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Mann ki baat: WHO using pandemic as pretext to seek Emergency; will Modi speak up?

By Dr Amitav Banerjee, MD* 

Prime Minister Narendra Modi in his “Maan Ki Baat” broadcast on 18 June 2023 reportedly called the Emergency “a crime that put freedom in danger.” He went on to say that the Emergency was a dark period in India’s history. Strong words indeed, definitely worthy of praise.
Modi emphasized that India is the “mother of democracy and we consider our democratic ideals as paramount and our Constitution supreme.” He narrated how human rights were violated during the Emergency which was imposed on the country on 25 June 1975.
As a political veteran with wide experience on political issues he extensively brought out the ills of Emergency with its violation of human rights, threatening democracy.
Inspired by this episode of “Maan Ki Baat,” I thought I will also try to put on paper (I don’t have access to any radio broadcast), my “Maan Ki Baat.” While the PM is a political veteran, I am a veteran in epidemiology with field experience of almost four decades. While serving in the Indian Armed Forces, I had the opportunity to lead the Mobile Epidemic Investigation Team of the Indian Armed Forces at the prestigious Armed Forces Medical College, Pune.
During my career as a field epidemiologist I investigated epidemics in different parts of the country including tribal and remote areas and during counterinsurgency operations as well. I have investigated first hand, epidemics of respiratory diseases like pneumonia and German measles, water borne diseases such as typhoid and hepatitis, food borne diseases, and mosquito borne diseases like malaria.
Politics deals with the masses. So does epidemiology. It is the science of studying disease at population level – among the masses. Mass mobilization is common in both politics and epidemiology. In politics it may be for a cause to promote a particular ideology. In epidemiology it may be required for disease control by engaging public participation.
Emergency was a consequence of misusing politics to gain power. The reason given to make the masses accept Emergency was “internal disturbance.” Democracy was imperilled. Dissenters were jailed. Some accepted Emergency, particularly the “crony capitalists” and the cosy middle class aspiring for a “benevolent dictator.” The poor suffered – some of them compulsorily sterilized against their wishes in the infamous drive by the then PM’s son. District administration and even school principals and teachers were given targets for “nasbandi.” So were doctors.
Our honourable Prime Minister has rightly brought out that this was the dark period of Indian politics and democracy.
As a veteran epidemiologist I was similarly dismayed when in the recent pandemic I saw a similar phenomenon threatening democracy due to epidemiology being suppressed by politics and power. The prestigious British Medical Journal also expressed anguish in its editorial, “Covid-19: politicisation, “corruption,” and suppression of science.” The editorial poignantly delivers the take home message, “When good science is suppressed by the medico-political complex, people die.”
Almost two centuries ago, Rudolf Virchow, the German physician, wrote, “Politics is nothing but medicine at a larger scale.”
The pandemic of Covid-19 saw many parallels between the Indian “Emergency” of 1975-77 and the abuse of power by the authorities.
For invoking “Emergency” the bogey was “internal disturbance.” In the Covid-19 pandemic, the bogey was of a “lethal infection” which later turned out to be more or less of same virulence as most respiratory viruses or the common flu especially in the young and healthy. The infection fatality rate from epidemiological studies of the novel coronavirus up to the age of 70 years is between .03 to .04% many times lower than any of the communicable diseases endemic in developing countries such as tuberculosis, typhoid, dengue, Japanese encephalitis, and others.
The question is – whether for an infection of this magnitude of fatality was the extraordinary restrictive and draconian measures which are unprecedented in public health history justified? Just as “internal disturbance,” was a bogey call for declaring Emergency, did declaring a “Global Emergency” on the pretext of a “lethal infection” follow the same tactic?
There are other similarities with the Indian Emergency of 1975-77. Democracy was suppressed in the Emergency. Debate in Science was suppressed in this pandemic leading to suppression of democracy in scientific discourse. Political dissenters were put in jail during the Emergency. In the pandemic scientists who questioned the main WHO or CDC narrative were censored or declared fringe epidemiologists.
Science progresses by dissent and debate. Censoring and belittling scientists with opposing views brought science to a standstill during the pandemic – a time when it was needed the most. Democracy was suspended during the Emergency years; science was suppressed during the pandemic years.
Inspired by Maan Ki Baat, I thought I will also try to put out one. While the PM is a political veteran, I am a veteran in epidemiology
During the Emergency “nasbandi” or sterilization for family planning was ostensibly voluntary; however forced sterilization took place; during the pandemic vaccine mandates for an experimental vaccine were rolled out in many countries. While in our country vaccines were never mandatory, targets were set at each level and indirectly coercion was used to ensure mass vaccination.
Just as Emergency was a dark period in the political history of India, the pandemic will be remembered as a dark period in the history of public health.
Given the deep concerns the Prime Minister has shown about the Emergency years, one feels reassured that all efforts will be made by him to fight any threat to our democratic rights. We have a looming threat to our democracy far bigger than the oppressions we witnessed during the pandemic years. In fact all world democracies which are members of the WHO are endangered.
The instrument which will achieve this by a single stroke is the proposed WHO Pandemic Accord or Treaty which will transform the WHO from and advisory body to a regulatory one with extraordinary powers. Not only during a pandemic but even on perceived threat of a pandemic the WHO will assume powers which will be binding to all member countries.
There have been some misgivings expressed in the European, British and Australian parliament regarding this treaty and pandemic response. Leading the G20 nations this year one feels hopeful that the PM would invite debate at a global level on this move by the WHO, an unelected, unaccountable body to seize power by declaring an “Emergency” on pretext of a pandemic, real or imagined.
And one also feels confident that he will invite similar debate to deliberate the provisions in the treaty threadbare, among Indian parliamentarians, legal and constitutional experts, civic society and the common citizen.
Failing to set the ball rolling in this direction will hit democracy, human rights, and dissent – a sine-quo-non of democracy.
Just as posterity is not judging the perpetrators of “Emergency” kindly, it will not judge our present political leaders kindly if they fail to save democracy from the “power grab” of the WHO.
Disturbed by the pain of the “Emergency” our Prime Minister Modi had written a book on its atrocities, titled, “Sangharsh Mein Gujarat.” Dismayed by the ham handed manner the present pandemic was handled, I, as a veteran epidemiologist, too have written a book titled, “Covid-19 Pandemic A Third Eye." I would request the prime minister to read it and invite his advisers to a healthy debate on the issues discussed in the book with supporting evidence.
---
*Post doctoral in epidemiology who was a field epidemiologist for over two decades in the Indian Armed Forces. He was awarded for his work on Tribal Malaria and Viral Hepatitis E. He is currently Professor at DY Patil Medical College. Pune and an Academic. Editor at PLOS ONE

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