Independent India is going through its greatest crisis. Many countries are struggling to cope with the Covid-19 virus. However, it is not the epidemic per se that is the problem but our response to it. We had a year to prepare for this disaster. Last year, when it hit our shores, we could take refuge in the excuse of having not enough infrastructure to tackle an epidemic of this magnitude. We enforced the toughest lockdown possible, without an iota of thought to be spared for the most vulnerable sections of the society.
Around three crore people trekked thousands of kilometres across the country to reach home from the slums of Indian megacities. Many died on the way. Since the middle and upper classes were busy lighting lamps in their balcony and banging vessels and steel plates together, and dancing to the tunes of ‘Go Corona Go’, we had no time or thought for them.
Then we rejoiced, seeing trains being turned to hospitals. With the advent of the vaccine, we thought we were safe. India had long been the vaccine-manufacturing factory of the world, thanks to the foundations laid in an era when scientific temper dictated policy decisions. The world looked up to India for supplying the vaccine needs. We were happily playing the ‘Vishwaguru’, the teacher to the world, although the research for developing the vaccine was done elsewhere, and we were only manufacturing it. We played vaccine diplomacy, and many poorer countries depended on us to make their people safe.
And now, we have become the net importer of the vaccine. We are standing at the same place where we were last year, or perhaps, we have regressed. Our health infrastructure remains woefully inadequate. There is a shortage of vaccines, test kits, oxygen cylinders, medicines, beds, crematorium spaces, mortuary, and most importantly, common sense. The frontline health workers are showing signs of fatigue. There is a limit on how much they can take before breaking. We have lost more healthcare workers, including specialised doctors and nurses, than we have lost soldiers in our many wars. We would think such a crisis would at least make our political leaders thoughtful.
However, every one of them is busy conducting election rallies, flouting all Covid-19 protocols. When the tallest leaders themselves set such examples, it is a tough ask for ordinary people to follow the protocols in a country with more than 35 percent illiteracy. Elections rage on in various states despite the daily count of the infected reaching more than 2.5 lakh, and fatalities touching 1,500 a day or more. In Bengal, it is a month-long mela and leaders are excited that huge crowds are turning out in their rallies. It is as if the lives of citizens are cheaper than their votes for the politicians.
The same vote bank politics drives decisions like allowing religious festivals like Kumbh Mela, where lakhs congregate when a highly contagious pandemic is raging. When courts give quirky orders like fining ordinary citizens for not wearing a mask while driving one’s car, 30 lakh or more people assemble in a congested riverside and take a bath together. The only cover they have is that of religion. Each religion indulges in mutual mudslinging. In Kerala, after a prolonged debate, the public has been barred from Thrissur Pooram thankfully. But many festivals in various religious institutions are happening without any worry about the pandemic.
As long as the politicians succeed in garnering votes using the base emotions of hate, bigotry, tribalism, religion, tradition, caste and language, no pandemic, disaster, or even the threat of mass extinction will change how they play their deadly power game. Covid-19 may be a deadly disease, but for a society that does not hold its politicians accountable for the poor health infrastructure and all-pervasive poverty, illiteracy, and not producing enough doctors and nurses and respecting the few we have, it is a poor teacher. That is the boon and bane of democracy. We get the leaders we deserve.
Author of Asura, Ajaya series, Vanara and Bahubali trilogy