Home >Opinion >Columns >Opinion | Everything and everybody we care for is now in harm’s way

It was dawn. She was swinging her hands shoulder-high, getting an empty jhola (cloth bag) in each hand to flutter like a flag in the wind. Her long strides were like spot jumps. Not a soul or vehicle was in sight for miles visible on that stretch of the highway. It was the 12th day of the lockdown. Even as we neared each other, she did not interrupt her routine. She was no older than 10, perhaps 11.

I called out thrice before she stopped and looked at me. I tried Hindi, “Kahaan jaa rahi ho?" (Where are you going?). “Khaana, subzi lene" (to get food and vegetables), she responded, as an equal. “Akeli kyon jaa rahi ho?" (Why are you going alone?), I asked. “Didi ghar mein hai, woh baahar nahi nikal sakti" (My elder sister is at home and cannot come out), she said. Her parents are among the lakhs of migrant labour stuck in nowhere land. They had been able to call and convey that. The elder sister is actually an elderly lady; the word “didi" is used with deep affection. The conversation was a flash, with my mind focused only on what to do. Leaving her to her own means on that vast desolate stretch was not an option. I turned to walk with her.

A policeman crossed us on his bike. We were a curious sight, the little girl with swinging bags, and the sweat-laden me in shorts and running shoes. He turned the bike and came to us. Hearing the story, he asked the child to hop on to the bike. Her calm visage cracked for the first time as she said “bye" with a smile, and they were off.

A little girl alone on a desolate road at dawn, in search of food. It’s a measure of what we have made of ourselves—a people with hundreds of millions of our own on the precipice of existence, with the deepest chasms of discrimination and prejudice. All exacerbated and revealed by the pandemic, if it needed any revealing. When we get to the other side of this once-in-a-century-storm, we must rebuild a society such that no little girl ever has to be out on a desolate road alone. Never, ever. Everything else will fall in place.

But for that, we must get to the other side first, to safety. We seem to be underestimating or appear unaware of what all may await us within the raging ocean of contagion before we reach any kind of safety.

Safety lies in a vaccine and some form of “herd immunity". The lockdown is merely a mechanism to avert an immediate escalation of cases. The best estimates for the introduction of a vaccine are 18 months from now. We must live with and manage the scourge till then. This will require profound changes in our social life, including our culture and economy. Even more critically, it will require a nation-wide, robust healthcare system to tackle inevitable new outbreaks of covid-19 during these 18 months, or longer, since we don’t fully understand the virus and its behaviour.

Physical distancing will change our social life. Large congregations of people must stop. Great Indian weddings will have to take a pause, Dussehra and Eid will go private, cricket stadiums will remain empty or seat one person to five seats. Trains, airlines, theatres and restaurants may have to drop their capacity to a third, mandis and bazaars will be relaid, construction sites will reduce labour concentration. How we come together for anything will have to be modified, with a cascading effect on lives, the economy, and livelihoods.

Our moribund and iniquitous health system will have to be brought to life. With the infrastructure and human capacity to identify the infected very quickly, trace their contacts rapidly, isolate the clusters, and provide treatment. This will have to be everywhere in the country, absolutely everywhere. Any uncontained cluster, or any breach anywhere, could demolish the whole country’s defence.

If we do a good job of all this, we will reach safety, scarred and scathed. We will all share in the misery, with most of the burden borne by those in poverty, even if we miraculously transform our public systems for social security and safety, by universalizing them, which we must, as our first duty.

If we do a shoddy job of all this, a catastrophic nightmare awaits us. Repeated and expanding outbreaks of the pandemic will undermine everything in the country. The economy will be in tatters. The world will put us in quarantine, isolating us to protect themselves. The human tragedy, directly from the disease and from a devastated economy, will have no parallel.

Where we end up in the arc between good and shoddy will be determined by our actions, some more important than others. First, by the speed, quality and universality of the response by the healthcare system. Second, by the fiscal and public-system support we give to lives, livelihoods, and businesses. Third, by the quality and empathy of leadership—political, administrative, civil society and business.

Each one of us must contribute, this is that time. Hope will delude and despair will misguide us. Good science, resolve, and wisdom are what we need. We don’t have it all individually, but can muster it collectively. Everything and everybody we care for, or should care for, is at stake in some way. How is the girl now? And her didi? I don’t know. But what I know is that I must do the best of what I can, and more, to try and make a difference to their lives.

Anurag Behar is CEO of Azim Premji Foundation and also leads sustainability initiatives for Wipro Ltd

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