Free Expression Crucial to Managing Covid-19 Pandemic
The authorities have often responded to criticism of such failures with anger, and any advice with scorn.
India’s solicitor general, during the hearing of a plea to address oxygen shortages in Delhi, said in court, “Let’s try and not be a cry baby.” The health minister snubbed former prime minister Manmohan Singh for his suggestions, accusing his opposition Congress party of “spreading falsehoods.” Denying supply scarcities, the Uttar Pradesh chief minister threatened to use India’s draconian National Security Act to seize the property of anyone, including health workers, who complained. India’s foreign minister, S. Jaishankar, entered into an unseemly squabble with political opposition members over helping foreign embassies with emergency supplies.
Many have remarked on the administration’s failure in handling the pandemic, including its misplaced priorities. Even as it pledged vaccines to the world, India’s primary vaccine manufacturer is now failing to fulfill contracts. Meanwhile, the company’s owner said he had to leave India because of threats, adding that if he remarked about the triggers for the crisis, including massive election rallies and a Hindu religious event, his “head would be chopped off.”
While his concerns may be exaggerated, and he has since said he will return, the comment reflects the government’s inability to admit shortcomings, compelling people to self-censor. As the virus spreads to rural communities, this is only going to hurt those desperately in need, particularly if healthcare experts and workers fear retaliation for speaking out.
The international community should help deal with shortages and access to vaccines. It should also seek transparency and accountability for ensuring timely and equitable distribution throughout India and press the government to reverse its abusive policies, including the jailing of peaceful activists and critics.
The Supreme Court has already warned that it will treat as contempt any police action against citizens that “communicate their grievance on social media and internet.” India’s devastating Covid-19 crisis needs such a rights-respecting response.