If we are indeed able to join hands to beat a new pathway for our collective futures, built with the elements of our grief, our rage and our hope, where, on the other side of the pandemic, will this lead us to?
My greatest yearning is that first of all – indeed, most of all – this place we reach must be a place of kindness. A place founded on a new social contract that is built with all the elements of fraternity. Of the recognition of shared sisterhood and brotherhood, beyond all barriers of religion, class, race, caste and gender. Of being ever-mindful of our belonging to and with each other, of the moral imperative of caring for each other, of feeling the pain and injustice of the other as though it is our own.
As we remember – with grief, rage and hope – this should spur a radical imagination of a vastly different India – although for younger Indians it might be harder to do so, because this is the only India that they have seen.
But the wrenching tragedy of the pandemic must persuade us – the people of India, and indeed the world – that a more humane and egalitarian planet is possible. Those who aspire for a kinder world must not miss this moment, when the pandemic has revealed to us the horror of our moral collapse and of economic and social arrangements that privilege some lives, but treat millions others as expendable. The struggle of our times must be for a new social contract, of people with their governments and people with each other, based on solidarity and inclusion.
Imagine, for instance, a country which has secured free and quality public healthcare for every citizen, a guarantee of food for all, workers’ rights to social security and wage payments for all during lockdowns, decent ventilated housing and clean water for everyone.
All of this and the deaths and unemployment that engulfed millions could have been eschewed. If millions of working people had more money in their hands, the greatest contraction of the economy since Independence in India could have been forestalled.
If decent social housing and clean water supply had been secured by governments for all residents, it would have enabled the millions today forced into overcrowded airless slum shanties to protect themselves by keeping distance in well-ventilated tenements and washing their hands regularly.
A Tsunami of Suffering
How the second wave of Covid-19 devastated India.
Millennials might argue: all of this is unattainable. What, then, is the point of painting scenarios of unreachable utopias?
But just as the humanitarian crisis today could have been prevented, the alternative is eminently feasible, if only people and governments commit themselves to the goals of justice, equality and fraternity.
India spends only 3.54% of its budgetary resources on healthcare, much less (as noted by the non-profit Oxfam) than other middle-income countries like Brazil at 9.51%, South Africa at 8.25% and China at 5.35%. Income inequalities reduce life chances in India even more for those disadvantaged by caste, gender and religious identity. The life expectancy of a Dalit woman, for instance, is 14 years less than that of an upper-caste woman.
Confronted by a broken and starved public health system, even the poor have to rely on private health providers and 60% of health spending in India is out-of-pocket, among the highest in the world and a major cause of falling into poverty.
In the pandemic the exclusions were even more spectacular. Oxfam found middle-class families spending Rs 4 lakh a day in private hospitals during the second wave, what a casual worker would earn in 1,000 days of finding work.
The starting point of my reimagination of a new, kinder India is for the state to assume responsibility to provide good-quality healthcare, education, food, pension, clean water and housing, for free or in affordable ways for all citizens.
Economist Prabhat Patnaik, in his contribution to the India Exclusion Report brought out by the Centre for Equity Studies in 2021, declares that to resource all of this would entail a public resolve to expand the taxation of the super-rich.
Sufficient to fund all of this, he calculates, is two taxes levied only on the top 1% of the population – a wealth tax of 2% and an inheritance tax of 33%. The Indian government is doing the opposite. It withdrew wealth tax in 2015 and reduced the already low levels of corporate tax. The result is regressive taxation burdening the poor and abysmally low public spending, spawning the human catastrophe witnessed during the pandemic.
We must face the future with courage, equanimity, faith in science and solidarity beyond national boundaries, class, wealth, gender, race and caste. And together build a world that is kinder, more equal and more just and therefore better equipped to prevent and confront a global health and humanitarian crisis the next time.
However, many times in the years that lie ahead, our capacity to love and care and dream will be challenged and endangered: every time our leaders intoxicate us with the heady hate of people only for the god they worship. Every time we scorn people for the caste they are born into.
Every time we are inebriated in our pursuit of the good life for ourselves amid the hopeless lives of millions, without food, jobs, schools, hospitals, clean water and the possibilities of escape into a future of dignity.
For all of these, I wrote this history of the pandemic and its million tragedies and betrayals, in the fond hope that it might help jog our memory and stir within us grief, rage, hope and the resolve to build a new world of kindness.
In this place of kindness, if a pandemic like Covid-19 were to hit us once again, there would be so many things we would do differently. We would never impose lockdowns, except as a last resort, and when we did fall back on this recourse, these would be local, targeted and planned carefully to ensure that the most disadvantaged could cope and survive.
All workers who were outside the formal economy would be assured the equivalent of at least minimum wages for as long as the lockdown and its downstream impacts lasted and free food rations for every household.
We would protect small and medium businesses with grants and by waiving their loans. There would be arrangements to reach cooked meals, provisions and medicines to older people, persons with disability and people in isolation and quarantine.
We would empty jails of all those charged or convicted of less serious crimes and all political prisoners. Schools would be the last to shut and the first to open, and as far as possible students would learn in the safety of open spaces and be nourished by school meals all through the calamity.
For healthcare, no essential public health services would be closed to redeploy beds and personnel to Covid-19 care. Instead, for the period of the pandemic, private health services would be nationalised and every trained health hand and every hospital bed would be deployed not for private profit but to join in the national enterprise of fighting the pandemic equitably.
New hospital beds would be created for Covid-19 care, quarantine and isolation, in large campuses like stadiums, universities and shrines, and health personnel deployed in sufficient numbers from the national pool of both public and private doctors, nurses and technicians. Testing would be free and widespread and data related to infection, illness and death open and shared in real-time.
Major hospitals would be supported to establish captive units to produce medical oxygen in sufficient amounts without the challenges of cross-country transportation. Patents would be suspended and there would be compulsory licensing to ensure that sufficient quantities of free vaccines and essential medicines at reasonable prices would be made available for all.
Once the pandemic passes, we would in this place of kindness take steps to ensure that the next time a disaster hits us, we would be ready to face it in ways that would protect with dignity and equity the “last person” in society. This would require many fundamental changes.
First among these would be by deploying a legal regime of universal social rights – to healthcare, equal education, pensions, work and decent housing for everyone. This would require the creation of an entire public superstructure for each of these services, one designed to work for the public good and not private profit. Every person would, for instance, be assured of free treatment in a public health system that is strengthened most at the primary levels.
Pensions would be universal for the elderly, single women and persons with disability, fixed at half the statutory minimum wage. Farmers’ incomes would be protected. An urban employment guarantee programme would be introduced, even as the rural work guarantee would be enhanced.
The government would invest in affordable social housing for every citizen. To make all of this possible, the super-rich would be taxed a great deal more, with wealth and inheritance taxes. For workers, labour rights to decent wages, safe working conditions, job security, maternity entitlements and the right to organise themselves, would be secured.
Only a world of kindness would be equal, just and free. This would be a place in which people of privilege would reject and fight any policy that offered them protection, safety and opportunities to advance their lives, but block these to others. It would reject arrangements of work in which nine out of 10 workers are informal, unprotected by labour rights.
In which just one of these 10 workers would be sheltered against future catastrophes with job security, legal rights to decent and safe conditions of work, and social security, while the remaining nine workers would be buffeted even in normal times to seek any kind of work on any terms in any corner of the country, and in disasters to overnight be thrown into joblessness, hunger and penury.
This place of kindness would reject arrangements for healthcare in which one section of the population would be able to access hospital services that match the most expensive in the world, and the other large majority would have to depend on broken public hospitals starved of personnel, equipment and public funds.
It would rebuff a country in which eight out of 10 doctors, including many educated with taxpayers’ money, choose to work for the for-profit private health system, whereas only two are employed in public health.
It would resist responses to disasters in which governments exert strenuously to preserve private profit over the public good. It would reject policies that allow India’s richest man to add Rs 90 crore to his wealth every hour ever since the pandemic began, while the working poor grappled with mass hunger and joblessness, millions of the precarious middle classes were pushed into poverty, and even larger numbers of the poor were pushed far deeper into a stubborn impoverishment that would be harder to escape.
It would disallow substituting classroom education with online instruction knowing that this strategy excludes the majority of children from any kind of learning. It would discard designs of cities in which half to two-thirds of the populations are forced to crowd into poorly ventilated unsanitary shanties, deprived of clean air and water that is critical for human health.
It would fight the demonising of any community for the spread of a virus to hide the culpability of state ineptitude and hubris. This and much, much more would mark out our place of kindness, crafted from our journeys of grief, rage and hope.
The pandemic revealed so much of where humankind had lost its way. We must create pathways to find and claim our best selves.
Read the other parts of the “Tsunami of suffering” series here.
Harsh Mander is a Richard von Weizsacker Fellow, Chairperson of the Centre for Equity Studies and convenes the Karwan e Mohabbat, a people’s campaign to fight hate crime with solidarity and atonement.