COVID
Report of Press Conference held via Zoom on 6th May 2021, 3 pm

Opening the press conference, Ms. Bhargavi Rao, Trustee of Environment Support Group noted “We have lost so many of our loved ones, not so much because of the virus as because of malgovernance.” She drew particular attention to the unnecessary deaths that happened in Gulbarga and Chamrajnagar due to the appalling lack of oxygen in hospitals. She pointed out that at a time like this when people are going through such a grave crisis, it is expected that our elected representatives must support us. But shockingly it has emerged that three MLA’s (viz. Mr. Uday Garudachar, Mr. Satish Reddy, and Mr. Ravi Subramanya) and an MP (Mr. Tejasvi Surya) all representing Bangalore are trying to communalise the situation. “At this juncture we demand that the CM steps in and takes charge. It is in this context that we’ve called for this Press Conference. We have a group of people from across civil society organisations, individuals, researchers and people from the public health organisations represented to address this press conference”, she explained.

Advocate Maitreyi Krishnan, representative of the All India Central Council of Trade Unions (AICCTU) began her intervention by saluting all the frontline workers: the nurses, the doctors, the sanitation workers, the journalists and the pourakarmikas across the state. She highlighted that this is the time where effort must be to mobilise resources to protect the lives of people. However, a deeply distressing incident of communalisation has occurred as is evident from the video that is circulated of the four elected representatives accosting senior BBMP officials with allegations of corruption in bed allotment, but only targeting Muslims and a Christian. Maitreyi agreed that questions of bed allotments, scams and corruption are certainly things which must be looked into. But at the same time she pointed out that what has been done by Mr. Tejasvi Survya  is a clear attempt to provide a communal twist to the situation. She noted that out of a total list of 205 workers only the names of 17 Muslims were read out (almost all the Muslims working there). Mr.  Ravi Subramanya, she pointed, even proceeded to threateningly question if BBMP is running a madrasa or a corporation. While Mr. Satish Reddy asked if  BBMP is a Haj committee. Nothing all these are blatant attempts to promote hatred among communities. “This is an instance where

people were persecuted solely on the basis of religion. Such an attempt to promote enmity is highly condemnable”, Maitreyi asserted.

Maitreyi further spoke of Whatsapp messages being circulated calling these 17 people terrorists, as well as blaming a senior officer of the BBMP – as clear attempts to create disharmony in these very difficult times. She observed that this is a time when the majority of people of the state, especially people belonging to deprived sections of society, are undergoing extreme hardship, not not only because of the virus, but also because of the lockdown. Despite this, she highlighted how people  are standing up for each other and going out of their way to selflessly help people in distress. Communalisation, she asserted, is simply unacceptable and said a complaint has been registered in Sidappura police station against the four elected representatives. “We demand that an FIR be registered for this incitement of hatred against Tejasvi Surya, Ravi Subramaniam, Satish Reddy and Uday Garudachar. We demand their arrest. We also demand that strict action be taken against any person who attempts to spread communal hatred in these times”, she concluded

Mr. Ramchandra Guha, historian, renowned writer and columnist, remarked that a year back he had written a column which mentioned that the COVID pandemic MAY be the greatest crisis since partition. A year later he said he is convinced that the qualifier “may” has to be emphatically removed and called the pandemic as THE greatest crisis since partition. “At this time, it’s also important to remember the lessons of how to overcome  the trauma and tragedy of partition. Nehru and Patel, were heading the Congress government setting aside their differences and got Baba Sabib Ambedkar and Shyama Prasad Mukherjee who were political rivals for over 20 years to work with each other in a national cabinet to heal the wounds of partition, unite the nation and to promote a prudent constitution”, Guha stated.

He noted that the Chief Minister of Karnataka, Mr. B S Yeiyurappa is a wise statesman, experienced and knows the state very well. “That’s also true of the other senior leaders in our state – people like Mr Siddharamaih of the Congress or Mr Deve Gowda, our former prime minister – they know the gravity of the situation which these four gentlemen who are stoking trouble may not know.  So maybe all three of them could get together, and take things in hand”, he suggested. He highlighted that the major focus should be on saving lives, and inciting communal hatred at a time like this is a vicious distraction. “Our state cannot afford violence and division at a time like this, where all our attention should be on containing the crisis, alleviating the suffering, making hospital beds available, ensuring there’s adequate supply of oxygen and other resources, of showing proper concern and compassion for all, not just doctors, but nurses, sanitation workers, supervisory staff and everyone else” he asserted. Mr. Guha concluded by making an appeal for unity in these difficult times: “This is a major crisis in the time in the life of our sickly, in our state and in our country. It’s up to the Chief Minister, as well as the senior opposition leaders, to stand up and stop this poison of communalisation immediately”.

Mr. Leo Saldanha, Coordinator, Environment Support Group addressed the press conference by drawing attention to the representation that is being made to the Chief Minister to act against the communalization of the alleged BBMP Covid Bed allotment scam. He pointed out that the need of the hour, to tackle the health crisis in the city, is to decentralize the public health system. “You don’t have to call a central number to get oxygen in your local ward or your local panchayat”, said Mr. Saldanha. He pointed out that every ward and panchayat is elected under the provisions laid out in the Constitution and as constitutional authorities they must deliver secure the right to life to people locally. “Right to life has to be delivered through the Panchayat system, through the Nagarpalika system” is what he noted and went on to highlight that centralized systems are neither ‘understandable’ nor ‘accessible’ to the local public. These are times of disaster and there is a Disaster Management Authority constituted under the Disaster management Act. Although the Act is draconian in nature, the State Government must set aside the oppressing powers and make use of the ‘humanistic powers’ from the law to ‘humanise the entire endeavour’ he argued. He requested everyone to collectively push the government to respond to the sick, to the ones who have lost their close ones and the larger public in general. He further requested the Chief Minister to come forward and stop the communalization that is gaining ground and stop efforts to establish a parallel health system by Mr. Tejasvi Surya. “The only health system that should work is the public health system, everyone should be drafted-private sector, public sector; no MP or MLA should have his own parallel system. It is not a time for politics. The Chief Minister must take strident steps”, asserted Mr. Saldanha.

Mr. Abdul Suhaib, of Students Islamic Organisation commenced by congratulating the civil society fraternity for coming forward to counter the vicious intent of four public representatives in maligning one particular community for the alleged BBMP Covid Bed allotment scam. He stated that the situation in our country is very grim, with the health infrastructure stretched beyond capacity. “The health workers are physically and mentally exhausted, to a level that counselling support has to be extended to them”, pointed out Mr. Suhaib. He expressed grave concern over the fact that  in times such as these, communal comments and statements are only leading to more chaos and pain. He stated that in this current crisis, all communities are trying their best to provide humanitarian relief. He said that statements which incite communal hatred are not worthy of attention and urged everyone to lend conscious attention towards arrangements of most life saving requirements which are not available. He said that irrespective of religion, caste, class, there is a need to pay attention to all in addressing this humanitarian crisis.  He also expressed his worries that the blatant attempt to communalise has put so many young people who are tirelessly working to save lives, especially from Muslim community, at grave risk.

Dr. Sylvia Karpagam, representing Campaign Against Hate Speech, highlighted the lack of preparedness across the public health system, across the board. “From when this pandemic had started, from the perspective of public health, it is obvious that the health care system is not ready. We had a lot of time to set up multiple forms of local infrastructure to combat this situation. As none of this was done, currently we are seeing more critical cases needing immense care and facilities”, she asserted. She also noted that most of those seriously affected are of the poorer sections of the society and since there isn’t much knowledge of the current situation, people are overwhelmed by fear and not even taking necessary basic care required.

She also noted the highly stressful conditions being faced by Covid volunteers currently, saying that both their mental and physical health is taking a toll as they try to source oxygen cylinders, medicines and hospitals for Covid patients. “A lot of the Covid volunteers are from the Muslim community. They are working day and night to help people. I think it is very shameful that this situation is being communalised”, she concluded.

Mr Mani P R S, began by saying that we are facing the brunt of two viruses, one is covid-19 and the other is communalism. At normal times, governmental parties tend to focus on religion to gain a following. But efforts to communalise in an emergency is totally unacceptable. He then calls out Mr. Tejasvi Surya questioning if he has any empathy or feelings towards people. Further he adds that India’s history is full of rich diversity, secularism and has formed a strong bond of love and compassion amongst the diverse peoples. ”Tejasvi Surya’s efforts are futile and will not be allowed to damage this bond”, he asserted. He concluded his comment by saying everyone from

every religion, economic section and caste must come together and fight as one against both Covid-19 and communalism.

Ms. Madhu Bhushan of CIEDS echoed Mr. Mani’s thoughts on the two viruses. She expressed concern that there is weak attention to the fact that  coronavirus has really hit the poor and marginalised communities hard, both in the rural and urban areas, and they lack access to health services. She insisted decentralization of health care is critical to extend access to poor communities and to strengthen the public health systems. She stated that even though the health system is overburdened, it is still functioning and providing the much needed care. The health care workers, ASHA workers, etc., are working round the clock and giving the best they can to save lives,  Ms. Madhu said. In such times as these, communal statements by Mr. Tejasvi Surya to derail the process has to be condemned. She also expressed that a lot of things have to be put in place such as covid care centres, upgrading the local PHCs, ensuring there are life saving medicines and medical equipment. She pointed out such matters deserve priority and that all efforts must be directed to get the attention of them. She urged that  Mr. Tejasvi Surya must be held accountable for trying to detract from what is the priority right now. She concluded that in times such as these, there is no place for hateful divisiveness and should be countered.

Concluding the Press Conference, Ms. Bhargavi Rao shared the urgent steps being suggested to  put forth to address the grave Covid crisis across the state:

1. The deaths of COVID patients due to lack of oxygen in Chamrajnagar, in Kalburgi, Belagavi and Yelahanka, is unpardonable.  The enquiries ordered must be completed with urgency, and made public. Action must be initiated against negligence, and corruption if any.

2. The COVID response strategy must be decentralized so that people are able to access oxygen, physicians, medical care, vaccination, etc. within the ward or panchayat. The entire mechanism should be governed transparently and with accountability.

3. Ward Committees in urban areas and Panchayats Facilitation Committees must be immediately revived with involvement of those who know the local population well and will address them with a culture of care (and without any political considerations), such as local physicians, principals of schools and colleges, leading lawyers and journalists, NGOs (unaffiliated to any political party), etc.

4. People must be able to access help from their homes, be they rich, poor or middle class, and by calling a number that is responsive at the ward/panchayat levels.  The current system of calling one number in a district, or in the state, is simply not working and is resulting in avoidable agony and deaths.

5. It should be the duty of the municipal, zilla panchayat and district administration to ensure that all supplies are diligently reached to local government levels, and logistical support extended to ensure all gaps are closed.

6. The Disaster Management Cells at the Ward/Panchayat levels must be immediately activated, as directed by the Hon’ble High Court of Karnataka, with participation of community volunteer groups and citizen volunteers and they must be well coordinated with the District Disaster Management Cells. The State Disaster Management Authority, of which you are the Chairperson, must ensure that preparedness, response, recovery and mitigation are performed as part of a continuous process that will cover COVID and future emergencies.  Succour to the affected through household visits to monitor their well-being and help for maintaining physical and mental health should be enabled.

7. Karnataka must take a decision, regardless of any financial considerations, to demand Central support to ensure everyone is vaccinated against COVID for free. The fact that the US Government has now decided to participate actively in WTO negotiations to waive IPR over COVID vaccinations must be seen as an opportunity to demand Indian manufacturers supply vaccines at cost (with marginal profit perhaps), and that public sector vaccination plants are revived post haste. Karnataka must take steps to build its own public sector vaccine production capacities in this regard.

8. The entire machinery of the local governments and the state must be so coordinated and conducted that there should be no room for pilferage, misallocation of beds and medical facilities. Simply stated, there must not be any room for inefficiency and corruption. Information regarding availability of vaccines, beds, medicines should be displayed publicly at ward/GP levels and on ward-level websites.

9. The Prime Minister’s initiative to make available all medicos (including those in final year MBBS and equivalent medical training levels) to address the pandemic must be taken a step further in Karnataka by ensuring they are facilitated to work at Public Health Centres and Anganwadi levels, and also in every public hospital where there is shortage of medical staff.  Adequate budgetary allocations must be made to ensure the entire public health system works to maximal capacity in the shortest period of time.

10. There is an acute need for outreach at the ward and panchayat levels to maintain covid regulations, encourage testing at the first presentation of any symptom and follow immediately next steps in tackling COVID. A public address system can be an effective way of communicating important instructions for a Covid appropriate behaviour, and also leafleting and poster campaigns to reach every household.

11. Public hospitals at the panchayat and ward levels should be equipped with basic equipment like X-ray and scanning machines to ensure the poor are not pushed to take scans in private scanning centres at unaffordable costs, which puts them in irretrievable debts.  Covid Care Centres should be set up urgently using public infrastructure like government schools, etc at the ward/panchayat level to provide immediate care and attention to those who have mild symptoms or are asymptomatic and for those who cannot isolate themselves at home.

12. The public health machinery and medical professionals drafted from the private medical sector should reach out to all neighbourhoods and houses. This effort will help both symptomatic and asymptomatic individuals, to take all precautions at home and in Covid Care Centres  and drastically reduce the need for hospitalisation. This step alone will save hundreds of lives and thousands of families needless distress.

13. Ward and panchayat level fever clinics must be completely revived, increased in numbers strictly adhering to covid safety precautions.

14. The state should also ensure availability of fresh masks and hand sanitizers at all public health facilities, not just for staff but also for those visiting the centres for testing, vaccination and general health care. This itself will help reduce infection rates.

15. All hospitals must be inspected by the health department to take stock of the ICU situation, particularly with respect to fire hazard and ensure emergency safety measures are in place. The inspection should also take stock of water and sanitation facilities at all these hospitals. All those functioning under poor conditions must be warned and immediate action must be taken up to fix the problems. With increase in beds at all hospitals infrastructure are being stretched and this will have serious risks.

14. The state must ensure all human resources working in the frontline in treating Covid patients including those living and working in crematoria and graveyards  are adequately compensated for their overtime, with benefits and provisions for leave and recuperation.

17. The state must ensure all women frontline workers are provided with enough PPE and sanitary napkins. Managing a period when in a PPE during the peak summer can be extremely difficult, causing discomfort. The least that can be done is to ensure the women frontline workers have at least enough PPE and sanitary napkins to change during the course of their long working hours.

18. The state must appoint mental health counsellors for all front line workers in every ward and provide tele counselling facilities as the frontline workers traumatised by the number of deaths they are witnessing day after day. This is particularly important in addressing the mental health of doctors, paramedics and nurses who are breaking news of demise of  loved ones, and  will not be able to deal with this  stress and trauma any further.

19. The state must ensure all frontline workers are well hydrated and taking good nutrition. All covid hospitals must be supplied with fruits and beverages for all the frontline staff.

20. We will be happy to work with the governments at all levels in ensuring our public health systems are brought to their feet and made to work to save lives now.  At the same time, we urge you to intervene and stop a parallel system of COVID referrals that is being developed by Shri Tejasvi Surya through BJP Yuva Morcha,  leaching out much needed medical personnel who are in fact required to help revive public health systems.  At this time, no MP and MLA must be allowed to develop such parallel systems which will result in avoidable chaos, and possibly add to the death toll and misery of lakhs who are already suffering.

21. The state must make a statement that there will be zero tolerance towards anyone spreading hate and causing communalism.

22. The state must work with NGOs working in diverse sectors such as women, children, senior citizens, sexual minorities, sex workers, disabled, orphans and others to ensure testing, care and vaccination reaches everyone and ensure no one is left behind.

23. Philanthropies, foundations and CSR support must be welcomed, channeled and focussed on the above in collaboration with the local governments and NGOs.

Note: The full Representation to the  Hon’ble Chief Minister of Karnataka may be accessed at: https://bit.ly/2SwoR3v

The Kannada version of this representation is accessible at: https://bit.ly/2R30cmy

The Hindi version of this representation is accessible at: https://tinyurl.com/autnzy39

For more details please call: 9880595032 / 9243190014

[This report has been prepared by Sana Huque, Senior Research Associate and Ashwin Lobo, Karthik Anjanappa, Shrestha Chowdhury, Research Associates, ESG]


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