Nirmala Sitharaman: No country could have prepared for the severity of the second wave: Nirmala Sitharaman

Of course because the tragedy affected so many of us – in fact most of us in one way or another – we tend to think “couldn’t we have been better prepared? I grant it. But the speed with which it spread, I’m not sure any country could have been prepared at all, said Nirmala Sitharaman, Minister of Finance to Navika Kumar of Times Now. Edited excerpts:

Is this a nightmarish time for any finance minister in the world heading a ministry, keeping a close eye on the economy given that there are so many constraints in times of a pandemic?

Certainly difficult times. And as you said, globally, this is the case for every finance minister. But I thank the people of India for being so resilient and above all I thank the Prime Minister because you see him 24/7 with the dedication and commitment which is exactly what is so needed now. I think with the support of the Prime Minister and the way Indians have responded to this crisis, I draw strength.

When Prime Minister Modi came to power in 2014 after a historic election, the first time in 30 years the BJP had a majority government in the Center and for nearly five years it looked invincible. The two big factors that showed cracks in the armor were the defeat in West Bengal and the way we struggled when the second wave took hold. Many people are now looking at the BJP-led government in a new light, saying this government is no longer as invincible as before. Do you agree with them?

First of all, I have a little difficulty when you talk about invincibility and dealing with a pandemic. The second wave is something that each of us recognized and recognized for its intensity, the scale and the speed with which it took hold. I’m not sure anyone would have imagined this in its magnitude and intensity and therefore to think that you might have been prepared for it in all its implications is unfair. Of course because the tragedy affected so many of us – in fact most of us in one way or another – we tend to think “couldn’t we have been better prepared? I grant it. But as I said, the speed with which it spread, I’m not sure any country could have been prepared at all.

Therefore, I’m not trying to make excuses here, but to be fair. It is not possible to be ready for such a pandemic. And I don’t want to say “oh! We handled the first wave better and with panache,” to use the words you used. I don’t want to use them either because, yes, there was a national lockdown. The Prime Minister adopted all the means to make it understood that we have to be careful, that we all have to practice certain things, and so on. And at that time, the comfort of a vaccine was not there either.

The other thing about Bengal, which you probably called a loss. Although I don’t want to pretend that we won in a big way or anything, but it was a huge change. Bengal today, except BJP, has no other party as opposition there. And the Bengal BJP opposition has just recognized the rate at which it has grown in 2019. When the parliamentary figures are there with you by assembly, by constituency, you can always break them down and see. Today where your attendance in the previous assembly was in the single digits, today you are closer to 100.

I don’t want to say “oh! See our success. I don’t know if I’m quoting the correct year, because after 1973, it was perhaps the first time that the opposition party, any party, had this kind of figure. And until recently, the rule of Marxists and for decades the rule of Congress are both completely out of the limelight. So I don’t want you to measure invincibility based on what happened in Bengal.

Why not?

We were not then the party in power.

The BJP announced the number of more than 200 seats in an assembly of 294, but won three assembly seats in the 2016 elections. Why did the BJP expect more than 200 seats? Second, do the people of India feel that while there was a pandemic, the government’s attention was divided towards political equations and political gains?

It’s not fair, because the party’s focus was certainly on election-related states, it’s no secret. The protesters were all there. Well, that’s another story that the Congress Party today doesn’t believe in taking a campaign seriously. So maybe they weren’t as much as we were and no wonder they were completely wiped out of Bengal as well. So if the party takes it seriously and gives it full attention, that’s quite natural. The government’s attention to looking after people, to providing oxygen, to making sure drugs are available was undiminished. There was no discrepancy between the focus of government, at least that of labor government, and that of governing, especially during a pandemic. It’s quite clear.

But when the second wave arrived at the end of April, we saw shortages of all kinds of medicine, hospital beds, oxygen and intensive care beds. If the unity government took care of governance and had its eye on the ball, why did we suffer so much at the start of the second wave?

I completely agree and that’s why I said that dealing with a pandemic of this intensity, especially the intensity that showed up in the second wave, is something that I don’t think anyone has predicted. I agree with the examples of drugs you are talking about, shortages, and so on. In fact, production on one even stopped thinking it might not be needed in 2020, but it was later revived. And the second wave treatment protocol in all its slightly varying shades was also changing as it went along. You will recognize the phasing out of plasma use. I’m just taking plasma as an example.

The crown treatment protocol itself has been dynamic and I am glad that the medical fraternity, scientists, doctors have also coped with this changing protocol. Therefore, the production protocol of these drugs that need to be expedited and even the supply was happening simultaneously. Even though it happens simultaneously, it is obviously with a lag and it is the lag that hits the people who so desperately wanted the drugs.

There is no gain in saying this now: Remdesivir is not something you can do over the counter, or even on a prescription by buying and administering it yourself. It was only intended for hospitalized patients and only a physician treating that patient should determine what time it should be used. You couldn’t do it for yourself or in a hospital, you could give it away anytime saying I don’t want to suffer the severity of it. The doctor was the best person to choose the time at which it should be administered, neither earlier nor later.

I’m not blaming anyone here because when we’re all in pain and feeling like “I better be armed with everything I can” the distribution of Remdesivir was from stadiums, from public wedding halls . I used the term wedding hall as a community hall, things like that. So could you stop it? Would it be right to stop him? Would you say “no-no please don’t do that, only if you’re admitted to a hospital the doctor will give it to you and there I’ll supply it”, well I can’t. Obviously, we were living the moment as it presented itself and these developments were stuck in front of us.

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