COVID-19 Update: Uttar Pradesh

Uttar Pradesh: Punishing the victims and volunteers

Print edition : May 21, 2021

Inside a tent installed by a gurdwara to provide oxygen for patients, in Ghaziabad on April 29. Photo: PRAKASH SINGH/AFP

At a crematorium in Ghazipur on May 1. Photo: SAJJAD HUSSAIN/AFP

Even as people fall dead “like flies” in the State, the Yogi Adityanath administration is bent on punishing those who expose its shortcomings in dealing with the COVID crisis.

Photographs and videos coming out of Uttar Pradesh reveal a terrifying crisis sweeping the most populous State in India. In Agra, a man in a PPE (personal protective equipment) suit, later identified as 22-year-old Anmol Goyal, was captured on video shouting “my mother will die...” , and pleading with policemen to help him as some men were carrying away an oxygen cylinder. Within two hours of the video being shot, his mother died. Apparently, the cylinder, which Anmol had got for his mother whose SPO2 (oxygen saturation) levels had fallen, was snatched way under the watch of the State police to help a VIP patient. As the video went viral, inviting condemnation from all corners, the police not only denied the claims made by the journalist who tweeted it and Anmol but insisted that he was thanking the police for refilling his cylinder. Anmol’s family refuted that spin of the event and stuck to their version in front of the media.

As on April 30, COVID-19 fatalities in Uttar Pradesh had risen to a record single day high of 332. The total number of cases was 3,10,783, making Uttar Pradesh the second worst COVID-hit State after Maharashtra. But even before the cases multiplied to clock 34,626 a day on April 30, the State’s health infrastructure gave way and relatives of patients took to social media as a last-ditch effort to save their loved ones.

Crackdown on social media

Instead of responding to the public outcry for help, the Yogi Adityanath government launched a crackdown on social media users who used Facebook or Twitter to crowdsource critical medicines, plasma or oxygen. On April 25, the Chief Minister held a meeting with senior bureaucrats and police officials to take strict action under the Gangsters’ Act and the National Security Act against “misleading” social media posts that spread “panic and fear”. “The problem is black marketing and hoarding, which will be tackled with a heavy hand,” he said. Adityanath, who became infected with the virus on April 13, told reporters that though Uttar Pradesh had no shortage of oxygen or medicines such as Remdesivir, which he had airlifted from Ahmedabad, not all patients needed these for recovery.

Also read: COVID second wave: Clueless Centre cannot hold

That may be true, but in an act reeking of insensitivity and high-handedness, on April 21, Adityanath prohibited supply of oxygen to individuals “except for those in serious conditions” and who had a prescription. According to media reports, this order hit hard people in need of oxygen in home isolation. Those found refilling oxygen cylinders from a gas plant in Lucknow were arrested. Even those with emergency letters from doctors and government hospitals were sent back without a refill.

After the April 25 meeting, the Additional Director General of Police sent a letter to all police officials directing them to monitor social media 24x7 and take legal action against those spreading “rumours”. He himself made a declaration that there was no shortage of oxygen in either public or private hospitals for which he was criticised by Congress leader Priyanka Gandhi. In a letter to him, she said, “Just imagine yourself in the place of those patients who are told that they will not get admission due to lack of oxygen. ‘Oxygen is low, take your patient’. Only an insensitive government will give such a statement.”

Following this, several instances of intimidation and penalisation by the administration were reported from different parts of Uttar Pradesh. In Amethi, after Union Minister Smriti Irani’s complaint, a first information report (FIR) was lodged against a man who tweeted seeking oxygen; in Gorakhpur, Adityanath’s home town, a hospital was forced to remove the notice of oxygen shortage; and in Kanpur, the district magistrate sent a legal notice to a media house that had reported on pyres in a cremation ground burning even after sunset.

Ashutosh Bharadwaj, a reporter with a mainstream media house, posted pictures from a crematorium in Agra on Facebook saying, “This crematorium is in the countryside of Agra. I came here on April, only two pyres were burning. A villager had said that there was no corona in his village. Today, ... I counted forty pyres in this crematorium.... In addition, around thirteen hundred bodies have been burnt in the last fourteen days at the city’s major crematorium. [The] … government’s figure for the entire district is only seven. Death often becomes a statistic in disaster. This time we dead aren’t even numbers for them.”

Also read: Yogi regime takes refuge in hype amid corona surge

Long queues outside crematoriums were reported from many places in the State.

Despite the threat of action, desperate hospital administrations continued to send out SOS for oxygen. The daughter of a man whose SPO2 she claimed had dipped to 6 challenged Adityanath on camera to arrest her even as she ran from pillar to post to get oxygen for her father. Sangh Parivar members and some constables called up civil society volunteers trying to arrange oxygen for patients through social media and intimidated them

Court’s warning

Amidst reports of the arrest of a dozen people for carrying oxygen and other critical medicine in Uttar Pradesh, social activist Saket Gokhale filed a public interest litigation (PIL) petition in the Allahabad High Court seeking protection for relatives of patients and volunteers.

The petition stated: “Filing criminal cases against families of critical patients issuing SOS calls for oxygen on social media is a gross misuse of the powers of the State and is illegal coercive action that is being taken to maintain the image of the government and to clamp down on any criticism of their handling of the COVID-19 pandemic and to present a fake picture that everything is hunky dory in the State.”

On April 30, while hearing a suo motu case pertaining to COVID-19 issues, a Supreme Court bench consisting of Justices D.Y. Chandrachud, L. Nageswara Rao and S. Ravindra Bhat unequivocally said that there should be no clampdown on the information on the Internet or social media of citizens communicating their grievances. “It is a matter of grave concern to us. If citizens communicate their grievances either on the Internet or on social media, there cannot be a clampdown. We don’t want a clampdown of information. That’s the worst way of dealing with a crisis,” the bench said.

The court said that “to act against someone who is seeking help for oxygen or a medicine is against the basic precepts”. It said: “Let this message go very clearly to all States and their DGPs [Directors General of Police], we will treat this as a contempt of this court if they want a clampdown on communication. Let everyone understand that we are not projecting anyone in a bad light but looking out for help. Let information flow freely. Let us hear the voices of our citizens and not a clampdown on them.” Solicitor General Tushar Mehta agreed with the court saying there could not be any action on people who were already in distress.

Also read: Pandemic second wave deepens into unprecedented crisis

In another hearing at Allahabad High Court, a Division Bench of Justices Siddhartha Varma and Ajit Kumar ordered uninterrupted supply of oxygen. “No one should die for want of oxygen,” said the bench, adding, “If even after seven decades of our attaining freedom with so many heavy industries set up, we are not able to provide oxygen to our citizens, it’s a matter of shame.”

The State government submitted that it had been allotted 857 metric tonnes of liquid medical oxygen and it was sufficient for the State to tackle the situation. Unconvinced, the bench sought a report on the status of oxygen supply to private hospitals and their need along with a report on the viability of using LPG cylinders for filling liquid medical oxygen to meet the demand of cylinders.

The bench also asked the government to shun the attitude of “my way or no way” and to welcome suggestions from all quarters. The bench stated: “It is now an open secret that government had gone complacent due to weakening of virus impact by the end of 2020 in the State and the government got more involved in other activities including panchayat elections. Had it been constantly vigilant, it would have prepared itself to face the onslaught of the pandemic in its second wave.… Posterity would never forgive us if we remain oblivious to the real public health issues and let the people die for want of adequate health care.”

Death in the hinterland

The Adityanath government’s strong-arm methods spelt doom for the hinterland of Uttar Pradesh where the virus is steadily making inroads. Even as hospitals in urban centres struggle to contain the virus, reports of people “falling like flies” are coming in from villages where the health infrastructure is so abysmal and lacks even the basic minimum requirement of oxygen.

The four-phase panchayat election in the State since April 15 became a super spreader as people from cities travelled to rural areas to vote. Despite the obvious threat of the virus’ spread through the election process, the Allahabad High Court refused to postpone them. Advocate Shoeb Alam approached the Supreme Court seeking an interim stay on the High Court’s order and to defer the elections until the State returned to normalcy. A bench headed by Justice A.M. Khanwilkar agreed to take up the matter and issued a notice to the State of Uttar Pradesh and the State Election Commission.

Also read: The fiasco that is India’s COVID-19 vaccine policy

But it was perhaps too late for the courts to intervene as, according to various teachers’ unions, 577 teachers, Shiksha Mitras and Investigators died while on panchayat election duty in the State. The High Court took note of the reports of the deaths and issued notice to the State Election Commission to explain as to why it had failed to check non-compliance of COVID guidelines during the elections.

Anger within BJP

Adityanath’s public posturing that it is only those opposed to the government who are spreading misinformation about COVID spread in the State stood exposed when reports of several BJP leaders and supporters falling victim to the virus started coming in. In what should be a wake-up call for Adityanath, three BJP legislators—Suresh Srivastava, Ramesh Diwakar and Kesar Singh Gangwar—died of COVID. Gangwar’s son Vishal slammed Adityanath for failing to ensure treatment for his party MLAs. In a Facebook post, he said: “UP government has not been able to provide medical care to the MLAs…. I tried calling the Chief Minister’s office several times but no one picked up the calls. Dhanya hai UP sarkar...dhanya hain Modiji [Praise be to UP government! Praise be to Modi!].”

Kaushal Kishore and Rajendra Agarwal, both BJP’s Members of Parliament, also criticised the State government for failing to ensure uninterrupted supply of oxygen and Remdesivir to patients. State Minister Brijesh Pathak had earlier said that the health officials never picked up phones and that there were neither beds in hospitals nor ambulances to carry the patients.

This article is closed for comments.
Please Email the Editor