The COVID-19 pandemic has been a wake-up call for every country, big and small, rich or poor, developed or developing. It has opened our eyes to the fragility of our healthcare systems, the instability of our economic structures, rising communal hatred, and to the vulnerabilities of our societies. How well we cope with this crisis will depend on how we respond to local — not only global — realities, and how well we recover from the crisis will depend on how willing we are to reorganise our priorities when we rebuild.
In the face of a highly contagious virus, the need to act is acute. Yet in a country like India, where the urban poor live on the streets, in slums, or cheek-by-jowl in one and two-room housing; where their limited supply of water must be fetched from community water taps; and where hundreds use the few neighbourhood toilets, it is nearly impossible to implement what is paradoxically called social distancing, vigorous hand washing and vigilant decontamination.
Similarly, for millions of daily-wage earners, migrant workers, and self-employed workers, staying home is just not an option. A day without work is a day without food. Daily-wage earners have negligible savings to fall back on, so they must borrow to survive. Extended periods of borrowing reduces the likelihood of recovery, almost exponentially. How is a large, vulnerable population, caught in a spiral of debt, to build a healthy economy? They are victims of two pandemics, one medical and the other economic.
Have we not known that our working poor have hardly any effective and adequate safety net? As a nation, we have yet to achieve large-scale results and put in concerted efforts to build systems and structures to support them. As a result, pre-existing poverty has exacerbated the impact of the pandemic and compounded the problems we are left to deal with.
So what can we do differently and more to go forward? How do we build a better society that is not as susceptible to debt, disease, and devastation after the pandemic?
We begin by investing in the three basic needs of people — food, water, and shelter — and provide three primary basic services — healthcare, education, and banking — that people and societies need for their well-being. By focusing on these six needs and services, we can make sure that our post-pandemic society is both sustainable and equitable.
Any doctor will tell you that the key to good health is nutritious food, clean water, fresh air, and physical and mental exercise. In short, after the pandemic, we need to invest heavily in preventive measures that care for and nurture the not-sick. Let us build local food networks that make fresh, local grain, milk, and vegetables affordable and available to every last citizen. Because food is a healthcare issue. Let us provide clean water to urban and rural communities by building tanks, harvesting rainwater, digging ponds, and cleaning our existing water bodies. Because water is a healthcare issue. Let us take this opportunity to clean our environment by building toilets, by recycling our industrial waste, composting our organic waste, planting trillion trees, and by using solar and other renewable energies to meet our fuel needs. Because fresh air is a healthcare issue. And let us make all work decent work, that provides a good income, life insurance, disability assistance that can sustain the worker — especially the migrant worker, her family and her community. Because work is a healthcare issue.
Let us facilitate the young and vulnerable self-employed in their entrepreneurship by providing access to local markets, capabilities and training, sustained capital, and nimble credit so they do not sink into debt and despair. Therefore, banking too is a healthcare issue. Let us nurture education inside and outside the walls of a schoolroom, promoting literacy, and hands-on learning, and skill development that enriches the minds and hearts and promotes wellbeing. In this way, education is also a healthcare issue.
Lastly, let us remind ourselves of the lessons the pandemic is teaching us. When one member of the family falls sick, the entire family is affected, and soon the community is affected, the nation is affected, and then other communities in other nations. The wellbeing of one individual has an impact on people on the other side of the globe. This is true of every action of ours. What we eat, what we buy, what we think, and what we do has reverberations and repercussions on all life on earth. It is this anubandh, this interconnectedness, that sustains all life on earth. We are all in this together, whether we choose to see it or not.
This article was first published in the Indian Express under the title ‘What good health means’. The writer founded SEWA in 1972 and was its general secretary till 1996. She is presently Chancellor, Gujarat Vidyapith
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