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Tuesday, May 18, 2021

We must all commit to resolve the Covid crisis together

Sachin Pilot writes: No individual or organisation can achieve this alone. Thoughtful, inclusive and deliberative measures to course correct are urgently needed.

Written by Sachin Pilot |
Updated: May 1, 2021 9:05:19 am
At a crematorium in New Delhi (Express Photo: Tashi Tobgyal)

COVID is the overwhelming tragedy of our times. We in India are in the eye of the storm. After emerging seemingly relatively unscathed from the first wave — although bearing witness to the forced march of millions of migrant labour bereft of hope and help was soul searing — the second wave has besieged our battered administrative and infrastructural defences, and shows no sign of abating. Grieving families are shocked by the ferocity and the horror of this infection. Children, youth , the elderly, the partially vaccinated — no one has been spared from the wrath of the disease. Smouldering pyres and makeshift graveyards are signifiers of the magnitude of this calamity. The heartbreaking glow of funeral fires continues to illuminate our dark plight.

We pause to acknowledge the tireless efforts of those selfless Indians whose names and faces shall remain unknown, those manning the frontlines of this battle with tremendous courage and selfless dedication. Their ranks include our healthcare professionals, our sanitation staff, the thousands of Indians labouring to manufacture medicines, replenish oxygen tanks, dispense care, and yes, even to light the funeral pyres. As in the watershed moments of Indian history, the heroines and heroes of this struggle are not necessarily in elected offices. They constitute the groundswell of decent, every day, ordinary Indians, who in the middle of their own existential struggles, have summoned great reserves of resilience and resourcefulness to ensure that the light of life continues to shine — in our families, in our communities. These are the truly valiant.

There has been an obvious failure of accountability. In a democracy, accountability cannot only be electoral — elections are not synchronised with the tragedies that befall a nation.
Accountability remains a daily process, steered by the integrity of institutions — courts, civil servants, auditors in an unfettered media — to ensure that government policy and interventions remain faithful to the stated objectives of public welfare. In public life, accountability remains a moral imperative, driven by conscience and introspection.

Human existence has been punctuated with calamities. India’s citizenry has witnessed our share of misery and suffering. With independence, we inherited the colonial legacy of devastating famines, and recurring epidemics. Systematic planning and implementation of the green revolution, development of public distribution systems, and large scale hydroelectric projects ensured that India never suffered another famine. Until we became self-sufficient in food grains of our own, we accepted PL480 grants from the US to tide over the transient phase. These successes of our past — in combating hunger and poverty, and launching mass immunisation programmes – were not painted in political colour. These were national endeavours, enlisting the support of all.

Despite the remarkable pace of scientific innovation in developing a vaccine — unprecedented in modern history — our administrative, economic and governance structures failed to anticipate the necessity for a parallel scaling of the public health infrastructure to enable a seamless vaccine rollout, and provide medical supplies and care for the afflicted. This oversight has proved to be our undoing. The mutation of viruses with the advance of the pandemic — a well-known fact proclaimed by health experts globally — was largely ignored when mutant strains were first detected within our borders. As the first wave subsided, the government thought they had slayed the Hydra, the mythical Greek monster who would generate multiple new heads after each decapitation. In the months when a high-level task force should have been convening daily, developing tactical and strategic responses for inoculation and advancing treatment protocols in both urban centres and mofussil towns, we slipped into a smug stupor. This complacency led to premature declarations of victory, unthinking rollout of state elections, and congregation of masses at religious gatherings. These super-spreader events simply enabled the virus to proliferate exponentially, and made India a laboratory for new and deadlier variants.

Notwithstanding the appalling human costs, the mounting economic costs will be impossible to ignore in the coming months, pushing more people into poverty, hunger. In the absence of a streamlined and coordinated strategy between all levels of administration — at the national, state and municipal levels — the multiple shocks of the pandemic shall be felt, and remembered, for a generation. The three tiers of government have different strengths, resources, and reach. The systematic weakening of complementarities between them have contributed to the escalation of the crisis. Instituting mutually supportive decision making between different tiers of government is critical to restore the faith of citizens in their government. Even in the midst of the pandemic, the first steps towards this remediation of institutional ruptures must commence.

Clear and transparent communication is the need of this hour, and the best antidote to rumours and false information. This is a time for truth and a time for compassion. In this spirit, the government must accept plain speaking and criticism of its actions in the media, rather than expending precious energies in stifling voices of dissent. Social media platforms should be free to disseminate useful information rather than being persecuted. Alleviating the suffering of millions of Indians will require the cooperation and support of each one of us.

This is no time for scientific nationalism. We must be open to help in the form of knowledge, vaccines, technology, and equipment from the most qualified global agencies. Global challenges demand pooling of goodwill and sharing of resources. At the same time, national resources must be converged on the manufacturing and supplying of pandemic related equipment. Repurposing some public sector plants to supply oxygen has begun belatedly, but more can be done. On international platforms, we must push for suspension of patent protection for pandemic related medicines. The international community has been willing to extend an open hand offering help. We must accept this with grace.

Finally, this is a time for humanitarianism. Beyond all other isms. The light of truth and compassion must prevail. All actions must be selflessly non-partisan. Our training, our experience, our skills must all be deployed in the service of the nation and not sequestered within organisations and government departments, concealed in layers of political ideology. We must ensure that the spirit of our country remains intact, and that our words and actions embody the core values of decency, dignity, empathy and compassion.

Victory over the pandemic and succour for the traumatised soul of the nation will not come so easily. A three pronged approach with mass vaccination, massive support for healthcare infrastructure, and an unprecedented deployment and distribution of provisions and medication must be carefully planned, logistically streamlined and implemented quickly. Assets like our post office network and community service centres must supplement the efforts of the existing health infrastructure to deliver and administer vaccines. We must swiftly adopt best practices from other nations where active inoculation, widespread public use of masks, direct financial support to the needy, and successful messaging of treatment protocols have mitigated the worst of the ongoing pandemic.

We may have lost this battle, but we must still prevail in this war. This is a time for our national leadership to look within, to put aside differences, and to come together in a great outpouring of support for our people. Irrespective of our individual political affiliations or ideological leaning, we should all be committed to the resolution of the present crisis. No individual or organisation can achieve this alone. Thoughtful, inclusive and deliberative measures to course correct are urgently needed. The lives of our people — today and tomorrow — are at stake.

This article first appeared in the print edition on May 1, 2021 under the title ‘Let’s put up a better fight’. Pilot is former Union Minister of Corporate Affairs.

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