As India unlocks, learning to live with the virus approch signals waning of social contract, active governance

'Learn to live with it' also includes learning how to suffer from it and all that idea includes right from being denied a hospital bed to dying in isolation, to dying in anxiety that you have possibly spread the virus to your family.

Abhinav Verma and Shiralie Chaturvedi June 09, 2020 10:46:52 IST
As India unlocks, learning to live with the virus approch signals waning of social contract, active governance

Long ago, a discordant set of people who claimed their own individual rights and liberty, sometimes even to the violation of another’s, came together to form modern society. Acting on their own accord without common responsibility meant that they were intrinsically Darwinian — the strongest survive and the weak perish — in a place where fear was continual and commerce or leisure was unknown.

As Rousseau put it, the only way to proceed was for each individual to ‘put into the community his person and all his powers under the supreme direction of the general will’. This gave form to the concept of organised government -- an intangible entity to act on the general will of the people. This, they believed, will provide the greatest protection from nature’s perils.

A social contract is now formed, whereby members reap the benefits of society and enjoy a greater degree of protection by foregoing certain freedoms, enforced via a formed government. This quid pro quo we all make each day to live under the protection of the government.

These ideas have long defined what society looks like, even the earliest documented instructions by Greek Sophists in 5th century BCE. They also define how society operates today, in 2020, as the world is facing an overt threat. The novel coronavirus has now claimed over 4 lakh lives worldwide and is set to take many more.

The official narrative

Governments world over have been investing heavily in testing exhaustively to isolate cases, preparing hospitals to treat, and fixing the gaping hole in the world economy. In India, the government had done all of these, starting as early as 8 January The country also imposed a strict lockdown starting 25 March itself, however, the “unlocking” commenced from 8 June, at a time when cases have neither peaked nor has the curve flattened.

As per the terms of the invisible contract, the government is entrusted with the responsibility to protect life and dignity of its citizenry from this pandemic, otherwise, it has no basis to exist. It is for this reason that the narrative accompanying the unlocking is irksome.

In a meeting with chief ministers on 11 May, Prime Minister Narendra Modi said "we will have to learn to live with corona" for the first time. On 12 May in his address to the nation, he further stated that the virus is going to be a part of our lives. This was coupled with a plea to go back to work to revive the economy. Earlier on 8 May, the health ministry had also asserted the idea of “living with the virus”, one that was then echoed by Delhi chief minister Arvind Kejriwal.

'Learn to live with it' also includes learning how to suffer from it and all that idea includes right from being denied a hospital bed to dying in isolation, to dying in anxiety that you have possibly spread the virus to your family. This casts the government as a passive player who told you to figure it out yourself.

Passive culpability of the establishment

This passiveness hasn’t been the response of countries that have won the fight against coronavirus. For instance, New Zealand is now virus-free. The administration tracked, isolated and treated each case and now they don’t live in an existential threat.

Population size comparatives have been used to distinguish New Zealand and our (clearly not so) Aatmanirbhar Bharat. However, that doesn’t account for the fact that India should’ve learnt how to manage its large population size in the 72 years of independence. The density of population comes with an increased density of responsibilities, reactions, accountability, and answers.

Public health strategists will tell you that ramping up testing and nearing universal testing is the only way to contain the virus before the vaccine comes out. However, it was only in mid-May that India actually was able to administer more than 1 lakh tests in a day. Today, India is testing ~3 persons per 1,000 population, much behind Denmark (95.45), Italy (66.98) and even South Africa (18.34).

The reason provided for the two-month-long lockdown was to build hospital preparedness in the meantime as well as to flatten the curve. While the latter was far from being fulfilled when India ‘unlock’-ed as the curve still rises steeply each day, the former is a big question mark. Rising graphs are only indicative of people falling prey to the virus even with the — wear a mask, sanitise and maintain social distance — diktat. There is a documented and recorded shortage of beds in both metro cities, Mumbai and Delhi.

What happens to you and me now?

Going by reports, the average Indian, if infected, will shuttle from ER to ER trying to get admitted causing more infections in the process. If admitted, she will be treated by doctors who don’t get adequate supplies of PPE but only two moments of nationwide (non-monetisable) applause, since doctors too are responsible for their own safety as per the government. Soon, we’ll be a nation of those who could brave the virus while others perished; it took a pandemic to realise these faultlines.

Abhinav Verma is a lawyer and policy consultant working on health systems strengthening. Shiralie Chaturvedi is a writer and journalist. Views expressed here are their own.

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