Chief without a plan

Chief Minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan, caught in the middle of a pandemic without a Cabinet, appears clueless with nearly 50 Health Department officials in quarantine, and the BJP’s attempt to help out with a task force only sharpens the criticism as the situation on the ground continues to worsen.

Published : Apr 24, 2020 07:00 IST

  Patients  with symptoms of COVID-19 wait outside the  OPD of the Government J.P. hospital in Bhopal on March 23.

Patients with symptoms of COVID-19 wait outside the OPD of the Government J.P. hospital in Bhopal on March 23.

ON March 11, when the World Health Organisation (WHO) declared COVID-19 a pandemic, Bhopal, the State capital of Madhya Pradesh, was bustling with political activity. The opposition Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) leaders were making nervous preparations, not to build a coordinated campaign against a quickly spreading disease, but to topple the elected Congress government of Kamal Nath. While they were successful in their efforts and formed the government on March 23, crucial days were lost as the number of people infected by the coronavirus in the State began to increase steadily. As on April 16, the State had 1,000-odd positive cases and reported 55 deaths, the second highest casualty figure after Maharashtra in the country. As the new Chief Minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan is yet to expand his Cabinet, the State does not have a Health Minister.

Senior State Congress leader Shobha Oza told Frontline that as early as March 12, Kamal Nath (who was Chief Minister then) called for the shutting down of schools, colleges and malls. “We had alerted all District Collectors and hospitals were being prepared. But the BJP mocked us. Shivraj Singh Chouhan said we were doing natak [drama] while another BJP leader referred to our preparations mockingly as darona [alarmist]. In fact, at a time when the whole country was pushed to the wall, the Centre wasted almost two weeks between the WHO declaration and Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s announcement of a lockdown on March 24. This [the delay] was to enable his party’s Madhya Pradesh unit to grab power,” she said.

Shobha Oza alleged that even after assuming office, Shivraj Singh Chouhan’s priority was not to fight against the pandemic. “He was more keen on resetting the bureaucracy and doing away with key appointments made by the previous dispensation to suit his political agenda. All of a sudden everything was disturbed. The Collector of Indore was changed, the Deputy Inspector General of Police was changed…,” she said.

Indore, the financial capital of the State, has emerged as a major COVID-19 hotspot in the country. There were 83 new positive cases on April 14 and 42 more on April 15, taking the city’s tally of positive cases to 586 (as on April 16). The number of deaths was 39 on April 16. Two doctors died on consecutive days in the city—a 62-year-old physician on April 9 and a 65-year-old Auryveda doctor on April 10.

The State’s Health Department is in a shambles. Close to 50 of the top Health Ministry officials in Bhopal are quarantined or in isolation wards or intensive care units. Among them are Pallavi Jain Govil, Principal Secretary (Health), J. Vijay Kumar, Managing Director of Madhya Pradesh Health Corporation, and Veena Sinha and Pallavi Dubey, key executives of the State’s coronavirus control room.

Their lackadaisical approach to the pandemic protocols became evident when some of them refused to go to hospitals for isolation. A correspondence between the Director of All India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS), Bhopal, Dr Sarman Singh, and Pallavi Jain Govil gave a clearer picture of this aspect. In a letter addressed to Pallavi Jain Govil, Sarman Singh noted: “This is about the telephonic call received from your good self and Shri Faiz Ahmad Kidwai, Health Commissioner, regarding the unwillingness of some of your officials who are asymptomatic to get hospitalised at AIIMS.” Sarman Singh then recommended home quarantine for them. (Kidwai was appointed as the Commissioner of Health Services on April 1.)

The public sector health infrastructure in the State appears to be in bad shape. During a media briefing in Bhopal on March 31, Prateek Hajela, who was Health Commissioner then, said there were merely 800 ICU beds and about 450 ventilators in the State, with half the number of beds and about 130 ventilators available in private hospitals. On the very day Hajela made these observations, he was removed from the post and made Principal Secretary in the State Secretariat.

The Congress maintains that although the Kamal Nath government (which was in power until March 19) was among the first governments to announce shutdown of colleges, schools and malls, its initiatives were affected because Tulsi Silawat, who was Health Minister, was among the Congress rebels supporting Jyotiraditya Scindia who were removed from the scene and taken to Bengaluru. The new government does not have a Health Minister yet.

With pressure mounting on Shivraj Singh Chouhan to appoint Cabinet Ministers, the State BJP came to his recuse and announced a 11-member special task force on April 13, to tackle the public health scare. The BJP State president and Member of Parliament V.D. Sharma heads the task force, which includes Silawat, and senior BJP leaders Kailash Vijayvargiya, Narottam Mishra and Rakesh Singh. The task force will ensure regular review of measures suggested to tackle the pandemic and smoothen coordination between the State government and various subsidiary bodies relating to health.

The Congress called the formation of the task force a half-hearted measure made in haste to create an illusion of managing the crisis. Abbas Hafeez, the Congress State spokesperson, told this reporter: “It is nothing short of an eyewash. In Maharashtra, the task force came into existence by an order of the government and it comprises eminent doctors, health officials and experts who have the know-how to deal with the crisis. Compare that with the Madhya Pradesh task force, which is not an initiative of the government but that of the party. The announcement was made in the BJP’s letter head; it is chaired by the BJP’s State president and all those who have been named executives are legislators and former Ministers. In view of the lack of any medical expert in that team, it is clearly ill-equipped to make any discernible impact. It almost seems the BJP came out with the task force to temporarily appease its leaders who are obviously upset with the delay in Cabinet formation.”

Kamal Nath came down heavily on the Shivraj Singh Chouhan government over its “inadequate preparations to deal with the pandemic”. “Madhya Pradesh is the only State where there is no Minister for Home and Health. The national lockdown was imposed 40 days after Congress MP Rahul Gandhi expressed concerns. The Centre’s engagement in toppling the Madhya Pradesh government led to delay in taking steps to tackle COVID-19,” Kamal Nath said in a press statement. He said, “(The) Cabinet (has) yet to be formed. On March 12, I ordered the closing of malls and other places but no action was taken after my resignation.”

The absence of a Home Minister became glaring as news of violence against health care workers both by the public and the police began to pour in. On April 1, women doctors in Indore were attacked while they were out on the field to screen people for symptoms of coronavirus infection. The District Magistrate of Indore told the media that the provisions of the National Security Act were invoked against four people for assaulting the doctors. While this news became a prime-time feed on national television the role of the police were ignored.

On April 8, the police allegedly beat up two junior resident doctors of the AIIMS when they were returning home. The doctors, a male and a female, were reportedly stopped at Bag Sevania in Bhopal and thrashed with batons. The administration later said an inquiry had been ordered into the incident.

On April 3, the police allegedly beat 65-year-old Tigoo Adivasi to death at Gujari village in Dhar district where he had gone to buy some essentials. The victim was a resident of Mandleshwar in Khargone district, located 4 km from the spot where he was killed. Raju Adivasi, his son, said the police beat his father accusing him of violating the lockdown. He died on the spot, Raju claimed. The police denied the allegation.

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