Covid-19: Ask not JUST what your country can do for you, ask also what YOU can do your country!

Posted: April 16, 2021 in Uncategorized

There is absolutely no doubt that India is in the midst of a health emergency, due to the second wave of Covid-19. And as citizens grapple with personal tragedy, and scenes of grief at hospitals etc., there is a natural anger seething within all of us, as to why we have ended up in this state.

And one of the intuitive directions where the blame goes, is towards the government – both state and centre. I have myself been very vocal on social media and personal Whatsapp group conversations, about my own disappointment with regards to the government in terms of what they could do, and what they have done so far!

That said, at this point, I was reminded of the famous call of John Kennedy, that went, “ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country!”.

I am making a small change in that line, to say that “Ask not JUST what your country can do for you, ask ALSO what YOU can do for your country”!

Before I get into the detail of this, let me focus on the many messages going on, across media, in various private conversations, where we seem to lay all of the blame to the governments. And reckon that if they had behaved better, we’d all have been safe and sound at this point.

To that narrative, let’s understand a few things to begin with:

  • Last year, when the rest of the world was grappling with very large number of cases and fatalities, somehow or the other, we had managed to keep the numbers at bay, and kind of managed to flatten the curve; essentially, ensured that the number of patients demanding a Covid hospital bed were lesser than the number of hospital beds available
  • Considering our population numbers and density, it seemed to be quite an incredulous feat to have achieved, and we gave credit to all kinds of reasons for this, including our higher immunity due to the various diseases we go through, growing up in India, or that we had had the BCG vaccination as kids, or that our weather made it harder for Covid to survive or spread, etc. At the end of it all, these were all considered speculative, and no one really pinpointed the real reasons for our better numbers.
  • As we tend to be more critical of government at any time, we did not give much credit to the initial quick steps taken for administering an unpopular lockdown, or the rapid creation of new healthcare infrastructure, etc. Maybe also the citizens’ higher levels of discipline to stay at home, sacrifice a lot, to contribute to the curve getting flattened then.
  • Whatever be the reasons, towards the end of 2020, a certain feeling was getting across that we are putting the Covid monster behind us, slowly but surely. It was on this basis that government started allowing the opening up of the economy, from transport to offices to cinemas and malls etc. And people also started getting comfortable about stepping out, going to work, and resuming their pre-Covid life, gradually.

Note that this was the backdrop, of gradually overcoming the Covid monster and an increasing confidence to resume the pre-Covid life, in Jan-Feb 2021, both for the government and for the people. And it was against this backdrop, and kind of against the turn of events, that we were all taken in by this shocking and surprising second wave of Covid.

Yes, appreciate that none of us expected it, none of us anticipated it – not the government, not the people. Unlike the first wave where it started from China and was seen to be hitting other countries, unfailingly, and it was only a matter of time before it hit India as well, the second wave did not come with such predictive knowledge.

But then, towards end of of February and through March, it became clear that the second wave WAS indeed happening and one had to start taking adequate steps in an urgent manner. Perhaps, this was the very crucial period where adequate and urgent action did not happen, like it had been done in anticipation of the first wave, in March, 2020.

So, let’s understand the role of the government and the role of the people. And note that when I speak of “government”, I refer to the centre and the state and all the connected teams and departments including municipalities, health ministry, etc.

Appreciate that hindsight is a great place to preach from (“we should have done this, we should have done that”), but at a point in time when decisions need to be taken, you don’t really have the advantage of hindsight. So, consider that fact as you raise your “expectations” of what should have been done.

What should (could) the government HAVE done?

  • Reacted quickly and strongly, as soon as the sense of the second and large wave, was felt in late Feb 2021
  • Rang the alarm bells out early enough, and on the back of the same, put an immediate stop to all mass gathering events like the Kumbh mela, farmers’ protests etc.
  • Paused the 5-state elections immediately
  • In doing all this, give out a clear message that “this is serious and needs everyone’s immediate attention”
  • While we were rolling out one massive vaccination program for a country of our size and it was being done with some planning, in terms of logistics etc., and if there was no second wave, we might have been okay with the pace and the distribution, considering the extremely special situation created out of the impending second wave, additional and corrective steps should have been taken. Like figuring out any supply chain hiccups for current vaccine players, or figuring out means and modalities to hasten the larger population into vaccination, or exploring additional vaccine types to be approved on priority and allowed in, etc.
  • Put quick curbs on non-essential public gatherings. Yes, it was back to the lives vs livelihood debate, and like the first wave, quick and essential steps, even if they were unpopular, needed to be taken.
  • Reassessed the eligibility criteria for vaccination, tweaked it as necessary basis the demography being most susceptible, looking at entire families that were getting infected, perhaps figuring alternate SOPs on quarantine etc.

There might be few more bullets to this list. But, yes, the governments – state and centre – missed out on various opportunities to react sooner and better.

Having said that, some of the (hindsight based) expectations that one reads in social media today, about what the government should and could have done, seem a tad unfair.

What are perhaps, unfair expectations of the governments:

  • That they should have rolled out the vaccination program much faster and to all, to begin with; there were logistical challenges of a large and diverse country like ours that needed to be figured out. And after all that, the rollout when it began, and started taking pace, was one of the fastest and biggest around the world. In fact, people were taking their time to register and go for vaccination as everyone seemed to believe that there is ample time to get this done. The government could have not anticipated the current huge rush for getting people vaccinated faster, at that time.
  • The choice of vaccines was made as per scientific basis and also keeping with the demands of storage and distribution in a country like ours, where availability of cold storages and reliable electrical supply across the country is not that great. So, the expectation again that, many different vaccines should have been simultaneously cleared at the outset, is unrealistic.
  • That the hospital beds infrastructure should have continued to be kept growing and maintained in numbers, even as Covid related demand for these had dramatically gone down, from the peak levels. Just think about it, if the capacity was 100 and demand was 10, and not looking to grow, how would there be a justification to not only maintain that physical infrastructure and people associated with it, but also keep increasing that capacity, for a “possible” much larger second wave, whose likelihood there was no hint about. Hell, people are finding faults in the Health Minister’s quote last year that we have adequate hospital infrastructure. Heck, he was referring to the situation at that point in time. He did not have any idea of such a huge second wave coming in! This is akin to the statement that Bill Gates has apparently said to have made many years back that “640K memory should be enough for any home computer” or words to that effect. These have all to be read in the context of the history at that point in time.
  • In the same context as the previous point, the idea that government should have ensured large scale production of Remdesvir or Oxygen cylinders for healthcare, or even purchased these and kept with them, at a time when case numbers were dwindling down, is an unfair expectation.

So, broadly speaking, the point being made is that while we are happy to blame governments for everything basis the hindsight knowledge of the current numbers of second wave cases, it must be appreciated that these are not like monsoon that was expected at some point in time for sure, and for which “rainy day”, the governments should have stayed prepared. This second wave and its intensity has caught everyone, including the government, by surprise, unfortunately.

So, if we have vented out enough about the governments, let us turn inwards. As the title of the post goes, let’s not just ask the government what it can and should have done for us, but let’s see what our role is, in this current emergency that we are all grappling with.

The people’s role:

  • Yes, we had all felt choked sitting at home for many weeks last year, so as soon as the slightest window opened, we were keen to rush out. Going out to work, as it had been hampered badly due to closures or WFH scenarios was one thing, but we could not wait to get back to our celebratory ways and partying and random travel etc. As we expect the government to have an eye on still existing Covid threats, did we not have the same sensibilities??
  • The crowds that were seen together in festivals or the weddings that resumed with the same gusto as pre-Covid times, or the lakhs of people that rushed to Goa and other destinations were a testament of how we, as people, took things for granted too. While there were restrictions at play, the jugaadu Indian took pride in how he was able to “bet the system”!
  • The height of such “beating the system” stories are the fake Covid negative certificate scams and people roaming around freely in their housing complexes or even travelling or roaming around in the city, in spite of being tested Covid positive. That someone enables such routes to be exploited and that there are huge takers of such short cuts, is again proof that we get what we deserve!
  • Note that I am not talking of daily wage earners and other working population who had to step out due to their needs of livelihood. Those could not be put off beyond a point. It is the scores of others who went out and mingled “just like that” or who chose to have large weddings or who went for large religious gatherings etc. that I point to. Absolutely unnecessary and suicidal, as we are able to see in hindsight now!
  • In late December and then in January, I could sense people giving up even on the mask, in a big way. Simple mask discipline or social distancing was being compromised big time. Because of the complacency that had set in, but that time, that “things were normal now”.
  • And even as the second wave has hit, and is clearly much stronger than the first one, there is a huge hangover on the post-first-phase liberties that we don’t want to give up. While we lived totally locked down, without domestic help, learned to manage our chores ourselves, now, with a much bigger wave, when an idea of cutting down domestic help is mooted, there is “furore” in the housing complex! We want it all, but want Covid to go away, and want some magic from governments!!

This is really the point around what WE can do for the country.

  • To start with, appreciate that we are in a serious health emergency!
  • Don’t wait for someone in your own family to have to go through the agony of finding a hospital bed in an emergency, to come to that realisation. Appreciate it already, as you see the situation around you!
  • The fundamental challenge is again around flattening the curve or cutting the curve, or whatever term you choose to use. And to understand this, it is about that difference between availability of hospital beds (including ICUs, oxygen, etc.) versus the demands for the same. At this time, the demand is surging, it is already above the capacities at most places.
  • How do you get this diverging curve under control? On the one side, you increase capacities. However, that is a slower process and we cannot expect overnight results here. And the increase of capacity will also be in finite numbers at a time. So, the other option to bring the diverging curve under control is by reducing cases.
  • And, there are effectively two ways to reduce the demand. Fewer people getting infected and more people getting vaccinated. What we can do about the former is to fundamentally follow the disciplines around masks, social distancing, not mingling, not stepping out unless absolutely necessary, and urging our friends and families towards these aspects too. Don’t step out and begin routine again, at the first signs of reopening, unless you need to do so. Basically do your bit.
  • And on the latter part, as soon as you qualify for vaccination, do get vaccinated. Get your families vaccinated. Spread vaccine education so as to remove the resistance against vaccination amongst certain people.

And if I may dare to share this last suggestion for people. And perhaps, the most critical one!

Unfortunately, most of the dialogue on social media and in private groups is around finding faults. Most times, with the government. When suggestions for lockdown or curbs are given, the response if around “why those other things are still on, and we are asked to restrain??”.

How does this help??

This is an emergency like any other emergency, such as a war. These are the times to stand as one, and focus only on the enemy, which in this case, is the Covid virus. At such a time, why are we wasting our time and energies, on fault finding, and throwing doubts around anything constructive that anyone is attempting??

Just support the steps that are being taken. You or I are NOT in a position of decision making, and if you ask a 100 people, there will be a 100 different approaches that you might get. So, just because the government is not doing what YOU think they should be doing, does not necessarily mean that they are wrong, or that you should not support them at this time.

Hopefully, we will fight this war and win, and then there will be ample time to analyse the mistakes and blame the concerned people. But for now, there can only be one objective, one laqshya, viz. to overcome this challenge of the covid emergency and win! Let’s all stay focused on that goal, and do whatever we can, in that endeavour, from our side.

In the above, where I have described the less than responsible behaviour of people earlier, I have kept using the pronoun, “we”, as I have equally been a part of that behaviour. This message is as much to myself, as to every other citizen in the country.

Let’s go, win this war against Covid, TOGETHER!

  1. Jigar Shah says:

    I find this article typical of what Modi Followers are writing as part of a mass campaign to protect the inabilities of the Government. There are 1000s of these followers recruited from the educated middle and upper class who have all the facilities at home to talk about how great the Government is and why we should not be critical. Having a Kumb Mela and Election Rally with 1 Lakh people when you are preaching stay at home? Isn’t that blatant hypocrisy on part of the Govt and it’s followers? Those two events have created Millions of Carriers who will now take the diseases into small towns and villages where there is no infrastructure. It feels like something done on purpose to purge an entire generation and genre of population i.e. Old and Poor.

    Please don’t defend the inefficiency of the entire political system. We all are doing what we can for our country and that is why we are aghast at the callous attitude of the political class, hence it is pouring out on social media. Note that almost most of us are doing our part by staying home or volunteering or helping friends in dire needs. Because the pathetic political class is only going to fill their coffers.

    • Sanjay Mehta says:

      I am sorry to see a view that is so blinded by political hatred that everywhere you see a political angle.
      I don’t even need to defend anything as I have stated very clearly what all governments have failed to do, be it state or centre, and what also are our own unfair expectations of governments, in the hindsight view. And there are enough people on the streets, even today, openly flouting basic discipline that is required in current times. My own close circle, for example, is less impacted by Kumbh or election raliies, but more by people heading to Goa and Maldives and not taking enough care and returning inflected and then roaming around in the building freely, in spite of being Covid positive, etc.
      Regret that your comment is too blinded by a desire to make everything political, that you do not appreciate the larger view. Anyway, to each his own!

  2. Lajnik says:

    Hey, Sanjay.

    Nicely written article. Wherever you have used facts, you have done great job.

    Still, somehow article come across (may not be your intention) as if making excuses on part of serious modi failures. May not be your intention but that is how it come across.

    What people can do to help country?

    Politely (yes, politely but effectively) pressure Modi to listen to experts. We have too many datapoints from internationally acclaimed professionals that Modi’s ego is his biggest enemy.

    Modi is far better than any other alternative we have (or may be ever had) but he make mistakes. Quite a few.

    We are failing him when we keep coming up with excuses on his behalf.

    Need to call him out (politely) when needed, honestly. That is the best his supporters can do for the country.

    Keep writing. Love to read your viewpoints.

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