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Was India Ever Prepared To Handle A Calamity Like Coronavirus?

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This post is a part of YKA’s dedicated coverage of the novel coronavirus outbreak and aims to present factual, reliable information. Read more.
NAGAON,INDIA-MARCH 22,2020: A Doctor use thermal screening devices on youth who return from Kerela state in the wake of deadly coronavirus at Civil Hospital in Nagaon district of Assam,India – PHOTOGRAPH BY Anuwar Ali Hazarika / Barcroft Studios / via Getty Images)

As of today, June 19, India’s COVID-19 cases tally has crossed three lakhs (3,18,000) with around 12,573 deaths. India is fourth in the global count, 8,602,039 cases, with 456,791 deaths.

COVID-19 causes severe infection, and, in severe acute cases, death. The disease may also be asymptomatic, the ‘why’ and ‘how’ of it are still under research. Persons otherwise sick and suffering, such as diabetics, or those with respiratory problems, fever, lung infection (pneumonia), and elderly are more vulnerable. Those under-nourished, with weak immune systems, particularly the weaker sections and those at the margins of society are also more prone to the disease.

COVID-19 And Humanity

Humanity has never been free from diseases, but COVID-19 is the first to engulf the whole of it. The world was not prepared for such a global calamity, or calamity of planetary dimensions. Apart from the virologic and medical reasons, the cycle runs thus: Humanity-induced COVID-19; COVID-19 induced the pandemic across the globe; pandemic induced lockdowns; lockdowns induced human insulation, hardship, misery, distress deaths, and so on.

The main reason for the global spread of the disease can be attributed to globalisation since the 1980s, resulting in the global integration of various economies and societies, facilitating more travel, meetings, summit humanitarianism, hugging, hand-shakes, and so on.

COVID-19 first hit Wuhan in China, between August and December 2019. When the infection began to spread across the countries, and death toll began to increase, the very news of the disease was so frightening that many thought the world, the human world, is nearing its end.

People generally had a sinking feeling, fear of death rushing to them; or briefly, the fear of the Biblical apocalypse – an event involving destruction or damage on a catastrophic scale. The rest is not yet history, it is present, and the future has yet to unfold.

A recent email from Darren Walker, Ford Foundation President, began thus:
“We are experiencing the unprecedented. The world we knew before COVID-19 has been permanently upended. Our lives—our histories—are forever split in two: before coronavirus and after.”

Indian doctors wait in an area set aside for possible COVID-19 patients at a free screening camp at a government run homeopathic hospital in New Delhi, India, Friday, March 13, 2020. The camp is part of the government’s surveillance for fever and other symptoms related to the coronavirus. The vast majority of people recover from the new virus. According to the World Health Organization, people with mild illness recover in about two weeks, while those with more severe illness may take three to six weeks to recover. (AP Photo/Manish Swarup)

The World Before

Let me start with the ‘before’. In our case, in the case of India, COVID-19 has been an eye-opener of a failed state and a failed nation for 70 years since it became a democratic republic. The phrase ‘nation-building’ remained mere rhetoric.

Nation-building, to the extent it took place, helped mainly the historically and traditionally entrenched upper castes. As a result, India lacked, and is still lacking the much needed basic and developmental infrastructure, distributive justice, planning and development of inclusive institutional frameworks to take care of citizens as a whole irrespective of caste, class, or creed.

In other words, many Indians still lack the much-needed provisions for food, clothing, shelter, education, healthcare, and employment. All these together are needed for a reasonably happy, decent, dignified and peaceful living by individuals, families, and societies at large.

Instead of focusing on these issues, our politicians wasted valuable time of the nation and its people for vote-banks based on caste, language, communal and religious formations, and so on. The result has been a dormant society, a society in stasis (a state of inactivity), in moral turpitude, devoid of physical, intellectual, and moral development – a society devoid of disparities and discriminations.

What we now have is a discordant society of disparate social groups whose markers of social status, social welfare or illfare were laid down long before India’s Independence.

The World After

The year 2014 was expected to bring in a new era with Narendra Modi as PM. We thought the BJP’s election manifesto of  “Sabkha Sath, Sabka Vikas” will be a dream-come-true. But it turned out to be a manifesto of betrayals, and we began to continue again in a nation betrayed by its own elected leaders. I shall not go into the last six years of Modi’s rule. I have done it elsewhere.

The COVID-19 ‘Hobgoblin’

As COVID-19 is between the ‘before’ and ‘after’ mentioned above, a few words on it. We are familiar with bacteria. All of them do not cause disease. Some of them are used in food (Yogurt), as preservatives, and are necessary for human health and even preventing diseases (immune-boosting effects, ie. probiotics).  It is too early to talk about the world or, in our case, India, after COVID-19. By one estimate, the dreaded disease and deaths caused by it are said to continue for at least 36 months.

India’s COVID-19 Politics

Indian PM Modi and USA President Trump.

The virus might have appeared in August 2019, though its outbreak was in December or so. As a neighbouring country, India should have immediately started preparations to prevent the spread of the disease. Instead, PM Modi frittered away the nation’s time first by hobnobbing with Donald Trump, and then in electoral manipulations.

When Modi eventually announced the nation’s lockdown on March 25, with just four hours’ notice to the states (a reflection of his autocratic style) it was a case of too little, too late. He passed on the responsibility of dealing with Covid-19 to the state governments.

With far too inadequate medical, spatial and related paraphernalia or material and human resources, the states began to scramble to protect their citizens, with whatever resources they could garner.

Poor Preparedness

In a country where public health, public education, and public housing (free or affordable) are scarce, and the available facilities are not well-managed, private institutions thrive for commerce and greed. That has been happening during the handling of COVID-19 also.

India is not new to calamities. It has a Disaster Management Act, and it has mandated CSR under the Companies Act, 2013 Despite this, there are not enough public places and public spaces for rescue and rehabilitation in calamities. As India is also not new to epidemics or pandemics, that is, contagious diseases, given the poor literacy and educational levels of our population, and lack of awareness on matters of individual and social concern, not much was done to sensitise the people about the disease, and the precautions to be taken to protect themselves.

A complex in Noida extension area lit up with candles and diyas during the Janata Curfew. Photo: Victor Dasgupta

Modi’s exhortation of the ‘balconywallas‘ to ‘power off’ for ten minutes, light candles, or switch on the light on our mobiles, was trivia, mainly because many people do not have such facilities– those without any shelter, and so on. In any case, how that would have prevented COVID-19 is another Modi-mystery. Most sensibly, the Kerala CM said the measure was unscientific, though he switched off the lights and lighted candles out of respect for the PM’s chair.

Draconian Lockdown

In India the usage of ‘social distancing‘ is an insult to injury; for we all know that Indian society is still caste-based, and traditionally thrived on ‘distance and touch pollution’. Ideally, the usage should have been ‘physical distancing’.

But even this is impractical in many cases as people huddle in limited spaces, and cannot live without touching each other and without physical proximity.

Cleanliness: Frequent hand-wash, use of sanitizers, and use of costly face-masks. Who could go for such luxuries in a country where many people do not get even potable water?

That sudden demand for these items and the scarce supply of life-saving drugs and ventilators helped the business class to hurriedly go for such products – whether genuine, spurious, dubious, are debatable – with COVID-19 labels and stickers on them to augment their wealth is a different issue.

Hamstrung masses: Lockdown meant draconian prohibitions and restrictions such as on workplaces, movement of people, street vendors, and those who made a living from casual work, manual labour, work in hotels, salons, and restrictions on travel, quarantine for returnees, and so on. To all of them, the lockdown meant untold hardship, denial and deprivation of opportunities, and the loss of lives and livelihood sources.

Physical dislocation: Worst still, is physical dislocation. From the time of the lockdown, people were not allowed to be on the move.

Migrant Labourers
Migrant Labourers forced to walk home during the Coronavirus lockdown in India.

We have seen pathetic scenes on TV channels, of people unable to see their dear ones even when dead. We have read reports of persons cycling hundreds of miles to see a dear one on their death-bed. We have seen lakhs of people ‘escaping’, not so much from COVID-19, as from the fear of death, rigours of lockdown, walking hundreds of miles to reach their homes. Many died on the way out of exhaustion and starvation. Many died on rail tracks. Many died by suicide. I am referring to what is reported in the media as migrant workers.

They are not migrants. They are Indian citizens whose life and liberty are supposedly protected by our Constitution; and whose education, employment, health, happiness, and so on are also within the ambit of the Constitution.

If the nation has failed to integrate the workers in the unorganised sector and their families with the mainstream society even after 70 years, will mutations of myriad viruses getting into our blood cells, infecting and killing many, bring in a new humane order, and new social arrangements of equality and fair play; humanise our economy, polity and society, and bring about a new normal? I doubt it.

PM Modi may wish away the COVID-19 cataclysm with the cliché “let the devil take the hindmost.” And, here is another wag from Kollam in Kerala who has installed the idol of Corona Devi (goddess COVID-19) at a shrine attached to his home, a replica of SARS-CoV-2 with its spiky tentacles, as a new addition to the pantheon of 33 crore Hindu gods.

To conclude, if COVID-19 gives up its grip on our country, COVID-19 would have proved George Orwell (1984) right: “As a nation, we will be in the tight grip of tried and tested surveillance machinery.”

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An ambassador and trained facilitator under Eco Femme (a social enterprise working towards menstrual health in south India), Sanjina is also an active member of the MHM Collective- India and Menstrual Health Alliance- India. She has conducted Menstrual Health sessions in multiple government schools adopted by Rotary District 3240 as part of their WinS project in rural Bengal. She has also delivered training of trainers on SRHR, gender, sexuality and Menstruation for Tomorrow’s Foundation, Vikramshila Education Resource Society, Nirdhan trust and Micro Finance, Tollygunj Women In Need, Paint It Red in Kolkata.

Now as an MH Fellow with YKA, she’s expanding her impressive scope of work further by launching a campaign to facilitate the process of ensuring better menstrual health and SRH services for women residing in correctional homes in West Bengal. The campaign will entail an independent study to take stalk of the present conditions of MHM in correctional homes across the state and use its findings to build public support and political will to take the necessary action.

Saurabh has been associated with YKA as a user and has consistently been writing on the issue MHM and its intersectionality with other issues in the society. Now as an MHM Fellow with YKA, he’s launched the Right to Period campaign, which aims to ensure proper execution of MHM guidelines in Delhi’s schools.

The long-term aim of the campaign is to develop an open culture where menstruation is not treated as a taboo. The campaign also seeks to hold the schools accountable for their responsibilities as an important component in the implementation of MHM policies by making adequate sanitation infrastructure and knowledge of MHM available in school premises.

Read more about his campaign.

Harshita is a psychologist and works to support people with mental health issues, particularly adolescents who are survivors of violence. Associated with the Azadi Foundation in UP, Harshita became an MHM Fellow with YKA, with the aim of promoting better menstrual health.

Her campaign #MeriMarzi aims to promote menstrual health and wellness, hygiene and facilities for female sex workers in UP. She says, “Knowledge about natural body processes is a very basic human right. And for individuals whose occupation is providing sexual services, it becomes even more important.”

Meri Marzi aims to ensure sensitised, non-discriminatory health workers for the needs of female sex workers in the Suraksha Clinics under the UPSACS (Uttar Pradesh State AIDS Control Society) program by creating more dialogues and garnering public support for the cause of sex workers’ menstrual rights. The campaign will also ensure interventions with sex workers to clear misconceptions around overall hygiene management to ensure that results flow both ways.

Read more about her campaign.

MH Fellow Sabna comes with significant experience working with a range of development issues. A co-founder of Project Sakhi Saheli, which aims to combat period poverty and break menstrual taboos, Sabna has, in the past, worked on the issue of menstruation in urban slums of Delhi with women and adolescent girls. She and her team also released MenstraBook, with menstrastories and organised Menstra Tlk in the Delhi School of Social Work to create more conversations on menstruation.

With YKA MHM Fellow Vineet, Sabna launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society. As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Read more about her campaign. 

A student from Delhi School of Social work, Vineet is a part of Project Sakhi Saheli, an initiative by the students of Delhi school of Social Work to create awareness on Menstrual Health and combat Period Poverty. Along with MHM Action Fellow Sabna, Vineet launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society.

As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Find out more about the campaign here.

A native of Bhagalpur district – Bihar, Shalini Jha believes in equal rights for all genders and wants to work for a gender-equal and just society. In the past she’s had a year-long association as a community leader with Haiyya: Organise for Action’s Health Over Stigma campaign. She’s pursuing a Master’s in Literature with Ambedkar University, Delhi and as an MHM Fellow with YKA, recently launched ‘Project अल्हड़ (Alharh)’.

She says, “Bihar is ranked the lowest in India’s SDG Index 2019 for India. Hygienic and comfortable menstruation is a basic human right and sustainable development cannot be ensured if menstruators are deprived of their basic rights.” Project अल्हड़ (Alharh) aims to create a robust sensitised community in Bhagalpur to collectively spread awareness, break the taboo, debunk myths and initiate fearless conversations around menstruation. The campaign aims to reach at least 6000 adolescent girls from government and private schools in Baghalpur district in 2020.

Read more about the campaign here.

A psychologist and co-founder of a mental health NGO called Customize Cognition, Ritika forayed into the space of menstrual health and hygiene, sexual and reproductive healthcare and rights and gender equality as an MHM Fellow with YKA. She says, “The experience of working on MHM/SRHR and gender equality has been an enriching and eye-opening experience. I have learned what’s beneath the surface of the issue, be it awareness, lack of resources or disregard for trans men, who also menstruate.”

The Transmen-ses campaign aims to tackle the issue of silence and disregard for trans men’s menstruation needs, by mobilising gender sensitive health professionals and gender neutral restrooms in Lucknow.

Read more about the campaign here.

A Computer Science engineer by education, Nitisha started her career in the corporate sector, before realising she wanted to work in the development and social justice space. Since then, she has worked with Teach For India and Care India and is from the founding batch of Indian School of Development Management (ISDM), a one of its kind organisation creating leaders for the development sector through its experiential learning post graduate program.

As a Youth Ki Awaaz Menstrual Health Fellow, Nitisha has started Let’s Talk Period, a campaign to mobilise young people to switch to sustainable period products. She says, “80 lakh women in Delhi use non-biodegradable sanitary products, generate 3000 tonnes of menstrual waste, that takes 500-800 years to decompose; which in turn contributes to the health issues of all menstruators, increased burden of waste management on the city and harmful living environment for all citizens.

Let’s Talk Period aims to change this by

Find out more about her campaign here.

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A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

A Gender Rights Activist working with the tribal and marginalized communities in india, Srilekha is a PhD scholar working on understanding body and sexuality among tribal girls, to fill the gaps in research around indigenous women and their stories. Srilekha has worked extensively at the grassroots level with community based organisations, through several advocacy initiatives around Gender, Mental Health, Menstrual Hygiene and Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights (SRHR) for the indigenous in Jharkhand, over the last 6 years.

Srilekha has also contributed to sustainable livelihood projects and legal aid programs for survivors of sex trafficking. She has been conducting research based programs on maternal health, mental health, gender based violence, sex and sexuality. Her interest lies in conducting workshops for young people on life skills, feminism, gender and sexuality, trauma, resilience and interpersonal relationships.

A Guwahati-based college student pursuing her Masters in Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Bidisha started the #BleedwithDignity campaign on the technology platform, demanding that the Government of Assam install
biodegradable sanitary pad vending machines in all government schools across the state. Her petition on has already gathered support from over 90000 people and continues to grow.

Bidisha was selected in’s flagship program ‘She Creates Change’ having run successful online advocacy
campaigns, which were widely recognised. Through the #BleedwithDignity campaign; she organised and celebrated World Menstrual Hygiene Day, 2019 in Guwahati, Assam by hosting a wall mural by collaborating with local organisations. The initiative was widely covered by national and local media, and the mural was later inaugurated by the event’s chief guest Commissioner of Guwahati Municipal Corporation (GMC) Debeswar Malakar, IAS.

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