Nero played fiddle when Rome burned. And I read a book about Covid 19 when the city I live is burning. Brahmapuram is meant to be a waste processing plant that serves Kochi city, the financial capital of the Indian state of Kerala in which resides around 2.5 million people, many of them migrated from other districts in search of better opportunities. Kochi has a thriving port, it is a bustling entertainment hub with many popular movie stars living there, a transit point, a tourism destination and a huge business center.
Every big city emits immense amount of waste- plastic, organic and chemical and electronic. It is the duty of the governing body to decide what to do with it, without affecting its citizen's healthy life. Waste management is an important function that decide the livability of a city. We know of several pandemic outbreaks in past when plague and cholera claimed thousands of lives due to pure sanitation. But today, situation is more critical as plastic constitutes a majority of modern waste materials. A well performing government segregate waste and process it- by recycling, incinerating or converting waste to useful byproducts. We have heard stories of Ammonia separated from waste being used in fertilisers.
Kochi too had a plan for a waste treatment plant at Brahmapuram, a village in the outskirts of the city. In 2008, a plant was inaugurated that became dysfunctional within years of commencement. No attempts were made to make it operational. Brahmapuram remained a waste dumping yard. It initially covered 37 acres and now has expanded to 110 acres. Along with Kochi corporation, several other nearby Municipalities and Panchayats the place for waste dumping.
An estimated 400 tonnes of waste used to be daily deposited here, out of which around 35% is non- biodegradable. Mayhem broke loose when an uncontrollable fire was set ablaze on March 2nd 2023. After two weeks, today it is officially announced that the fire is put out. Till this time Kochi and many adjoining places was immersed in fumes, which included carcinogenic toxic plastic exhaust. Health experts cautions that bad effects of inhaling the smoke can even transfer through generations. In one word, the fire is catastrophic.
Now we will discuss the book that I read. It is titled Covid 19: The Greatest Cover-Up in History by Dylon Howard & Dominic Utton. It tries to chronicle the first 6 months of Covid 19 epidemic- from January 2020 to June 2020. More specifically it criticise the response of the governments of China, Italy, UK, US and Brazil in dealing with the pandemic and screwing things up for their citizens, resulting in loss of lives.
The book predictably starts at Chinese city of Wuhan, the ground zero of the epidemic. The initial detection of a novel SARS virus from the results if two flu patients by Dr Ai Fen and the later cautionary messages by Dr Li to his closed group of friends starts a first wave of frenzy in medical circles. Local government took swift action. Not to contain the disease, but to sweep the rumors under the rug and to quell any more spread by censoring. Details about the virus and its potential to rapidly spread were not initially shared to the outside world and at least 5 million travellers were allowed to move from Wuhan domestically and internationally without screening. This set the stage for a global catastrophe that resulted in loss of precious lives and severe economic setback of several countries and firms.
Even on the later stage of pandemic, China was busy trying to prove the virus didn't originate locally. The unusually low reporting of confirmed cases and fatalities further accentuated the suspicion on China's game plans. The book goes on to describe how different nations, refusing to learn from the Chinese debacle, continued repeating same mistakes. WHO, an organization formed to promote global health and which was successful in past with smallpox eradication, failed to warn the nations in a timely manner and to establish and enforce a proper unified procedure to deal with Covid.
Though Italy acted swiftly when they diagnosed their Patient One, supposedly by then Covid had already spread widely. The government tried to maintain normalcy without enforcing lockdowns in southern Italy. Before they decided for a total lockdown, news was leaked and there were mass movement of citizens within the country. This led to even wider spread of the pandemic in Italy. UK believed in acquiring herd immunity for its citizens and decision for a country-wide lockdown came when the issue was already out of hand. Several ill-timed, ambiguous decisions made the public vary of the government approach against Covid. Low stock of PPE, infection among health workers and over-saturation of hospital space further weakened the country.
In US, the President didn't wanted to create a panic and pull the economy down. Facing an election in 2020, he tried to downplay the danger and caused severe breakdown of hospital systems. Economy inevitably nosedived and eventually US suffered the most casualties due to Covid in the whole world. Brazil, which had the luxury of time to face the crisis also failed spectacularly in taking the virus due to adopting of the same policies that failed in other countries.
Reading this book at this instant gave me an opportunity to relate the responses of these governments in parallel to the reaction of my local and state governments to the respective crises. In these two weeks of crisis, Chief Minister of the state has not made any comments on the issue. Incidentally he tweeted a congratulatory message to Xi Jinping, who also took care not to appear on public during the initial days of Covid in China. But once the pandemic was within control, he blamed the local government for all shortcomings and punished them. Our CM, instead of assuming responsibility, is quiet on the issue and has made a scape goat of our district collector. She, who was busy with the relief work and who had already in past issued strict orders to Corporation was immediately transferred from the spot.
The common thread that binds the tragedy of Covid pandemic disaster is its continuous downplaying by the elected leaders by terming it as a common flu. They vehemently denied its effect on the masses and predicted the issue to be over soon. In Brahmapuram too there is an attempt to assure the public that it is just a common fire and there won't be any big effect on the population. A Minister was quick to claim that Air Quality Index of Kochi was still less than Delhi and people from Delhi should come to Kochi to get fresh air. He very conveniently ignores that the fumes in Kochi is carcinogenic and it comes from direct burning of plastic. He never mentions that the emission of these chemicals happened in a short time and in a big scale in Kochi and we are unsure what are the long term health consequences.
On Covid times, leaders of many countries were reluctant to take immediate steps because of the fear of public panic that may result. But ultimate result was heavy loss of lives. In Kochi, it was suggested during an expert level meeting that the people who may be affected by the fire needed to be evacuated, but Government interfered and decided not to, so that there won't be panic among public and a subsequent ill will against the government. The schools of the district were given off, but public exams were not shifted. The whole city worked as usual, only a warning to use mask while venturing out was issued by the government to the residents and it is not implemented anywhere.
Several theories about the origin of the Covid virus is floated, but most of them bordered on absurdity. It was confirmed that it originated in Wuhan, but there were conflicting narratives. Either it came from a wet market that sell wild animals or it may have resulted from a leak in the virus laboratory in Wuhan. The writer supported the theory that wet market was the originator. But some recent enquiries suggest otherwise. China is not ready to cooperate with any independent enquiries.
Origin of the Brahmapuram fire is also mired in controversy. The Government refuses to comment on the reason of a huge contract to process the garbage being allotted to the relative of a leading politician. It also tries to downplay the fact that in spite of acquiring the contract, not a single piece of waste was processed in years leading to a tremendous accumulation. There are rumors that there is a fire outbreak every year at Brahmapuram. Is this year's fire part of an attempt to incinerate some waste, which went out of hand and became a disaster? Or is it an act of sabotage as claimed by the firm that got the contract for waste processing? What about such dumps in other cities of Kerala? Are there any plans to learn from this incident and seriously address the issue of waste management? Will any of these questions get answers?
It is depressing to realise that in every catastrophies, be it pandemic, earthquake or a man made fire, the public eventually suffers. We elect our representatives with conviction that they are going to do everything that make our life healthier and better. But all citizens are left ultimately are many unanswered questions.