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Divided by a virus — why the pandemic makes it look like nobody is in control in India

The pandemic debate is divided by ideology and BJP leaders are exploiting a grave crisis in political self-interest. The result of this conflict is now showing.

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Can a virus have a religion? Can a pandemic have an ideology? And can humble hydroxychloroquine have politics riding on it?

Unfortunately, the answer to all three is, yes. It underlines the toxicity of our times. It also tells us why the fight against the pandemic has been so chaotic the world over, and now, in India. What began as a firm, total lockdown that everybody participated in is now degenerating into political name-calling between the ruling party and opposition, the Centre and the states run by non-BJP parties.

More disappointingly, this also bedevils most public discourse on an issue so life-and-death that our focus should have been on dealing with it rather than employing it to pour out partisan emotions, whether of blind loyalty, deepest dislike, fear or fantasy.

The virus was given a religion early enough in our country when the initial spread was all linked to members of the Tablighi Jamaat. Even the chief minister of Gujarat, whose handling of the crisis has been among the three worst in the country, was saying until two weeks ago that the virus spread in his state as the Tablighis returned. That congregation, however, took place in mid-March. Three months is a long time in the life of a virus. Now, the official number of deaths is about 20 times more than the numbers of all cases in mid-March, and nobody remembers the Tablighis.

Of course, much other evidence emerged, especially with the Sikh pilgrims returning from Nanded in Maharashtra, that the virus didn’t love any one religion, but the practice of congregation by any religion. The virus, actually, is quite secular in its malevolence. Just that in our dishonest debate, it suited some of us to paint one religion on it.

The debate on the pandemic, from lockdowns to clinical treatments to prognoses to infection and death counts, is all divided by ideology. If you love Narendra Modi, Donald Trump or Boris Johnson, they’ve done nothing wrong. If you detest them, they are responsible for hundreds of thousands of deaths.

If you like them, you also like epidemiologists who paint the most optimistic scenarios: The pandemic will disappear by some month, from April to September. If you detest them, you believe those who predict millions dead, including in India. Mercifully, they missed their first deadline in May.

Also read: As Covid pandemic fuelled hate and violence against Muslims, Modi’s approval rating soared

For sure, the pandemic cares two hoots for ideology as long as it’s armed with this still-indestructible virus. But it has done something we couldn’t imagine: Divide epidemiologists on ideological lines. Epidemiology, we understand, is a very well-established science with a centuries-old tradition. It is now another casualty of 2020.

Much has been written about hydroxychloroquine or HCQ, the humble, old, cheap anti-malaria drug in use for almost seven decades. It is just that Trump “prescribed” it to the whole world as a game-changer (without any scientific evidence), and Narendra Modi began dispensing it. Inevitably, it became a political football.

One side jumped to hail it as God’s own pre-stocked answer for coronavirus, and the other to condemn it as not only ineffective, but also the second most dangerous thing after rat poison. All of it had zero scientific basis. As a consequence, as this Bloomberg piece
explains so succinctly, it has become the most-researched drug in recent history. It is also the most hastily researched drug, with each side looking just for the evidence to defend its politics.

So politicised has it been that even a medical journal as diligent as The Lancet fell into that trap, and published in breathless haste a study rubbishing HCQ that even an alert sub-editor on any news desk would have flagged for the dodginess and the opacity of the data it was based on.

Even diligence as elementary as a Google search of the company called Surgisphere that supplied the data would have warned them of the mine field they were walking into. Just what Melissa Davey, a reporter at The Guardian, figured in her brilliant investigation.

I like particularly an editorial The Hindu wrote on this disaster. I also wish I had written a line as good as this, but because sadly I didn’t, I quote from the paper. “Post-Covid world is a panic-driven one that has left no institution or appraisal process untouched”, and then it goes on to say, “The key lesson is that it is a mistake to assume the scientific process as one divorced from the influence of power, privilege, finance and politics”. Credit where it’s due, it was this sharp editorial that sparked the thought process for this week’s National Interest.

Also read: HCQ farce has tragic consequences as precious time studying treatments has been lost

How does all of this matter? Isn’t everything politicised, polarised and bitter these days? Why should a pandemic be spared?

The answer is a counter-question. If your country (in this case the whole world) is facing a war over the definition of an enemy, what is the justification of fighting back or the effectiveness of the weapons you will employ?

Politics never goes into a freeze, but you can put partisanship in suspended animation for a bit and leave it to the specialists and soldiers. Mocking them isn’t going to help, as we notice with the senior members of the Covid Task Force who brief the media in the afternoons in New Delhi.

Surely, they give us much less information than we need or deserve. I have complained about it too. But constantly ridiculing them, especially on social media, isn’t helpful. Next time you see them on your screen, even someone as calm as Dr Balram Bhargava, the director-general of ICMR, see the deepening dark circles under his eyes. Others are no different. This same team has been running this thankless operation for more than three months now. It is a lot of stress.

We know that most — a very, very large percentage — of even those who fall quite sick will recover. That percentage can be increased if our focus is where it needs to be: Test, test early, get oxygen to people before it is too late, and find hospital beds for those who really need them. Mumbai’s data tells us (impossible to find any such data in Delhi, unfortunately), that almost 60 per cent of all fatalities take place within four days of the patient’s diagnosis. It only shows they are being found and treated too late. Even something as simple as early oxygen (not ventilators) will save more lives. We need to be demanding and working at things like that rather than using infections and fatalities to score political points.

You have to be conscious these days of the fact that subtlety is another name for suicide (for the argument, not the columnist). That lesson was again underlined to me from some responses to my National Interest the previous week on why the Modi government was failing to implement any economic reforms.

So, let me idiot-proof this before a storm breaks out that I am asking people to stop questioning the Modi government. When BJP leaders, including Modi’s number two, Amit Shah, use the pandemic to launch an assault on state governments run by opposition parties, or to topple them, they are exploiting a grave crisis in cynical political self-interest. The result of this conflict, working at cross-purposes and name-calling, is now showing. The Covid situation, at this moment, looks as though nobody is really in control.

Also read: Is it politics that is dictating India’s testing policy or medical science?


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  1. Little Sarpanch in our heads!!

    The entire COVID scenario, apart from various self proclaimed scientists, virologists, immunologists, epidemiologists has also given birth to the little Sarpanch in our heads:

    The Sarpanch who is all charged up to pass judgements.

    The Sarpanch , all geared up to act as per his/ her own convenience.

    The Sarpanch, efficiently holding virtual panchayats to gossip and ridicule.

    The Sarpanch, who stands at the helm of selfishness!!!

    This Sarpanch is no other but people like us, sitting comfortably within the confines of our own den, drawing comfortable salary and having a good financial buffer to indulge in a four course meal on an everyday basis.

    This Sarpanch, in someway or the other is reconciled to these perpetual lockdowns since his/her own comfort is not being impaired.

    This Sarpanch wants the community friends to stay locked so that Mr. CORONA does not infiltrate the community gates but at the same time the Sarpanch does not mind taking the services of people like watchmen and housekeeping…exposing them to unlimited ways of catching the Virus.

    The Sarpanch wants the banks to run, the doctors to be dutiful, the people needed to run the essentials ,to venture out and work.

    The Sarpanch basically, wants to be indoors but wants people providing them comfort to be outdoors . Afterall it’s all about the convenience of the Sarpanch.

    However, the Sarpanch doesn’t want people like small and medium entrepreneurs, the maids etc to earn their livelihood since it does not effect the Sarpanch directly.

    This Sarpanch in our heads, believes that he/she is not being touched in any way but fails to have a broader perspective…If today, a few people are not able to earn their livelihood, tomorrow this demon of livelihood scare, will reach the home of this Sarpanch.

    The economy is dynamic and it will definitely play it’s role and harm our poetic four course meal one day.

    Let people be helped in coming out of the trauma and scare .

    Let them be educated to take enough precautions and move ahead.

    Let not the Sarpanch in us, pass judgements on people who get infected. Let not the gossip and ridicule happen.

    Let the Sarpanch in us make people believe that being infected with COVID is not shameful!!! It’s not an act of immorality. People get infected despite taking precautions. Let us, for once, give up our rights to judge.

    Everything is not always hunky dory.
    Similarly ,community living is not always a bed of roses. There will be times when it will have thorns.

    We have held hands , celebrated, and laughed together in good times.
    Let the Sarpanch in us build the confidence in each other that we shall hold hands and be together and support each other in times of crisis. We shall refrain from spreading gossip, scare, paranoia and trauma.

    MR. CORONA is a viral…Can touch any of us. Let not the day come when you will have to tattle about and judge your own self.

    Make the Sarpanch in us more aware, more logical, spread the positive message of taking precautions and if our friends face a crisis let’s just provide a robust moral support.

    If the Sarpanch wishes to continue with the status quo, let me tell you, the day will not be far when there will be bulk suicides since people will starve and will be devoid of income to feed their family.

    Who will take this responsibility then? Will the Sarpanch in us be ready to face this moral burden?

    Let ” INSAANIYAT” within us come to the fore and play a more active role. A role beyond paying maids their full, half or one fourth of the salary!!! A role beyond providing extra bucks and food to your watchmen. This lazy INSAANIYAT needs a jolt…A jolt that will spread awareness and ultimately help people gaining their lost ground so that we don’t lose our ground one day…Who will give the salary to the maids then?? Who will help our social warriors like the watchmen, then???

    Let this “SARPANCH” within us take a backseat for the larger good.

    Today…people should be heavily penalized for not wearing a mask. The Cops should be taking this up more efficiently. People should be educated about the virtues of social distancing.

    The mantra…Take ALL precautions, Move ahead and assist each other in moving ahead!!!


  2. Yes, no body is control of pandemic. Nobody is in control of economy either now or earlier. Don’t we know these things from results or may be not?
    The elephant in the room here is, how do you define ” TRUTH “.

  3. Guptaji..for Indian politician everyday is a politics, irrespective of a crisis or not. So let’s not single out only one. I disagree on one point..that BJP is trying to destabilize govts. I am just wondering why at this moment when every state is failing in Corona, they will take a risk of forming govt. And face the flak, They will allow the incumbent to do so like Maharashtra and Delhi. I m sure shrewed Shah and Modi has realised this .. that’s why they allow Uddhav to get a nomination thru Legislative council route , they could hv easily push EC to not conduct election. I beleive in Rajasthan they r just testing waters using RS polls..

  4. nobody is not in control or rather should we say central government is not interested to take control… otherwise also shekar they know that it is a political mne field and you cannot come out unscathed from this.. buying time.. exhausted.. since last 4 months almost read all your articles and listened to interviews… Good job done.. if allowed to give my vote.. I will give 1st prize to print.. ahead of the wire, ndtv.. but to be fair to the Hindu.. I did not get opportunity to read them..

  5. Don’t Blame PM Modi and his government as Modiji has done his part of giving Digital Sermons and also Showering Flowers on Covid019 Warriors besides Thali Bajao, Tali Bajao and don’t forget Diya Jalao.

  6. you have correctly and fearlessly pointed out all the mistakes. The Centre, right from the beginning has been playing a double-game- hoping to get credit for an irresponsible country-wide lockdown without any notice or preparation if the virus miraculously goes away, or blame one ongregation and states not under their control for the spread when the states are at the mercy of the Centre for supplies and medical guidance.

  7. With due ignorance, may I ask what is religious in saying at that time when it happened, “the Tablighi (religious) congregation accelerated the spread of virus especially among certain sections of society”? In this statement please reflect whether the sayer or the listener is giving it a religious angle. Let us not be condescending. In this context, it is pathetic to say that “the virus has no religion” because obviously the virus also does not recognize sex, caste, language, nationalities, economic status, weight, height, beauty and also many other characteristics.
    Just asking: there is absolutely no need to be condescending.
    There is also a feeling among We the People of India, a large section of the media revel is playing the “religious card” with equal propensity as some sections of the politicians.
    If you consider what I have said is pro or anti…..may your GOD help you.

    • Question to be asked is how could they congregate on 15 th of March in Delhi pandemic was rampant throughout the world. Who was responsible to see basic public health measures are implemented and adhered to from at least February ? After all they are not the only ones who convene religious gathering.

      • Sure Srijan..
        But do not please see everything from a political angle….life is not all about politics; neither is society.
        There are two separate matters here…..
        It has been established that the cause of accelerated spread at that time and in many places is thayt religious gathering…This is the fact.
        Now who is responsible to allow the gathering at that time is another matter, albeit important. (a) Knowing that such gatherings are not allowed could they have cancelled it themselves?. (b) Also could the civic authorities / police who were possibly in the know also have prevented it.

  8. Well, Rahul Gandhi wanted more autonomy for the states. Now here you have it, everybody is dealing with Covid 19 their own ways. Please don’t blame the central government for that. Thanks.

    • you got him. this is SG for you. when central govt does one thing.. blame that. when it does the other way round….blame again. journos demand accountability from politicians, but the same is not applicable to them. unfortunate….

  9. YAWN. Incoherent gibberish. Take a break Guptaji. The pandemic has taken a severe toll on your ability to express yourself. Take rest in one of the states playing politics from the starting whistle. How about Mamta’s Bengal?

  10. i think lot of politics is going on covid , let all political parties unite and fight this diseases instead playing political game. it means they do not care for public. .and let b j p also stops politics of toppling govt, there is lot of time when this pandemic is over. reg h c q it is very old drug lancet publish that article too early without going into details, their report was on basis of very heavy dose given to patient 1600 MG, i think they were testing L D 50. IT HAS SOME SIDE EFFECT AS ALL DRUG HAVE AND DOCTORS WHO IS ADMINSTRATING HAS TO DO EVALUATION WHAT DOSE TO BE GIVEN. IF YOU PUT 5 LITER OF WATER IN ANY BODY MOUTH HE WILL HAVE REACTION AND DIE SO TO EQAUTE OVER DOSE TREATMENT AND SAY IT IS NOT SAFE IS DISASTER.

  11. Shekhar babu I want to make 2 points
    1. Politicisation of all and sundry has been a hallmark of how this govt has run the country for the last 6 years. Health is something which everybody needs. One cannot function if one is not healthy, however wealthy one might be. (Environment is another) Such things ought not to be politicised because outcomes will be suboptimal. A doctor cannot do a good job if he is forever fearful and looking behind his back. When a doctor sees Dr Kafeel Khan he doesn’t simply see a muslim, he sees a doctor victimised by the political system simply for doing his job under difficult circumstances. This approach scares away other people from taking initiative and going beyond the call of duty. When hospitals see Kejriwal penalise Sir Ganga Ram Hospital they pull back. Fear is not good for managing any health condition.
    2. Dr Antony Fauci comes from an American system where the top infectious diseases professional (Dr Fauci) could publicly correct president Trump. Dr Gangakedkar and Dr Bhargava (from ICMR) have never publicly opened their mouths when Dr Harshavardhan said on 11 Mar that Covid is not a serious problem for India or when the PM said that 21 days battle is needed for winning over Covid before lockdown 1. In India talking truth to authority which was always an onerous task seems to have grown dangerous across the 2 terms of this govt. Mr Gupta you can say much about sub-editors flagging dodgy articles, but I do not remember even senior editors flagging dodgy things like demonitisation or the voodoo economics going on right from term 1 of this govt.

    • Excellent riposte. Well said. During Emergency in 1975, the press was asked to kneel – and they crawled. What can you expect from them now? Everyone has a skeleton or two in his cupboard. Our Press is absolutely free, when we have weak government. When there is a strong one, they fall into silence. The Fourth Estate has become a Fifth wheel. a k pattabiraman, Chennai

      • really? the press is not free in India? reading ‘The Print’ (especially the GREAT (buffoon) Shivam Vij articles) is more than enough proof that media is free in India. for example, read all SG articles during Covid period. In one article he will say, by asking to do small gestures like thali bajao, Modi united India. In the next , he will say states are not provided enough freedom. When center gives freedom to states, he will say center is not in control. Essentially, his line is blame central government and Modi for everything. I am waiting to see his take on Ladak standoff…

    • Sir please write using your name. What are you trying to hide? No one will judge you for your views.

  12. The Print is up to its usual underhanded black tricks – creating uncertainty & controversy where none actually exists.
    Everyone knows who’s “in control” at The Print – Congress and China.

  13. Mr.gupta
    you are misquoting facts. nobody blamed any religion for the virus. they only blamed a particular congregation for not following the social distancing norms and subsequently for not coming forward for testing both of which were offensive. it just happened that they belonged to a particular community. media only pointed out the adamant attitude of that particular group and NOBODY EVER BLAMED the whole community for the spread.
    For once i about this misleading reference to the incident ABSOLUTELY OBNOXIOUS. Please do not misrepresent facts. normally you do not do that.

    • I don’t think you can say “nobody blamed” when many Muslim people in social media got the Corona jihadi messages.

      My own WhatsApp had lot of forwards on this. This is not a political media issue. It is a public issue.

  14. Very intelligent piece. There is an honesty tax put on by opposition in both central government as well as state governments. The people only care about absolute numbers hence there is an incentive on the governments to keep numbers artificially low. This is obviously counter productive in medium to long term.

  15. In the long-run we shall all be dead, meanwhile let’s play football. In my team Modi is the centre-forward and Amitbhai is central play-maker. There are some outstanding players like Arvindji (a deft ball passer), Mamatadi (a wing back?), Ravi Prasad (a stalwart defender), Scindia (a swift switch back), and Patra (who could be better between the goalposts?). Then there’s exceptional talent on the bench like Rahulbaba, Priyanakaben and veterans like PC and Pawarji. Let the Corona Trophy begin!

  16. They’re all passing the buck while the public is left holding the can.

    Aisi. Taisi.Democracy.

  17. Yes,Mr.Modi seems to have lost it.During early days in February-March and even April,he appeared and perhaps indicated that he is in charge and the Pandemic will be controlled and managed without serious damage to the Nation.Many were under the illusion that the Prime Minister has taken charge and matters will not go beyond safe limits.#When he started delegating responsibility to the States the situation has already deteriorated.From then onwards everything was downhill.Now the Prime Minister is relatively silent on the Pandemic even as the conditions right under his nose in the Capital is catastrophic.One would have expected the Centre to instruct the directly intervene and save Delhi from the present disastrous conditions.The Delhi Govt. is obviously finding it beyond their competence and ability.The Home Minister,Mr.Amit Shah should take control of the Delhi situation rather than addressing virtual Rallies and manipulating Rajya Sabha elections.

    • Be considerate. Give Amit Shah some time. At present he is engaged in Rajasthan. Then Maha. Then maybe Delhi.

    • Where are you living sir..looks like south India. is news not reaching there? your idea of of LG intervening is very funny. any intervention by LG will unleash a storm (political).

  18. As Birbal said almost everyone in society is a doctor. Now everyone is epidemiologist. Epidemiology by definition is different in different diseases. This is a new disease. Epidemiological knowledge will also be new. What remains same is the basic knowledge and action points which are based on the accumulated knowledge and wisdom of millennia. Epidemiology like medical science is not an exact science. Hence opinion varies. But most genuine epidemiologists opined that pandemic will run its course and we should be prepared for long haul. As for the wisdom of Hindu editorial, most people aware of functioning of human society knows this.

  19. It is an established fact that neither the Central Government nor various state governments have been successful in containing the virus. There are
    many notable failures across the parties and in this regard the virus is absolutely non-partisan and non-discriminatory. The expectations, based on irrational beliefs, that the virus would somehow vanish in one or two months have been falsified. The inescapable conclusion is that the entire political class, irrespective of party affiliations have failed the nation. Yes, growth rates pertaining to confirmed cases show a declining trend, but that is extremely tardy process to show a visible impact. Consequently, though the growth rates have marginally declined, growth per day in volume terms is rapidly expanding. Currently, it has crossed 10000 cases per day. If this trend continues total active cases would put an unbearable burden on our fragile and inadequate healthcare system. Here is some data as a food for thought: (Data in order of- week ended – confirmed cases – growth rate per day for confirmed cases- active cases- growth rate per day for active cases. Growth rates are worked out on a compounding basis):
    1. 17April – 13430- 10.38%- 11214- 9.7%
    2. 24 April- 23039- 8.01%- 17306- 6.39%
    3. 01 May- 34863- 6.9% – 24641 – 5.17%
    4. 08 May – 56351 – 7.1% – 37686 – 6.25%
    5. 15 May – 81997 – 5.5%. – 51379 – 4.52%
    6. 22 May – 118226- 5.36%- 66089 – 3.66%
    7. 29 May – 165386- 4.91% -89755 – 4.46%
    8. 05 Jun – 226713- 4.6% – 111900 – 3.2%
    9. 12 Jun – 298283 – 3.99%- 142810- 3.54%
    All numbers pertain to that day morning 7.00 a.m. on the website Worldometer. You can see a consistent declining trend in growth rates, except for the week ended 8th May. But the deceleration rate is very tardy. Resultantly, active cases continue their northward journey. In case of European countries persistent decline in active cases is witnessed and their curves are sharply sloping downwards. This gives a breather and comfort to healthcare systems as number of active cases go on declining. If we consider current growth rate of 3.5%, then as on 31st July , total number of active cases would be around 780000. ( Total confirmed cases could be around 20 lakh, but that is just a historically progressive number and not the actual burden). Needless to add that if the average growth rate goes down the number could be even lower and vice versa. Of these 20% could be presumed to be symptomatic cases – 156000. Would the country’s healthcare system able to manage this load? One thing is certain. Come what may, it would not be advisable to resort to further lockdowns.The cost benefit factor is now absolutely adverse to think of such a drastic step.

    • Pramod, My earlier “reply” has been wrongly posted by me here. My apologies.

      My question to you Pramod is, are these the only indications of the progress of the pandemic in a section of population (country, state…). I do not think so.
      State of the economy (rich Nation, poor Nation , density of population, participation of all stake holders including individuals and many more variables have to be considered. I have worked out that with the number of variables in this calculation we have to adopt regression methods for a comparison.
      So one needs to have a holistic view of what all it entails to snare a virus about which nobody in the world has ant specific idea of its behaviors ….Even the WHO with all its “experts” are floundering ……
      Look the positives and let each of us do what each of us can do…


      • Thanks for your response a Colonel. Yes, an in-depth analysis can be done with regression method. But numbers are numbers, they cannot be denied, unless there is under-reporting. These numbers tell us that our progress in dealing with pandemic is tardy, while the European countries, who also were afflicted due to onslaught of the pandemic could quickly recover and now they are in the green zone with rapidly declining active cases. For India, it is taking too long to reduce the growth rate and as the time lapses so does the absolute volume of infected patients, even with reduction in growth rates. Now, the volume has grown frighteningly large and this leads to valid apprehensions about the capability of our healthcare system to effectively deal with the issue. On the other hand the option of returning to the lockdown era is not available, as it would fatally damage our sinking economy. Thus the threat of further infections due forced opening up of the economy looms large. This is a grave scenario. What are politicians doing ? I don’t know. Warning signals are quite visible, but do our politicians see them or not is the moot point.

    • Nice compilation. kudos to your efforts. i just want to add one thing. it is true that in India the pandemic has not peaked. but state wise if you see the numbers, it must have peaked and came down in several states. Indian case cannot be compared with other small country will less than quarter of India’s population. India was not at all equipped to deal with this pandemic in such big way. It is in this context that the initial lockdown was important. during this time, additional facilities were made (whether it is sufficient.. i dont know) so that now we are in a much better position to deal with the pandemic.

  20. Shekhar pretty much echoes my thoughts. What is scary is people don’t see it and want to believe our government so badly. Granted, it is unprecedented situation and no one will get a clean chit here. But this could have been so much better managed. If we had government receptive to other people’s ideas, we collectively manage the crisis.

    What I find strange about our times is people think having faith in government is supporting them and our people. Questioning government and making sure they do their job is far more important. No matter whether you voted for them.

  21. Quote: subtlety is another name for suicide (for the argument

    Response: Or perhaps you seem to refuse to accept a better argument or atleast deal with it on merit.

    Saying a CEOs team failed him and they are the real reason a company is in a mess doesn’t go very far. One major mark of a leader is the effectiveness of the team he builds. All major celebrated CEOs have had other stars working with them. You can name several reputed professionals in team modi who actually choose to or were made to leave. The end result, things like a MA in history as Governor of RBI. The gentleman can’t handle competency and then if you start blaming mediocrity in the team?

    You repeated the same tendency in your argument with Dr. Yogendra when over 70% of your rebuttal was fixated on the term “communism” per se (which you had earlier brought into the debate) instead of factual and point by point sensible response to the good doctors earlier response. We have higher expectations from you Shri Gupta.

  22. Sir Humphrey Appleby of Yes Minister fame said the one and only duty of the government is to see that there is no chaos tomorrow. Modi has failed in this.




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