Ever wondered what would the handing of a pandemic crisis by a masculinist nation that failed to prioritize spending on health look like? Images of burning pyres flooding out of crematoriums, top hospitals running to the full capacity, twitter and Instagram flooded with SOS calls for Oxygen supply, people running from pillar to post just to access basic health care services, just to procure prescribed drugs, helpless faces looking over the bodies of their loved ones as they gather their last bit of strength to breathe and fail! They failed or the government of the day failed its people? This will continue to haunt the imagination of any Masculinist nation for a very long time. It is one thing to hear of a loss of a loved one, it is quite another to see them choke to death- just because the “system” collapsed. No, not just the respiratory system here but the system run by our elected leaders!
We- the people of the country, years ago heard our leader promise to defend and protect his country, once sworn in as the Prime Minister. We remember the chest-thumping during the surgical strikes. We heard with great interest and patience of the 56-inches broad chest, promising of a masculine protection that would stand upright to safeguard the well being of its people in the face of any adversity. BJP chief reiterated the same when terrorist hide-outs were destroyed in Pakistan, “Modi has shown he is a man with 56-inch chest!”. The patriarch, the strong man, the embodiment of this ultra-masculine spirit with some superman qualities spoke of a “chamatkaar“, promised us “Acche Din“. Little did we know that the promise of a “chamatkaar” implied that the people of the country would actually have to rely on the miracle of prayers; little did we know that many of our loved ones would not be able to live long enough to see the “Acche Din” as the country struggled to get its act together in the face of a raging pandemic.
Today, those who lost their loved ones in this battle against COVID-19 and against the crumbling “system” for the lack of basic oxygen supply are questioning the commitment of those who head the system to protect the people: What do I do with a 56-inch chest when there is no oxygen to take in for saving the lives of our loved ones and with new infections averaging more than 370,000 per day? What do I do of the slogans by the ruling party that boast of India’s pandemic-response as some achievement when the only achievement that flashes before our eyes is the place of the country as one of the worst-hit nations by the Pandemic? What do I do with a 56-inch chest that boasts of hyper-masculine spirit of fighting when there is no heart inside that is sensitive to the dead and the living, as India becomes the latest epicenter of the pandemic spread? The second wave of the pandemic hit India hard and we had to struggle for dignity even in death, with some sections facing disproportionate pressure as people have had to wait in line for their turn to cremate the dead at the crematoriums that struggle to deal with the influx of the corpses!
In the face of criticism, suddenly the central government remembered that India operates through a federal structure and that health is a state-subject, when until yesterday the government was eyeing for one nation-one election and interfering wherever possible in the business of the states. The blame game took a new low when on one side we saw tweets by the state governments for help in oxygen supply and on the other hand leaders from the ruling party blatantly denying any oxygen shortage and that the states were to be blamed for the mishandling. Can we at least be granted the liberty grumble about the unpreparedness of the powers of the day, when in fact the PMO was warned of the impending catastrophic oxygen shortage as early as April 1st.
When make-shift hospitals and make-shift medical centers should have been the priority of the PM, the 56-inch chest with all its team camped in West Bengal, organised huge rallies, almost every day in violation of all the Coivd-19 protocols, turning into super-spreader, boasted of a love for the crowd, when people elsewhere were literally dying as we saw hospitals overcrowded and states struggling to manage the situation.
One wonders how did the government even have the audacity to think about becoming the ‘Vishwa-Guru’ when our basic health infrastructure was shallow and crumbling, with people being pushed to the margins, left to die as the official death toll stands at more than 215,542. The politics of virulent nationalism has to us come at a grave cost- we saw how attempts were made to communalise the virus, with hashtags like Corona Jihad doing the rounds in the early days of the pandemic, as Muslims were labeled as “corona Bombs“; given how things turned out to be now, what should we call this, one wonders. When the 56-inch is a trope of masculinity and bravery for our leaders, today we ask- are the ones using the same trope also brave enough to take the responsibility for this ‘man-made’ disaster in one of those Mann ki baat or Live addresses to the nation that is out on the streets, lying in ambulances gasping for oxygen? They want us to blame the system, yes, we ask who made the system and who heads the system?
Let us also talk about the COVID-19 response of the government in terms of the vaccination drive and health budget. We boast of the largest vaccination drive, which is obvious, given our populations statistics. More than 16.04 crore vaccinations have been administered across India, according to the May 5 update, with 14,84,989 new vaccinations.Further, despite being the world’s biggest producer of vaccines, the country is suffering an internal shortage and has placed a temporary hold on all exports of AstraZeneca to meet domestic demand.
Let us therefore also look at other statistics that contribute directly to the flawed and mismanaged handling of the Pandemic. India’s defence budget sits at approximately 66.5 Billion Dollars, which makes it the third biggest spender military spender while as our health budget is around 7 Billion Dollars,which is one of the lowest any government on this planet spends on health. Not that we do not have money, it is a question less about resources and more about resource-allocation and planned distribution. We have almost 9 doctors per 10,000 people; 0.5 beds per 1000 people and only 2.9 ventilators per 1,00,000 people. A very dismal question to ask at this point will be this: Is ensuring basic public health care services to each and every citizen of the country not a chapter in the textbook on nationalism? Or does public health care fall outside the curricula of muscular nationalism? As of now, this is the condition of the health-infrastructure with positivity rate of a little above 8%. Among these, cases that require oxygen support and medicines such as antiviral Remdesivir stand at only 10-15% of the total cases and only 5% of the cases require ventilator– Now you can imagine for yourself, if this is how India fares, given these statistics, as we see the health infrastructure crumbling, what can happen if the crisis worsens or numbers go up even slightly! It is nothing less than accurate as the Allahbad High court recently observed that “Deaths due to lack of oxygen are no less than a ‘genocide’ “. The point however is who is responsible for this and can we hold the system to trial- the abstract, faceless system which works in vacuum for the lack of oxygen as we would like to be made to believe.
Whenever India faced an external challenge, be it of terrorism or trade crisis, our PM was quick to retaliate- for the Masculinist aggressive nation-state had a clear enemy identified; whenever an internal crisis brewed in, again the powers of the day were quick in identifying a potential adversary within, using active forms of other-ing, be it the minorities, the Muslims or Dalits. A similar pattern could be sensed this time too. I see two pictures in contrast, wherein the government swings into action to charge the Tablighi jam’at in violation of the COVID-19 protocols, and on the other side is our PM who humbly “requests” the designated heads to call off the Kumbh Mela which saw a massive violation of the COVID-appropriate behavior, as thousands of devotees tested positive for the virus. If the government of the day has issues with what it calls ‘minority appeasement’ , then extending the same logic, how can it stand for ‘majority appeasement’, trading safety of its people for electoral constituency. This time the crisis at hand which is too large, the experiences too real to sit back at home on a couch to enjoy the clamor and roars of the news debates and the stakes too high to be ridiculed. The good man seems good only as long as there is a bad man- however this time there is no bad man but bad health infrastructure, an ailing government ‘system’ and a bad virus that calls for scientific outreach instead of the diya jalao and thali bajao acts.
Today, the nation actually wants to know why its people have been abandoned by the government that was supposed to take care of the people when it needed its government the most- are not all governments based on this social contract and this trusteeship? It is for all the stakeholders to realize that the people in the government were elected for a purpose, even if the rhetorical promises spoke of Sabka Vikaas aur Sabka Vishwaas. For now, neither of it appears remotely in sight.These are the appropriate times when we must ask, “What about the tax-payers money ?” We must refrain from glorifying the helplessness of the people of the country who were left with no option but to come together and put in a concerted effort to help each other with oxygen and medicine, along with some NGOs and voluntary groups. This was not the job of the citizens and no one signed for this distress in the first place, this was the job of the government for which it takes the oath on the book of Indian Constitution.
Perhaps , it is high time to realize that we cannot afford another disaster before the ruling dispensation wakes up to the futility of aggressive nationalism and muscular denial that cannot help anyone. One requires a government that can pull in a holistic approach to develop its public health infrastructure and perhaps give science its due by heeding to the warnings and advice of the experts, instead of the “hardwork better than Harvard” approach of vain rhetoric that belittles forecasts of experts and academicians. This perhaps is a difficult lessons for us, the people of the country too, that the nation is not a stage for a bunch of troupers to perform on and that one needs a government that is responsible and sensitive enough to the needs of the time, to the demands of the situation and to the cries of its citizens to not abandon its own people.