Save India, and save us all

May 11, 2021 09:28
Photo: Reuters

The COVID-19 pandemic has taken a truly dire toll on India.

The sights are abhorrent to behold. 4,000+ daily deaths, 400,000+ daily cases, with the actual numbers likely to be in the ballpark of 10, even 20, times of these numbers. It’s not looking good for the country. Oxygen in short supply, vaccines under- and ill-delivered, and hospitals running out of beds. I could go on and on, but you get the point.

There is the view – one that is odiously popular amongst certain circles I’ve been acquainted with (unfortunately) – that posits that what’s going in India is a matter of its people’s own doing. More cynically, the argument goes, we should leave India be, and have Indian citizens bear the brunt of their government’s mismanagement – after all, it’s a dog-eat-dog world out there, and Malthus could well have had a point… or so, the hypothesis claims.

I find this argument outrageous. I find it bizarre. Above all, I find it emblematic of the kind of ignoramus attitude that has so successfully percolated and been deeply entrenched amidst some of the most well-endowed and privileged communities in the world, and, indeed, in this very city.

What’s going on in India will have damning repercussions and implications for the world down the line. Firstly, if the outbreak is not suitably contained, India would only emerge as a hotbed of (as it already is) a plethora of deadly, devastating variants – including ones that could evade the prevention and immunity offered by existing vaccines, as well as more resistant strains that could survive and spread under more adverse conditions. None of this is conducive towards the ideal state – and, realistically, the only state under which global trade and economy could truly recover – of a re-opening global economy. If we want to lift most of our travel restrictions – not even ones between India and the rest of the world, but just in general – we must find ways of curtailing the surge and growth of variants that our existing remedies cannot address. Indeed, the detriments of not being able to contain the spread have already surfaced in countries neighbouring India, including Nepal, Bangladesh, and Pakistan, which have been respectively dealing with one of, if not, the largest waves of the pandemic within their borders.

And there is more – the pandemic, if left unaddressed and uncontained, would only amplify sectarian and partisan divides within India, as well as result in heightened geopolitical instability and uncertainty. Even from a purely realpolitik perspective, one that is preoccupied with human lives not for human lives’ sake, but as a means to unlocking a practicable and tenable modus operandi internationally, there is every reason for us to care about the trauma that India endures today. The damage of the pandemic could well set back the country’s growth by decades – which may superficially seem like good news for the country’s rivals, but for the fact that these ‘rivals’ are also deeply intertwined with India in both trade and civil society exchanges. In an age of globalisation, no one could emerge unscathed from a regional or national public health crisis, especially when it’s the second most populous country in the world we’re speaking about here.

Finally, how India performs could well determine the nature of other countries’ pandemic responses. If the current exodus of potentially infected patients in India continues, or if the virus remains dormant in latent carriers who can asymptomatically transmit the disease, then COVID-19 would eventually come knocking on the doors of other states. Shutting off and preventing all travel from India is not tenable – nor is it humane; filters, on the other hand, inevitably would fail at detecting or preventing the entry of the disease. Hence it’s not a matter of whether or not the Indian strain(s) would spread, but when and how quickly they do. There are few better solutions than to nip the problem in the bid – e.g. to curb the spread of the disease in India proper.

So how can we save, or help, or rescue India? The most obvious and straightforward answer is – donate! Donate medical resources – e.g. masks, vaccines, gloves, oxygenators, oxygen plants. Work with the assiduous non-profit sector in the country, in making these resources more widely accessible and available. Donate to charities and select government agencies – those who do not siphon off the cash and transfers are of course preferable. It is equally imperative that we do not let racist misjudgments and biases skew our evaluation of the Indian government – the bureaucracy is rife with problems, but we should also recognise that working with them is both a matter of necessity and prospective utility. State governments can be significantly more responsive than the federal government.

For those of us who lack the wherewithal and resources, the answer lies elsewhere. It lies with compassion – with reaching out to friends, colleagues, and peers who are from India, to lend them a listening ear or helping hand, to assure them that they are not alone. Avoid platitudes, such as “I know how you feel”: we don’t. You don’t (unless you’re in India). Yet at the very least, we could do our due share in alleviating the psychological burdens and pressures confronting our friends.

Finally, there can only be one structural solution that delivers at the scale necessary – that is, to ramp up and bolster the global institutions governing and managing public health. We need an overhaul to the WHO – but not in the kind hypothesised or championed by the former President; instead, we need greater transparency, further de-politicisation, and an open acknowledgment that efforts and initiatives tackling the pandemic must transcend political quibbles, especially in light of the deteriorating US-China relationships. Only then, can we find a genuine cure to the malaise at hand.

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Assistant Professor, HKU