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Mainstream, VOL LIX No 33, New Delhi, July 31, 2021

Apology, remembrance, and the challenge of numbers | John Dayal

Friday 30 July 2021, by John Dayal


Rashtriya Janata Dal member Prof Manoj Kumar Jha’s eyes seemed swollen with unshed tears as he rose to speak in the Rajya Sabha in a short notice question this week.

“Never before in the history of parliament has there been an obituary reference between two sessions of the House to as many as 50 sitting and past members who have passed away,” he said referring to the mandatory respectful statement that is read out by the presiding officer at the start of a new session. Prof Jha, who teaches in Delhi, mentioned that among the dead of Covid were several sitting members, one of them quite young; and several other members had survived after a grim fight.

“It is not a question of numbers, the professor said, nor of apportioning blame. But the living owed an apology to each of the dead in the pandemic, specially in the ghastly second wave. “It was a nightmare”, he said recalling his own experience. “Would get s hundred calls from people begging my help to get their relatives an oxygen cylinder. We could not help at all, or help maybe one in a hundred, and we were powerful politicians, members of parliament,” he said in the speech in Hindi that went viral on social media.

There is of course no apology forthcoming from the union government this session, or indeed anytime soon in the future. The government denies there was any shortage of oxygen, or that anyone died for want of oxygen supply in the country’s hospitals. The prime minister has issued certificates of excellence to chief ministers of states ruled by the Bharatiya Janata party, though he did sack the then health minister, the hapless Dr Harshvardhan of Delhi who was a medical doctor, unlike the man who replaced him.

We will never know just how many people died of Covid since it broke out in spring last year. There is a vast chasm between the 4 lakh or so that the government admits to knowing, and the several estimates, the highest of which peaks at more than 40 lakhs.

The computations differ, relying on various yardsticks, but most consider the increase in numbers of deaths over the average recorded in the pre-pandemic years. It is not difficult to assume that official figures are wrong, for everyone knows that other than those who were brought to hospital infected with covid and died there, there was no testing done on others who passed away at home, or in villages far from any medical infrastructure, big or small.

More than numbers, people are looking for closure, emotional, spiritual and palliatives in the interim. The deaths, as Prof Jha said more than once, and the burials had not been dignified – bodies buried in the sand, floating down the Ganges, rare would the family that had not been touched by the wind of the wings of the Angle of Death. “As humans, we need dignity in life. But even more than that, everyone deserves a dignified death,” Prof Jha said.

Even as we wait, perhaps for ever, for that closure apology to come from government and its leadership, there is need for communities too, to collectively remember that passage we have all had through the valley of the shadow of death.

The Catholic church, I learn, has announced a series of prayer days to mourn, as a community, the passing away of so many dear ones in such tragic circumstances. A collective requiem to the known and unknown persons who fell prey to the terrible virus. There needs be day of National Mourning and Remembrance. It will help.

The impact of the pandemic, both in its human aspect, and on the country, will unfold fully over the next several years, much as the medical impact of what is now called Long Covid, where niggling symptoms to strike persons who have fully recovered from the virus. And a Third Wave looms.

A non-partisan Civil Society report on Governance which was released this week by the NGO collaborative platform “Wada Na Todo”, warned how COVID-19 only catalysed the process of the economy’s de-acceleration.

The pandemic struck in India at a time the process of de-development was under way for a few years. Few, if any, serious policies, and rectification measures had been taken, with virtually all growth and development indicators declining rather dramatically. The pre-pandemic economic scenario had already witnessed a fall in ranking in almost all growth and development indicators including India’s ranking on the global hunger index; nourished children; inequality index; gender equality index; environment performance; water and air quality, the report says.

This scenario after the pandemic has worsened in the absence of policy responses that need to consider demand factors focusing especially on those who have been impacted the most at all levels both economic and extra-economic.

The pandemic has created a humanitarian crisis and socio-economic inequalities, severely affecting the disadvantaged section of the population. The most detrimental effects impacted most of the citizens, with in fact, resulting in the reversal of whatever progress that had been attained – massive rise in income inequality, with the top one per cent population holding more than four times the wealth held by lowest 70 per cent.

“Unfortunately, there is still a section of India’s population who are made to feel they belong to a bygone era of violent discrimination”, the report says. One would like to imagine that, given the need for physical distancing and spread of the virus impacting so many, violence against the Dalit, Tribals, Muslims, Christians, and women, would have reduced during a pandemic. This, however, was not the case as atrocities continued unabated.

It is a gloomy report, not a morale booster. And the future? On wonders if anyone has the answer to the questions raised in the 130-page report endorsed by 110 groups working in issues of sustainability, human rights, civil liberties, education, housing, and the environment. What are we doing for the next generation and the generations to come? The report says “Education could be an answer, but with COVID-19 not allowing our young citizens to attend school for an entire academic year (and more), there is much that the government could do.

Bu in fact covid has added another inequality to the list. This has to do with the fact that e-learning, virtual classrooms, and internet-based technology leaves perhaps a full third of the country’s children out of the guarantee of equal opportunities of growth. That is the long shadow of Covid.

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