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Home >Opinion >Views >The pandemic has finally forced Indians to become self-reliant

I live across from a hospital in New York, and the sound of sirens has been a constant feature since last March. I see doctors and nurses in their scrubs on the street, pausing between treating patients, before they return indoors to continue their battle with the virus. We have our masks on; many of us are being vaccinated at an impressive speed; but the scenes I see are a stark reminder that America is not done yet with the pandemic.

Each government has an obligation under international law to protect the rights of those on its territory, regardless of their citizenship. America isn’t over the hill yet. The speedy roll-out of vaccines and the White House having regained adult supervision have created an illusion elsewhere that things are back to normal. But, as I write this, I notice that new cases in the US are at 46,000 daily, and less than a third of its population is fully vaccinated. More than half a million Americans have died. The country is yet to vaccinate two-thirds of its residents. And it is jabbing people free of any individual charge, regardless of health insurance.

As a percentage of its total population, India’s death toll appears low, but in India, even tiny fractions can run into millions. Besides, even in normal years, the country’s record-keeping of deaths has been inadequate. As reports from Gujarat, Karnataka and elsewhere show, there are growing discrepancies between official death counts and the number of bodies being cremated, many of them on make-shift pyres.

And yet, if the virus came from abroad, so must the villain be. Many Indians who get their news from social media and shrill anchors, and spread it across the nation at the same speed as coronavirus itself, seem to have convinced themselves lately that the party responsible for India’s apocalyptical scenes is the US, which is alleged to have withheld the supply of vaccine raw materials for too long. On social media, China was blamed first; then Tablighis; then politicians like Arvind Kejriwal and Uddhav Thackeray; then it was the turn of the few Congress governments that exist; and, of course, Jawaharlal Nehru, because he did not build enough hospitals. And now, another chacha, Uncle Joe.

Beyond that, it is the ‘system’ at fault. Voldemort, or he who must not be named, comes to mind.

Adar Poonawalla of Serum Institute of India (SII) appealed for vaccine raw materials, but there’s some confusion over what raw materials SII needs. Poonawalla told CNBC a week ago that these raw materials were needed for his new vaccine to combat variants, and that vaccine was still awaiting approval from authorities. SII also told Mint a few days ago that the new vaccine won’t get launched till September. So how are the raw materials essential in dealing with the current horrors?

That won’t solve the crisis today for Indians who want ventilators, masks, oxygen tanks, ambulances, plasma and other medicines. And tragically, people see their loved ones gasp for air and die outside hospitals, waiting for beds. And tempers flare at crematoria, where grief-stricken people accuse other weeping people of jumping the queue to secure a spot, unable to bid farewell to their loved ones with the solemnity and dignity that the occasion demands.

Meanwhile, India’s vaccine policy has discovered the market and federalism. Health, we are reminded, is a state subject. It was a national issue when the going seemed good. Within weeks of the Bharatiya Janata Party passing a resolution in praise of Prime Minister Narendra Modi for leading India out of the pandemic, millions began to congregate for the Kumbh Mela in Haridwar, even as mass rallies began for state assembly elections.

As the virus doesn’t follow government instructions and does not respect curfews, it spread across India, like a party activist looking for voters or a pilgrim seeking a dip in the holy river. And a Hobbesian nightmare followed. Oxygen supplies being sent to a state have been intercepted and diverted, and vaccine makers are allowed to charge states more than what the Centre pays, as if the value of each Indian life depends on how prosperous the state is.

In his poem, The Second Coming, the Irish poet W.B. Yeats writes, “Things fall apart, the centre cannot hold." More pertinent is the line that follows: “Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world." And that is a real long-term danger.

If some states come to command a larger share of national resources, if they impose their language and dietary habits on others and tell them to fend for themselves during a crisis, then the states that experience such forms of discrimination might just wonder if they are part of the same nation.

From being the world’s pharmacy, India has become the world’s poster child of a nation whose people deserve compassion. But then, there also seems to be another circus in town. Indian Premier League cricket continues, as if it is being played on another planet; businessmen are asking Indians to be ‘united’; foreign media is blamed for peddling ‘pandemic porn’; some celebrities are sunning themselves in the Maldives; and some who could have left on private jets for London.

Meanwhile, Indians, who usually help one another in crises, are forced to become atmanirbhar, or self-reliant.

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