Former bureaucrat’s book reveals behind-the-scenes of Covid-19 management
What is it like to run India’s Covid-19 management campaign or the flagship Swachh Bharat Mission? Former bureaucrat Parameswaran Iyer, who until August headed one of the empowered groups formed to respond to the pandemic, has revealed some behind the scenes details of the challenge in his newly-released book Method in the Madness.
Iyer was the drinking water and sanitation secretary till last year and headed the Covid group for logistics management set up in April. An Uttar Pradesh cadre officer, he resigned in 2009 from the Indian Administrative Service to work with the World Bank. Prime Minister Narendra Modi brought him back in 2016 and assigned him the role of ending open defecation.
Iyer writes in the book that there were always unexpected surprises. For instance, Iyer writes about how roping in Bollywood star Amitabh Bachchan for the Covid-19 awareness campaign had at least one hiccup. Bachchan has been the star spokesperson for the Swachch Mission, an initiative to build toilets and stop open defecation across the country, from the start. Having an iconic star as a brand ambassador was a boost for the awareness campaign but Iyer did not start off all that well. “I did manage to trip a few times when it came to engaging with him. I still cringe about his response when I recall it: he wrote that I had got the spelling of his last name wrong.’’
However, there were bigger embarrassments to deal with. During the [Covid-19] lockdown imposed on March 24, the government wanted to use a Lancet study that showed a longer shelf-life of the virus in human faeces. Iyer and his team thought they could use this to push their own messaging about the importance of using toilets instead of defecating outside. They approached Bachchan, who delivered a video message to them in just 24 hours. The government cashed in, they sent it to all channels, and also asked Bachchan to share it on his social media platforms. And then it started to go horribly wrong.
Iyer writes that he got a call from health secretary Preeti Sudan just hours after channels started carrying the message. “We hadn’t counted on the panic it would cause. Each message was followed by TV anchors exclaiming that now even flies could carry the corona virus!’’ writes Iyer. “We had gone ahead and shaken everyone with the message that now, thanks to excreta-carrying flies, they were not even safe at home. The Ministry of Health spokesperson made a categorical statement that Covid-19 was not a vector-borne disease and could not be transmitted through flies.’’
Iyer did not just have to delete all government posts related to that message but writes about making the call to Bachchan to ask him to delete it from his Twitter account too. “He did not once let on that he was upset or disappointed but simply did as I requested,’’ writes Iyer. Fortunately for the government, Bachchan did not stop making public service announcements.
HT reached out to Bachchan’s office for comments but is yet to get a response.
Iyer also worked with another Bollywood actor Akshay Kumar for the un-lockdown campaign. During the making of a public service announcement about returning to work in June, Iyer writes that he had to delete “an unparliamentary” line. Akshay’s character was supposed to scold someone wearing his mask incorrectly by saying: “Oh Sarpanchji, kachhe bhi kya aise pehente ho? Naak toh dhak lo! [Oh Sarpanch, do you also wear your underwear like this? Cover your nose please]!”
Iyer writes that Akshay Kumar called him to say: “My wife is very annoyed with you right now.’’