Why Covid-19 Must Force Us To Introspect?

by Rawoof Zargar

                                      ‘Tough times never last, but tough people do’    

Caught terribly off guard, the world is has been bought down to knees by the pandemic. Covid-19 is spreading exponentially across the globe with nearly three humans infected, more than 170 thousand have already fallen victim to this dreadful disease. This pandemic has exposed the healthcare system of the world irrespective of the countries being developed or underdeveloped.

The 1200 odd passengers seem to be queued up for a lift into Jammu and Kashmir. Pic: JKP

The countries which we believe are the leaders in the healthcare system are the most exposed of all – the USA, and most of Europe. Many argue that this is the new novel virus and nothing could have been done but they also know that they are being naïve because no epidemic, no disease, and no calamity has ever come with prior information. It is really painful to witness the number of human lives lost every day and question always props up – could we have managed this disease more methodically?

What and where do we need to introspect?

It is an old rugged understanding that if we want to change the society at large and the world holistically we have to change the education system. In today’s dynamic world of robotics, artificial intelligence, augmented reality, the age of reusable rockets and dreams of colonizing the Mars, if we see the percentage spending of GDP on education and health combined by the world economies it is negligible.

India spends less than 8% of its GDP on education and healthcare taken together, which is dismayingly inadequate and it reflects squarely in the poor state of affairs in which our education and healthcare system are. We are not able to provide necessary masks and personal protective equipment to our frontline medical workers forget about ventilators and high-end equipment in case we need them in the worst-case scenario.

Going by the official data with a total of 713986 beds available we have 0.55 beds per 1000 of the population and when we talk of the ventilators situation is horrifyingly grim with only 57000 of them for the population of more than 1.3 billion. This paints a gloomy picture of the situation we are in and this needs a robust change.

Experts and intelligentsia are of the opinion that the new world order will emerge post the pandemic. Can we emerge as the leaders of the change or at least let us understand where our priorities lie. The need of the hour is that policymakers have to realize that we need to escalate the allocations of funds to the education system, healthcare system, research and development substantially.

Modi Cabinet 2.0

Change has to come from the grassroots level, we have to invest in schools and teachers from the lowest level possible. The right to education is to be upgraded from elementary to universal. The teacher being the noblest job commands respect from every creature but the profession needs to attract the best brains of the society which can be only accomplished by paying the teachers handsomely if not highly which will, in turn, provide us with the rich dividends of excellent students, scientists and other excellent professionals.

In contemporary times the situation of teachers is pathetic, they are not even paid peanuts, in our part of the world some teacher are paid the deplorable amount of Rs 1500 a month and that too not regularly violating the minimum wages act, dignity of the teacher and their qualifications. In these reprehensible circumstances, how will one expect them to deliver to their potential, performance appraisal is ubiquitously important?

On the healthcare front, we lag even more than the education system, in the wake of the outbreak of the Covid-19. We were only able to clap and bang utensils (taali bajao,thaali bajao) and post videos of gratitude on the social media but this alone won’t help. We need to provide them with proper medical equipment, masks, personal protective gears and moreover remuneration that their job demands, not the paltry sum of Rs 7000 by employing them through national health mission.

The country where the cricketers and Bollywood stars are paid millions of dollars can easily manage these basic things. By investing in research and development we would have been able to provide with the adequate numbers of testing kits to our humungous population.

Universal basic income and universal health insurance are the two aspects which are needed to be considered and pondered upon. These two schemes are undoubtedly very difficult to implement in a country like India with a population close to 1.3 billion but it is certainly not impossible.

The idea of universal basic income is not novel, it dates back to sixteenth-century where Sir Thomas More’s Utopia talks about the society in which every person receives a guaranteed minimum basic income with which he can live a life of dignity. Universal basic income or basic living stipend is essentially a government public program for a periodic minimal payment delivered to all on an individual basis without any condition; payments are ubiquitously unconditional and automatic.

There have already been endless debates on this public programme and as essentially this has also its pros and cons, the main argument against being that the country with such huge demographic equations it is impossible to implement such a humongous scheme. Others argue that this will take away the competitiveness out of the society and people will become indolent, slothful but the answer lies in the covid-19. Had there been a guaranteed universal basic income, there would have been no chaos.

An aerial view of the deserted street on the banks of Dal Lake in Srinagar after Curfew-like restrictions on the movement and assembly of people were imposed in Kashmir on Sunday, March 22, 2020 as part of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s appeal to observe ‘Janata curfew’

Universal health insurance is not as difficult to implement as it is already in vogue in many developed countries. Universal health insurance is described by the World Health Organization as a situation where citizens can access healthcare services without incurring financial hardships. Some steps have been taken by the government of India with the Ayushman Bharat. But it covers only the bottom 40% of the population and covers only three days of hospitalization and 15 days of post-hospitalization which is grossly inadequate. A holistic well thought out health insurance scheme is the need of the hour and it must be made compulsory.

Recently among much fanfare, Prime Minister urged citizens to come out on their balconies to clap, show gratitude for the health workers in order to thank them for their selfless service to mankind which was a cruel joke on nearly 2 million homeless citizens of India, as there are no balconies on pavements and tents per se.

The United Nations Economic and Social Council defines home as ‘not just four walls and roof, it is about the security of tenure, affordability, access to services and cultural adequacy it is about protection from forced eviction and displacement’. If we go by this definition then numbers of homeless in India will soar to many millions because India defines homeless as those who do not live in census houses, but rather stay on pavements roadsides, railways, platforms, temples and pipes.

Rawoof Zargar

Now imagine if one of the slum dwellers contracts the virus, it will spread like a wildfire and if community transmission happened it will be very hard to manage. India as a country failed these poor people. The government realized the need for houses for homeless in 1997, almost 50 years of independence that too with the meagre amount of Rs 2 crore. Recently prime minister has set an overambitious goal of housing for all by 2022. We hope and pray every citizen of the country has at least a house where he/she is able to rest after a long laborious hardworking day.

Last but most important lesson which this pandemic has made us learn is that this virus does not believe in any socio-political or socio-economic theory for which many wars have been fought and millions of the humans perished. The virus originated and propagated in a communist country first and is irreligious.

(Author has done masters in cell and molecular biology and is currently pursuing masters in English. Ideas are personal.)

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