Delhi has been under a very tiring and sad lockdown for almost three weeks now. Last night, while searching helplessly for a movie to watch on Netflix, I stumbled upon Christopher Nolan’s science-fiction epic, Interstellar (2014).
It was not long before, that I was running across my room, searching for a notepad and a pen. “Murphy’s Law,” the movie talked about, “Everything that can go wrong, will.” I seemed to have found just the topic for my article.
As we stare at death through the screens of our smartphones and laptops, is it not about time that we ask ourselves, didn’t we see this coming? Wasn’t it supposed to go wrong any moment? Exactly in the way in which Murphy’s Law warned us?
India, for decades, has been a country that is infamous for its fragile health infrastructure. As of February 2020, the doctor to patient ratio in India was 1:1,404 against the WHO’s suggested ratio of 1:1,000. What makes this data worse is the fact that the ratio in rural areas stood at 1:10,926. Along with it, it is an open secret that the condition of civil hospitals and primary healthcare in our country is not the best.
In his book Poor Economics, the Nobel Laureate Abhijit Banerjee writes: “In the slums of Delhi, a study found that only 34 per cent of the ‘doctors’ had a formal medical degree.” Although the data is not very recent, but it holds a mirror to the state of health infrastructure of India.
A global problem that needs attention is that WHO’s funding is totally based on voluntary contributions by the countries. It means that any major country can coerce the revered organisation to take or refrain from taking any significant step in case of any health emergency. The ominous treats thrown by Donald Trump last year to cut WHO’s funding, still ring loudly in my head. So does the reluctance of China, to let the WHO-led team of scientists inspect the origins of the virus.
In her book titled COVID-19: The Pandemic That Never Should Have Happened And How To Stop The Next One, Debora Mackenzie has pointed out how after the economic depression of 2008, major countries of the world decided to cut the public investment in the health sector. Even after a narrow escape during the 2014 Ebola outbreak, most of the governments seemed unconcerned about the severity of the situation. Most of it was simply because of the belief that it was ‘almost impossible’ to get struck by a pandemic of this scale in the 21st century. Well, talk about bad luck.
In India, there is another reason that made the matters worse. It is the continual fading of cooperative federalism. Today, most of the deaths in Delhi are happening because of the lack of oxygen. ‘Happy Hypoxia’ in the second wave requires a sudden supply of oxygen and that has been the major cause of deaths in the past month. Sadly, even when the oxygen was available, it could not reach hospitals in time.
When a national government is run like a one-man show and the Chief Ministers are kept at an arm’s length, such supply chain fallouts are bound to happen. The present extent of mistrust between the states and the centre was conspicuously visible in the Jharkhand CM Hemant Soren’s recent tweet. PM’s emphasis on cooperative federalism in rallies and speeches was full of just empty words, it seems.
आज आदरणीय प्रधानमंत्री जी ने फोन किया। उन्होंने सिर्फ अपने मन की बात की। बेहतर होता यदि वो काम की बात करते और काम की बात सुनते।
— Hemant Soren (@HemantSorenJMM) May 6, 2021
The lack of transparency regarding the PM Cares fund even in front of the legislature and the executive of this country is also a case in point. A ‘strongman’ image of the government can prove to be Narendra Modi’s hamartia this time. The Aristotelian model of one-way communication being followed by the NDA at the centre has only accentuated the faultlines.
In hindsight, the destruction and chaos spread by the second wave was surprisingly inevitable. The lack of effective means of questioning accompanied by the downfall of media ethics played a major role in hiding the mess that was unfolding.
The Indian government was waiting for the garbage to hit the fan without a broom in its hand. It started assembling the broomsticks only when the garbage was all over the walls and floor and ceiling. And believe me, it is a slow process. It takes at least 5 years to make a doctor, years of enthusiastic investment to boost the production of ventilators and decades of concerned deliberation to increase the number of hospitals in a country. Now, it will take years for us to come to terms with the loss we have faced, both emotional and economic.
Let this remind us that it is our duty to hold accountable, those in power with the strictest questions. And we must do that in every way possible.