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We need a values vaccine

Nanditesh Nilay writes: The privileged must look within and ask themselves if they can take help and take responsibility of those less privileged.

A healthworker administers a dose of a Covid-19 vaccine in Chennai. (PTI/File Photo)

The festival season is here, the time for buying and gifting for ourselves and those we care for. The vaccine dashboard has crossed 100 crore single doses. This is perhaps the best time to remember the lives lost to the pandemic and reflect on the need for a “values vaccine” as much as one for the virus. But more of that later.

First, we need to look within to see how we behaved when countless fled the city, including those who worked in our homes and for us — domestic help, cooks, drivers, hawkers and daily-wage workers in small businesses that keep our supply lines going. Their salaries frozen, their safety nets in tatters to begin with, their employers unable or, in some cases, not willing to support them in a lockdown, many hit the road. Never was urban feudalism on starker display.

This came when scarcity and helplessness hit many of us for the first time. Indeed, since India opened up in 1991, a new generation of the middle class has come of age in a culture where scarcity is history. Be it a flight ticket, an AC train coach, online delivery, taxi-hailing services, the smartphone boom — all these are taken for granted, reinforcing the realisation that anything, from a good school for the children to an oven-fresh pizza, is just a phone call or a credit card swipe away. We, as individual consumers, could be the authors of our own lives, kar lo duniya mutthi mein our credo.

Being a citizen is a secondary act, asserting consumer rights our primary profile. Dependence on less privileged citizens is framed as a transaction, beginning with the morning bell that announces the arrival of the domestic help, who has to show up in neat, clean clothes to sweep and mop our 3BHKs, and make our sinks and toilet bowls sparkle. Of course, India has to be swachh but that responsibility is in the hands of the lower class and castes. For, we have earned the right to create a mess in our homes because the lower class, with the utmost patience and with no sense of smell or outrage, is always ready to clean swiftly and gently. We believe that our money protects and shields us.

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Then came Covid. It caught us off-guard and took shelter in many of our homes. We have always struggled to balance life and work. We were never asked to balance life and the possibility of death. This was the first time our credit card or the list of contacts in our phonebook were of no value when it came to beds and oxygen and drugs.

We struggled to find answers to sudden questions. Who will cook our meals? Who will clean and mop? Who will take care of our child? Who will clean the car? Will the delivery guy be safe? Who will take care of our pet? Nobody was ready to answer these questions. Even kids were surprised to see their parents struggling to take care of themselves. Couples who always complained they didn’t have time for each other were now worried that they were spending too much time together — and they needed space.

Parallel to this are the lessons from our formidable vaccine project. Almost 77 per cent of our eligible adult population has got at least one dose and 35 per cent is fully vaccinated. That’s a formidable milestone but once again, like during the outbreak, we need to look beyond these numbers. We need to acknowledge that behind this dashboard are the visible and invisible healthcare warriors as much as proactive leadership at all levels of governance, from the village panchayat, the primary healthcare centre to the district, state and Centre.

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Given that these numbers have come in the wake of the brutal second wave, this achievement is a testament to the willingness and strength of the individual to fight and vanquish the coronavirus. Images of men and women in remote villages waiting in line, with their Aadhaar cards, to get vaccinated — amid stories of widespread vaccine hesitancy in more developed countries — tell us a powerful story that goes beyond the dashboard.

The pandemic, it has been said, has exacerbated existing vulnerabilities and just as with the disease, co-morbidities play a critical role. What are our co-morbidities as a nation, as a society?

A village or a district can receive its box of Covishield or Covaxin and these numbers can be updated at the end of the day but just months away from what will be the third year of the pandemic, how much better prepared are we? Do our villages have essential health services? We know that liquid oxygen plants are being set up across our districts but when the vaccine teams leave the village, are hospitals and doctors available? When teachers are locked out, or their salaries unpaid, are our students getting their lessons on time? Our country has the cheapest data but what does this mean if there is no WiFi access?

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Just as local politicians and officials mobilise crowds to meet vaccination targets, we need an institutionalised system to ensure that vital indicators are being tracked in real time. Nobody from the top in the health establishment visited villages before the pandemic. Nobody counted them with such excitement and sense of purpose. Undoubtedly, our leaders and elected representatives need to stand among the citizens. They need to be on the ground, their hands dirty, their feet wet, masked or shielded. No dashboard is of more power or value than the one with faces on it, real-life people waiting in the ward of the local hospital for the doctor or the nurse or the medicine.

We need to bring the spirit of values to our dashboard. We, the privileged, need to ask ourselves if we can take the responsibility of taking care of a less privileged family, neighbourhood, a village? Maybe this needs a vaccine of values, one that we are as serious about as we are of the vaccine for the virus. Happy Diwali.

This column first appeared in the print edition on November 4, 2021 under the title ‘A Diwali gift: A values vaccine?’ The writer is the author of the books, Being Good, Aaiye, Insaan Banaen and Ethikos. He teaches and trains courses on ethics, values and behaviour.

First published on: 04-11-2021 at 04:00:37 am
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