Challenges of Covid 19: Back to the basics

Prof. Pramod Kumar | April 24, 2020 07:12 PM

Coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic has halted our movement and left us alone to ponder over what for and why. Regardless of the individual’s nationality, religious belief, political position, social status, creative accomplishment, beauty for that matter all have bowed down to the might of the virus. Is it nature’s revenge on ruthless and callous profiteering and conspicuous consumption? Or it is a warning to go back to the basics. Coming specifically to the pandemic the immediate question is; what route the contagion will take and now how long it will last?

It is not for the first time the virus has become deadly, but it needs critical examination which human action has made it life-threatening? And how long the ill-equipped medical doctors, farmers and labour, vegetable vendors, grocery suppliers and policemen will remain unaffected by this virus. And the answer to these is restricted by the limited knowledge available based on the uneven experiences of multiple countries.

Even the most powerful, with Z++ security, are as insecure as a migrant worker struggling to reach home. Amongst these, the most powerful have pleaded their helplessness to protect and confessed their inability to be your chowkidars. And, they have exhorted that save yourself if you can.

Even the toughest of the nations looked helpless and so-called all-powerful leaders, who claimed to be decisive, sounded weak and meek. And, the market to whom the states have surrendered with a belief that it is omnipotent is fumbling. Blinded by the personal gains, ignorance or fear of a crashing economy, some leaders have chosen to stick by the ‘Man-made economy’ rather than it’s ever essential part ‘Man’ itself. All-powerful religious, political, economic and social leaders flooded with ample material and spiritual resources are looking towards science and scientific community. The paradox is during pandemic these undervalued and underfunded institutions are pressured to take crucial decisions and solve the problem. Only some of the foolish leaders are still reposing faith in the markets and in turn producing bigger tragedies in their respective countries. In a nutshell, leaders have become powerless, markets have collapsed and science is struggling, and the message for the common person is ‘save yourself, if you can’.

It also signifies a change in the mindset of the individuals and, more so, in the families. For the people, this is a time to ponder over their familial relations, social and public reservoir for the sheer existence, and the ever inefficient local governance. In other words, it is back to the basics as, you may be having all the luxuries, and yet your survival is not ensured. Earlier, it was the local to the global, and now it will be back to the local. The societies are likely to become more ‘inward-looking’.

Pray, what is the message? The first and the foremost message is that for an existential crisis, it is the State which can help. But, if the State has been rendered weak and become subservient to the market, including outsourcing of its basic functions to the private players, then the basics for the human existence are compromised. For instance, the Air India waiting to be sold to the private players could perform, perhaps, its last service to humanity by saving thousands of the stranded Indians all over the globe.

The aid packages for the poor, the trade and the industry, etc. have again reinforced that it is only the State, and not the private enterprise, that can match the consequences of the pandemic. The signal is quite clear to strengthen the welfare functions of the State and not outsource the same to the private interests.

Another message that is loud and clear is that in order to have a decent living, only fewer of the consumption goods are essential, and the rest are non-essentials. And the State, the Government and the business honchos are aware that what is essential to the human existence and what is non-essential. However, they continue to invest in the non-essential and neglect the essential, for instance, public health. Interestingly, the Government and the corporates are telling us to consume only the essentials and, for the non-essentials, there is a lockdown. The Bajajs, Shaws, Ambanis and many other private health practitioners are voicing the need for ventilators, testing kits, medically-safe masks, sanitisers, soaps, etc., as these are essential. There is a glut of the non-essential goods and services and shortages for the essentials. Who created this? Now come the saviours, the Bajajs will diversify a part of their business enterprise from the automobiles to produce ventilators, J.C.T. will make safety gowns for medical workers and cut down on expensive suits, the liquor barons will make sanitisers for the poor, while the private health providers have very kindly agreed to make Covid-19 tests available for Rs 4,500 (when the average monthly income of the poor is below this) all this to serve the humanity. Why were all these essentials were not produced earlier?

Because, the Indian middle class and the poor needed all this, but they offered no market. The need has to be coupled with the buying power to generate a market demand. Covid-19 has offered a market. Not that the Governments were oblivious to the need, but they left this judgement to the market. Just to reinforce the point - in 2010, the Punjab Governance Reforms Commission (PGRC) made a forceful recommendation to the Government of Punjab to upgrade minimum 10 trauma centres in the tertiary hospitals in different parts of Punjab equipped with ventilators and other such life saving equipment. The administration, in its majestic style, kept on promising without doing anything. The feeble voices could not make an impact on the medical establishment as they have been trained not to pay heed to such voices. Now, in post-Covid, the same establishment will do it enthusiastically as the demand will come from the private sector to enhance the health sector budget to find a market for their ventilators and other products. All of this to serve the human cause. Will the myriad challenges thrown by Covid-19 change the mindset of the Indian bureaucracy to re-position itself on the side of the common people and not with the private interests whose sole purpose is to extract profits?

 (The writer is Director, Institute for Development and Communication (IDC), Chandigarh)

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