How India is outsourcing the COVID-19 pandemic to its poor

10 May 2020
There is enough evidence in the public domain to show the complete failure of social distancing and the lockdown.
Anushree Fadnavis/REUTERS
There is enough evidence in the public domain to show the complete failure of social distancing and the lockdown.
Anushree Fadnavis/REUTERS

As someone who has faithfully been locked down for several weeks, albeit more comfortably than the millions who have been ambushed into homelessness and hunger, I seek to know what is the policy that underlies this infliction. It is not good enough to say that we have not one but several policies, that we have policies from one week to the next: breaking the chain, flattening the curve, whatever. Multiple policies, or policies that change from one day to the next, are not policies. These are reactions, incoherent responses papered over with rhetoric. Given this incoherence, my intention is rather to consider the practice of the state, and seek to infer the policy from that practice.

Of course, one effect of this incoherence is that it vastly empowers the minions of the state. In the absence of clear rules, the cop with a stick is the law. Indeed, he is everything—he is the rules, he is the policy, he is the law. We recognise this as the everyday reality of our pre-COVID lives. But is this good enough to deal with the pandemic? Banging pots and pans, lighting candles, bursting firecrackers—these gestures and gimmicks cannot be a substitute for a policy. So, I insist, what is the policy?

Ostensibly, this policy is the one being followed in big and powerful “foreign” countries: the lockdown is intended to “flatten the curve,” so that the number of cases do not overwhelm the health facilities, as the white man says in rich white countries. Now, I understand that we would like to play in the big leagues—to be a superpower, or vishwaguru—but mere imitation cannot suffice for a policy. What health facilities do they have in mind? What is the number of Intensive Care Unit beds in the country? State by state, city by city? There are over a hundred districts where there are no ICU beds at all. Forget ventilators, the patients waiting in the filthy hospital corridors will die of other infections anyway—perhaps that is a way of reducing COVID-19 deaths?

If the detailed data on the alleged number of health facilities is not available, or if the data is too shocking to be revealed, the government must stop this brazen mendacity. How “flat” would the curve have to be for the real health facilities not to be overwhelmed? It is widely believed that the health facilities—our jolly euphemism for the squalid and underfunded butcher-shops we call “public hospitals”—are always already-overwhelmed, so stop pretending.

In any case, the lockdown is a disaster—the epic migrant-labour caravans, the congested holding centres, such as schools and “shelter homes” where migrant workers were being housed, and, not to be forgotten, the bleach spray in Bareilly. There is enough evidence in the public domain to show the complete failure of social distancing and the lockdown. The question is—were these ongoing tragedies predictable, even avoidable? Perhaps not: the virus is unarguably vicious. And, after all, we are assured that the lockdown has saved thousands of lives—so perhaps someone could do a morbid tally of the lives saved by the lockdown, as against the lives and livelihoods lost due to the lockdown.

Alok Rai doesn’t live in Delhi anymore.

Keywords: COVID-19 coronavirus coronavirus lockdown migrant workers health policy
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