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Maharashtra coronavirus update: BMC medical workers taking samples of people who have cold and cough for testing of COVID-19, in Mumbai. (ANI)
Maharashtra coronavirus update: BMC medical workers taking samples of people who have cold and cough for testing of COVID-19, in Mumbai. (ANI)

Opinion | We simply don’t know when this tsunami of suffering will recede

But we do know that all hands have to be on deck to alleviate a steadily rising tide of misery

Over 25 days, we have realigned our entire organization of 1,700 people across 200 locations to help battle the covid-19 pandemic and the humanitarian crisis emerging in its wake. Many of our 300 partners across the country, which we support with financial grants, are also going through a similar shift. They have over 30,000 team members and community workers. We are, for the most part, an educational organization built over 20 years and this change has been massive. The scale of this crisis demands it. Without this transformation, we cannot respond adequately. We try hard not to lose momentum on regular work, but most of our energy is focused on responding to the havoc wreaked by the pandemic.

This crisis must be tackled where the people of this country are. On-the-ground presence through our field team, the teachers we are engaged with, and our partners with similarly strong teams, has become key to this work. We have assigned dedicated teams to tackle crushing supply chain constraints, such as on personal protective equipment (PPE) for frontline healthcare workers, and to build delivery capability for the last mile. We are supported by a large sourcing and distribution network, and its technology expertise.

A systematic response is urgent on both the humanitarian and healthcare fronts. The livelihoods of hundreds of millions of people have been disrupted, with the earnings of daily-wage earners and most small businesses vanishing. The most disadvantaged are hit the hardest and struggle to survive. Bare necessities like food, water, soap and sanitary napkins are not accessible. A tragedy not seen since the days of Partition appears to be unfolding. We are delivering such basic life necessities to over 750,000 people across 17 states. These numbers are growing by the day, and it is not clear how long such support will be required. And this is but a tiny fraction of what the country needs.

On healthcare, one part is medical care for the usual diseases. Clinics and small hospitals are shut, so people with "normal" ailments are finding treatment elusive. Most avoid hospitals, but when forced by the severity of their condition, they don’t find one to treat them.

The great urgency is for the health system to contain the pandemic. It is a race against the virus’s spread, and it takes rigorous micro-planning to create capacity for testing, quarantines, isolation, and intensive care in every geographical unit, like a district. The actual capacity and protocol of each of these four elements has to be based on medical and epidemiological modelling of the pandemic. Healthcare workers are to be trained on these protocols. Also, communities must be involved and educated. Clearly, all this is the business of the government. We provide a range of support to these efforts, along with our partners. We collaborate with local officials and other organizations on planning and execution, on community education, supplying PPE and other critical equipment, even financially supporting public service oriented private hospitals to supplement the public system, and more.

All this work is at the frontlines, so the safety of our teams is paramount. To systematize our response, along with our partners, we have developed a district response plan for civil society.

The news is not good from any front. We are struggling. Our country, that is, not merely us. Governments are not solely to blame; we are all complicit. We the people have built this state and its public systems with the capacity they have, and these are having to deal with an unprecedented crisis. Even countries with the most effective systems are besieged. A time for rumination and reckoning will come, but that time is not now. Today, it is all hands on deck.

We do not know when this tsunami will recede. The debris that will be left behind cannot be put back together soon, and we do not exactly know how. Particularly for the millions in poverty, and in the informal sector. The pandemic itself will not be tamed till there is a vaccine and treatment, and some form of “herd immunity". Life will be even more uncertain for people in the informal sector, and those on the edge of poverty. We must brace ourselves for this darker new world. We need wisdom to see us through. The wisdom of courage, thoughtful judgement, and empathy. Many individuals seem to have all that in abundance, but collectively we seem to be coming up short.

This morning, I saw a beautiful black dog framed against the bright blue sky looking down lovingly from atop a building. And I remembered that people have been throwing out their dogs, driven by unfounded fears of dogs being carriers of the virus.

In February this year, when I wrote about what we do with our old horses as a metaphor for our society, I did not anticipate that the evisceration of empathy from our core as a people would be revealed so soon by a pandemic. We have created a society where hundreds of millions are a hair’s breadth away from oblivion, and we seem to have let them go over the precipice. No amount of individual sacrifice and heroism can wash away this original collective sin. Redemption may lie only in re-conceiving ourselves as a people with empathy as our core value.

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

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