As Union Health Minister Dr Harsh Vardhan took a blatantly political position against several states in a statement in response to concerns about vaccine shortages around the country, he also pinpointed what he believed was the reason for the massive Covid-19 second wave in India.
As cases spiked across the country, with the national numbers higher than the peak they had reached in 2020, Vardhan said that the second wave was happening “because of the lack of commitment and sincerity on behalf of the people, where they are taking everything so casually and so light manner that nobody is interested in wearing the mask... there’s no respect for the norms of physical distancing”.
Vardhan may be right. Adherence to Covid-19 norms had, at least anecdotally, dropped around the country over the last few months. This happened as even more sectors opened up, tourism and restaurant-going restarted and students in some places went back to school.
But the reasons for this seem evident.
For one, the pandemic appeared to be fading after its peak in September 2020. Indian officials were happy to point out that the country had broken the link between mobility and Covid-19. They claimed that Indians moving around had not led to a spike in cases. In fact, actually numbers were falling. Some analysts predicted that there would be no second wave.
Maybe as importantly was the example set by the public’s elected representatives. One look at Harsh Vardhan’s Twitter feed makes it quite clear who could be called out for “taking everything casually”.
Of course, the Bharatiya Janata Party is not the only political party to be campaigning out in force. All the major players have been organising large public rallies with little masking and no social distancing. This isn’t just now – as India is in the throes of a huge second wave – but also back in 2020, in Bihar during the first peak.
People take their cues from their elected representatives. Prime Minister Narendra Modi, for instance, has been praised for publicly encouraging vaccinations, a way to guide public behaviour by setting an example.
The same holds true for Covid-19 protocol.
With the prime minister and top BJP leaders having no qualms about collecting huge numbers of their followers at gatherings around the country, with Assam Health Minister Himanta Biswa Sarma of the BJP saying that there is “no need to wear masks” in the state, with Uttarakhand Chief Minister Tirath Singh Rawat claiming that “faith will beat Covid-19” and that there is no need for “unnecessary restrictions” on hundreds of thousands of people gathering for the Kumbh, why is Harsh Vardhan surprised when ordinary people take the protocol casually?
When asked about the crowded political rallies, for example, Vardhan passed the buck, saying it was for the Election Commission to monitor. It is a complex problem since any party that chooses to organise rallies may get an advantage over another that, in the name of Covid-19 does not.
But this is exactly the sort of situation where Modi, who claims to put the lives of the citizens above his party’s political motives, could have taken the initiative. Instead, his party willingly participated in incredibly risky behaviour, not just organising masses at rallies but going ahead with hard-to-control religious events like the Kumbh.
The lack of response to such events is even more galling because Vardhan’s government and party went all out to demonise a Muslim gathering in March 2020, even before Covid protocols were fully in place. The BJP’s online army made it seem as if the virus had only been spread by one community, triggering hate speech and boycotts.
Now that cases are spiking without any convenient villain to identify, the health minister has absolved his own government and party of all responsiblity and put the blame entirely on Indians at large. If Harsh Vardhan really believes that the second wave is “because of the lack of commitment and sincerity on behalf of the people”, he needs to realise is that sincerity begins at home.