It becomes more obvious by the day that our obstacles to tackling Covid-19 are as much attitudinal as practical. Attitudinal problems can complicate the practical ones. For example, plain arithmetic indicated that on May 1, India was woefully short of vaccines to immunise everyone over 18. The programme to do so could only have been announced as a political ploy. It enabled the Union government to diffuse the challenge of procuring enough vaccines.

I wish to propose a change of mindset on three Covid-related issues. My first suggestion may seem banal: please remove the prime minister’s likeness from vaccination certificates. The Union government, whose tax-derived expenditure is consistently packaged as the prime minister’s personal bounty, has offloaded much of the burden of vaccinating the public to the states.

Uniquely in the world, there is no centralised control. The states are left free to fend for themselves, to fight and jostle, deflecting the citizens’ ire from the Union government. Social scientist Pratap Bhanu Mehta has called this social Darwinism. A plainer term might be jungle law.

One of these days, the Supreme Court may compel the government to assume responsibility for the entire drive across India for all age groups, and arrange for wider vaccine manufacture under compulsory licensing – a measure it is curiously resisting at home even while campaigning internationally for the suspension of patents. But forced retractions will not imply a change of attitude.

Obfuscatory rhetoric

The intent of my proposal lies elsewhere. Like virtually every action of this government, the vaccination drive has transmogrified into a publicity drive, an image-building campaign iconised literally in Narendra Modi’s portrait. Any decline in actual immunisations, and the uncertainty about future supplies, is met with obfuscatory rhetoric. Let us drive this elephant out of the room. It would make it easier to see the sober furniture for this vital task.

My second plea would be to make public the income and expenditure of the PM Cares fund, raised to battle the Covid-19 pandemic. Apparently this is not required by law. We may still demand transparency as a point of public principle. It seems reasonable that a fund consisting solely of public donations, to be spent solely on urgent public needs, should divulge its operations to the public.

This is not to suggest that funds are being misused. It is simply to point out how citizens are debarred from matters of vital concern to them. The Indian public is habituated to having doors shut in its face – as just now, traumatically, the actual gates of hospitals and oxygen depots, which are themselves beleaguered. We have ceased to feel demeaned by such exclusion. We are reconciled to an executive machinery as inscrutable as fate. The gods of the machine are thus tempted to play fate. Our governmental discourse admits no accountability.

Not the least depressing feature of the Covid-19 scene is that after decades of growing if flawed prosperity, we are again beholden to foreign aid. This is being touted as a triumph of Indian diplomacy. No doubt our standing in the world was advanced by our vaccine supplies to many countries. That stature is diminished by demanding a quid pro quo quite so soon: we might be exhausting our assets in the bank of international goodwill.

There is a case for accepting scarce equipment or medicines, gifts of love that cannot be readily bought for money. But there is also the embarrassment, in more than one sense, of monetary donations. And the patronising concern expressed by many private funders does credit to them but not to us.

It behoves us the more to demonstrate that we have deployed our own resources to best purpose. Opacity in fund management can only add to our unease. This is equally the case where the spending is all too evident but the purpose strains the judgment.

Grotesque anomaly

Opposition to the Central Vista project in New Delhi is growing by the day. This is distinct from the various objections – historical, architectural, environmental, legal – raised since its inception, and its questionable exemption from lockdown. The current protests argue, more viscerally, that we should not embark on a Rs 20,000-crore vanity project during India’s greatest crisis since Independence.

Soon after completing the Rs 3,000-crore Statue of Unity, India was seeking a poor nations’ subsidy of Rs 100 crore for polio vaccines. We are repeating this grotesque anomaly on a grander scale. Out of sheer public decency, let us put the project on hold and divert the funds to Covid relief, for which no money can be enough. If the new parliament building were to be inaugurated next year, the context of its construction would blight the ceremony.

My three examples are dissimilar, but they have one point in common. All three regard the essential task of governance as aggrandising the state and affirming its unarraignable power. All concessions to Covid-19 must serve this agenda: they cannot displace it. In certain notorious states, Covid-stricken citizens face governmental wrath if their struggle to survive impairs the image of authority.

Human beings can bear endless loss, suffering and misgovernance. But the current enemy is so minute and inscrutable that scientists debate whether it is living or non-living. You cannot fudge the terms when engaging with a virus. You cannot distract it with rhetoric or browbeat it into silence. This humbling reality might lead our rulers to extend the same respect to their human subjects, granting them the status of citizens in a democracy. Then and then only can we think about a grand new parliament building.

Sukanta Chaudhuri is Professor Emeritus, Jadavpur University.