India, you have done your best in steering the country away from Covid-19. The death rate stands at 3.27%. Kudos for that. It is now imperative that we combine all our energies, remove the ventilator, and let our diverse economy breathe on its own. India needs to get back to work. Red, green or orange does not matter. The virus will stay, and we need to prepare ourselves to work with it.
Surprisingly, on the medical front, we have performed well, as India’s recovery rate stands at 27.5% for the 53,045 cases (7 May) and 1,787 deaths. Meanwhile the Indian economy is cadaverous. The curfew has damaged us more than the virus. Now 400 million Indian workers are descending into poverty, as per a recent United Nations report. And Nobel laureate economist Abhijit Banerjee has forecast that our GDP may slide sharply—by “10-15%”—due to the virus and the lockdown. Grim picture? It gets worse once we consider the thousands ambulating towards starvation and destitution, desperate to find their way home.
One is still shaken by the photo of a man scooping up milk on a roadside in Agra along with street dogs. Millions in hotspots or stuffed into quarantine camps have become a new generation of “untouchables”. The state is using bio-politics to take over the final frontier—our bodies.
If the economy does not open now, we may witness a more grotesque reality—raging civil unrest and more violence.
Viruses are wild natural beings. Untamed by medicine nor vaccine, for they are neither living nor non-living, they animate once they find a favourable host and for the rest of the time they lie dead, much like a rock. Yes, we cannot ignore their role in evolution, including our own: the malignant viruses have attacked us and the beneficial ones help us every day, to stay healthy and alive. Over time we have evolved immunity and genetic resistance to most of the virulent kind.
The media is filled with news of a vaccine against the Novel Coronavirus, which causes the disease Covid-19, but a vaccine may at best be a nostrum: as we have seen with the virus that causes influenza, new vaccines are needed in every season, for the nature of the disease-causing pathogen keeps changing. Besides, humanity has been unsuccessful in delivering a vaccine for the HIV virus, which causes AIDS, despite battling it for half a century. Doctors, scientist and epidemiologists are questioning the efficacy of the awaited miracle—a vaccine for Covid-19. India cannot afford to wait for this vaccine, which may or may not work.
Taking lessons from evolutionary history, a strong immunity is the only long-term chance we have against any viral infection, whether Covid-19 or influenza. Globally, as per experts, there are no successful (and non-harmful) Schedule 1 RNA vaccines available either.
In any case, we have experienced a low death rate. Let us compare this Covid-19 to the bacterial disease, tuberculosis. TB, when compared to Covid-19, is a more dangerous monster. Every year, over 1.5 million die of it. Do we shut our economy for it? No. We continue to work, and also allow millions of workers to contribute to the economy, without testing. Why should Covid-19 be different?
It’s time to reject variable-dependent computer modelling and realities that apply to other parts of the world. India needs to be more pragmatic. We should no longer shut our economy as we are running out of options to save it. The stimulus packages will dry up, sooner rather than later, leaving us to confront a continuing economic torpor. Restarting from scratch will not be an option for most of us. Millions will be left to die, not from the pandemic but from malnutrition and poor health.
The SME sector can already hear the death-knell ringing. We cannot afford a lockdown any more.
What happened way back:
Covid-19 is a new reality, and we have to live and work with it. There is no reason to be phobic of it. It is, no doubt, highly infectious, but has a very low death rate. This is a silver lining. Not to underplay the threat, but the chances of dying in a road accident in Delhi are reportedly higher than of this infection.
The agriculture sector has already been opened up, which means that 70% of Indian workers are back in action. We need to immediately restart the SME sector too. That is the easiest way to kickstart India. Work related movements and activities should be opened up within all states. We can restrict leisure activities for a while. But core and peripheral economic activities must begin. We should be prepared to supply to the world in this time of crisis. This will showcase Make in India—and our emphasis should be on Made By India.
As individual immunity has a critical role the government, through the AYUSH ministry, needs to issue a protocol that people can follow; for example, additional vitamins and dietary supplements that individuals can take or businesses can provide to workers to boost their health.
Of course, the government has an obligation to protect the most vulnerable, such as those over 65. But it is also obligated to empower people who do not fall in a vulnerable group. Each one of us should be allowed to make the choice whether we want to work or be locked up in our homes and watch our families starve.
Gandhi began his Satyagraha for the rights of indentured Indians in South Africa and today governments in his own country are forcing Indians into this evil. The recent forced detention of labourers and working people by the Karnataka government forces us to acknowledge that labour camps are not a relic of the past. The use of force to rob these citizens of their fundamental rights is appalling. Remember—it’s always first “them”, then “us”—if we don’t resist this modern form of indentured servitude. And as for the supporters of this detention; they must see beyond the political smog and remember that the Jewish Ghetto Police that was used to control inmates of Nazi concentration camps went to the same gas chambers as the people they condemned. Violence and hate has the same end for the oppressors and the victim; one loses the body, the other their soul.
I choose liberty and the right to work, for myself and millions of our countrymen who only want dignity and the right to feed their children. They want no charity, nor the pity of wealthy overlords or even the government. They want a chance to earn their meals with the sweat of their labour and to not be kicked from street to street, hungry, and made to fight like gladiators for morsels while the rich, locked in their rooms, enjoy the view on their iPhones and Smart TVs. They want respect and human rights too. So they would choose even a death with dignity.
Death is the natural end of life, hence there should be no fear of it; what we should fear is the pain and suffering of our loved ones and our inability to follow our duty towards them. Money is a very important necessity, along with food and water. We ought to be allowed to work—and freely. We have a duty to work and uplift our local economies and businesses, but not under the threat of the lathi. The days of fear are over. It is time we all do our duty and rebuild a life of dignity, abundance and happiness for our families, loved ones and nation.
The author is director, policy and outreach, National Seed Association of India. The views are personal.