New Delhi: Anant Tambe was just 32 years old. An Indian Revenue Service (IRS) officer, he was serving as an additional private secretary to Union Minister Prakash Javadekar.
On Monday, however, Tambe became the latest civil servant in the country to succumb to Covid-19.
With the country battling a devastating second wave, the elite civil service, long seen as the backbone of the country’s administration, hasn’t been immune to the crisis.
Just days before Tambe, on 30 April, Bihar Chief Secretary Arun Kumar Singh, a 1985-batch IAS official, died of Covid-19 complications at a hospital in Patna.
Singh isn’t the only Bihar IAS officer to pass away. On 14 April, Vijay Ranjan, a 2008-batch official of the Bihar cadre, died of Covid-19 in Patna.
In neighbouring Uttar Pradesh, Deepak Trivedi, a 1985-batch IAS officer died of Covid-19 on 29 April, a day before he was to retire.
Before him, Mahesh Nayak, a DIG-rank IPS officer of the Gujarat cadre, succumbed to Covid-19 at a hospital in Vadodara on 11 April.
The virus has afflicted all sorts of services. At least three senior officers of the Indian Information Service (IIS) — Pushpavant Sharma, Sanjay Kumar Srivastava and Manikant Thakur — have all died of Covid-19 complications in the past few weeks.
The spate of deaths of serving officials has led to a state of panic in the country’s civil service circles, with several officials anxious about their health and that of their families.
“There have been other deaths as well of junior officials. In several cases, there is no formal obituary even by the government,” said a senior central government official on the condition of anonymity. “Even now, senior officials are being called to office. These are mostly people over the age of 50-55 years, and they are getting infected.”
‘Government not keeping count, its staggered timings a joke’
Another official working in the central government complained that no database was being maintained on the number of government staff who are infected.
“Even a private company would make known how many infections there are in their office, but the government has done no such thing. The numbers may be alarming, and yet, officials are being asked to report to work,” the official said.
“The so-called staggering timings that the DoPT (Department of Personnel and Training) has come up with is a joke.”
According to DoPT instructions, all officials of the deputy secretary level and above are to attend office on a regular basis. In order to avoid overcrowding, officials have been given the following three slots in which they are to report to work — 9 am-5.30 pm, 9.30 am-6 pm and 10 am-6.30 pm.
“They have basically managed to ensure that there isn’t overcrowding for one hour in total,” the second official said.
While the DoPT spokesperson did not respond to ThePrint’s requests for a comment, an official of the department said that civil servants need to be on their toes as their work is essential and unavoidable in a crisis like this.
“We are ensuring that more manpower is being allotted to departments directly responsible for Covid management…The government is overstretched at the moment,” the official said.
Another official pointed out that the government cannot maintain a database of officials who are infected since that could affect the “national security” of the country at a time like this.
Panic, helplessness in private conversations
Civil servants privately acknowledge that they have never been so “helpless”.
An official who recently tested positive told her colleagues in a WhatsApp conversation that it took her three days to get tested, and her mother-in-law died due to Covid because she could not manage to get a bed.
“This whole image one has of officials and government servants being able to pull strings has collapsed,” said an official privy to that conversation. “We get calls from relatives for help, and it is embarrassing but we can do nothing. At this stage, we would consider ourselves lucky to get a bed in a hospital if we get infected.”
“In India, the system rarely works, only connections do. But this time around, even connections have ceased to work,” former IAS officer of the UP cadre, S.P. Singh, said. “All officers are feeling vulnerable that if tomorrow something happens to our immediate family, we won’t be able to get them treated.”
“The government has only got staff vaccinated, not their immediate families…So everyone’s scared of something happening to the spouse or child,” he added. “There is no real work from home policy. Everyone is exposed.”
Last week, former CEO of Ayushman Bharat, Indu Bhushan’s tweet, captured the inability and helplessness of even those from within the system to navigate the crisis.
“What is happening around us is soul crushing. Everyone I know has at least one COVID positive family member or has one who died of COVID,” he had tweeted. “I dread receiving calls from family or friends these days as mostly it is to seek help in finding a bed. In most cases I have failed.”
Former Doordarshan director general, Archana Datta, who lost her husband and mother to Covid-19, also took to Twitter to express her inability to get a hospital bed.
“Many people like me perhaps thought that it couldn’t happen to them! But, it did happen! My mother and husband, both, died without any treatment,” her tweet said. “We failed to have access to all top-notch Delhi hospitals we used to visit! Yes, after death, they (were) declared COVID positive.”
“The officials who have retired can say it openly, but the truth is that we are all in the same boat right now… All the informal government networks seem to have collapsed,” the third official quoted above said.
(Edited by Arun Prashanth)
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