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coronavirus India Latest News

Covid-19 and the invisibilization of rural India

By Barkha Dutt

As the government declares the worst of the second wave of the pandemic over in our cities and gets ready to unlock, in our villages, our citizens have been dying. And they have been dying uncounted, and mostly at home, from illnesses that match the exact symptoms of Covid-19, including plummeting oxygen levels.

On the ground, in every hamlet, even the smallest ones across states, residents say, anywhere between 20-40 deaths have taken place in May. Though rural health care infrastructure in our southern states is distinctly better than in the north, the struggle for testing and vaccines is exactly the same in large swathes of rural India, irrespective of geography.

In Tamil Nadu’s Chennasandiram panchayat of seven villages, the panchayat president Jayakumar Reddy tells me that the surge in sudden deaths in the last two months has made people even more terrified to make the trek to nearby towns and cities — the only places where they have a hope of getting a vaccine.

Among the dead is 27-year-old Vijay, who was discharged from a private hospital and told he was well enough to go home, only to die the next morning, eight hours later. We also meet Shobha, the sister of Rudresh, a young man who travelled from Bengaluru to Hosur in the hope of finding a hospital closer to his home. He ended up riding in an ambulance for 250 kilometres before dying in the vehicle, unable to find an oxygenated intensive care unit (ICU) bed. “No one cares about the poor,” his sister says, barely able to form the words through a cascade of tears.

“We want vaccines,” implores Reddy. “We are all farmers. As poor people, are we going to be completely overlooked?” he asks.

The invisibilization of rural India is the stage of the pandemic we are now at, relegated to the margins of public and policy discourse and attention.

Tragedies abound in our villages where hardly anyone is chronicling them. Not only are their deaths slipping through the official cracks — of deep concern in a week that saw Bihar reconcile its death data in thousands, causing India to breach the 6,000 mark for daily fatalities — the absence of vaccines and testing also means we may not be measuring the trajectory of the second wave accurately. The crests and troughs in Covid-19 cases and the spikes and falls of daily infographics by which we now measure the wellness of our lives have been based mostly on city-driven data.

Reddy reports 20 confirmed Covid deaths in the villages under him in Hosur. He does not think most of them have been certified.

Hundreds of miles away in Ramana village in Varanasi, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s constituency, the village pradhan (headman) reports twice as many deaths, 40 in the last few weeks. Ram Gopal, who lost two family members, an uncle and a grandfather, shows us all the related medical paperwork. In one case, no death certificate has been provided. In another “typical pneumonia”, and not Covid-19, is listed as the reason for the fatality.

In UP’s Kannauj, at the cremation ground, residents say four or five hearses have left their villages every day in the past few weeks.

The ethical issue with these deaths remaining uncounted and unrecognised is obvious. But from the perspective of framing public policy too, there is a real conundrum.

If sickness and death in India’s villages remain on the margins of public and media attention, do we really know for sure if cases are coming down? Is the decision to ease restrictions based on data that is entirely city-centric? And once movement between villages and cities resumes, isn’t there a real danger that the virus will also travel up and down, undetected?

In 2020 we saw the poorest Indian citizen suffer as migrant workers, in the hundreds of thousands, fled the cities on foot, sometimes barefoot, to return to the villages.

In 2021, the virus came home for the wealthy and upper-middle-class Indians. Of course, low-income households suffered the most, financial penury compounding their grief and loss.

But as the situation in the metropolises slowly comes under tenuous control, the Delta variant’s damage has once again exposed the great class divide of the virus and our response to it.

(The Op-Eds appeared in The Hindustan Times)

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Bollywood Latest News

We need to stay positive: Salman Khan

Mumbai: Bollywood superstar Salman Khan has shared words of encouragement for fans facing various crises amidst the ongoing second wave of the Covid pandemic.

“I would just like to say that we all need to stay positive and hold the fort until these bad times pass. This is a phase and it shall pass. I know all of us are going through very critical times, we must have faith and help each other in whatever way we can,” Salman said.

Meanwhile, he is excited about his popular “Dabangg” avatar of Inspector Chulbul Pandey getting an animated avatar on the small screen. “Dabangg: The Animated Series” will be created keeping in mind his young fans.

“‘Dabangg: The Animated Series’ is an adaptation and reimagination of ‘Dabangg’. The action-comedy series chronicles the day-to-day life of police officer Chulbul Pandey, who stands in the face of evil to keep the city safe. He is joined by his younger brother Makkhi, who, new to the police force, attempts to emulate his older brother in every sticky situation,” Salman said.

Quizzed if he is lending his voice to the lead character of Chulbul Pandey, the actor replied: “Unfortunately I am not lending the voice to the character in the animated series, but fans wouldn’t be disappointed because the voiceover actors have done a fantastic job.”

Backed by Cosmos-Maya and Arbaaz Khan Productions, “Dabangg: The Animated Series” streams on Disney+ Hotstar VIP.

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India Latest News

Seven years on, Modi faces three challenges

By Shashi Shekhar

The beginning of the third year of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s second term would be an apt occasion to look at the early days of this innings. He began as a run-hungry batsman, eager to notch up a big score, belting out sixes and fours to every corner of the ground.

The National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government divided Jammu and Kashmir (J&K) and abrogated Article 370 in one fell swoop. A new Union Territory, Ladakh, emerged and J&K’s full state status was done away with. The practice of triple talaq was declared illegal. The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) always had these issues in its sights, but Modi is the one who grasped the nettle.

His vow of making India a $5-trillion economy by 2024 meant removing certain hurdles to growth. He zeroed in on non-performing assets of public sector banks as one and a merger of 19 banks into four was executed. Despite unprecedented opposition from farmers and the Opposition, agri-sector laws were changed and the path to the privatisation of government undertakings was cleared. Modi meant to show that he would not hold back on economic reform.

Then disaster struck in the form of the lethal coronavirus.

Of the three major challenges facing the government, this has been the biggest the NDA has faced by far.

The government claims that everyone will be vaccinated by December but so far there is little to inspire confidence in this assertion. A vaccination drive for those above 18 years has been announced, but hundreds of vaccination centres are running short of vaccines for this cohort. In fact, the whole vaccination strategy, which was to be a model for the world, is now in trouble. Vaccines are in short supply and prior commitments made to foreign nations for vaccine supplies cannot be fulfilled.

The state governments ruled by opposition parties are up in arms about the paucity of vaccines and have accused the government of ignoring the threat from the virus for political gain.

The pandemic may eventually peter out but it has seriously damaged the economy.

The second challenge Modi faces is political. Next year, assembly elections will be held in Uttar Pradesh, Uttarakhand, Punjab, Himachal Pradesh, Gujarat, Goa and Manipur.

The groundwork for these has begun. Despite the victories in Assam and Puducherry, the defeat in West Bengal has dented the BJP’s reputation as an invincible election machine. During Modi 2.0, the party has won only four out of 10 state elections. In these, the role of the allies was crucial. That is why many political critics feel that even though there is no alternative to Modi at the Centre, the voters prefer strong state-level parties in the assembly elections.

As of March 2018, the NDA was ruling 21 states, with 71% of the country’s population. In April 2019, it was reduced to 18 states. However, in terms of demography, now 49% of the population is ruled by the NDA.

The third challenge to the Modi government is from across the borders. China is still up to its old tricks. Will Modi be able to get China to retreat from the border areas it has encroached on?

These are all daunting challenges for PM Modi. His track record on meeting difficult situations head-on is well known. He is a past master at political manoeuvrings. Will he rise to the occasion now as well?

It remains to be seen but this is why the eighth year of his prime ministership or his second term as pradhan sevak as he likes to term himself, will prove interesting to both his admirers and critics.

(The opinion piece appeared in The Hindustan Times)

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Latest News Sports

The silence in IPL’s bio-bubble is deafening

By Rudraneil Sengupta

This is not about whether a sporting tournament should be taking place in the middle of what feels like a devastated war zone; let’s concede that there is a space, even a need perhaps, for something like IPL even at a time like this. 

A tournament of this stature could have done a world of good in such a dire situation. They could have raised funds for any number of things—food aid, PPE kits, RT PCR kits, oxygen, medicines, ambulances.

Even a brief, sombre acknowledgement of the troubles facing people would have meant a lot to viewers and fans. Perhaps a message of hope from the superstars. A message of condolence or solace. Any kind of message at all that said, “Look, we see what’s happening, we are standing with you.” Something more than the autopilot messages of washing hands, wearing masks, and staying at home that the commentators pull out once every ten overs. We have had nothing. Radio silence.

Virat Kohli tweets only ads and selfies. Rohit Sharma’s handle has no mention of the pandemic. Jasprit Bumrah has nothing to offer.

Is it so difficult to reach out to your fans? To the people who worship the game? To the millions who are suffering so badly? So hard to break out of PR driven messages, the banality of sporting cliches, and the brand promotions? It would have meant so much if the reach and influence was used to amplify the many thousands of appeals for help reverberating around social media.

Watching IPL, or following the cricketers on social media, you would not know that there is anything that matters in India at all.

Of the deafening silence from the cricketing community, there are a few exceptions, like Wasim Jaffer and Ravichandran Ashwin, who have not shied away from offering their support and solace and acknowledging the battle that’s going on right now. Both of them are amplifying appeals for help, as is Harbhajan Singh. Australia’s Pat Cummins donated money on Monday to the PM-Cares fund and added a heartfelt message on social media.

How will India’s cricketing stars show that they care? That they are capable of some empathy at a time when everyone needs it?

(The opinion appeared in The Hindustan Times)

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coronavirus India Latest News

India struggles to cope with dangerous second wave

By K.S. Tomar

India has been completely shaken by a monstrous spurt in numbers of Covid1-9 cases and deaths. Prime Minister Narender Modi’s new vaccine policy encourages local manufactures to expand their facilities with the help of center’s financial assistance and logistics notwithstanding, the fact remains that such measures ought to have been taken after the first wave last year.

PM Modi recently announced a “liberalized and accelerated Covid-19 vaccination strategy” with much fanfare which has been criticized by Sonia Gandhi. In  a letter to him, she termed it as arbitrary and discriminatory thereby urging him to intervene immediately to reverse it. Rahul Gandhi compared it with the demonetization and dubbed it as primarily meant for benefiting few industrialists in the country.

BJP, however, sharply criticized Sonia and Rahul for indulging in propaganda that is aimed at misguiding the nation. BJP leaders said, “when things shouldn’t be politicized, Congress, especially Gandhi family, is doing politics.”

Due to the shortage of oxygen, many Covid19 patients are dying and the situation is horrible in Delhi, Maharashtra, and Madhya Pradesh, etc. This is being attributed to lack of timely formulation of policy to establish new oxygen plants besides creating a distribution system to the states. Delhi High Court had to pass stringent orders to the Center, saying “you are not exploring all avenues to augment oxygen supply. Beg, borrow or steal. Provide oxygen, whatever means to hospitals treating Covid19 patients.”  While taking suo motu cognizance, the Supreme Court told the Center that Covid19 is like a national emergency, hence drawing up a plan to deal with the crisis.

Experts say that Centre and state governments went into ‘Silent Mode’ after the first wave.

The government’s projected population for the year 2021 for the 18-­44 years age group is 595 million. With two doses per person, this translates to 1,190 million doses. This huge population has not been included in priority groups for vaccine access,  and they have to depend solely on State governments and the private sector.   

Given the shortage of vaccines now, the prime minister defended the decision to supply vaccines to 80 needy and poor nations as he supports the need of ensuring equitable access to it across the world. Union Health Minister Harsh Vardhan declared that the country had entered “the endgame” of its own battle against the pandemic. Even RBI announced in unusually enthusiastic tones that India had “bent [the Covid-19 curve] like Beckham” and that “soon the winter of our discontent will be made glorious summer.”    

In this dismal scenario, civilians can play a pivotal role and this warrants a complete check on Hardwar Kumbh like congregations, crowded prayer meetings during Ramadan, no more rallies during assembly polls, small social gatherings in marriages, etc.

Meanwhile, in a significant development, US President Joe Biden has conveyed to Prime Minister Modi that it understands India’s pharmaceutical requirements and promised to give the matter due consideration, thereby making it clear that the current hurdle in the export of critical raw materials needed to manufacture COVID-19 vaccines is mainly due to an Act which enforces US companies to prioritize domestic consumption.  

Experts believe that the worst is yet to come as more states resort to restrictions to prevent the surge in infections from overwhelming medical infrastructure.  

(K.S. Tomar is a senior journalist and national columnist based in Delhi)

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India Latest News

Now, Covid negative report mandatory to enter Maharashtra

Mumbai: As Covid-19 cases are on the upswing in several parts of the country, Maharashtra has imposed conditions for all travelers arriving in the state from Gujarat, Goa, Rajasthan and Delhi, starting from Wednesday (November 25).

The state has made it compulsory for a RT-PCR negative test report for all people arriving by air, road or rail from these four states.

In a notification, the state has said that for people who land here by flights, the RT-PCR test must have been done within 72 hours of their scheduled arrival at the Mumbai, Pune, Nagpur and Aurangabad airports.

For those entering the state by roads, the administrations in the state’s border districts will make arrangements for checking symptoms, body temperature and conducting tests before they are permitted onward travel in Maharashtra.

The order by Chief Secretary Sanjay Kumar came just a day after Chief Minister Uddhav Thackeray and Deputy Chief Minister Ajit Pawar expressed concerns over the Covid-19 situation and warned of a possible second wave which could be a “tsunami”.

These SOPs pertaining to travel restrictions are in addition to those issued earlier by the state, which remains the worst-hit in India both in terms of the total infections and fatalities.

The order states that, “those who are coming by flights and have not undertaken tests would have to undergo the tests in Maharashtra airports at their own cost”.

The incoming passengers would also have to provide their addresses and in case, their report is positive, would have to undergo the full treatment as per state’s protocols.

Similarly, for those coming by trains but are not carrying RT-PCR negative reports, would be required to undergo screening at railway stations, and only those passengers without any symptoms would be allowed to go.

For those showing symptoms, they would have to undertake the Rapid Antigen Tests – and those negative would be allowed to go, but if found positive, they would be admitted to Covid Care Centres, for which the entire costs shall be borne by them.

A similar drill would be followed for those who are arriving by roads at the state’s borders with Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh, Goa, Karnataka, Telangana, besides the Union Territories of Dadra & Nagar Haveli.

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