Tuesday, Nov 29, 2022

As Covid and institutional failures ravage us, a lament for what we’ve lost

Like the ambulance sirens that seek clearance of passage during the pandemic, we must wail and wail to make way for new pathways.

A system stretched beyond its limits makes victims of those who should be saviours.

Just as the ambulance sirens wail their way through traffic, we must now wail our collective grief for the multiple losses as we negotiate the thickness of this Covid pandemic and the dense failure of our institutions.

Wail, our young, earning members are dying. In celebrating the passage of the first wave as a success of administration, there was hubris. The rulers forgot to recognise that it requires experts in epidemiology and medicine to plan and treat a billion-plus population. Instead, a coterie posed as advisors and overlooked the virus lurking at the door.

Wail, hundreds of doctors, nurses, and health staff have died. A system stretched beyond its limits makes victims of those who should be saviours. A medical system that was not meant to serve the public but was seen as an exclusive sector, a new kind of industry, a source of lucre, becomes the new battleground.

Wail, there are now thousands of Covid orphans. The most vulnerable in society fall through the cracks of an uncaring regime. The future awaits them in institutionalised forms and processes. Their past personal lives erased to make way for a present that is impersonal and impervious.

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Wail, thousands of teachers on election duty die from Covid. Carried away by anticipated electoral victory, the rulers don’t consider teachers to be frontline personnel. The worth of their lives is now measured and weighed for the compensation that may be paid and their families negotiate the social and emotional loss against potential economic gain.

Wail, panchayats, the foundational institutions of decentralised democracy, have empty coffers and offer no basic aid, relief or succour to the millions who have lost livelihoods and who in the present are ill. But, the coffers to build a temple that seeks to undo history and rewrite the past, and a new palace that aspires to define posterity, are overflowing with public and private funds.

Wail, farmers stare at unsold produce, heaps of vegetables, fruits and grain — the fruition of their hard labour. At the gates outside Delhi, farmers privilege principles and determination over their own safety and health. The government that seeks to liberalise farmers from restrictive markets continues to build barricades and barriers against the farmers’ perseverance and persistence.


Wail, a black market for Covid medicines arises. Indispensable drugs become invisible and shadowy figures cite high-stake numbers to desperate families. A parallel economy that functions with impunity grows into a new lucrative market and neither humanity nor probity make a dent in the new medical black market.

Wail, breast-feeding infants are distanced from their Covid-afflicted mothers. Fear and misinformation mark their trauma and the gut-wrenching cries of hungry babies echo in the crowded homes of Covid-afflicted families.

Wail, frail and dependent elders are abandoned. On side-walks and under bridges, on footpaths and in desolate homes, elderly women and men stretch out their once-proud hands and refuse to indict their desperate children for having abandoned them. Where welfare and well-being of the masses have become dirty words in the lexicon of neo-liberalism, the elderly become the first to be considered redundant.


Wail, in the rules of the lockdown, liquor stores are permitted to serve as “essential commodities”. Rich and poor, literate and non-literate stand in the same line, a levelling act that neither society nor government have been able to do otherwise.

Wail, overcrowded hospitals and overworked medical personnel now highlight the failure of medical sector planning. Triage becomes the buzzword and password in the corridors, ICUs and operating theatres. Outside await the anxious family and friends for whom separation is as painful as the illness that has spread.

Wail, health workers in villages bear the wrath and frustration of the masses. Most are not vaccinated, are poorly paid, and are the footsoldiers of a poorly designed health system.

Wail, the cash registers of private hospitals hit casino levels as desperate people, with and without health insurance, crowd into them. People empty their life savings to save their loved ones and the economy of opportunistic bleeding finds no administrative regulation or moral compass.

Wail, in alley ways and side streets, quacks also make quick money. Their ignorance and mis-treatment provides temporary relief but no real solution. Many of the patients find their way into hospitals in a state of emergency.


Wail, the dead are cremated without final goodbyes and rituals. Truncated lives leave emotional scars too deep to fathom. The more desperate discard and abandon their dead. Images of mass cremation, abandoned bodies, and floating human carcass travel via media into private homes and transnational meets. A 21st century pandemic has recreated medieval horror.

Wail, wail, wail because our house built on imagined cultural superiority and religious fervour is now collapsing. Like the ambulance sirens that seek clearance of passage, we must wail and wail to make way for new pathways.


This column first appeared in the print edition on May 22, 2021 under the title ‘A lament for our times’. Vasavi, a social anthropologist, is with the Punarchith Collective

First published on: 22-05-2021 at 04:05:33 am
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