NEW DELHI: On Friday, 24 April, as Delhi woke up to the devastating news that 25 of its ‘sickest patients’ had passed gasping for oxygen that never came to Covid hospital Ganga Ram, CM Arvind Kejriwal’s move to live broadcast a meeting concerning India’s Covid plan with the Prime Minister turned controversial. The meeting, with Chief Ministers of the 11 worst-hit states present, was classified an ‘in-house meeting’, as later clarified by the Centre, which has gone on to accuse Kejriwal of pulling a political publicity stunt.
Delhi reported over 26,000 fresh cases and 306 deaths on Thursday. On Friday, the count rose to 348, with at least 20 of them caused directly by oxygen shortage at Jaipur Golden Hospital. This week saw several hospitals put out distress calls for oxygen via Twitter and other social media platforms, stating that they were left with mere hours of oxygen even as their Covid wards were overflowing with critical patients. Earlier this week, several hospitals moved petitions in the Delhi High Court in a last-resort attempt to draw the Centre’s attention to the life-threatening oxygen scarcity in the city.
In Friday’s meeting, parts of which were telecast live on a desperate and nervous Kejriwal can be seen pleading, “Please sir, we need your guidance.” The CM goes on to ask “Will people of Delhi not get oxygen if there is no oxygen-producing plant here? Please suggest whom should I speak to in the central government when an oxygen tanker meant for Delhi is stopped in another state.”
Prime Minister Narendra Modi, whose government is currently facing an onslaught of local and international criticism for ‘mishandling’ India’s cataclysmic second Covid wave, appears irked under his mask, as he remotely chairs the virtual meeting. “This is against our protocol and tradition for a chief minister to telecast a private meeting,” he interrupts CM Kejriwal towards the end of his monologue on Delhi’s oxygen crisis.
An Epidemic of Miscommunication
Even as some media house commentators called the supposed breach of protocol “unheard of” and misleading, others have pointed out that this is actually not the first time that something like this has happened—earlier this month, on April 8, the Prime Minister’s virtual address with all Chief Ministers was uploaded on social media, with parts of it telecast live on news channels by the PMO.
The BJP government has gained a worldwide reputation for its strategic use of media for image-keeping, and many have credited its national popularity and electoral success to the party’s media-savvy PR strategies. However, despite the numerous public ‘addresses’ that the Prime Minister has given via news broadcast, he also only ever sat in on one press conference since he came into power in 2014. This is very unusual for a country’s leader given that press conferences serve as the sole setting in which India’s leaders answer questions posed by its public. Critique by social media activists and the larger public has centred around this issue, in light of India’s current “descent into Covid hell”.
The need for transparency and information has also been offset by rampant complaints about the Centre’s lack of transparent and much-needed communication during the country’s most devastating health crisis since independence. “Why is India learning details of vaccination strategy from Adar Poonawalla and not the Centre?” journalist Rohan Venkatramakrishnan asks in this piece for Scroll.in, detailing how there was no question-answer session at the PMO press conference announcing revisions to India’s vaccination program. Public health expert Chapal Mehra flagged the Centre’s lack of a crisis communication strategy citing it as a major factor in the way that India’s Covid 19 crisis has unfolded. The Centre, he says, has even taken steps with the Supreme Court to curb media from publishing any pandemic news without checking facts with them first. Even as this censorship poses as a measure to contain misinformation, it is being undertaken against the backdrop of the Centre’s abject lack of communication with its citizens during a national health emergency.
Desperate Situations Call for Desperate Measures
Even as India recorded another record spike of 3.46 lakh fresh Covid-19 cases in the past 24 hours, its citizens have taken to social media and news channels not only for crucial updates about the pandemic, but also to mobilize and disseminate resources and databases live-tracking lifesaving supplies of oxygen, antiviral drugs, and available hospital beds. While news and social media updates (often undertaken by reporters and civilians risking their lives) does little to fill the gap of miscoordination between the Central and State governments, they do fulfil the task of keeping the suffering public informed.
Speaking with Newslaundry, a spokesperson for Delhi CM’s Aam Aadmi Party defended Kejriwal’s decision to go live with Friday’s meeting. “This needs to be in the public domain. We need to acknowledge the problem.” Moreover, “We did not receive any communication from the PMO that the meeting was private or that it could not be telecast,” he added. Friday’s meeting was broadcast amidst continuing silence and obstinacy from the Centre about directly addressing the public’s concerns.
As of April 2021, more than a year into the pandemic, India still does not have a Covid-specific national plan. In 2020, the Centre responded to the crisis by adopting the National Policy for Disaster Management (NPDM) in its 2019 revision which, for the first time, included biological and health emergencies. As India’s situation continues to deteriorate, the function of coordinating supplies and protocols in the various states becomes more and more complicated, and formulating a communication plan can be challenging. And yet, it is the public’s right to know what decisions are being taken by the governments they have elected. In so much as the lack of public health information or even oxygen is being handled by those in power this is a political issue.
Early yesterday morning, the Delhi CMO addressed the counts of PMO officials accusing Kejriwal of ‘politicizing’ the issue and expressed regret over the televised meeting. However, it has, perhaps unintentionally, set a new precedent for government transparency.