The appalling images of a person flinging water bottles and biscuit packets towards people at a quarantine facility in Agra , Uttar Pradesh that emerged on Sunday show the many things wrong in India’s fight against the COVID-19 pandemic . Those who were supposed to be kept in isolation were seen squashing against the iron grill, desperate to fetch the food and water on the other side. The district administration has since claimed that the issue has been resolved, but not before officials betrayed their insouciance. The hapless, fenced off people were even blamed for getting restless after their food was delayed by several hours. Infected people and health workers taking care of them are facing dehumanising treatment from the rest of the society and they are often housed in a revolting environment in many places. U.P. has been particularly slow in devising a sensitive and efficient strategy . Of the 75 districts in the State, 53 have fewer than 100 isolation beds; 31 have active cases. In terms of ICU beds and ventilator availability, U.P. is among the worst States. Agra had 372 cases, and 10 deaths by Sunday evening. Meanwhile, the State bought faulty personal protective equipment that would have aggravated the risks for health workers. It is an irony that the Centre asked other States to follow the Agra model in the pandemic fight.
Truth be told, U.P.’s debility is not recent or unique. The densely populated heartland of India has a history of bad governance. The shared character of weak State capacity across Bihar, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and U.P. has been left unattended by successive governments. The only reasonable goal of the prolonged lockdown could have been buying time for shoring up the limited resources, which is a function of the political leadership. The data presented by the Cabinet Secretary last week reveal a very dismal level of preparedness by U.P., Bihar and Madhya Pradesh, while Rajasthan has managed things better by creating temporary facilities and ramping up existing ones. Most States are, however, treating the lockdown as the solution to the pandemic. The Centre needs to demonstrate leadership in ensuring that States scale up their capacities and communicate this to the public. It needs to particularly reassure health-care professionals that everything possible is being done to protect them. There needs to be a campaign led by the Prime Minister to erase the stigma against patients, and to mitigate the fear of the pandemic itself. The difference between caution and paranoia needs to be emphasised. In India’s particular social context, the notion of social distancing has only added to the disease stigma. The Prime Minister has called for social solidarity in the face of the pandemic more than once last week, and that message needs to spread.