Barkha Dutt on India’s Systemic Failure in Addressing COVID

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CHRISTIANE AMANPOUR: Let’s get a different perspective now on India’s COVID catastrophe, which we touched on, of course, earlier. The country now accounts for nearly half of all the cases reported around the world in the past week. That’s according to the WHO. Barkha Dutt is a veteran journalist who’s on the front lines reporting on this crisis and she’s the founder and editor of the digital platform, Mojo Story. Also, a columnist to the “The Washington Post.” And here she is talking with Hari Sreenivasan from New Delhi about losing her father to COVID and the very latest in her homeland.


HARI SREENIVASAN: Christiane, thanks. Barkha Dutt, thanks for joining us. I know this is a difficult time for you and I do want to ask a little bit about your personal story because your personal story is similar to what thousands of people in India are going through right now. So, tell me a little bit about the challenges that you started to face as your father became ill.

BARKHA DUTT, FOUNDER AND EDITOR, MOJO STORY: So, Hari, thanks for having me. And, you know, I think like any daughter, I was mortified when my father tested positive for COVID. But in the beginning, you know, following the signs, because he did not seem terribly ill, we thought we could manage him at home, that’s what the doctors advised as well. But as so often happens in these cases, his fever spikes suddenly and the doctors then said, we’ve got to get him to hospital. I ended up organizing and calling for a private ambulance. When this ambulance arrived, it turned out to be not an ambulance at all but a secondhand car without any key — sort of paramedics as crew. But by then, I was in such a state of panic thinking that I had to be in a rush to get my dad to a hospital and maybe it was better to take this chance because losing any time, you know, could mean things getting worse. On the way, basically, the oxygen cylinder malfunction. It did not administer the high oxygen (ph) that it should have. And by the time we got my dad to medical attention, his oxygen levels had plummeted and he had to be wheeled in to ICU. He never made it back alive out of that ICU despite excellent medical intervention. In this moment, of course, the devastation as news literally came home for me, because for the last 15 months, I’ve been covering no other story but this pandemic and this became the story I was reporting. I became the story I was reporting. I was still mindful that though I lost my dad I am — and he was luckier than what every other Indian is possibly going through. Because we’re at a point when people are not getting on the insides of hospitals, emergency wards are shutting their doors, oxygen is out at many premier hospitals, not in villages or smaller towns, but in the capital City of India. There is not an ICU bed to be had for love or for money. And places of worship have now had to start distributing oxygen instead of food so that people can come and get 30 minutes of a puff from an oxygen cylinder that is loaned out to them almost rationing out a few extra moments of life. So, I lost my dad but he was still luckier because he got a chance, at least for five days to fight to live. Most people aren’t getting those five days, they’re not even getting one day.

SREENIVASAN: What was the last time that you remember speaking to your dad? I’m assuming that you were not able to go inside the ICU.

DUTT: Yes. My last conversation with him was on a crackly FaceTime, which the doctor was attending to him in the ICU. Dialed him in. And, you know, he had this big mask on his face. He was on oxygen support by then. And he said to me, he said, I’m choking. He meant that he was having trouble breathing. I’m choking. Give me treatment. I want to get better. And the doctors really, really tried. And one of the things that they did for him, Hari, is that they found that he was claustrophobic in that mask and they removed the mask and we gave him a high flow cannula. The reason I mention this detail to you is because according to the new government of India advisory, you can no longer remove masks and give cannulas to elderly people because they consume too much oxygen. So, elderly people who are already frightened out of their wits, who are alone in ICUs without their families, who are feeling claustrophobic with these big masks, who sometimes are given for easier breathing, lighter, little pipes into their new rules, according to a government of India advisory, because the consume too much oxygen and there isn’t enough oxygen to be had, can no longer be given even that treatment. And, of course, I’m haunted by my father’s last words because he really wanted to get better. He was a man of science. He was vaccinated. He had one jab. He was due for his second jab when the spike hit him. And, of course, like so many Indians, I’m wondering had my government just started the vaccine rollout earlier, had my dad just got the first jab and therefore the second jab earlier, maybe, just maybe, he would have been alive.

SREENIVASAN: What happened after is — in your story, is as unimaginable for people in the United States and anywhere in the world. You know, this happened at a time when we were seeing images of crematoriums that were working all night long. How did you get to say your final good-bye?

DUTT: We were able to get him out in an ambulance to a crematorium that like every other cremation and burial ground across India did not have enough space. So, basically, what happens is you go and you get a token, you get like a coupon and you wait for your turn and, you know, you plead. If you know somebody, you ask for help. We landed up, my sister and I, at the designated time, but it turned out that three other families and also been given the same designated time. There was a scrum. There was an argument. My sister had to seek help of the police. I could barely recognize my own — you know, this was a story that covered — it would have involved other people. And now, I was living out everything that I otherwise report. And we, with the benefit — with the help of the police who came and settled in camps, you know, tempers down because people were like, no. Now, it’s my turn. No. It’s now my turn. That’s the kind of rush. There is a cremation ground, Hari. So, in the shadow of police intervention is how we cremated my dad. And, you know, I just want to make the point that I never ever thought that I would be seeing such a moment. And yes. But that’s — that is how it played out.

SREENIVASAN: I’m so sorry that you had to go through that. But this also indicated to you, in your reporting, that there is a significant undercount whatever the official government statistics are on the number of people dead in India is nothing close to what you are witnessing firsthand.

DUTT: So, there’s been a very, very facile backlash in certain quarters of the rightwing commentator as to why some of us are reporting from commission grounds and burial grounds at all. And I’ll tell you why it’s important. Because if you do not go to these funeral sites, not just do you not get a sense of the scale of the calamity but you also do not get a sense of the undercounting and the underreporting of the fatalities that is taking place. So, let me give you an example. In the capital city, I announced, reported from a cremation ground, not the one where I cremated my father, but a separate one, where the undertaker told me that at the peak of the first wave in 2020, he would cremate 25 to 30 bodies a night. Now, every night this past week, he has created, just that one single site, a 100 to 125 bodies. Whereas the entire death count for Delhi is under 400, not plausible considering you’re looking at 100 to 125 bodies just in one cremation site among dozens in the capital. I have personally seen a similar gap in numbers of bodies and (INAUDIBLE) that have I counted and what the district of the entire state sometimes reporting back myself. That gap could be, at the very least, four times, it could even be higher. Even in terms of caseload, I’ve had doctors telling me that when the laboratories are sometimes returning to many positive tests, they get a call from somebody in the government, this doctor did not specify, he owns a big prominent chair — chain of testing laboratories and he was told basically, get a go slow. There’s a sense and I think it’s a very wrong thing to do, the absence of transparency. Some for his incompetent. Some of it is the fact that we are not, you know, classifying everything as a COVID death. For example, if somebody dies because the oxygen ran out, is it to be counted as a COVID death of not? If somebody died because he had diabetes and COVID, is it being counted as a COVID death or not? So, the combination of cracks in the system, incompetence, lack of transparency. You know, all of it is coming together to point to a serious under telling of the COVID that calamity in India both in terms of fatalities and the case load.

SREENIVASAN: You know, all you have to do is look at your Twitter feed and the backlash that you received to see that, in some ways, you know, we just had a conversation here in the United States about how this has gone from a health crisis to a political crisis, and people that support the ruling party and the government, they’re vitriol towards you and other reporters that are pointing this out, it seems almost personal to them that it’s an affront to their idea of the India that they live. And this is kind of two alternate realities here, on what you’re describing and the image projected by people who support the party right now.

DUTT: And it’s an affront to me as an Indian and as a daughter who’s grieved that a government or government supporters care more about how “The New York Times” or “The Post” or “CNN” or “PBS” is talking about them than about saving the lives of the people in the streets. I cannot even believe that in the midst of this crisis there has actually been a meeting that has been held to discuss what’s been described as the one-sided narrative about India in the western press, as if these matters. And I cannot believe that the government or sections of the government and the Election Commission are not owning up to their share of the responsibility to the fact that Mahmoud rallies, political rallies and mass gatherings continue to be held as the calamity was unfolding. I just interviewed the 15-year-old daughter of a schoolteacher in India’s most populous state, (INAUDIBLE). That — this girl’s father is among 706 teachers that union say have died because they were sent on election duty in the middle of the COVID pandemic. 706 teachers the unions are saying have died because they were forcibly left with no choice sent on election duty in the middle of this pandemic. So, I think the Election Commission and sections of the government are responsible for criminal negligence and having brought us to this point. And the fact that some of their far right supporters are more obsessed about how the western media is looking to them is an affront to me as an Indian citizen.

SREENIVASAN: How we got to this place is something that I think the world is struggling to grasp. The difference between last year and this year. I mean, a month and a half ago, two months ago, India was fairly confident. I mean, the world was looking at the country saying, wow. How did you escape this? Yet, it seemed completely unprepared for the second wave that happened everywhere else.

DUTT: So, Hari, I think that in 2020, we, as people, were a lot prepared forgive mistakes that our government might have made. There was a lot of faith in the intent, there was a lot more of an acceptance that there — you know, we didn’t understand everything about the pandemic. But 2021, the biggest difference between then and now is vaccines. We had no instruments to fight COVID in 2020. In 2021, we had those instruments. We had the weapons. And I think what people are really, really angry about is that the government got obsessed with some sort of token nationalism, some idea of (INAUDIBLE) their vaccine, refused to give approvals to foreign made vaccines thinking it must have a vaccine that had been manufactured fully in India. And then did not even go and purchase enough of the India made vaccines, leave alone getting approvals to the other vaccines. As a result, we have lost two critical months that could have made the difference between thousands and thousands of lives lost and saved. And today, in the middle of the second wave, when we need our vaccine range to be higher than ever before, it’s at its lowest level ever. We expect to see shortages through the month of July. People who were scheduled, the elderly among them, for their second dose have not been able to receive their second shot. And I think that there was a spectacular underestimation, a willful underestimation, if you will, of the second wave, an early triumphalism and then the tone deafness of continuing to campaign at mass congregations and political rallies through this entire period when India was being ravaged by the second wave.

SREENIVASAN: So, right now, regardless of how fast you could spool up a vaccine that was made in India or that was made overseas, that’s not going to get you through this oxygen crisis that you’re facing. I mean, what — you had a story online outside of a hospital, and it was just heartbreaking to watch, but these people were dying because they didn’t have enough air, they couldn’t breathe. I mean, that was the central problem.

DUTT: Yes. I met a young girl who showed me her father’s last WhatsApp message. And her father’s last WhatsApp message to her outside of this hospital was, the hospital doesn’t have oxygen. So, this girl that went running around to privately arrange oxygen cylinders, these are the images we’re now seeing, patients are carrying along with back boxes of lunch into hospitals, you know, bought in black, it’s been called Gold Dust cylinder for the price of anything to somehow get it to their loved ones inside hospital. But, of course, one cylinder at a time is not enough to save lives. There are not enough vaccines to get us out of this crisis in any short- term immediate way. Vaccines, yes, are the only medium to long-term answer. But we’re too late to these vaccines lead us out of this crisis. So, the only thing that can save lives in India right now is oxygen. And to make matters worse, we know that a considerable amount of foreign aid arrived in India, Hari, on the 25th of April and it sat there for seven days, seven critical days awaiting distribution to the states. We’ve got, therefore, levels of incompetence and bureaucratic red tape here that is playing with lives. And I am urging at a personal level as a citizen for the Indian military to now be deployed because I have lost faith in the capacity of the civilian institutions and mechanisms to be able to do this at the pace at which it needs to be done.

SREENIVASAN: What’s the government’s response right now to the criticism that they’re facing? I mean, we had a representative on the program that was talking about how, you know, this could have been much better if the west had let go some of its vaccine patents or opened up some of those intellectual property laws. I mean, is that defraying the responsibility?

DUTT: I mean, I think there always be time for a philosophical conversation on patents and technology sharing. And sure, even personally, I wish that the U.S. would part with its vaccines before thinking of vaccinating teenagers, which I think Pfizer and Moderna are now getting approvals to do. But you know what, I understand that every country has to first look after its own interests. And my question to my government would be, you’ve now told Pfizer, come in, bring your vaccines. You’re now taking Pfizer’s vaccines. Two months ago, you weren’t ready. Two months ago, you weren’t ready to take Sputnik. Now, you’re taking Sputnik. Two months ago, India’s financial capital, Mumbai and the State of Maharashtra wanted permission to do door to door vaccines and you had so centralized the vaccine roll out that you didn’t even give them that permission.
You did not give India’s worst affected state the permission to do door to door vaccines. Two months ago, you could have just ordered in the vaccines and, you know, cleared the same files that you’ve had to do now in the face of a calamity, you didn’t do it. It’s on us. There is no point blaming the world. The world — we do need the world’s help, but it’s not the world’s fault we are here.

SREENIVASAN: Barkha Dutt, thanks so much for your story and thanks for joining us.

DUTT: Thanks for having me, Hari. Thank you.

About This Episode EXPAND

Christiane speaks with South African Foreign Minister Nalendi Pandor about what’s ahead in Africa’s fight against COVID. Kara Swisher discusses the upholding of President Trump’s ban from Facebook. Cindy McCain remembers her late husband in a new book, “Stronger: Courage, Hope & Humor in My Life with John McCain.” Barkha Dutt talks India’s systemic failure in dealing with the pandemic.