An audio clip that has gone viral on social media has driven the Naveen Patnaik government into a tizzy. The 9.36 minute long clip is a conversation between two friends in which one of them, who had just returned home after being treated and 'cured' of Corona at a Covid hospital, is heard narrating his experience during his stay at the hospital. What he says in the audio lays bare the gross mismanagement of the pandemic and makes mincemeat of the state government’s tall claims about the way it is fighting the menace.
Peeved at being put in the dock, the Bhubaneswar Municipal Corporation (BMC) moved with unusual alacrity and served a notice to the Number 1 Odia news channel, OTV, the Naveen Patnaik government’s constant bugbear and also its favourite whipping boy. OTV’s crime? It had uploaded the clip, which had already gone viral, on its social media platform and sought a response from the BMC on the veracity of the claims made in it, on August 6. As if on cue, the Bhubaneswar-Cuttack Twin City police commissioner followed up by lodging an FIR against the channel for what it called spreading ‘false and misleading’ information about the Covid pandemic with ‘mala fide and mischievous’ intention. Next, it whisked away the two persons in the conversation on Sunday midnight, interrogated them all night at an undisclosed location before registering a case against them under Sec (B), 120 B of IPC, together with Sec 3 of the Epidemic Diseases Act and Sec 452 of the Disaster Management Act, arresting them and taking them on a three-day remand after producing them in court on Monday. True to form, the police went after OTV even before it verified the authenticity of the clip or identified its source.
But why should an innocuous private conversation between two friends get the whole establishment so worked up? The answer lies in what is said in the clip, which corroborates numerous reports from the ground about the utter mismanagement of the pandemic by the authorities, the whimsical and lackadaisical way the patients are admitted, treated – and more importantly - released at Covid hospitals. The vast majority of those who have come out of Covid hospitals after being ‘cured’ of the dreaded disease say precisely what is said in the clip: that patients are picked up on whim, kept in Covid hospitals for a few days – sometimes as little as three, four days – before being released without any further tests on them to make sure they test negative. This is happening when the guidelines require two negative tests within a span of 24 hours before someone is released. Inter alia, the clip also insinuates that the Corona positive numbers are being deliberately jacked up by an unholy nexus of officials and hospital authorities to siphon off money earmarked by the state government for the treatment of Covid patients.
But these are not wild allegations flying in the air. Speaking to Outlook on condition of anonymity, an officer in the Khurda collectorate’s office admitted that those in charge of managing the Covid pandemic are ‘under pressure’ from higher ups to send ‘as many people as possible’ to the stand alone Covid hospitals set up by the Odisha government, in collaboration with private hospitals, since the hospitals are ‘falling short of numbers’. Several people Outlook spoke to said that people are being forcefully shifted to Covid hospitals even though the government has allowed those with no or mild symptoms to stay in home isolation.
While these matters are being discussed openly and animatedly in private conversations, what the audio clip has done is to ‘spill the beans’ as it were in public, putting a government, which has constantly patted itself on the back and positioned itself as a ‘role model’ in fighting the Corona virus, in the dock. The viral audio has made the government suspect in the eyes of the public. No wonder the Naveen Patnaik dispensation is mighty upset at someone daring to call its bluff and sullying the honky dory picture it has sought to paint about the ‘effective and exemplary’ way it has supposedly fought the Covid pandemic.
Legal experts say the cases against both OTV and the two persons in the audio conversation don’t have legs to stand on. But as numerous instances in the past have proved, the Naveen government has never really been bothered about legal niceties once it has made up its mind to teach someone ‘a lesson’. Not even when sage legal counsel has warned about the possibility of the government ending up with egg on its face in the court.
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