To question or not to question. That is literally the question that the media, and citizens, face in India.
In a democracy, the media is expected not just to speak truth to power, but also to question those in power. In the India of 2021, the bulk of the media does neither. And yet, for the moment at least, we are still considered the largest democracy in the world.
As for citizens who do either or both, speak the truth and question, there is hell to pay. This is evident in the number of students, activists and intellectuals who have been arrested and remain incarcerated without facing a trial in the last few years.
The Modi government has made it clear for some time that it does not like to be questioned. It bears repeating that from May 2019, when the Bharatiya Janata Party came to power at the Centre till today, the prime minister has not held a single press conference. No questions. The media must listen, and regurgitate. And much of it does just that.
Over time, the government and the BJP have successfully sold the line that they are coterminous with "the nation". Therefore, to question them is "anti-national".
Why only question, today you are not even allowed to make a joke about politics or politicians. Stand-up comics have been targeted as never before by various state governments, mostly run by the BJP. The latest is in Indore on January 1.
Barely have we entered 2021 – leaving behind a year many would like to forget but which will remain embedded in our memories and consciousness for a long while – and we have been reminded again that the government and supporters of the BJP will not accept questions, or jokes.
While Faruqui's arrest on the very first day of 2021 reminded us that having a sense of humour is not appreciated in much of India, the right to question government actions and policies has also come into focus.
The issue at hand is the advent of a vaccine to protect people from the coronavirus. The world over, there is a mixture of apprehension, and relief, at the prospect of vaccines halting the continuing spread of the virus and its recently discovered variants.
Yet, the process of certifying the safety and the efficacy of the vaccines is central to ensuring that people are willing to get vaccinated. Here both the government and the media play a role.
In India, the process of granting approval to two vaccines that are expected to be rolled out soon has raised several important and relevant questions. The vaccines being considered are Covishield, a variant of the Oxford AstraZeneca vaccine already approved for use in the UK, which is being produced by the Pune-based Serum Institute of India. The other is Covaxin, a product of Hyderabad-based Bharat Biotech.
Controversy has arisen around the way in which an expert panel of the Drugs Controller General of India decided to give its approval for emergency use of Covaxin on January 2. This was within a day of the same group having asked for more data as the vaccine was still going through Stage 3 human trials considered essential before clearance, as by Arunabh Saikia in Scroll points out.
A range of epidemiologists and experts have raised doubts about the process, as in her story. Such doubts have been widely reported in the media, mostly print and digital. The issues appear technical. But when explained simply, as the well-known vaccine expert does in this long interview with Karan Thapar in the Wire, it is clear that the principal demand is for transparency from the government.
Dr Kang sums up the basic issue when she says: "Well, I think all of our governmental authorities should be more available to answer questions, because the concerns that people have are really important. And, I’ve said this before, the more open and transparent we are with why we make decisions the way we make them – if we seek to address questions, even if they sound obvious or silly, that makes all the difference in having people trust the interventions that we are offering. That applies, you know, I think, to masks as much as it does to vaccines. So, the more openness, the more transparency, the more answering of questions, the better."
Not only has the process of giving approvals to the two vaccines for emergency use been opaque, but what should also worry us is the accompaniment of celebratory political statements that followed the announcement by the DGCI. The prime minister and members of the governing party lauded the "made-in-India'' vaccines, reflecting this government's policy of self-reliance or atmanirbharta. But here we are talking about a medical intervention. The crucial issue here is safety and efficacy, and not whether it is "home-grown" or imported.
Inevitably, those casting doubts, particularly on the conditional clearance given to Covaxin, are being labelled "anti-national". A minister in Madhya Pradesh even suggested that anyone expressing doubts must be a part of the "tukde-tukde gang". This is an all too familiar narrative. When you don't want to address uncomfortable questions, cast aspersions on the questioner.
There are other issues too relating to vaccines, namely informed consent during the trials. This is an old story that tends to repeat itself in a country where many people are not aware of their rights if they volunteer for clinical trials. In the current case, stories have appeared in and NDTV about people living near the now-closed Union Carbide factory in Bhopal, who have been part of the trials without fully comprehending the nature of the trial.
In the polarised times in which we live, it is unfortunate, and dangerous, for the people in power to actively discourage fair and reasonable enquiry into its actions and its motives. The majority of the media is pliant, and only a few continue to believe that these questions need to be asked.
This government equates trust with obedience. Yet real trust in the government, or institutions, is built when there is transparency. And that is one attribute that has been sorely missing in the last six years. The approval process for the vaccines is yet another illustration of this.
The tragedy is that in the context of the health emergency we face, trust and transparency are actually central to dealing with the crisis. In the past, there have been instances where citizens have distrusted the government's motives because of its actions.
Take, for instance, the manner in which compulsory sterilisation was implemented during the Emergency (1975-77). The government's health machinery was diverted to forcibly rounding up men, as well as women, most of them poor and unlettered, to undergo forcible sterilisation. There was no question of consent. Or even follow-up.
The distrust this generated in the government's health machinery had long-term consequences. When the government changed and genuinely wanted to provide basic health care in these areas, poor people ran in the opposite direction when they saw a government health van.
Vaccinations are generally not distrusted in India and getting children vaccinated is a long-established norm. Yet, according to , science editor of the Hindu, a study in 121 districts in India conducted in 2018 revealed that 24 percent of children did not get vaccinated because their parents feared adverse effects.
The developments in this last week that arose from the last-minute reversal in the approval policy, and some of the statements by the vaccine producers, have done little to instil confidence in the public about the Covid-19 vaccines.
The one positive fallout is that the media did ask questions, instead of routinely repeating the celebratory rhetoric of politicians and policymakers.
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