of Remdesivir have been compelled to wait in queues for up to eight hours to buy the drug, underlining the fact that the coronavirus crisis in the state has been severely underplayed by the government.
On Thursday night for example, Gujarat reported 8,152 new cases, the highest daily figure of new cases so far, bringing the total number of active COVID-19 cases to 44,298. The state also reported a total of 81 COVID deaths in the last 24 hours.
Meanwhile, Gujarat’s neighbouring state, Maharashtra, reported 61,695 fresh cases and 349 deaths in the same time period.
On Wednesday, the Ahmedabad Medical Association wrote a letter to Vijay Rupani, chief minister of Gujarat, urging him to ban the use of oxygen in all sectors except hospitals. The letter highlighted the difficulties faced by medical professionals who lack the medicines, injections and oxygen to properly treat patients of COVID-19.
But the government continues to play down the crisis. It issues data to support its claims that hospital beds are available, even as people on the ground complain that no beds are available for COVID-19 patients, and seems to ignore the fact that ambulances are in short supply, space in burial grounds is becoming increasingly limited and cremations are being waitlisted all over the state.
For many people, the attitude of the Gujarat government to the second wave of the pandemic is baffling. On the one hand, people are fined Rs 1,000 for mask violations – as they should be. But on the other hand, the state’s ruling party, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), held a massive bike rally on Wednesday while campaigning for the forthcoming by-election for the Morwa Hadaf assembly constituency, in which masks were completely absent.
“Corona does not exist for the BJP anywhere there are elections,” former Union minister and senior Congress leader Bharat Solanki told The Wire.
Crime and the coronavirus
In the last 96 hours, the chaos surrounding the management of pandemic in the state has led to at least four police complaints of cheating and fraud.
In Ahmedabad, the police arrested a contracted employee of a government hospital for stealing gold bangles worth Rs 1.6 lakh from a corpse as he shifted the body from the ICU to the morgue. In two cases in different parts of Gujarat, police arrested black marketers who were selling Remdesivir for Rs 12,000 per vial. Remdesivir is generally available at the government-mandated price of Rs 800 per vial or at Rs 690 per vial if acquired directly from the laboratory. The black marketers had apparently told the police that they had sold 50 vials of the drug so far, but the police believe that they could have sold many more.
In another incident of black marketing, the special operations group of the Gujarat Police caught two men in Valsad with 18 doses of Remdesivir that they had planned to sell for Rs 25,000 per vial.
Meanwhile, in Rajkot, a hospital associate and the BJP head of a municipal ward have been named in a police complaint for taking Rs 45,000 to administer Remdesivir to a patient and then not even giving the patient the dose. Rajkot, incidentally, is chief minister Vijay Rupani’s constituency.
“These are unethical times,” said Congress leader Indranil Rajyaguru, who had unsuccessfully contested against Rupani for the Rajkot seat. Speaking on the phone, Rajyaguru said: “Gujarat, which was known for philanthropy, is now tarnishing its image. Patients are in a serious condition. Relatives are asked to manage [to procure] Remdesivir and Tocilizunab, but since no relative is with the patient, several patients are being cheated by fraudulent hospitals and doctors in the same way that the Rajkot patient was cheated. This is a serious matter of concern.”
Soon after he spoke to The Wire, Rajyaguru was admitted to a Rajkot hospital for COVID-19.
There are other forms of coronavirus scams too. This week, a laboratory in Ahmedabad’s Ghodasar neighbourhood that had conducted more than 3,000 RT-PCR tests was raided by the Ahmedabad Municipal Corporation based on complaints by those who had taken the test there. The raid disclosed that the laboratory had no equipment or kits to conduct the rapid antigen tests, but had fooled the public and issued fake reports.
As people buy Remdesivir on the black market and reportedly sell their jewellery and homes for COVID-19 treatment, the news that the Gujarat government sent 25,000 vials of the precious drug to UP added to the sense of doom.
Although the state government denied the news reports, issuing a statement that called them “fabricated and baseless”, Brajesh Mishra, editor-in-chief of the Lucknow-based news channel Bharat Samachar, said that UP will not face any Remdesivir shortage as the state had received 25,000 vials of the drug from Gujarat on Wednesday. The Gujarat government however continues to deny that it sent the drug to UP and no spokesperson from Zydus Cadila, the manufacturer of Remdesivir, was available to speak to The Wire.
Meanwhile on Wednesday, almost all the top Gujarat ministers and bureaucrats huddled in meetings to put together a report highlighting the state government’s response to the coronavirus crisis. The report was submitted to the High Court of Gujarat on Thursday as part of the government’s response to the high court’s remark earlier this week that it was unhappy with the way the pandemic was being managed in the state. During the high court hearing, Gujarat advocate general Kamal Trivedi submitted that as of April 12, 2021, bed occupancy in Gujarat had been only 53%.
The cricket match factor
The sudden surge in COVID-19 cases that has taken Gujarat by surprise is believed to have started after the India vs England cricket match held at the Narendra Modi cricket stadium last month, where over 75,000 people, mostly without masks, had converged. There were 49 cases at the Indian Institute of Management, Ahmedabad, alone, and officials had attributed it to a small group of students who had gone to see the game. The Indian Institute of Technology, Gandhinagar, reported 25 cases.
Congress leader Bharat Solanki accused the Gujarat government of pandering to Jay Shah, the president of the Board of Control for Cricket in India and the son of Union home minister Amit Shah, who was reportedly keen to hold the match complete with spectators.
“The Gujarat government is spineless and could not ask Shah to cancel the match,” Solanki told The Wire. “It was only after a big public outcry after two matches that spectators were banned from the stadiums.”
While the mainstream English language media in Gujarat more or less sticks to the government line in its reportage of the COVID-19 crisis in the state, the local language media publishes realistic and powerful pictures of Gujarat’s handling of the pandemic’s second wave.
Devendra Bhatnagar, editor of Divya Bhaskar, a Gujarati daily, received much praise when he published the mobile phone number of C.R. Paatil, the Gujarat BJP chief, asking readers to contact him for vials of Remdesivir.
On April 12, it was reported that Paatil had procured 5,000 vials of Remdesivir and distributed them from the BJP office in Navsari even as people queued up at Zydus Hospital in Ahmedabad, some even overnight, to get the doses they needed.
But Paatil’s ‘initiative’ had had to be stopped a day later when the BJP was accused of discrimination and of politicising the pandemic in Gujarat. Much was also made of the fact that Remdesivir is a prescription drug that can be handled by qualified pharmacists only.
Ahmedabad’s Zydus Cadila is one of the biggest producers of Remdesivir in India, but in the last six months, the Indian government permitted all the producers of Remdesivir, including Cipla, Zydus Cadila, Hetero, Dr Reddy’s and so on, to export the drug.
More than 11 lakh doses of the drug were exported to nearly 100 countries in accordance with a voluntary licensing agreement between the Indian pharma companies and Gilead Sciences, USA. According to the government, India has an overall installed capacity to produce about 38.80 lakh units of Remdesivir per month. Three days ago, the Union government banned the export of Remdesivir for the duration of the pandemic.
While the Congress and BJP trade allegations about the coronavirus situation in Gujarat, residents of the state are in a deplorable position. On Tuesday, when Dinesh Patel (name changed on request) had to be admitted to Ahmedabad’s Civil Hospital, India’s largest public hospital, his family realised an hour and a half after he was placed in an ambulance that the ambulance was still waiting at the hospital gate. Patel’s was one of 35 ambulances that were waiting to enter Civil Hospital at the time.
“We knew people were waiting in ambulances,” Dr J.V. Modi, medical superintendent at the Civil Hospital, told The Wire. “But we could not admit people without following the mandatory procedures.”
Meanwhile, as burial grounds and crematoria in Ahmedabad and Surat work 24/7 and continue to witness waiting lists, the Gujarat government declared only 24 deaths each in Surat and Ahmedabad on Wednesday.
Faysal Bakili, the head of the Surat edition of Chitralekha, a popular Gujarati weekly, told The Wire that the Surat administration had not been prepared for this spike of COVID cases and still had not worked out a strategy to manage it. He added that the overworked staff of the crematoria in Surat had now replaced the ghee they had always used in the funeral pyres with kerosene, so that the bodies burn faster.
Sunit Gami, a resident of Surat, said that when his uncle had died of COVID-19, there was a 12-hour waiting list at the crematorium. “So we took the body to Bardoli, a nearby town, for the last rites. It was insane to be on a 12-hour waiting list,” he said.
Rahul Sharma, a former IPS officer and now lawyer, told The Wire that the Gujarat government had appeared oblivious to the threat of a second wave of the pandemic. “The Gujarat government did not bother about capacity-building in terms of testing facilities and life-saving infrastructure,” said Sharma. “It wasted crucial time.”
A senior Ahmedabad-based doctor told The Wire that he had drawn the attention of health department officials to the sudden spike in coronavirus cases, but was ignored. “Maybe the health department was told to keep quiet since the Gujarat local body elections were on that time,” the doctor said. He continued: “No precautions were taken, no arrangements were made. The government resorted to vulgar populism and this spike, mismanagement and anarchy is a result of that. Also the cricket matches were completely avoidable.”
Harita Dave, a resident of Ahmedabad, told The Wire that ambulances are near impossible to get. On April 13, Dave had called an ambulance for her 58-year-old neighbour whose condition appeared to be deteriorating.
“When I called the 108 ambulance service, I was informed that due to the current situation, no ambulances were free. They said they would register my request and get back to me as soon as they could. Three hours later, I received a phone call asking if I still needed an ambulance,” said Dave.
Mehul Narendrabhai, another resident of Ahmedabad, waited even longer for an ambulance on April 14. “We called to request an ambulance at 3:30 pm. They called us back at 1 am,” he said. “In the meantime we phoned 50 to 60 hospitals in the city, asking if they could take an emergency case, but no beds were available.”
On April 13, Pratik Sinha, co-founder of Alt News, tweeted: “There are ambulances going past my house every 10-15 minutes. Sometimes the gap between two sirens is less than five minutes. It is frightening how bad the situation is in Ahmedabad.”
When Imtiaz Ujjainwala and Ronak Shah, both reporters from Sandesh, the popular Gujarati daily, spent the night of April 11 at the Civil Hospital in Ahmedabad as part of an investigation into the COVID crisis, they saw 63 bodies moved out of the morgue.
“We counted the bodies and there were 63 just from this one hospital,” the two reporters told The Wire. “Our colleagues who were spending the night at the crematorium told us that all 63 bodies from the Civil Hospital had been cremated with COVID protocols and so were bodies from other hospitals. But when the number of COVID deaths was announced in Ahmedabad on April 12, the official toll was declared as 20. The official bulletin was ridiculous.”
The under-reporting of coronavirus cases in Gujarat is now an open secret, Congress leader Solanki told The Wire.
Advocate Suhel Tirmizi who lost his coronavirus-infected wife in a tragic fire at Shrey hospital, Ahmedabad, last year, is furious with the Gujarat and Indian governments.
“Instead of buying new aeroplanes or hiring image management consultants, they should have focused on providing an adequate number of ventilators, injections and oxygen cylinders,” he told The Wire. “They should also have hired electrical engineers to check the usage capacity of ventilators in hospitals. The fire that claimed my wife began from a ventilator.”
Politics gone viral
Even in this chaos, the people of Gujarat do not blame Prime Minister Narendra Modi, whose home town is Ahmedabad and who had been Gujarat’s chief minister before becoming India’s prime minister.
In fact, the common refrain is that if Modi had been Gujarat’s chief minister at this time, this situation would not have arisen.
After waiting in line for nine hours for a dose of Remdesivir, Pranay Thakkar told The Wire: “Modi hai, toh mumkin hai (With Modi, everything is possible). This crisis will resolve in 48 hours. I have faith in Modi, just like I have faith in Srinathji (a form of the god Krishna).”
Pritiben Bhatt has four members of her family in hospital, all patients of COVID, but said the situation in Gujarat is not Modi’s fault. “In fact, COVID would not have reached Gujarat if Modiji was the chief minister,” she said.
But some people disagree with this belief. According to Pravin Makwana, a Gandhian studies scholar, the Gujarat government is underplaying the situation simply to maintain that all is well in the ‘Gujarat model’ (the prime minister’s declaration that the governance of Gujarat is the ideal that all other states of India must aspire to). “Modi cannot afford the debunking of the myth of the Gujarat model,” said Makwana.
On Wednesday, as the Gujarat government prepared to face the high court on Thursday, it planned a Remdesivir strategy, a drive-in RT-PCR centre, a 900-bed DRDO (Defence Research and Development Organisation) hospital dedicated to COVID patients, additional oxygen supply and an emergency team to check black marketing, among other schemes. The Food and Drug Controller’s office, the Gujarat Police and the vigilance departments of the various municipal corporations will be responsible for keeping the processes smooth.
The government’s plans made Dr Jitubhai Patel, a well-known Ahmedabad doctor and former Congress MLA, scoff. “The government says that they still have vacant beds and the situation in Gujarat is under control but is being overplayed by the media,” said Dr Patel. “So why has the Vijay Rupani government asked the Centre to help them set up a 900-bed DRDO hospital in Ahmedabad within two weeks?”
This is a political question, but it is a good one. Politics appears to rule all aspects of life in Gujarat. The Congress party says the government’s plans are cosmetic efforts to cover up what it calls ‘The Great Corona Mismanagement’. The BJP’s opponents are also circulating the statement made by West Bengal’s chief minister, Mamata Banerjee, that the ‘Gujarat model’ is bogus. On April 11, independent MLA Jignesh Mevani told Gujarat’s chief minister in a tweet that Gujaratis will never forgive him for underplaying the corona situation in Gujarat and letting so many people die due to mismanagement.
Meanwhile, a very visibly mismanaged Gujarat continues to suffer.
The Wire made efforts to contact Gujarat’s health minister and health secretary, but received no response.
(With inputs from Aaquib Chhipa)
Deepal Trivedi is the founder of Virago Media Pvt Limited.