For many living through India’s deadly second wave of COVID-19, hearing ambulance sirens can bring a sigh of relief that help has finally arrived.
But a local government in India feels differently. Even though the northeastern state of Manipur has a critical ambulance shortage, it issued orders saying “ambulance sirens should be silenced as they are now panicking people and increasing social anxiety.”
Anxiety is high. In seven weeks, COVID-19 has taken 120,000 lives and brought India’s overburdened healthcare system to a breaking point. In Manipur, a state of 3 million people, about two people out of 100 confirmed cases have died from the virus, which is among the highest fatality rates in India.
In a memo to all medical officials, private hospitals and private ambulances, Dr K Rajo Singh, the head of Manipur's health department, said there was no need for sirens because the state was under strict lockdown to curb COVID-19 anyway and emergency vehicles don’t need to alert cars to their presence on empty streets.
The memo came days after a photo of an overworked Manipur ambulance driver, who earns less than $4 a day, went viral.
Since the pandemic began, India’s government has recorded 28 million COVID-19 infections. Reports and experts have suggested that actual number of cases is at least three times higher.
Emergency responders like ambulance workers are overburdened, especially in Manipur. And the state simply doesn’t have enough ambulances to meet demand, doctors say. For example, in the district of Churachandpur, there is one ambulance for about 300,000 people.
Imphal East, the second-most affected district in the state with a population of about 450,000, has only three ambulances. Dr Lourembam Indira Devi, the district’s chief medical officer, told VICE World News that an ambulance shortage was crippling their efforts to manage COVID-19.
“Three ambulances pick up COVID-19 positive patients as well as the dead,” she said. “The government is trying to procure more resources but the biggest challenge for us is to reach out to people living in far off locations.”
The state is spread nearly 9,000 square miles, about the size of Israel or New Jersey. Devi added that many patients were dying in home isolation. But she still thinks muting sirens will help ease anxiety in people.
But anxiety is not new to Manipur. Still celebrated as a World War II battleground, the state has an active insurgency and heavy Indian military presence.
Manipur’s attempt to mute ambulance sirens appears to be a part of an effort by Modi’s government to downplay the severity of the country’s COVID-19 crisis.
State officials have sought to control the media coverage of their management of COVID-19 in what Reporters Without Borders has said is a “systemic repression” of the news media.
Earlier this week, a journalist and an activist were arrested for making fun of a government theory that cow urine and cow dung can cure COVID-19. The belief is widely promoted by many politicians in Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s party.
Paojel Chaoba, a local journalist, told VICE World News that journalists are writing “safe” stories on COVID-19 management and steering clear of critical reports to stay out of trouble. “Some are asking critical questions such as about COVID-19 relief funds, but the state government is silent,” said Chaoba, who previously faced detention and charges under India’s draconian laws for his reporting. “As with every government and system, they don’t want to highlight their incompetencies, but push it under the carpet.”
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