I woke last Sunday morning (May 3) to two contrasting news on coronavirus. One, the Indian Air Force fly-past showering flower petals; later in the day the Army’s band playing along hospitals treating COVID-19 patients; and the Navy lighting up ships in the evening to honour and express their gratitude to the coronavirus fighters.
The other news was what the New York State was planning to do for its first responders and corona fighters. The New York Governor Andrew Cuomo’s message said:
Starting May 6th, that the NYC subway system would be “closed for four hours at night from 1:00 a.m. to 5:00 a.m. when the ridership is lowest. This has never been done before — but we need to do so now in order to allow the MTA to disinfect every subway car every 24 hours. This is a massive undertaking but we are taking this unprecedented step to protect the public, transit workers, and our essential workers… The essential workers who have kept society functioning and who are doing an extraordinary job deserve nothing less. We will get this done because we need to.”
Also New York has completed its antibody testing survey. “The results show that 12.3 percent of the state's population have tested positive for COVID-19 antibodies..”
Further,New York will distribute $25 million to food banks across the state–“an initiative to quickly reroute New York's surplus agricultural products to populations who need them most through the state's network of food banks.”
Most stirring of affirmation: “We need to protect our vulnerable communities, not just with words, but with actions.” The state will distribute over seven million more cloth masks to vulnerable New Yorkers and essential workers across the state.And the“Deep Breath Moment”that over $1.26 million has been raised in donations to feed front line workers!
I processed both inputs in my head. New York is a world away from us. It has resources, the world’s best hospitals, doctors, and healthcare providers;a country that can offer stimulus packages, even print dollars; a social capital that starkly contrasts with ours. COVID-19has hit them the hardestin the US. India, mercifully, has been spared thus far.
Yet, see the contrasting approaches of the two.
India, poor and struggling, after serial missteps of demonetisation and poor Goods and Services Tax implementation, has been limping along ever since. The pandemic has exacerbated the problem beyond bounds, sinking the poor deeper into the morass; the pathetic fate ofmigrant workers ubiquitous in full display.Their images of workers tumbling out of the concrete mixer – as if they’re no better than the lifeless concrete it mixes or of birds released from cages flying out to freedom– is searing. How inhuman, how surreal can it get?
But then these images fit perfectly into past horror pictures we saw immediately on the lockdown – of lakhs of migrant workers trudging back hundreds and thousands of kilometres off the finish line to their remote far-off towns/villages – some on bicycles, others on cycle-carts, the rest on long walks. Now comesthe news: 16 migrant workers run over by a goods train near Aurangabad. The images scorch the soul, just that we’ve gotten inured and blasé – these the demonetisation moment(s) of lockdown!
That’s why the misadventure of the Indian defence forces,led by Chief of Defence Staff (CDS) Bipin Rawat, and aided by the three services chiefs, to take upon a role that just isn’t theirs, sucks.
Admiral L. Ramdas, the revered former Chief of Naval Staff, says dismayingly that “there was not even a token reference to the grim situation being faced by lakhs of migrant workers on May Day, who were hungry, jobless and desperate to get home, many of them choosing to walk and some of them dying along the way, is a sad indication of the insensitivity of our privileged to the trauma and travails of the vast masses who toil to keep the wheels of our system going.”
In truth, the armed forces have enormous resources of manpower, courage,valour, and experience in providing aid to civil authorities. If the government and the CDS were imaginative enough, one would have appreciated if their unmatchable resources were at least leveraged to ferry the poor migrant workers back to their homes.
Instead, we saw the tokenism of petal-showering – tawdry, meretricious, and misplaced!
I wonder, how Caesar could think of appropriating something that wasn’t his.Petal-showering, and playing the white knight or acting the tub-thumper of the nation’s symbolic fight against the COVID-19 pandemic is not their job.They are too valuable a resource to waste their energies on such meaningless activity.This is not to quibble with their rights as citizens. They have the right to act and cheer and applaud – as citizens. But institutionally something more substantive would have been apt and earned them the nation’s acclaim.
That brings me back to the contrasting approaches I alluded to earlier. For the New York state, the focus was on:disinfecting subway cars every 24 hours;antibody testing;distributing $25 million to food banks across the state by quickly rerouting surplus agricultural products to populations who need them most through the state's network of food banks; and protecting the vulnerable communities, “not just with words, but with actions.” The state will distribute over seven million more cloth masks to vulnerable New Yorkers and essential workers across the state.[Emphasis mine,at places shown in bold or capitalised]
For us, sadly, it was all glitzy and tacky. During normal times this is impermissible – it doesn’t be hove of the armed forces to dumb down and indulge in symbolism.During pandemics, it is cringe worthy –performing a parody of “what the West did yesterday wedo it today!”We don’t have to monkey the West. A few minutes of tinselly candy floss up the sky showering petals is quite like clapping and lighting lamps;and the Army band playing music near hospitals is akin to clanging the pots and pans. It is counter intuitive – too expensive for a poor nation to bear.
I can’t tell though how many places violated social distancing norms during petal-shower, and what it took to clean the mess.
But how I wish the few crores of rupees frittered away in drumming up inconsequential display of support was instead spent on distributing free masks to people who can’t even afford this essential requirement or in paying for the train fares of migrant workers!
The writer is a former civil servant who retired as Financial Adviser, Ministry of Defence. The views are personal.