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When in distress, we first look for someone to blame before we turn inward. We can discuss without reaching a conclusion whether people reflected leaders or leaders reflected people in abandoning caution and assuming that all was clear. We can discuss if the situation would have played out differently or just the same even if precautions and protocols were observed, given our ‘chronic’ systemic deficiencies, of which the healthcare infrastructure was but one of many manifestations. Most of these discussions would be endless, and our positions would likely reflect our prejudices and/or personal and proximate experiences.

While the tales of personal suffering and tragedies are harrowing in themselves, the insidious harm that is being done to the long-term prospects of the poor and low-income classes is equally, if not more, concerning. In March, Pew published a study (‘In the pandemic, India’s middle class shrinks and poverty spreads while China sees smaller changes’, 18 March 2021) which showed that the number of people classified as ‘poor’ in India had shrunk considerably between 2011 and 2019. But some of this progress received a setback in 2020 from the economic fallout of the first wave of covid infections. In India’s case, the bulk of the ‘poor’ had graduated to the low-income class, as per the study, and not so much to the ‘middle income’ category, as was the case with China. Now, with the damage that the second wave has inflicted and the lives claimed, we don’t know how many of the ‘middle income’ category would slide back into the ‘low income’ and ‘poor’ categories.

Just like the case with individuals, chronic deficiencies in the country’s preparedness have meant that it was unable to withstand a severe covid attack.

How, though, do we now gain resilience for the future at both the individual and national levels? Tackling the ongoing health crisis and any future economic shock requires leaders with big hearts. Swami Ranganathananda of the Sri Ramakrishna Mutt used to make the case for a leader to be a ‘Raja Rishi’, with the right blend of rajas (action) and satvic (virtuous) attitudes.

Given the proximity of the first wave, and given what was going on elsewhere in the world, it is difficult to avoid asking why we were quick to declare victory, on what basis, and whether the country—not just the Union government—would have been better prepared if each sector (household, business and government) had not reinforced the other in assuming the worst was over. To be clear, experts who were pessimistic and wrong during the first wave had given an ‘all clear’ signal in January (‘Has COVID peaked? Maybe, but it’s too soon to be sure’, Nature.com, 23 March 2021)

One of the reasons the budget for 2021-22 came in for high praise was that it was conservative and had buffers to absorb shocks, such as the one that we are witnessing today. Such an attitude has to infect both the body-politic and the public. In general, we are too keen to declare our arrival on the big stage without putting in the yards. The present Australian Test cricket team could tell us about the perils of hasty and false bravado. When there is substance behind confidence, it is tolerated. If not, we are sitting ducks for scorn when we stumble.

As Prime Minister Narendra Modi said in his Mann ki Baat address on 25 April, we were overconfident. He was referring to the country as a whole. But, one sure-fire way to avoid overconfidence, as Thirukkural said, is to surround oneself with people who are emboldened, mandated and incentivised to do the following: Play the devil’s advocate, look for alternative perspectives, keep the boss grounded, remind him or her of the big picture, remind him or her to take the high road every now and then, map all possible scenarios, and make sure that the top decision-maker gets to hear the best available wisdom, etc.

For now, we are left to celebrate one doctor-turned-officer of the Indian Administrative Service (IAS) in Nandurbar who had prepared well. That we are unable to find one state- or national-level official who has emulated that collector is a telling commentary on how street-smart political tactics and organizational skills—including mobilization, logistics planning, alliance strategies and negotiations—do not extend in a systematic and sustained manner to our public policymaking and problem-solving, except sporadically and on an ‘acute’ basis, such as while organizing a Kumbh Mela, or fighting elections, opening bank accounts for people and enrolling them for Aadhaar, etc.

India’s political parties know the goal they are pursuing and they work towards it with energy, skill and dedication. Can India’s civil service imbibe the same spirit? What goals are they pursuing versus what they are expected to pursue? Perhaps, as a society, we have not developed the stamina or discipline required to sustain our hard work and focus, or maybe the regular goals are not nearly as interesting and motivating as one-off projects. Can this crisis be a catalyst for governance and accountability reforms in the Indian bureaucracy? If senior bureaucrats around the country do not take the initiative to fix it themselves, attempts to forge a political consensus on this will be worth the effort.

Perhaps, we will develop those skills and attitudes as we become richer as a country. But, becoming richer might, in turn, depend on our developing such skills and attitudes. The virus has served us notice.

These are the author’s personal views.

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