Not long ago, the BJP was exulting about the low COVID figures in Bengaluru. On June 20, the Centre asked all states to follow the Karnataka model. Fortunately, the other states did not take the advice seriously. For today, the situation is spinning out of control and the so-called Karnataka model is in a shambles.
The Central Government has been keen to hold aloft a state ruled by the BJP, to counter the widespread praise received by its ideological rival in Left Front-ruled Kerala which, until now, seemed to have had the COVID pandemic firmly under control. But the numbers are creeping up in Kerala as well, but that is another story.
When Mumbai, Delhi and Chennai were reeling under the coronavirus-induced pandemic, Bengaluru was sitting pretty. By June 20, for instance, the city had recorded merely 1,076 positive cases, while Mumbai was at 65,329, Chennai at 39,641, and Delhi at 56,746.
Friends and colleagues from other parts of the country phoned in Bengalureans asking what was it that the administration was doing right that had resulted in such low numbers in the city.
At that point, despite living in Bengaluru, residents were nonplussed as there was nothing extraordinary that the government was doing to control the numbers.
If at all, there was confusion within the government. Chief Minister B S Yeddyurappa changed one minister after the other to tackle the pandemic. He juggled Health Minister Sriramulu, Deputy Chief Minister Ashwathnarayan, Minister for Medical Education K Sudhakar , Education Minister Suresh Kumar and Revenue Minister K Ashoka in what appeared to be a desperate attempt to manage the pandemic.
There appeared to be ego issues among the ministers with one contradicting the other and heartburn that a chosen colleague was hogging all the limelight. The chief minister responded by replacing one minister after the other. At the time the ad hoc decisions of the government didn’t seem to have an immediate impact. Everyone was relieved that there was no spike, like in the other cities.
The city’s and, by extension, the state’s comfortable situation continued until the end of June, when the city exploded with COVID clusters reported from several wards across the city. On July 9, Bengaluru touched 3,181 containment zones, beating Mumbai’s 750. At the moment, all the city’s 198 wards have COVID positive cases with active containment zones in the range of 6,000. The false ceiling of security and comfort has collapsed and all the mistakes committed earlier has come home to roost.
The local media has been replete with stories of mismanagement, confusion and tragic stories of COVID patients who have died in the absence of quick transportation and testing. A patient who was denied admission in 18 hospitals died by the time he got admitted into the 19th, a few died waiting for ambulances and some were not allowed into ambulances as they did not have COVID positive certificates from the Bengaluru corporation.
To top it, reports quoting officials said there had been a statistical mismatch that resulted in low numbers to begin with. In the process of sorting it out, the numbers spiked.
Mismanagement alone is not to be blamed. Opposition leaders, backed by documentation, have accused government functionaries of inflating cost of COVID-related equipment including PPEs in the process siphoning off huge amounts of money.
For the BJP government, which was in the process of holding aloft Bengaluru as a model city and Karnataka as the model state, the reality is benumbing. Yediyurappa, who basked in the transient glory of success initially, in a bid to ease tensions among his ministers has divided the pandemic control activity into at least three different areas of work – each headed by a minister. This does not seem to have made much of a difference.
The numbers are continuing to rise. As on date, the number of cases in Karnataka has crossed 55,000, of which around 50 percent is in Bengaluru.
The state government which had consistently said there would be no lockdown, took businesses by surprise and announced a short lockdown, from July 14 to 22. It is not clear what purpose has been achieved by scheduling a short lockdown, but it is clear that the state government buckled under pressure from a section within the administration that wanted it.
However, the anti-shutdown group too is powerful – one reason why the chief minister announced that the shutdown would not be extended. This is a typical example of an outcome caused by confusion within the government.
The number of cases in Bengaluru, meanwhile is ballooning forcing the chief minister to appoint one minister to each zone of the city for COVID work. Indicating the extent to which rivalry exists within the council of ministers, Housing Minister V Somanna who was put in charge of the east zone, which includes the IT corridor, was quoted as saying his colleagues V Ashoka and Ashwathanarayan had got better zones (south and west) to deal with as they are “intelligent”.
Amidst this, the chief minister on Friday announced the abrupt transfer of Corporation Commissioner (BBMP) of Bengaluru city B H Anil Kumar out of his job of managing the COVID situation. He was replaced by fellow IAS officer N. Manjunath Prasad.
The transfer of the Commissioner is the latest example of a constant merry go-round of ministers and officials even while there is no sign of the COVID pandemic subsiding. Basic responses to the pandemic, like testing with speed and efficacy, have left much to be desired. It takes on an average at least two days for test results of an individual to be made known. In the time until the positive report comes out, an individual is not allowed entry into COVID-centric hospitals making it traumatic for many.
Or, take for that matter, the security for healthcare workers including ambulance drivers. Many of them have reportedly turned positive in the absence of appropriate protective gear. Worse, they have not been treated well by the government and many of them have resigned their jobs in disgust.
At the level of micro-management, such issues abound. Shifting officials on top or shuffling ministers has made no difference down the line. The local administration’s response to the pandemic reflects the overall quality of governance in the city and the state.
In a city notorious for its potholes, delayed and half-done projects and atrophying infrastructure, something like the COVID pandemic has exposed legacy shortcomings that no government has ever attempted or managed to correct.
As for Bengalureans and people in the rest of the state, long used to putting up with minimal services, they can only hope that the pandemic dies down without doing much damage. Or, as Health minister Sriramulu sardonically put it “God alone can save us”.