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Commission approves Italian aid measure adapting previously approved Italian national ‘umbrella' scheme to support companies in coronavirus outbreak to the regional context of Friuli Venezia Giulia

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The European Commission has approved an Italian aid measure to further support companies affected by the coronavirus outbreak. The measure consists in certain adaptations of the previously approved national ‘umbrella' scheme, which will be applicable to companies in the Friuli Venezia Giulia region. It was approved under the State aid Temporary Framework adopted by the Commission on 19 March 2020, as amended on 3 April 2020 and 8 May 2020.

The existing national “umbrella” scheme was approved on 21 May 2020. In order to make use of some options that, under the decision approving the existing national “umbrella” scheme, require a separate notification to the Commission, Italy notified a number of adaptations to the national umbrella scheme to be applied to the Friuli Venezia Giulia Region, including a different method to calculate the overall loan amount on the basis of the liquidity needs, a different duration of the loans and different credit risk margins.

The support will be open to companies of all sizes with an operating unit on the territory of the Friuli Venezia Giulia region, with the exception of those active in the primary agricultural, forestry, fishery and aquaculture sector. Over 3,000 companies are expected to benefit from the support. The Commission found that the measure is  in line with the conditions set out in the Temporary Framework. In particular (i) the loans are limited in duration; and ii) the loan amount per company is limited to what is needed to cover its liquidity needs for the near future.

The Commission concluded that the measure is necessary, appropriate and proportionate to remedy a serious disturbance in the economy of a member state, in line with Article 107(3)(b) TFEU and the conditions set out in the Temporary Framework. On this basis, the Commission approved the measures under EU state aid rules. More information on the Temporary Framework and other actions taken by the Commission to address the economic impact of the coronavirus pandemic can be found here.

The non-confidential version of the decision will be made available under the case number SA.57252 in the state aid register on the Commission's competition website once any confidentiality issues have been resolved.

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Why was India's second wave of the COVID-19 pandemic so fierce?

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In this article, writes Vidya S Sharma, Ph.D., I wish (a) to highlight the ferocity of the second wave of the COVID-19 pandemic in India; (b) why the Modi Administration performed so poorly; and (c) how well India prepared for the third wave?

Fortunately, the second wave of the COVID-19 pandemic in India seems to be ebbing but it gives me no pleasure to remind the readers that last May, in my article I mentioned India was a time bomb waiting to explode.

In the past twelve months, the situation in India has not only worsened beyond my worst scenario. Modi bragged at the World Economic Forum on 28 January that India “has saved the world, entire humanity, from a major tragedy by effectively controlling coronavirus”. The reality is that India has now become a security threat to the rest of the world, especially the free world.

The pandemic has brought untold misery to the bottom 600 million Indians who have lost one or more of their family members to COVID-19, or having exhausted all their life’s savings or mortgaged all their valuables, financially have been set back by a generation or two, now remain unemployed in an underperforming economy with no meaningful support from the Central/State Governments, or have become dependent on their parents, relatives and friends.

Figure 1: Tests per confirmed case in India and neighbouring countries
Source: Our World in Data

There are tens of thousands of families that have lost the sole breadwinner to the pandemic. Thousands of children have been rendered orphans having lost both of their parents to Covid-19. Student learning has been set back by more than a year. It is a man-made catastrophic calamity.

The bottom 600 million may have suffered silently and buried their dead along the bank of the River Ganga or thrown their dead bodies in the river itself (for they could not afford the cost of cremating the dead). But the virus has not spared what are termed lower- and upper-middle-class families in India.

According to an investigative report commissioned by The Indian Express: “Across the country, many may have successfully beaten the virus, but their lives have been upended by the loans they have to repay courtesy of huge Covid-19 medical bills. They have dipped into years of savings, sold jewellery, mortgaged property, and borrowed from friends to clear the medical bills.”

Before I go any further let me recount a few of the errors of the Modi administration that I listed in my article of May 2020.

The first confirmed case of COVID-19 in India was reported on January 30, 2020.

By then it was well known how infectious and fatal the COVID-19 (or SARS-CoV-2) virus was. A week earlier on 23 January, the Chinese authorities had quarantined Wuhan (the city widely considered as its source) and by January 25 the entire province of Hubei was in lockdown. Australia banned flights from China on 1 February and a few days after it closed its skies to international airlines.

These developments should have rung alarm bells in India which has a very poor health infrastructure. The WHO recommends a ratio of a minimum of 1 doctor to 1000 patients. India has 0.67 doctors for every 1,000 persons. The same figure for China is 1.8. For the two countries most severely affected in March-April, 2020 by COVID-19, ie, Spain and Italy, this figure is 4.1.

Personal hygiene (ie, washing hands with clean water and soap regularly) is strongly recommended as the first line of precautionary defence against this virus. In this regard, it is worth noting that 50.7% of the rural population does not have basic hand-washing facilities in India. The same figure for the urban population was 20.2% and around 40.5 per cent for the population overall.

Figure 2: COVID-19 and black market profiteering
Source: Statista and BBC

As late as early March 2020, the Modi Government was not carrying out any temperature checks even of the international arrivals. It closed its airspace to international airlines only on March 14 (six weeks later than Australia did and 7 weeks after Beijing locked down the entire province of Hubei).

Instead of taking any steps to contain the spread of the COVID-19, ie, to protect the health of India’s citizens, Prime Minister Modi and his administration busied themselves organising huge “Namaste Trump” rallies in New Delhi and Ahmadabad (Gujarat) for the forthcoming visit of President Trump. In other words, Modi preferred a moment of glory and worldwide TV coverage for himself at the cost of the health of his countrymen.

When it became clear to New Delhi that the situation was out of control, the Modi Government freaked and on March 24 declared a 21 days India-wide lockdown at 3 hours’ notice. This was later extended for another 3 weeks.

No planning went into it. Even the entire public transport network was grounded.

The bottom half of the population of India (approx. 600 million) are very poor or live below the poverty line (between them they share only 2.5% of the nation’s wealth while the top 1% own 77% of the nation’s wealth). These people are daily wage earners with no entitlement to annual/sick/maternity leave or pension/superannuation. It did not occur to anyone in the Modi Government how would they feed themselves or their families during the 6-week lockdown?

As a result of this panic move, we saw sad, distressing, appalling images of stranded migrant workers (approx. 200 million) trying to walk home (in some cases as many as 600-700 kilometres) without any access to food, water, sanitary facilities or shelter.

Unfortunately, the lockdown only postponed the inevitable. During the lockdown period, the Modi Government did not do basic preparatory work. Neither testing stations nor any isolation centres were set up even in the biggest Indian cities. On 4 April 2020, The Indian Express exposed that between 20,000 to 30,000 ventilators were lying dysfunctional across the country in various hospitals for want of parts or servicing. Even in major hospitals in large cities, there was barely any personal protective equipment (PPE).

On 8 April 2020, in a submission to the Supreme Court (the apex court in India), the Modi Government conceded that it could not conduct more than 15,000 COVID-19 tests per day.

Similarly, barely any attempt was made to educate the population on the importance of social distancing and personal hygiene or advise them of the basic symptoms of Covid-19. No attempt was ever made to explain the pandemic management strategy to the general public or the Parliament. No steps were taken to stop profiteering by conscience-less opportunistic businesses.

EXTENT OF INFECTION AND TESTING

Despite being more than a year into the pandemic, the rate of testing in India remains abysmally low.

The WHO guidelines state that for every confirmed case 10-30 persons should be tested depending upon the density of population, the average number of persons in the household, hygienic conditions prevailing around them, etc.

Given the WHO guidelines, India should be testing close to 25-30 persons per confirmed case. But as Figure 1 below shows in early May 2021 when India was reporting around 400,000 new confirmed cases every day. It follows that India should have been testing around 10 to 12 million persons every day. But it was testing around 4.5 persons for every new confirmed case. This was lower than its neighbours: Bangladesh (9 persons/confirmed case) Pakistan (10.5 persons/case), Sri Lanka (13/confirmed case).

Figure 3: Vaccine doses administered during 'Vaccine Festival' The Wire
Source: www.covid19india.org and The Wire

Thus the Modi Administration, even after living with the pandemic for more than a year, seems not to be making any serious effort to determine the extent of community transmission in India.

Not only India is not conducting enough tests for COVID-19 to determine the extent of community transmission, but in many instances tests are conducted by inadequately trained and unaccredited professionals. The Covid-19 test most widely carried out in India has a high error rate (as much as 30%). The accuracy of data collected by the Indian Government is further compromised because in many cases the testers are using understrength or impure chemicals or contaminated equipment/chemicals.

MAINSTREAM MEDIA RELUCTANT TO MAKE MODI ACCOUNTABLE

Mainstream media in India, particularly television and radio (and especially radio stations and TV channels that are either owned by the Central Government or by business houses or politicians with close links to the BJP and its many sister organisations) have not made any effort to make the Modi Administration accountable for its failure to competently manage the pandemic.

It would be naïve to expect that media outlets owned by politicians elected with the BJP’s support or pro-BJP individuals or organisations would take Modi to account or seek transparency in decision-making. These outlets remain as sycophantic as ever.

Further, New Delhi is the country’s biggest advertiser. The Modi Administration alone spent about $270,000 on advertisements every day in 2019 to 2020 financial year. The Modi government, just like Mrs Gandhi did during her rule, has been punishing media houses (eg, NDTV, The Wire, The Print, etc.) by blacklisting them from getting advertising from the government departments, statutory bodies or Public Sector Business Enterprises. This has meant some media outlets that were critical of the BJP Government have been forced to shut their doors. It has been widely reported that the Modi government has also been putting pressure on various companies not to advertise in newspapers and on TV channels that are critical of the BJP Government.

To stifle its criticism, the Hindu Nationalist BJP governments have gone further than Mrs Gandhi ever did. They have arrested journalists, actors, film directors, authors on trumped-up charges (eg, ranging from sedition, tax evasion, to endangering national security, to defaming various BJP leaders, to bringing bad name to India, etc.) or simply demonising them as persons engaged in anti-national activities.

The primary reason the mainstream media has been willing to kowtow to the Modi administration is that most media outlets in India are owned by business houses that are chaebols, ie, they are industrial conglomerates with interests in many other sectors. They do not want their other business interests to be hurt by an unfavourable legislative environment or the government pursuing them for non-payment of taxes, or some minor foreign currency law violation, etc.

DELIBERATE UNDER-REPORTING OF DEATH CONTINUES

To suppress the real death toll, the Modi Administration consciously took some policy decisions very early on:

First, anybody who dies in a hospital but was not tested for Covid 19 before being admitted, is not counted as a Covid-19 fatality.

Second, those patients who may have been tested Covid-19 positive but suffered already from other illnesses (eg, high blood pressure, diabetes, lung infection, irregular heartbeat, damaged kidneys, etc.) then they are not counted as Covid-19 fatalities.

Third, anybody who dies of Covid 19 but did not die in a hospital, is not counted as a Covid-19 fatality. It is worth recalling that all public and private hospitals were overwhelmed in the first few weeks of the pandemic in early 2020. So a vast majority of the Covid-19 fatalities fall in this category.

A FEW MEDIA OUTLETS ARE FINDING IT

DIFFICULT TO REMAIN SILENT NOW

The pandemic has directly affected nearly every family in India. The situation is getting worse. The people in the street know it.

The mainstream media has realised that it cannot gloss over the Modi Administration failures and lack of action on this issue. This situation has forced some of the media outlets to change their tune. They know if they do not do explain what is happening in the country and why it is happening then they will begin to lose readership/audience resulting in loss of revenue.

In this connection, I cite merely a handful of examples below.

Om Gaur is the national editor of Dainik Bhaskar, an Indian Hindi-language daily newspaper with a daily circulation of 4.6 million. According to the Audit Bureau of Circulations, it ranks 3rd in the world by circulation and the first in India.

Gaur got a tip from one of his readers that dead bodies had been seen floating the River Ganga River in the state of Bihar.

These dead bodies were severely decomposed so police in Bihar thought they had come from upstream, possibly from Uttar Pradesh. Gaur sent a team of 30 reporters to over 27 districts situated along the banks of the River Ganga to investigate the matter.

These reporters, within a few hours, located more than 2,000 bodies that were either floating in the river or have been buried in shallow graves along a 1,100-kilometre stretch of the River Ganga. It is not unreasonable to assume that had they investigated the matter further they would have found many more corpses.

Figure 4: India’s Ministry of AYUSH recommendations to fight COVID-19
Source: Government of India and BBC News

Their enquiries also revealed these bodies belonged to Hindu families too poor to cremate their dead relatives. None of these deaths will be counted as COVID-19 fatalities by the Indian Government.

My enquiries in a large government hospital in Lucknow (capital of Uttar Pradesh) found that during a certain period in April 2021, COVID-19 deaths amounted to more than 220 but only 21 were reported as deaths due to COVID-19.

Australia’s commercial channel Nine showed footage in which ambulance staff appear to be throwing dead bodies of COVID-19 victims in the River Ganga.

In Gujarat (home state of Modi), the following three Gujarati-language newspapers are most widely read: Sandesh, Samachar and Divya Bhaskar (owned by the same group that owns Dainik Bhakar). All three have consistently questioned the official statistics.

Divya Bhaskar sent its correspondents to various government departments, municipal corporations, hospitals and crematoria. Its investigations revealed that by the middle of May 2021 around 124,000 death certificates had been issued in the prior 71 days in Gujarat. This figure was about 66,000 more than during the same period last year. The state government reported that only 4,218 were related to Covid. In other words, the BJP government in Gujarat was undercounting COVID-19 fatalities by a factor of 20 times or more.

Divya Bhaskar’s journalists talked with relatives of victims and doctors and discovered that most of the recent deaths were attributed to underlying conditions or co-morbidities.

But even these findings, howsoever frightening picture they may paint, do not capture the extent of community infections and the devastation the pandemic is causing in India.

Sukma is a district is in the state of Chhattisgarh, one of the most backward states in India. Sukma is dominated by Maoist insurgents called Naxalites. Within Sukma district lies a tiny village, Karma Gondi. The latter, more than 25 km from the nearest highway, is enclosed by a forest. In the third week of May, ie, about a month ago, nearly one out of three people tested in this village — 91 of 239 — have tested positive for the coronavirus.

If in such a remote village 38% of the population is infected then it would not be unreasonable to assume nationally the figure would be much higher.

RESULTS OF SERUM SURVEYS

Early this year, between 17 December and 8 January, two weeks before India commenced its vaccination programme, the Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR) conducted a national serum survey, the third of its kind. It found that more than 21% of India's adult population have been exposed to COVID-19.

In a serum survey, the immunologists examine the liquid part of blood, or ‘serum’, to detect if the chosen person shows an immune response to the viral material, not SARS-CoV-2 virus material itself, ie, are there antibodies in his/her blood.

In the above national survey, involving 28,589 people, the ICMR found that more than 21% of India's adult population have been exposed to Covid-19

On 4 February, the Director-General of the ICMR, Balram Bhargava, told a press conference that the serum survey showed that the presence of Covid-19 antibodies in children aged 10 to 17 years was 25.3%.

While the above national survey involved a small sample (given the size of the population of India) such surveys have been conducted in several large cities.

These serum surveys indicated that COVID-19 had touched 56% of the population in Delhi by January 2021, 75% in some slums of Mumbai (November 2020) and about 30% in Bengaluru (previously known as Bangalore) in November 2020.

PROFITEERING AND ITS POLITICAL CONNIVING IS RAMPANT

In the absence of any effort undertaken by the pro-business BJP government to ensure that the businesses do not profiteer excessively, it is worth noting that not only the price of cremation but of all the medicines prescribed to fight Covid-19 infection, oxygen cylinders, etc. have skyrocketed all over India and most crematoria have a waiting list of minimum 2-3 days.

The unchecked profiteering and corruption start with both Indian vaccine manufacturers: The Serum Institute of India (SII) and Bharat Biotech (BB).

Let me first inform the readers that both companies were assisted greatly either by foreign charities or New Delhi: the SII received US$ 300 million from Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to do developmental research and set up manufacturing facilities. It manufactures the Astra Zeneca vaccine under the name of Covishield.

The Modi Administration provided huge support to BB at all stages of its Covaxine development and manufacture.

In other words, these companies have taken minimal risk either in the development of their vaccine or in setting up manufacturing facilities.

The SII has a three-tier price structure: the unit price for New Delhi is INR 150; the state governments are charged INR 300 (originally Rs 400 but lowered later) and private hospitals pay INR 600. Covaxin prices are INR 150, INR 400 and INR 1,200, respectively

At the current exchange rate, the Serum Institute of India’s price for state governments (Rs 300) translates to $4.00 per unit. Its unit price to private hospitals translates to $8. But AstraZeneca charges $2.18 per dose to the European Union and $4 to the US. In other words, the Indian prices are much higher than the prices for the EU and the US. This is so even though the manufacturing and logistics costs are much lower in India than in Europe and the US.

Profiteering has been taken to even more obscene levels by Bharat Biotech. The latter is reported to have very close links with the ruling BJP.

These companies could not have overpriced their products without the Modi Administration’s connivance.

Given the devastating severity of the second wave of the Covid 19 pandemic in India, both companies have announced plans to double their production capacity. Again it is New Delhi that is funding the expansion plans of these companies, ie, shareholders of both companies will benefit greatly but are not bearing any risk.

Scammers and politically connected people are selling hospital beds, medicine, oxygen and other supplies at exorbitant prices as they prey on the desperation and grief of families.

Xavier Minz, the owner of the largest private lab in Bilaspur, told Asia Times: “It is time for me to make good on the losses I suffered when most hospitals were shut (due to the lockdown in March 2020). I got permission to do the Covid Real-Time PCR lab [test] and can charge 3,800 rupees against my expenses of 1,100 rupees for a single test.”

Regarding profiteering and corruption relating to the pandemic, Arundhati Roy, a political activist but better known in the West as a novelist, wrote in the Wire,

“There are markets for other things, too. At the bottom end of the free market, a bribe to sneak a last look at your loved one, bagged and stacked in a hospital mortuary. A surcharge for a priest who agrees to say the final prayers. Online medical consultancies in which desperate families are fleeced by ruthless doctors. At the top end, you might need to sell your land and home and use up every last rupee for treatment at a private hospital. Just the deposit alone, before they even agree to admit you, could set your family back a couple of generations.”

On May 6, 2021, a judge of the Delhi High Court commented that “the moral fabric of the public had been dismantled”.

When interviewed by a The New York Times reporter, Vikram Singh, a former police chief in Uttar Pradesh, commented, “I have seen all kinds of predators and all forms of depravity, but this level of predation and depravity I have not seen in the 36 years of my career or in my life.”

BJP AND ITS LEADERS CONTINUE TO LIE AND RESPOND WITH SPIN DOCTORING

They engage in public relations gimmicks and lying because they are afraid to level with the Indian populace. In a speech last week, Prime Minister Modi claimed that till he took office in 2014 only 60 per cent of India had been vaccinated. If that were so how then polio and smallpox have been eliminated from India?

When the second wave was at its peak, not being able to face the reality and to distract the people, Modi said came out with another of his gimmicks and photo opportunity:

During a meeting with the chief ministers on 8 April 2021, PM Modi announced that 'Tika Utsav' (= vaccination festival) will be observed between 11 April-14 April (inclusive) where people will be vaccinated en masse. At the same press conference, Modi lied that “we defeated the first Covid without vaccines.”

The members of his task force took their cue from their supreme leader and indulged in even bigger lies. They claimed they expected everyone to be vaccinated by December 2021. 60% of Indians (Total population = 1326 million) are above the age of 20 years. It means India would need around 2 billion doses of vaccine(s) to inoculate 60% of its population.

Nobody in the BJP explained how would they procure the necessary doses of vaccines before December 2021? How are they going to get them into people’s arms? How would they overcome the shortage of raw material currently plaguing vaccine manufacturers worldwide?

I have extensively travelled in the Hindi belt states (the heartland of the BJP). I know as a fact many of the primary health care centres, just like primary schools, only exist on paper. Hospitals in small cities and towns and rural areas do not have continuous power and water supply. Many of these hospitals are not kept clean. So where would these vaccine doses be stored? Where are trained people to administer them?

How effective was this vaccination festival? Not very much, if we go by the evidence.

The number of vaccine doses during the vaccination festival (ie, April 11 to April 14) was less than other days in April (see Figure 3).

According to covid19india.org, 29,33,418 new vaccine doses were administered on April 11, considerably less than for April 8 (41,35,589), April 9 (37,40,898) and April 10 (35,19,987).

On April 12, 40,04,520 vaccine doses were given, but on April 13, the number dropped down by 33% to 26,46,493 doses. On April 14, the number of doses given stood at 33,13,660.

In other words, it was just a public relations gimmick to befool the public that the Modi Government was busy doing something to tackle the second wave.

Everybody in the world has known India is suffering from a severe shortage of oxygen cylinders and tanks, ventilators, hospital beds, medicines, etc. Yet the Modi administration demanded that Facebook and Twitter remove such offending posts because they amounted to spreading misinformation.

On 13 y in New Delhi, police arrested nine persons for allegedly pasting posters that criticiszed Prime Minister Narendra Modi regarding the botched up COVID-19 vaccination drive.

About the time when the second wave of the pandemic was gathering strength, on March 7, 2021, Union Health Minister, Harsh Vardhan declared: “We are in the end game of the COVID-19 in India”

Then on March 30 2021, when the ferocity of the second wave was becoming clearer, Harsh Vardhan again lied to the Indians and claimed: “The situation is under control.

So far a little over 2% (two per cent) of the population has been vaccinated.

COVID -19 PANDEMIC: ANOTHER CASE WHERE MODI & BJP TRAMPLES ON THE INDIAN CONSTITUTION

The right to freedom of speech is guaranteed in the Indian Constitution under Article 19(1)(a). But this freedom is not absolute and Article 19(2) lists certain restrictions so that the right of free speech is exercised responsibly.

With relatives dying because of shortage of oxygen, medicine, ventilators, empty oxygen cylinders, unavailability of beds in hospitals – whether private or public, with scammers and black marketers fleecing them by preying on their misery, unable to find a crematorium that would burn the dead body because all were busy 24 hours burning thousands of bodies and charging an exorbitant amount of money, some Indians resorted to social media (eg, Facebook, Twitter, etc.) to seek help and vent their heartache and grief.

A political party and its leaders with democratic tendencies would have admitted to their mistakes in handling the pandemic, apologised to the grieving nation, installed new personnel known for their competence in handling the crisis (such as natural disasters cyclones and floods, etc.), reshuffled his/her cabinet, demoted or sacked incompetent ministers, made an effort to seek advice from the scientists who knew how the virus behaved in other countries and what preventive measures those countries had taken, and promised the nation to do everything to correct the situation.

But none of the above happened. Instead, the BJP leaders both in New Delhi and in various states resorted to stifle the criticism and spread misinformation themselves.

While patients were gasping for breath and dying from suffocation due to oxygen shortage, on April 25, 2021, Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister, Ajay Mohan Bisht (popularly known as Yogi Adityanath) has asked officials to take action under the National Security Act and seize the property of individuals who were spreading misinformation regarding oxygen shortage on social media and he asserted: “No oxygen shortage in any COVID hospital.”

Instead of behaving like India’s Putin or Xi Jinping, one would have expected that being a holy man he would have some respect for truth and show some humility and compassion. But no apology was made. Politics again triumphed over the health of citizens.

Of dozens of media reports and thousands of posts on Facebook and Twitter, I quote only three below.

On 22 April, The Quint reported how multiple hospitals in Lucknow (capital of Uttar Pradesh) were facing an acute shortage of oxygen cylinders. This list included The Mayo Hospital and Make Well Hospital and Trauma Centre.

On 27 April, Scroll.in reported that because of a shortage of oxygen, patients were dying like flies in eastern Uttar Pradesh’s Ballia district.

Similarly, India Today on 28 April (normally a Modi-leaning media outlet) reported that 7 or 8 COVID-19 patients died at Paras Hospital in Agra “due to acute shortage of beds and medical oxygen.”

While patients were gasping for breath, the BJP senior leaders and Cabinet Ministers in New Delhi were spreading false information through social media (I refer to toolkit controversy) to discredit the Congress party.

When the Congress Party complained to Twitter stating that the alleged toolkit was fake and forged letterheads had been used in the screenshots. Twitter conducted an internal investigation, using technology and independent third-party expertise, and found that the ‘toolkit’ was forged and tagged the post as ‘Manipulated Media’ the Central Government sent the police to raid Twitter offices in New Delhi and Gurgaon to intimidate Twitter staff.

Not to speak of tolerating any public criticism, the BJP leaders cannot even tolerate suggestions made to them privately. This was evident from a rude and offensive reply sent by Health Minister Harsh Vardhan to former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh who had dared to pen a letter to Mr Modi on how to fight the pandemic.

The Modi Administration and other BJP leaders’ attempt to silence the criticism earned a rebuke from the White House when Biden’s Press Secretary Jen Psaki commented, “India's online censorship is not aligned with US view of freedom of speech.”

At home, the Supreme Court (India’s apex court) on 30 April stated that it was aware of the issues related to the shortage of oxygen, drug, and vaccine policy about the COVID-19 pandemic, and stated there should not be any clampdown on the information.

Justice Chandrachud went on to assert that “We will treat it as contempt of court if such grievances are considered for action.”

While the BJP leaders are eager to silence ordinary persons from expressing their frustrations and grievances, it ignores the misinformation being spread by its members of the Parliament and Ministry of Ayush website (see Figure 4 below).

In BJP-run Manipur state, police arrested a journalist and an activist under the National Security Act (it allows a person to be detained for up to a year without trial), after they posted on their respective Facebook pages that cow urine and dung do not cure COVID-19

Pragya Thakur, a BJP MP from Madhya Pradesh (she first gained worldwide notoriety by stating that Mahatma Gandhi’s assassin was a patriot) recently claimed that she was not infected with the coronavirus because she regularly drinks cow urine.

Earlier Hindu Mahasabha leader Swami Chakrapani Maharaj and Sanjay Gupta, a Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) legislator in the state of Uttar Pradesh had also made similar claims regarding cow’s urine and dung.

When interviewed on this subject, Dr Shailendra Saxena, of the Indian Virological Society, told BBC News: “There is no medical evidence to show that cow urine has anti-viral characteristics.” 

But no action has been taken against Pragya Thakur or any other BJP leader for misleading people, making fraudulent claims and indulging in quackery.

The Central Government’s Ministry of Ayush (Figure 4 above) has been recommending the use of some natural concoctions to fight Covid 19. Again according to Akiko Iwasaki, an immunologist at Yale University, many of these claims are not grounded in evidence.

It is worth noting that several of these recommendations/remedies (eg, drinking warm water - or gargling with vinegar or salt solutions) have been discredited by the Indian government's fact-checking service.

BJP REFUSED TO LEARN FROM PREVIOUS MISTAKES

Modi and his BJP colleagues in New Delhi and Gujarat organised giant super-spreader events (called “Namaste Trump”) during the first wave of the Covid-19 pandemic to welcome President Trump.

Instead of learning from such errors which resulted in many thousands of deaths, the Modi Administration encouraged the Election Commissioner of India to hold elections for the state legislature in West Bengal and Assam.

This is in spite of the fact that under Article 172(1) of the Indian Constitution, the Election Commissioner (EC) of India is empowered to postpone an election in case of a state of Emergency, for one year at a time in addition to a period of six months after the Emergency is lifted.

Yet the Modi Government encouraged the EC to start electioneering for West Bengal and Assam Legislatures on March 27 because it was confident of its win in West Bengal. So politicians from all parties held election rallies over the following weeks.

The BJP and its stalwarts did not prevent the arrival of massive crowds (running into several million pilgrims) for the Kumbh Mela. The latter is a religious festival lasting 12 days during which huge crowds gather to bathe in the River Ganga either at Allahabad or Haridwar. The pilgrims start arriving as early as 2 weeks in advance. The Kumbh Mela 2021 took place at Haridwar. This became another giant super-spreader event. A half-hearted effort to advise people not to come was only made after several Hindu mendicants succumbed to Covid-19.

I just give one more example where Modi was personally involved. On April 17 at an election rally in Asansol, while campaigning for West Bengal Legislative Assembly, Modi firing up his audience said: “Have never seen such a huge crowd at a rally”.

At none of these events neither any social distance was followed nor people were wearing masks.

BJP LEADERS MORE INTERESTED IN IMAGE MANAGEMENT

Modi, just like Trump, has been keen to associate himself with positive developments. Like Trump, who demanded that Covid-19 relief cheques sent out to struggling families must bear his signature, similarly, Indians who have been vaccinated receive a certificate that bears Modi’s headshot.

A charity set up to attract donations from the public to provide relief to Covid -19 victims is called, Prime Minister's Citizen Assistance and Relief in Emergency Situations Fund and is abbreviated as “PM CARES.”

Another thing common between Trump and Modi and other BJP leaders is, as the above discussion has shown, that all of them lie incessantly.

In the foregoing passages, I gave some examples of lying by the BJP leaders including Prime Minister Modi. I also listed many examples of clamping down on COVID-19 victims and their families for expressing their grievances and misery. I detailed to what extent the Modi Administration may have been under-reporting the COVID-19 deaths and what methods it employed so that the maximum number of COVID-19 fatalities could be excluded from the count.

Perhaps the most telling and scathing criticism of the Modi Administration came from The Lancet, one of the most prestigious medical journals in the world which was forced to venture into the political arena.

The BJP and its leaders’ obsession with image management and their efforts to suppress the truth have so alarmed the editors of The Lancet that in an editorial in its issue of May 8, 2021, it was forced to vent its anger and frustration on how the Modi Government was more interested in indulging spin-doctoring and image management than helping the Covid-19 victims.

The Lancet quoting the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation (which estimated that India will probably see 1 million deaths from COVID-19 by end of July) editorialized “If that outcome were to happen, Modi’s Government would be responsible for presiding over a self-inflicted national catastrophe.”

The Lancet wrote: “At times, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Government has seemed more intent on removing criticism on Twitter than trying to control the pandemic.”

Referring to super-spreader events (some of which I have mentioned above), The Lancet wrote: “Despite warnings about the risks of super-spreader events, the government allowed religious festivals to go ahead, drawing millions of people from around the country, along with huge political rallies — conspicuous for their lack of COVID-19 mitigation measures.”

Noticing the collapse of the health infrastructure, The Lancet castigated the Modi Government thus:

“The scenes of suffering in India are hard to comprehend… hospitals are overwhelmed, and health workers are exhausted and becoming infected. Social media is full of desperate people (doctors and the public) seeking medical oxygen, hospital beds, and other necessities. Yet before the second wave of cases of COVID-19 began to mount in early March, Indian Minister of Health Harsh Vardhan declared that India was in the “endgame” of the epidemic.”

The Lancet also excoriated the Modi Government for its botched vaccination programme.

WHY THE 2ND PANDEMIC WAVE HAS BEEN SO BRUTAL?

From the above discussion and my article of 6 May 2020 published here it must be clear that though New Delhi had plenty of warning before the first wave struck India, it did not use that time to prepare for the pandemic. It did not cancel “Namaste Trump” rallies. Instead, it took pride in the fact that each rally was attended by hundreds of thousands of people.

At home it continued to play its divisive politics by demonising people who were protesting against the Citizens’ Amendment Act (CAA) and National Register of Citizens (NRC) – both these legislative initiatives are primarily aimed at Indian Muslims and other non-Hindu minorities. It hoped its divisive politics and the hatred it had tried to generate against Indian Muslims will help it to wrest treasury benches in West Bengal from Mamata Banerjee’s Trinamool Congress.

The Modi administration ensured that the second wave will be more fierce by organising many super-spreader events in the form of election rallies (politicians of other parties also helped in this endeavour), and by allowing the Kumbh Festival to go ahead at Haridwar.

Under pressure from its electoral base, it also allowed the economic activity to commence too early, certainly before the first wave had been brought under control. This was exacerbated by the fact that it never carried out enough tests to determine the extent of virus transmission within the community.

But two more factors have also played a bigger role:

First, the additional health infrastructure that was set up to cope with the first wave of the Covid 19 pandemic was dismantled. This was done in most states although the authorities must have known that countries like Spain, Italy, Britain, etc. were suffering from the second and third waves of the pandemic.

Let me give you a few random examples.

Last year, four temporary hospitals were set up in New Delhi. They were dismantled in February this year and had to be erected again.

According to the Uttar Pradesh government it set up 503 Covid hospitals with 150,000 beds to cope with the first wave of the pandemic. [Note: Any claim that Yogi Adityanath makes must be taken with a grain of salt. He has a very flexible relationship with the truth. For him, truth is what he says and not what the evidence may suggest.]

But by February 2021, it had only had 83 hospitals this with 17,000.

The Rajendra Institute of Medical Sciences in Ranchi is the biggest government-run hospital in the state of Jharkhand. It does not have a single high-resolution CT scan machine. Now the state government has been ordered by the High Court to remedy the situation.

Karnataka, one of the most severely affected states, added only 18 intensive care units with ventilators during the first wave. No additional capacity was added during the second wave.

In other words, irrespective of what part of India one concentrates on, one gets a strong impression that it was neither prepared for the first wave nor the second wave though all the signs of an impending second wave were there.

Why the bureaucracy in New Delhi could not foresee the coming disaster despite many flashing warning signs?

The reasons can be found if one knows a little bit how Mr Modi and the BJP operate. For most government positions – whether be it a senior executive position or that of a lowly clerk, preference is given to those who have solid BJP or RSS (BJP’s parent organisation) credentials. These appointments are not based on merit, qualifications or quality of achievement in previous roles. People appointed for their loyalty to the Hindutva cause and the BJP and what have done in the past to promote the BJP and RSS manifesto.

In states like Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, Gujarat, etc. it is difficult to get a job even as a peon unless the person is a BJP or RSS member or shares their Hindutva ideology. (Warning: please do not confuse BJP’s Hindutva ideology with Hinduism. They are two very different things.)

Further, Mr Modi has centralised decision-making. All important decisions are made in his office. As we know from his speech to the World Economic Forum, he became a victim of his own arrogance or hubris.

HOW WOULD INDIA FARE IF CONFRONTED WITH THE THIRD WAVE?

We do not know the exact extent of community transmission. If we take the results of serum surveys carried out in the slums of Mumbai and the extent of infection in such a very remote village as Karma Gondi as our criteria then it would seem that it may be in the order of 40% to 50%.

We know that the coronavirus has penetrated rural India where not only health care facilities are almost non-existent but half of India’s rural population does not even have access to clean water.

Because the community transmission has been allowed to take place on such a massive scale and for so long, the original SARS-CoV-2 virus has mutated many times. Some of these mutants are more lethal and easily transmissible. The virologists at the Centre for Cellular and Molecular Biology (CCMB), Bangalore, have identified a new variant of SARS-CoV-2 - 'N440K'.

Dr Divya Tej Sowpati of CCMB has estimated that this new variant is 15 times more lethal than the earlier ones. It is this variant that has caused havoc and a large number of fatalities in Andhra Pradesh in the last few months.

It is very difficult to say when would the third wave arrive (if it arrives at all) and how ferocious or mild would it be? All of this will depend on which mutant becomes dominant and how lethal it is? It would also depend upon what percentage of the population has been vaccinated.

Let us hope, the Indian Government will be able to put its act together very soon. It needs to do the following things simultaneously:

  • Procure enough doses of vaccines;
  • Train enough nurses and primary health care workers so that at least all the 20+ years old adults can be inoculated;
  • It must educate Indians to overcome vaccine hesitancy. Some people are reluctant to be vaccinated (even in urban areas) because they fear the vaccine will either hasten their death or render them impotent. It needs to run well targeted educational programmes and advertisements to counter such fears.
  • All nurses and primary health care workers responsible for administering the vaccine will need to be trained so that they can answer any questions that people might put to them.

The Modi Administration will need to learn to stop giving mixed messages. If it wants people to have confidence in the vaccines, then it must crack down hard on BJP MPs and RSS officials and functionaries and Hindu mendicants and priests who indulge in misleading information and quackery, eg, by drinking cow urine one can be cured of COVID-19 infection (Pragya Thakur), or patently false and absurd statements made by Baba Ramdev, a prominent BJP and RSS sympathizer, etc. In a video clip that went viral, Baba Ramdev said: “Lakhs [hundreds of thousands] have died from taking allopathic medicines for COVID-19.”

*****************

Vidya S. Sharma advises clients on country risks and technology-based joint ventures. He has contributed numerous articles for such prestigious newspapers as: The Canberra Times, The Sydney Morning Herald, The Age (Melbourne), The Australian Financial Review, The Economic Times (India), The Business Standard (India), EU Reporter (Brusells), East Asia Forum (Canberra), The Business Line (Chennai, India), The Hindustan Times (India), The Financial Express (India), The Daily Caller (US). He can be contacted at: [email protected]

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EU Digital COVID Certificate - ‘A big step towards a safe recovery’

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Today (14 June), the presidents of the European Parliament, the Council of the EU and the European Commission attended the official signing ceremony for the Regulation on the EU Digital COVID Certificate, marking the end of the legislative process, writes Catherine Feore.

Portugal Prime Minister Antonio Costa said: “Today, we are making a big step towards a safe recovery, to recover our freedom of movement and to boost economic recovery. The digital certificate is an inclusive tool. It includes people who have recovered from COVID, people with negative tests and vaccinated people. Today we are sending a renewed sense of confidence to our citizens that together we will overcome this pandemic and to enjoy travel again, safely and freely across the European Union.”

Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said: “On this day 36 years ago, the Schengen Agreement was signed, five member states at that time decided to open their borders to one another and this was the beginning of what today is for many, many citizens, one of the biggest achievements of Europe, the possibility to travel freely within our union. The European digital COVID certificate reassures us of this spirit of an open Europe, a Europe without barriers, but also a Europe that is slowly but surely opening up after most difficult time, the certificate is a symbol of an open and digital Europe.”

Thirteen member states have already started to issue EU Digital COVID Certificates, by 1 July the new rules will be applicable in all EU states. The Commission has set up a gateway that will allow member states to verify that the certificates are authentic. Von der Leyen also said that the certificate was also attributable to the success of the European vaccination strategy. 

EU countries will still be able to impose restrictions if they are necessary and proportionate to safeguard public health, but all states are asked to refrain from imposing additional travel restrictions on the holders of the EU Digital COVID Certificate

EU Digital COVID Certificate

The aim of the EU Digital COVID Certificate is to facilitate safe and free movement inside the EU during the COVID-19 pandemic. All Europeans have the right to free movement, also without the certificate, but the certificate will facilitate travel, exempting holders from restrictions like quarantine.

The EU Digital COVID Certificate will be accessible for everyone and it will:

  • Cover COVID-19 vaccination, test and recovery;
  • be free of charge and available in all EU languages;
  • be available in a digital and paper-based format, and;
  • be secure and include a digitally signed QR code.

In addition, the Commission committed to mobilizing €100 million under the Emergency Support Instrument to support member states in providing affordable tests.

The Regulation will apply for 12 months as of 1 July 2021.

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Parliament president calls for a European Search and Rescue Mission

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European Parliament President David Sassoli (pictured) has opened a high-level interparliamentary conference on managing migration and asylum in Europe. The conference focused particularly on the external aspects of migration. The president said: “We have chosen to discuss today the external dimension of migration and asylum policies because we know that only by tackling the instability, crises, poverty, human rights violations that occur beyond our borders, will we be able to address the root causes that push millions of people to leave. We need to manage this global phenomenon in a human way, to welcome the people that knock on our doors every day with dignity and respect.
 
“The COVID-19 pandemic is having a profound impact on migration patterns locally and worldwide and has had a multiplier effect on the forced movement of people around the world, especially where access to treatment and healthcare is not guaranteed. The pandemic has disrupted migration pathways, blocked immigration, destroyed jobs and income, reduced remittances, and pushed millions of migrants and vulnerable populations into poverty.
 
“Migration and asylum are already an integral part of the external action of the European Union. But they must become part of a stronger and more cohesive foreign policy  in the future.
 
“I believe it is our duty first of all to save lives. It is no longer acceptable to leave this responsibility only to NGOs, which perform a substitute function in the Mediterranean. We must go back to thinking about joint action by the European Union in the Mediterranean that saves lives and tackles traffickers. We need a European search and rescue mechanism at sea, which uses the expertise of all actors involved, from Member States to civil society to European agencies.
 
“Second, we must ensure that people in need of protection can arrive in the European Union safely and without risking their lives. We need humanitarian channels to be defined together with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. We must work together on a European resettlement system based on common responsibility. We are talking about people who can also make an important contribution to the recovery of our societies affected by the pandemic and demographic decline, thanks to their work and their skills.
 
“We also need to put in place a European migration reception policy. Together we shoulddefine the criteria for a single entry and residence permit, assessing the needs of our labor markets at a national level. During the pandemic, entire economic sectors came to a halt due to the absence of immigrant workers. We need regulated immigration for the recovery of our societies and for the maintenance of our social protection systems.”

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