As of Friday, India had vaccinated over 50 per cent of its eligible population with at least one dose of the COVID-19 vaccine. Friday, August 27, marked a highpoint in the vaccination drive with over 10 million people being vaccinated in just one day—essentially a population equal to the whole of either Greece, Jordan, Sweden, Portugal, or the Czech Republic. The sheer scale and efficiency of the vaccination drive show exactly what the Indian state is capable of once it decides to do something. But it equally shows that detractors and critics of the government tend to frequently misdiagnose problems and underestimate state capacity purely based on their hatred of the current dispensation.
The question really is why is the hatred of one ideology making normally sane people go mad? While getting “triggered” is apparently an acceptable response in current times, a lot of these overreactions could’ve been ascribed to personal mental health issues. The problem, however, was that a whole section of society from the international press, domestic press, leaders, industrialists to name but a few were actively celebrating these meltdowns and passing them off as “informed opinion”. Normally these would pass off as fodder for amusing memes, YouTube clips or WhatsApp forwards, but when the country was suffering during the second wave, the cumulative effect was one of wilfully attempting to demoralise the public and undermine state resolve.
This does not mean that a government cannot be criticised during a time of crisis. Far from it, a government must be scrutinised even more during a crisis, but it is incumbent that such criticism be far more clinical, accurate and factual than normal non-crisis criticism. Here the commentariat failed spectacularly. Be it encouraging vaccine hesitancy, to confusing state government and central government powers, to spinning carefully selected communal narratives around super-spreader events while shielding other super-spreader events from criticism, the entire list essentially reads as a chargesheet of wilful criminality. With the benefit of hindsight the only thing we can say is: the detractors got it horribly wrong and even when they knew they were wrong they pushed on in the hope that more Indians dying would help them meet their pet political objectives.
Let’s start with vaccine hesitancy. There was valid criticism to be made that the government should have pre-ordered its entire supply of vaccines well in advance around June or July 2020 when it was clear that vaccines would be around the corner. However, when the government did place initial orders for the two Indian-made vaccines, the reaction was to dismiss one vaccine as unsafe and untested while the other vaccine was dismissed as a product of nepotism. When the government did indeed rectify its initial oversight by placing large orders for vaccines as well as providing capital to these two vaccine manufacturers for immediate and urgent capacity expansion, that too was slammed as nepotism and questions were asked why certain other vaccines from abroad were not being procured.
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Isn’t it surprising that the two alternate vaccines being peddled, namely Pfizer and a Chinese vaccine, have since proven to be spectacularly ineffective in geographies as far away as Israel and Brazil. The fact that Pfizer was running an underhand publicity campaign to get certain legal exemptions, exemptions not given to other manufacturers, was either suppressed or completely ignored despite the knock-on effects that it would have on other manufacturers. Conveniently forgotten was the fact that Pfizer simply did not have the capacity to supply the Indian market with the rapidity and scale required. The horrors of the Covid second wave were essentially used as a macabre marketing prop by Pfizer and its local “influencers”. To make matters worse, a prominent so-called “captain of industry” went around telling people that yoga and homoeopathy were better suited to him, and that he would not be getting vaccinated. The general conclusion seemed to be that no matter what the government does, vaccinating the entire population by the end of the year was impossible.
In early to mid 2020, when a Tablighi Jamaat super-spreader event was harshly criticised and its participants’ violent refusal to get treated at hospitals was called out, the same commentariat deemed it an act of extreme Islamophobia, going so far as to justify and normalise their misbehaviour with the hospital staff. Yet in 2021, when another religious congregation, the Kumbh Mela, presented a threat to public health, the commentariat went to town attacking Hindus despite the fact that there were no acts of defiance against being hospitalised, quarantined or vaccinated, leave alone attacking or sexually molesting health workers by pilgrims.
Incidentally, the judiciary itself wasn’t very far behind in displaying double standards. While the Kanwariya Yatra piqued the interest of and invited interference from the court despite social distancing measures, another Muslim religious congregation in Kerala got a mere warning, despite foreknowledge of the event and dire predictions regarding the consequences of such large gatherings.
All up, we can safely conclude that India’s commentariat simply doesn’t seek solutions, it doesn’t even provide informed criticism of government policy. Rather, it perpetuates tropes and creates impossible conundrums that no government would be able to solve, but make for great stories to get web hits and Twitter shares and Facebook likes. The only thing that is damaged today is the credibility of the press of industrialists and of politicians, not the government.
Abhijit Iyer-Mitra is Senior Fellow at the Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies. The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not represent the stand of this publication.
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