Grim situation in Karnataka with second wave of COVID-19 pandemic

Bengaluru and several districts reel under the rising caseload and casualties even as a young MP in a brash act attempts to communalise a so-called bed allocation scam.

Published : May 23, 2021 06:00 IST

The Bruhat Bengaluru  Mahanagara Palike is planning to provide ‘oxybuses’ for those who are in critical need of oxygen.

The Bruhat Bengaluru Mahanagara Palike is planning to provide ‘oxybuses’ for those who are in critical need of oxygen.

The COVID-19 situation continues toremain grim in Bengaluru but what is worrying is that the infection is spreading rapidly beyond the capital and in the districts, where the health care infrastructure is lacking.. The death of 24 patients in the Government Hospital in Chamarajnagar and seven in Kalaburagi district owing to oxygen shortage in the first week of May set alarm bells ringing.

Until early May, Bengaluru had around 70 per cent of the active cases in the State, but this fell to 60 per cent by the second week of May with the caseload increasing in the hinterland. The surge has been attributed to the return of thousands of migrant workers from Bengaluru in the last week of April when the government declared a two-week lockdown on April 28. On May 10, the lockdown was extended for a further two weeks with stricter norms preventing the use of private vehicles for something as routine as grocery shopping.

Karnataka is reporting between 40,000 and 50,000 cases every day. Bengaluru which was reporting close to 25,000 cases in the first week of May, reported between 15,000 and 20,000 cases daily in the second week. The total number of active cases in the State was close to six lakh on May 12, of which around 3.5 lakh was from Bengaluru Urban. Appeals for hospital beds with ventilators and for oxygen cylinders flooded social media sites, indicating the failure of government channels in handling the surge.

Ballari, Bengaluru Rural, Dakshina Kannada, Hassan, Kalaburagi, Mysuru and Tumakuru were among the districts that had more than 10,000 cases on May 12. The test positivity rate in the State on that date was 29.67 per cent (national average 21 per cent), while the case fatality rate was 1.29 per cent. Karnataka is also reporting around 500 COVID deaths every day with the highest single-day casualty figure of 592 reported on May 7.

Also read: India's COVID death toll is thrice official numbers

There has been a surge in demand for vaccination among all age groups above 18 but there is a shortage of vaccines. Chief Minister B.S. Yediyurappa reiterated that there was “no need to panic and people need not fear any shortage”. A Special Division Bench of the Karnataka High Court consisting of Chief Justice Abhay Shreeniwas Oka and Justice Aravind Kumar, however, orally observed that “Karnataka appears to have begun COVID-19 vaccination without proper planning.” According to data from the Health Department, over 72 lakh persons above the age of 45 (out of 1.71 crore citizens in this age group) have received the first dose. The vaccination drive for those in the 18-44 age group has been dismal with only 6.5 lakh doses available for this demographic. Karnataka is finalising a plan to float a short-term global tender to procure two crore doses of vaccines.

When the entire resources of the State government should be utilised for mitigating the sufferings caused by COVID-19, Tejaswi Surya, the young Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) Member of Parliament of Bengaluru South, attempted to communalise the pandemic. On May 4, Surya, along with three BJP Members of the Legislative Assembly, stormed the Bengaluru South Zone COVID War Room and declared that he had unearthed a scam in the allocation of beds for COVID-19 patients by the Bruhat Bengaluru Mahanagara Palike (BBMP). While publicly criticising bureaucrats and medical personnel who were in-charge of the war room, Surya attempted to blame 16 Muslim staff members for the irregularities. He went on to read out the names. Ravi Subramanya, his uncle and Basavangudi MLA, angrily asked the BBMP officials whether the war room was a “madrasa” or “Haj Committee”.

Simultaneously, a message began to circulate on social media that these “16 [Muslim] terrorists” were responsible for the death of “thousands of Hindu Bengalureans”. The 16 Muslim employees were suspended the same day. A day later, it emerged that 205 people were employed at the COVID war room and Surya had chosen to name only the Muslim employees. An investigative report by the Kannada newspaper Vijaya Karnataka established that there was a “bed scam” in operation and that the kingpin of the scam was Satish Reddy, the Bommanahalli MLA who had accompanied Surya to the war room. This, however, did not prevent K.S. Eshwarappa, Rural Development and Panchayat Raj Minister, from claiming that “Muslim organisations are involved in the bed blocking scam”. Subsequent police investigation revealed that the 16 Muslim employees were innocent. They were reinstated on May 10. Only 11 of them chose to rejoin duty. Five of them said they were too “traumatised” to work in the war room again.

Various Muslim groups in Karnataka have been at the forefront of providing support to COVID-19 victims. They have been helping family members of victims with final rites. Some of these instances have won praise on social media but a right-wing Kannada Facebook page called Postcard News led by its founder Mahesh Vikram Hegde, a well-known BJP sympathiser, alleged that Muslim groups were profiting from this exercise.

Also read: Mumbai shows the way in managing the second wave

His message in Kannada accompanying one of his posts read, “Did you know this? Agencies are making a deal of Rs.35,000 for the last rites of COVID deceased in Bangalore. These agencies outsource dead bodies to 5-8 Muslims for Rs 7-8,000. At the time of cremation ‘topi’ wearing Muslims pose performing social service and spread its (positive) images on social media. This is a huge scam, the government must investigate such reprehensible (low life) acts and arrest them.” Hegde’s claim was busted when Lokesh, the person whose picture he had shared, clarified that the Muslim group (Popular Front of India, in this case) had “refused to take money even for diesel. They also brought their ambulance free of cost and performed the last rites.”

Last year, the Tablighi Jamaat, a Muslim religious group, was accused of spreading COVID-19 after a cluster of COVID cases was discovered in a congregation of the group in Delhi. This led to widespread demonitisation of the Muslim community all over the country with several instances of social boycott in parts of rural Karnataka. The rise of communal disinformation in Karnataka seems part of a strategy by some elements within the BJP to deflect attention from its government’s massive failure in ramping up the health care facilities in the State despite the recommendations of the COVID-19 Task Force Committee in the past one year.

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