When the country was heading into the pandemic, the ruling party was busy toppling an elected government in Madhya Pradesh, a state that's fast turning into a coronavirus hotspot.
On March 23, two days after India's Prime Minister Narendra Modi's call to observe Janata Curfew (a voluntary nationwide lockdown), a large congregation of legislators affiliated with Modi's Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) assembled in the central Indian state of Madhya Pradesh.
At the state Governor Lal Ji Tandon's official residence, they participated in a swearing-in ceremony for a new government led by lifelong BJP leader Shiv Raj Singh Chauhan. The event attracted widespread criticism, with many calling it a sneaky "coup" orchestrated by the BJP against an elected government of the opposition Congress party at a time when the country was heading into the coronavirus pandemic.
At the swearing-in ceremony, Sitaram Adivasi, the BJP legislator from Vijaypur constituency was found coughing and consumed by fever.
Prior to Chauhan taking an oath as the state's chief minister, the BJP was ferrying the elected legislators from one state to another to ensure their loyalties were not bought by the opposing side. Adivasi was also flown here and there along with the stable of legislators. He was first taken to Gurugram and then to the neighbouring city New Delhi, India's capital, where he met several government officials, journalists and several office bearers of the BJP. About 12 days later, he flew to Madhya Pradesh and joined the swearing-in ceremony on March 23.
Is he or is he not?
Adivasi told TRT World that he had become ill sometime in mid March when the party sent him out of the state along with other legislators.
"It was a dry cough and breathing difficulties. But I made sure that I was there with other MLAs at the government formation event. After I came back home to Sheopur, the illness escalated and I went to the district hospital. They kept me in quarantine for some time, and I recovered after seven-eight days. Now I am all fine," Adivasi said, adding that doctors told him he had contracted coronavirus.
Chief Health Medical Officer of Sheopur district DR AR Karoria refused to share Adivasi’s medical report with TRT World, saying the legislator was struggling with the normal flu.
A day after the BJP formed a government in Madhya Pradesh state, India's Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced a nationwide 21-day lockdown through a live video message and made a passionate appeal to fellow Indians that social distancing in times of the coronavirus pandemic was a must, although his own party members were brazenly violating it.
Three weeks later, Madhya Pradesh became one of the coronavirus hotspots. At the time of writing this article, the state had 1,301 positive cases, with its main city Indore recording 800 cases alone.
There are only 17,656 coronavirus positive cases in a country of 1.3 billion people, which makes Madhya Pradesh an intense hotspot.
Among the infected lot in the state there are four high-ranking bureaucrats, 40 policemen and 89 health officials on duty. Dr Pallavi Jain Goel, who's the top government official in the state's health services, has also tested positive.
According to residents, the entire state of Madhya Pradesh became dysfunctional after Modi's BJP began the process of toppling the Congress government from early March onward.
"The entire state was paralyzed as speculations of government change became rife. The entire state apparatus came to a halt," Dr Anand Rai, the whistleblower of India's multibillion-dollar scam Vyapam, told TRT World.
Rai, a resident of Madhya Pradesh said the government officials who should have focused on preparing health infrastructure to deal with the first wave of the novel coronavirus were instead found consumed by the thought of who would form the new government.
"The government medical colleges have PSM (Preventive Social Medicines Departments). The PSMs are informed about the status of all diseases based on their categorization as epidemic, endemic or pandemic. As soon as the World Health Organization issued warnings, these departments should have come to know of them and informed the administration. But the political environment during the process of erstwhile government being toppled down was so charged up that entire state machinery and officers were concerned about their future, the press cornered reporting around corona and solely focused on political developments. With the rebellion brewing up within the erstwhile government, coordination between departments were lost. Hospitals remained unequipped. Essential facilities like quarantining began only in early April. By then it was too late, and coronavirus had spread like wildfire here," Rai explained.
A study published by Indian Institute of Management (IIM), Indore, predicts the number of Covid-19 positives are likely to hit the 50,000 mark in Madhya Pradesh by the end of May. The study was done under the supervision of Sayantan Banarjee, one of India's reputed professors who teaches at the IIM.
The state chief minister, Shivraj Singh Chauhan, has been working without a cabinet and he can barely rely on his health secretary who's been sick with the coronavirus.
According to a senior official in the government, who spoke to TRT World on the condition of anonymity, the political wrangling causing chaos in bureaucracy fuelled the spread of coronavirus in the state.
The government wasn't quick enough to quarantine people with foreign travel histories.
"There were almost 4,400 people in Indore who had a foreign travel history, even though we had thermal screeners at the airport, but they didn't detect the coronavirus. People somehow believed that if they had passed the thermal screening at the airport, they were coronavirus free," the official said.
"The political situation in the state was very volatile then. It is common knowledge that change of government brings in a lot of changes to the bureaucracy too. Everyone was busy anticipating a political change and the attention shifted from coronavirus. More so people did not share their travel histories and that of their family members, the principal health secretary of the state is one among them."
The official far-right organisations such as the ruling BJP's ideological mentor the RSS are working overtime to project Covid-19 as a Muslim disease.
"This adds to the vulnerabilities of people. They tend to believe this false information and hence do not take enough precaution thinking of it as a Muslim problem," the officer explained.
When contacted, BJP spokesperson for Madhya Pradesh, Rajneesh Agarwal rebuffed allegations of negligence. He said that the entire responsibility of this pandemic in Madhya Pradesh rests upon the toppled Congress government.
"Our government came to power on March 23, before that central government had already issued advisories to state governments based on WHO recommendations, what was the Congress government doing then that it is blaming us today?" Agarwal said, questioning the opposition Congress party.
Aside from the political turmoil, the state's poor healthcare facilities are another reason it became vulnerable to Covid-19.
Speaking to the families of coronavirus victims, TRT World learned that many of the infected patients were initially treated in general wards since government-run hospitals were caught by surprise and had no quarantine facilities put in place.
One case TRT World came across was of a Muslim man from Indore city. Saleem Khan (name changed, as his family fears state or mob reprisals) developed pneumonia-like symptoms in the last week of March. When he was taken to state-run Maharaja Yashwant Rao hospital, he was kept in a general ward along with several other patients. A few days later on March 29, Saleem succumbed to the illness. The doctors did not screen him for coronavirus.
Saleem's case might be the tip of the iceberg, as the prevailing notion among the residents of the state is that it is becoming the “Wuhan of India.”