By Aishwarya Bhuta
The COVID-19 pandemic has struck a heavy blow to the entire world. Over a year down the line, United States of America, Brazil, and India remain the worst affected countries. With over 4,67,000 deaths by June 2, 2021, Brazil has the second highest toll after the United States. May 2021 saw Brazilians hit the streets in protest against the dismal responses and failures of the government in handling the pandemic. The protestors took to banging pots and pans in protest against incumbent President Jair Bolsonaro, who is facing the ire of citizens for his long-time pandemic denial and inadequate crisis management later. As the country shall go to polls in 2022, winds of change have begun to blow.
Banging pots and pans has been an old political protest tradition in South America. In February 2021, people in Myanmar also used this mode of protest against the military coup in the country. On the other hand, citizens of India were urged to clang pots and pans and ring bells to applaud the efforts of frontline workers christened COVID warriors in March 2020. Messages floated on social media platforms suggesting that doing so would ward off the coronavirus. A year later, in April 2021, India has witnessed a second and deadlier wave of COVID-19, worsened by the emergence of varied fungal infections. For several days at a stretch, India recorded over 4 lakh daily infections and more than 4,000 daily fatalities during the second wave, which have been the highest in the world.
Super-spreader events such as a religious gathering of millions and state elections have been largely responsible for this second wave. This irresponsibility on the part of the state has been called out as disastrous by international media. With the acute shortage of vaccines, a possibly more dangerous third wave seems inevitable. A differential vaccination policy for those aged 45+ and those in the age group 18-44 seems illogical at a time when the infection has spared neither the old nor the young. The Centre must assume full responsibility for vaccination rather than asking the states to become atmanirbhar or self-reliant when the latter are already grappling with various problems because the Centre has not released their dues.
A study by India Ratings and Research pegs the cost of vaccinating the entire adult population of the country at ₹67,193 crores. Considering two doses for 90.09 crore voters eligible for voting in the 2019 general elections as equivalent to the 18+ population and accounting for wastage as well, approximately 200 crore doses would be required. If the Centre purchases the lot at the rate of ₹150 per dose, the cost would be around ₹30,000 crores, which would be less than 0.5% of the GDP. It must be noted that ₹35,000 crores have already been earmarked in the Union Budget 2021-2022 for vaccination purpose. State governments are being sold the doses at ₹400 per dose, more than twice the rate at which the Centre is procuring it. Clearly, it is economical if the latter procures the entire stock and later allocates it to the states. This will also necessitate ramping up production if the entire populace has to be vaccinated by December 2021 as claimed by the Union Health Minister.
The second wave was also made lethal owing to severe lack of beds, oxygen concentrators, and essential drugs. Kerala remained one of the only oxygen-surplus states while the capital and the other major states kept gasping for breath. A sustained neglect of public health infrastructure in the country by successive governments over decades, consistently below par public investments in education and health, and unpreparedness for the second wave despite several warnings together became a recipe for disaster. A third wave is said to be round the corner. Besides public health infrastructure and rapid vaccination, increasing awareness regarding COVID-appropriate behaviour is essential. The digital divide must also be taken into account before mandating online registration for vaccination.
Long story short, it is no longer only the underprivileged, poor, or migrant workers who have suffered due to lockdowns and the pandemic. The middle class too has suffered immensely, lost dear ones, and run from pillar to post to arrange for beds, vaccines, oxygen, and so on. It is high time that all members of the civil society begin holding governments accountable without falling prey to fake news and propaganda. Maybe it is time for Indian citizenry to bang pots and pans again, albeit in protest like the Brazilians against the insufficient policy responses and inability to prevent the catastrophe. Mitigating the crisis entails saving lives as well as livelihoods so that we can begin again in the post-pandemic world.
Aishwarya Bhuta is pursuing an MA in Development and Labour Studies at Jawaharlal Nehru University, India. Her research interests include development, gender, economics, and society.
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