Rayomand Coins

Covid clouds

When the Covid epidemic first broke out in March 2020, the community’s efforts were directed at coping with the ill-conceived, knee-jerk, national lockdown declared with a mere four hours’ notice by the Central Government. Aside from leaving millions jobless, penniless and without shelter, there was the problem of procuring food, tending to the elderly who were denied domestic help (unless they could afford live-ins), coping with electrical, plumbing and appliance breakdowns, accessing medical assistance, and so on.

The government stated they ordered the abrupt lockdown to stop the spread of the virus and to give a breather for medical facilities to be shored up, preparations to be made, ventilators to be procured... But now with the second phase of the pandemic wreaking havoc, we find ourselves unprepared. Desperate phone calls remain unanswered, patients unable to find a hospital bed die in ambulances or return home and expire. The refuge for Parsis, The B. D. Petit Parsee General Hospital (PGH), is filled to capacity. In an email dated April 7, 2021 the Hospital’s chief executive officer Dr (Lt Gen) M. Ganguly (Retd) informed Parsiana, "All our 80 Covid beds, including all our Covid ICU (intensive care units) beds are full." Those Parsis seeking hospitalization for illnesses other than Covid that require advanced diagnostic equipment which PGH does not have need to run from pillar to post sourcing beds elsewhere.

Covid swab test reports are given after four days due to the unprecedented demand and inadequate facilities. Oxygen is in short supply with one case reported of a ward boy allegedly switching off the oxygen to one patient who then died and wheeling the oxygen apparatus to another patient. Vaccination centers have run out of vaccines; drugs to counter the virus are in short supply. Even crematoria and burial grounds in various parts of the country are unable to cope with the rush of bodies. The number of Parsi Covid deaths reported from the Worli Prayer Hall crematorium and elsewhere in Bombay was around 25 for March and part of April. By law, Covid corpses have to be cremated or buried. Parsiana does not have statistics from other crematoria in Bombay, nor all cities and towns, but the number of deaths appear to be higher than usual. Since the pandemic started Surat has reported to have 50 plus Covid deaths.

The largest vaccine manufacturer in the world by volume is pleading with the US President Joe Biden to permit export of raw materials required to ramp up production of the vaccine. In a Tweet that was widely reprinted on the front pages of national newspapers and elsewhere, Serum Institute of India (SII) chief executive officer Adar Poonawalla stated, "If we are to truly unite in beating this virus, on behalf of the vaccine industry outside the US, I humbly request you to lift the embargo." Adar told The Indian Express (April 17), "We are hoping that the Biden administration takes a more global perspective than the previous administration which was looking at only America and America first."

India is also following a similar inward looking policy. A headline on the export ban on NDTV.com read, "Curbs by India, world’s biggest vaccine export(er), to hit poorest nations." A headline in The New York Times (NYT) of March 25 states, "India cuts back on vaccine exports as infections surge at home." The article goes on to state, "The government of India is now holding back nearly all of the 2.4 million doses that SII…makes each day… India is drawing up its gate…holding tight to a vaccine that it didn’t develop but that is being produced in huge quantities on its soil."  NYT notes that Prime Minister Narendra Modi, "a heavy-handed nationalist, has regulatory control over how many vaccines can be exported at any given time." The piece refers to Poonawalla finding himself "in a highly uncomfortable spot. The SII has a reputational interest in keeping its word to its foreign customers and to AstraZeneca and fulfilling the contracts it has signed." In the face of such odds, Poonawalla Tweeted in February, "We are doing our best!"

But while on the one hand the government attempts to tackle the pandemic, on the other they had permitted the Kumbh Mela to be held in the sacred town of Haridwar. Here millions of devotees, mostly maskless and in close proximity to each other, gathered on the banks of the sacred River Ganges and dipped in its waters. In West Bengal hundreds of thousands attend election rallies addressed by Modi and his opponent, the feisty West Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee. Uttar Pradesh, a state with the largest population in the country is to hold gram panchayat elections that involve 32 million voters.

All this while the Bombay Parsi Punchayet (BPP) trusteeship election where probably 2,000 voters would show up was postponed by the majority trustees. A minority trustee has now suggested that the elections may be delayed to October 2022 if all the present five trustees step down together. But that would require two whose terms extend beyond that time to prematurely give up office. The two owe their loyalty to a former BPP chairman who calls the shots. He has to decide whether to risk it all at one go or hold on for as long as possible, albeit even as a minority. Alternatively, he may count on the lockdown continuing indefinitely and thereby hold on to his present three to two majority.

Unlike the earlier lockdown in March 2020, the present restrictions are mandated by the state government, rather than the center. More care has been exercised not to inconvenience citizens beyond what is necessary. But the economic hardships will continue and worsen. According to the Pew Research Center, 32 million Indians were driven out of the middle class into poverty last year. This year we can safely add several more million.

While the UK is opening up and China is claiming an 18.3% growth rate in the first quarter of 2021, India appears to be sinking into an abyss. Aside from the government coffers running low, our community trusts are also feeling the pinch. The BPP survives financially on a hand-to-mouth, month to month basis. Auctioning flats to be able to pay salaries is all very well, but what happens when there are no buyers? We keep reading in the community media of Parsis who own multiple flats, especially after some relative has expired or emigrated. And how will our priests and fire temples fare as the lockdown continues? Will we end up another statistic in a future Pew study? Or can our proverbial enterprise see us through?

The role anjumans and the moribund The Federation of the Parsi Zoroastrian Anjumans of India play could have made a difference. The Ontario Zoroastrian Community Foundation (OZCF) is supporting a nationwide project called "Love My Neighbour" which "exists to increase Covid vaccines delivered throughout the developing world," notes a communication dated April 18 from the Zoroastrian Society of Ontario. The OZCF has created a web page, "Zoroastrians for Love My Neighbour," and will encourage "other Zoroastrian organizations in Canada to support this worthwhile initiative." Canadian dollars 25 (Rs 1,500) will pay for a two-dose vaccine for a global neighbor.

Who eventually controls any trust or anjuman is not the critical issue. It’s what that institution strives for and achieves that counts.







Villoo Poonawalla