The unpreparedness of the central government to tackle the Covid-19 pandemic and related concerns is brought out starkly by the fact that even in the midst of a 21-day countrywide lockdown, migrant labour and their families have suffered casualties and death, including those who died at the hands of an overzealous police force. The reason is the abruptness with which the lockdown was introduced, giving people barely four hours warning.
After this sudden announcement, it then took 48 hours for the authorities to wake up to the plight of the migrant labourers who started walking to their native places. This adds weight to the fact that for all its tall claims the government remained oblivious to the gravity of the situation.
Authorities did not prepare and plan before announcing the lockdown, therefore, they acted in a knee-jerk fashion when it dawned on them belatedly that something drastic needed to be done to prevent Covid-19 from spreading. In the process, they forgot that another human tragedy was unfolding, as people lost their jobs or were locked out of their shelters with no safety net to fall back upon except to return home to their villages, hundreds of miles away. And then they confronted the summary suspension of transportation, which left them no option but to make the long journey on foot.
In the best of times, India’s working classes have fared the worst, with long working hours, low wages, poor living conditions, poor nutrition, suppression of their rights by the combined power of Capital and the administration. As a result, for them, the more things changed since so-called economic liberalisation, the more they remained the same. So how will they fare at the hands of the very same institutions which have caused this latest crisis for them by failing to plan and prepare?
Recall how central ministers and BJP-ruled state governments, including that of Uttar Pradesh, were either missing in action or busy promoting the triad of gau-gobar-gau mutra, or cow-cow dung-cow urine, as a miracle cure for the spreading virus. Indeed, even after the Prime Minister announced the lockdown, the two chief ministers of Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh prominently disobeyed him and gathered crowds or organised crowded events, thus making mincemeat of the very reason behind the lockdown— social distancing.
Meanwhile, many central ministers remained out of action or remained otherwise busy in petty squabbles. One minister was busy defending his self-righteous order to ban a popular stand-up comedian from flying on India’s domestic airlines, because he had dared accost the government’s favourite anchor during a flight. Another minister was busy watching ‘Ramayana’ series played on TV, while lakhs of migrant labourers and their families were stuck on highways. And, it is not unremarkable that many foul-mouthed braggarts of the ruling party found, even in this grave situation, an opportunity to wreak vengeance on the citizen-protestors. Delhi’s Shaheen Bagh site was vandalised under police supervision, making their action a perfidious act.
Such is the extent of concentration of power in this government that until the Prime Minister spoke about the gravity of the situation, the ruling BJP did not take the threat seriously. A large section of the media, barring honourable exceptions, remained busy doing what comes naturally to them—pandering to baser instincts by peddling remedies worse than the cure, and thereby lowering the seriousness of the threat.
As a result, despite having nearly two months of advance warning, the central government ended up being lackadaisical in acquiring Protective Personal Equipment, N95 masks, gloves, test-kits and ventilators. Just as soldiers can not be sent to fight a war without guns and protective gear, in the fight against Novel Coronavirus, the medical personnel urgently need PPEs, N95 masks and gloves. The central Health Ministry has now said that it would take 25 to 30 days for PPEs to reach medical personnel, who need it right away. They say that India needed 7.25 lakh PPEs, 60 lakh N95 masks and 1 crore three-layered face masks. However, orders have been placed only now. What compounds this delay in placing order is the shortage of trained manpower. In short, delayed response reflects man-made errors which have already exacerbated the situation.
Meanwhile, the government was alert to screen people arriving from outside India, and organising flights for those stranded abroad. But, no thought was spared for the millions of daily-wage earners, contract labourers, self-employed and their families stranded within the country. The fact that all transport was abruptly stopped and no alternative arrangements were made for their stay, food and lost wages, brings out how in a stratified and hierarchy-conscious society “those not like us” matter least in the government’s calculus. They enter the consciousness of the rulers only when tragedy strikes or when its time to garner votes.
Tragically, it was the relentless media coverage which forced the government to intervene. Even in the midst of this man-made tragedy, the authorities in Uttar Pradesh and Bihar adopted cruel means to enforce the lockdown, by first luring migrant workers (some with their families) to come to a designated spot and then locking them inside. But for the independent media reporting from the ground at great risk to themselves, the Indian people would not have known about the full scale of the unfolding human tragedy.
It’s one thing that during a pandemic some people would die, but it is criminal when people die because of poor planning and half-hearted preparations. Even worse is to die at the hands of a police force or due to hunger and/or exhaustion while trying to walk hundreds of kilometres on foot. The collateral fatalities have reached twenty four and they are rising.
Nevertheless, we should be glad that unlike the United States President Donald Trump, who remained in denial about the pandemic, even called it a hoax, or the President of Brazil Jair Bolsonaro, who even now insists that there is no pandemic, or the British PM who spoke of “herd immunity”, the Indian Prime Minister was not dismissive of this grave threat. However, the very fact that entire country had to wait for him to officially announce, and prior to that nothing authoritative was being said, also reveals the pitfalls of such concentration of decision-making and policy-making.
It is not voices from within the government which alerted them. Rather, the alarm was raised by medical professionals and experts, which forced the government to act. It is precisely here that this government has been most wanting. It has wasted time scoring points and sparring with Opposition parties and citizen-protesters, playing favourites and working to destabilise the Opposition-ruled states all this while.
In this sense, no matter how much spin doctors and anchors rail against China and complain about the harsh measures it took to control the pandemic, the crime of governments, including India’s—who watched and enjoyed China’s plight from afar—becomes a much bigger issue. They forgot that they had precious time to prepare while China took draconian steps to lock down Hubei province to prevent the virus from spreading outside. China’s record of tracing, testing, isolating and treating infected persons has -been remarkable and more than made up for any initial bungling. The Western media, which was critical of China while closely following what was happening there, delayed asking their own government what it was doing to meet the impending threat.
The point is that the world was aware of what happened in Hubei and how initial suppression of news about this virus precipitated the need for a draconian lockdown. Rather than learning from this and not repeating the same mistake by preparing for it, as some countries such as South Korea did, most countries, including India, remained busy in domestic squabbles and/or wasted precious time enacting social divisions which belittled the threat posed by the pandemic.
India, in particular, is the best instance of this; where divisive laws and policies were promoted and police brutality against citizen-protesters became the signature tune of the emerging “new” medieval order. So, BJP leaders, even under lockdown, could gather crowds and no action was taken against them, but all hell broke loose if ordinary citizens were found flouting the same. All in all, India has lost precious time. This lapse is a criminal act whose consequences would be felt in terms of the higher death count and even more accelerated spread of the virus.
It is here that the lockdown becomes cruel and callous. It reveals some bitter truths about the Indian state and society, with its deep-rooted fissures and rifts within, lacking in compassion and empathy. In Uttar Pradesh, the authorities have used the extraordinary situation to go after citizen-protesters who spoke out against the CAA, NRC and NPR. There is not a word of reproach for this or the flouting of the lockdown by BJP leaders, from the only person BJP listens to—the Prime Minister.
As a result, when neo-medieval attitudes rule the roost, the police force also reveal their true colonial roots and ethos. They are what they were created to be: to keep the Indian people subjugated and in chains. It is apparent that the lower ranks of police were given the brief to enforce the lockdown, in the same way as they are being asked to go after the government’s critics and dissenters. All of this is happening because the government had not made preparations and remained indifferent to a grave situation in the making where migrant labour were left to fend for themselves.
This lapse comes on top of a health system which suffered egregiously under three decades of neo-liberal rollback of welfare measures, which has starved the public health system of capital investment, which, by now, should have reached every Indian as a matter of birthright.
It is here that the retrogressive nature of the Indian government is biting and hurting us. However, faithful who champion their ignorance and superstition, and are uncomfortable with science and critical thinking, have not yet succeeded in destroying some of the gains of the past 70 years. But for this, India would have been worse off and probably in the same boat as the United States.
So here lies the possibility of pushing the government to move away from the dogmatic path of life-destroying privatisation of the health system, and towards investing in and expanding public healthcare so that it can reach every Indian. In Spain, the government was quick to nationalise the private health system to fight Covid-19. Even in the capitalist heartland of the United States, the popular support for public-funded healthcare has risen. In Britain, the ruling Conservative party, notorious for hollowing out the National Health System, are now singing its praises. Since Indian elites take their lead from the Anglo-Saxon world, it is time they realise that in India too, investing in public healthcare has become an inescapable but wise choice.
From here on, if the government does not perform and handle the pandemic effectively, and does not invest in public healthcare systems, then, when we come out of this pandemic, our capacity to face such challenges in future, let alone prevent the bad from becoming worse, would send a message of business-as-usual: where those who cannot afford to pay and have no access to public health care will perish. Only, this time, if the government refuses to heed the call for a public health system, it would send a clear message that they do not care.
The author is a human rights activist. The views are personal.