Pandemic management has been a strong issue of debate in the recent few months after the Indian system nearly collapsed in the face of the second wave of the Covid-19 pandemic. Did India play the game right? Or there were plenty of loopholes in the system revealed during the severe mismanagement. Were all the pillars of the society playing the right role?
When in nursery class, I remember having played a game where a few of us would get together, form a ring holding each other’s hands, hop along with singing “Ring a ring o roses, a pocket full of posies, atishoo atishoo, we all fall down”, fall on the ground and have a good laugh!
Much later did I read up and realise it was a rhyme game for kids thought up during the Great Plague in England in 1665-66 depicting the pandemic that ravaged the land then. The “roses” were the red rashes on the body and face, the “posies” were the herbs for protection against and to hide the smell of the disease, the “atishoo” stood for sneezing as a symptom, and “all fall down” was the eventuality. Close to 100,000 lives were lost in London itself.
It is 360 years and continents apart, but this time it is us adults in India who have been playing this game in March, declaring the “second wave” of the pandemic open on our society.
“Society may subsist among different men, as among different merchants, from a sense of its utility without any mutual love or affection, if only they refrain from doing injury to each other.”~ Adam Smith
The root of the word “society” lies in the Latin noun ‘socius’ meaning friend or comrade. There are many definitions of society from Aristotle to August Comte.
The one definition I find most relevant today is one by Adam Smith.
“Society may subsist among different men, as among different merchants, from a sense of its utility without any mutual love or affection, if only they refrain from doing injury to each other.”
Sociologists say that there are typically three sectors of society – government, business and civil. In the context of our lives in the pandemic, I see six sectors/pillars of Indian society today – government, business, judiciary, religion, civil society, and media.
So, how did each pillar perform during the second wave of the pandemic, subsisting amongst the other sectors from a sense of utility, to use Adam Smith’s words?
In every society, some men are born to rule, and some to advise.~ Ralph Emerson
Ralph Emerson said, “In every society, some men are born to rule, and some to advise.”
The rulers and advisors make up the government, including planners and administrators. They are empowered to forecast, prepare, provide, involve, measure, and protect. They are the “maaibaap” of the millions of Indians.
The planners did not take lessons from the first wave in terms of creating adequate buffers in budgets and materials. This led to a complete breakdown of medical infrastructure.
The government refused to accept reality in March, having already declared victory over the virus a month ago on a global forum. Retracting would be a loss of face. The centre handed over the reins of a directionless chariot to the states in a cynical spirit of ‘federalism’.
The elections in five states were not postponed as that would be an affront to ‘democracy’. The Kumbh Mela was allowed to go ahead in obeisance to the ‘healing power of faith’. And government data was riddled with as many holes as a piece of cheese.
Society does not consist of individuals but expresses the sum of interrelations, the relations within which these individuals stand.~ Karl Marx
The administrators deployed too little and too late bearing the brunt of public ire at the ground level. They looked both helpless and depressed by the dance of death around them.
Karl Marx had written, “Society does not consist of individuals but expresses the sum of interrelations, the relations within which these individuals stand.”
Industry, or business, the second big pillar of society gave a mixed performance through the second wave. Some business houses stood tall and large in their initiatives and interventions taken, in very tight timelines.
Sadly, most large industry bodies did lip service, riding on the work of some exceptional members.
Sadly, most large industry bodies did lip service, riding on the work of some exceptional members. They were more bothered about sops to their members than work on the larger issue. Imagine if all the automobile plants across the country were to set up make-shift hospitals and oxygen manufacturing facilities under the aegis of SIAM! Or that a certain amount of money per vehicle sold in March and April would go to those who were setting up facilities of beds, oxygen, and medicines. Now that would be a collective impactful action. Sadly, none of the much-touted power of collective action was seen in any industry body.
The first principle of a free society is an untrammelled flow of words in an open forum.~ Adlai Stevenson, US Congressman
Management jargon like out-of-box thinking, collaboration, co-creation and networking were missing in on-ground implementation.
US Congressman Adlai Stevenson had remarked, “The first principle of a free society is an untrammelled flow of words in an open forum.”
When key pillars of society seem to falter, the judiciary typically steps in, to restore balance and governance, be it to do with electoral reforms, emission norms or corporate probity.
Except for a couple of lone voices, the entire judicial system maintained studied silence when the pandemic was at its worst. The elections could have been halted. The mela could have been postponed. Accountability could have been demanded from the day one. The logic of vaccine pricing could have been asked for in March itself. Warnings of the impending collapse of social infrastructure could have been issued early on. Teeth could have been shown but the judges sat behind the ruse of constitutional provisions to stay tight-lipped.
The further a society drifts from truth the more it will hate those who speak it.~ George Orwell
Only when the situation got totally out of hand and the media unshackled itself did the courts wake up and questioned the basics. The recent Supreme Court directive to the centre to give compensation against every Covid death is a firm right step. But sadly, a palliative one and not a preventive one.
“The further a society drifts from truth the more it will hate those who speak it”, commented George Orwell.
The second wave hit members of the media too as part of the Indian middle class that got engulfed this time.
The same applied to the media, social, asocial, and anti-social. Thankfully, this was one pillar that decided to stand and deliver. Possibly because the second wave hit members of the media too as part of the Indian middle class that got engulfed this time.
For once, the lines between the “LeLi” media and “Godi” media were blurred, with each taking up the cause of investigative journalism and depicting reality however uncomfortable it was for us consuming on the screen. While some members did veer to the extremes, the incessant coverage and questioning actually worked as an alarm to the key pillars to wake up. The lampooning that the government was subjected to was possibly the most intense since the anti-corruption uprising of 2010.
Society lives by faith and develops by science.~ Henri Amiel, Swiss philosopher
Over the last 14 months of the pandemic close to 235 journalists have lost their lives to the pandemic while reporting on the same as per the Geneva-based media rights body Press Emblem Campaign. Other reports like those of the Institute of Perception Studies and FirstPost hold the number at 150+. Media has been the third-largest casualty after Frontline Workers and Doctors. They have been martyrs in this protracted war!
Swiss philosopher Henri Amiel had said a hundred and fifty years ago, “Society lives by faith and develops by science.”
Organised faith, or “religion” was exposed in the second wave. Once lighting of ‘diyas’ and banging of vessels were done with in the first wave, it was time for one of the strongest pillars of society to show its true power in reaching out and caring for its faithful, irrespective of the book one followed. It was an unprecedented let-down.
Barring a few exceptions, none of the country’s largest religious establishments opened their coffers for the occasion. Most of them have bullion and jewellery worth billions that could be parted within a mere portion to heal millions. Each could set up large care facilities within their complexes and helped in procuring medicines for the millions who donate from their meagre earnings regularly. Some of them even sent petitions to the government asking for financial support!
Society exists only as a concept. In the real world there are only individuals.~ Oscar Wilde
And we had this ridiculous debate on methods or schools of treatment, with faith and pride being unnecessarily brought in for personal business benefits.
Hopefully one of the biggest learnings of society from the second wave has been clarity on the role and limitations of this venerable pillar in situations such as this.
“Society exists only as a concept. In the real world there are only individuals.”, warned Oscar Wilde.
And the warning came true as soon as the situation demanded that we refrain from doing injury to each other, using Adam Smith’s words.
We hoarded oxygen cylinders, medicines and even hospital beds. We bought oxygen concentrators when we did not need them. We sold counterfeit vials and capsules to the helpless. Even today we are conducting fraud vaccination camps like the ones in Kolkata and Mumbai. We charged four times the MRP on medicines. We sold half-filled oxygen cylinders to the unsuspecting. We increased the prices of lime, ginger, garlic and turmeric as they were suggested by doctors as part of medication.
We sold used masks as new. We over-charged on tests and vaccines. We did not allow Covid doctors to enter their homes in condominiums. We literally dumped our dead in the rivers and lakes. We buried them on the river banks in the dead of night. We charged Rs 10,000 for carrying a dead relative for 4 kilometres in an ambulance. We smuggled in drugs from neighbouring countries and sold them at twenty times the price to the desperate.
I do not think any other civil society that takes pride in legacy and civilization afflicted by the pandemic has acted in this pathetic manner.
We. It is we, the civil society. It is us, amongst us, maybe even one of us. We blame society but we are society! Sadly, as Wilde had said, we came across as only individuals, caring for only our own families without a bother for the others.
Society knows perfectly well how to kill a man and has methods more subtle than death.~ Andre Gide, Nobel laureate
Nobel laureate Andre Gide had lamented, “Society knows perfectly well how to kill a man and has methods more subtle than death.”
The second wave has exposed us as a society, with each pillar letting the others down in some way or the other. The government was apathetic. The industry was selfish. Judiciary was insular. The media was over-zealous. Religion was unmoved. And civil society was opportunistic.
We held each other’s hands, ran in circles, sneezed, gasped for breath, and fell down.
Will we come out of this? Of course, we will. In a few years, none of us would like to remember these trying times of betrayal and injury to each other. Except for the families and dear ones of the 400,000 plus who are no longer with us.
This is not a happy piece of writing. Not indeed. I did not feel comfortable putting it together and took time to do so. But I felt it my duty to point fingers at ourselves for the state we have brought ourselves to as a society and a nation. Only when we fall to great depths can we look up and rise.
If it is possible to form a state in which the knowledge of the priest, the culture of the military, the distributive spirit of the commercial, and the ideal of equality of the labourer can all be kept intact, minus their evils, it will be an ideal state.~ Swami Vivekananda
I end with some words of Swami Vivekananda. He says, “If it is possible to form a state in which the knowledge of the priest, the culture of the military, the distributive spirit of the commercial, and the ideal of equality of the labourer can all be kept intact, minus their evils, it will be an ideal state.”
(Avik Chattopadhyay is co-creator of Expereal India. Also, he is the former head of marketing, product planning, and PR at Volkswagen India. He was associated with Maruti Suzuki, Apollo Tyres, and Groupe PSA as well.)
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