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By Shruti Bedi
Human kindness has never weakened the stamina or softened the fibre of free people. A nation does not have to be cruel to be tough. – Franklin D. Roosevelt
Keywords: COVID-19 | Societal Response | Marginalised Sections | Rights and Duties | State and Subject Cooperation
After the initial encounter with the unlucky ‘bat’, the world is waiting with ‘bated breath’ for the scientists to ‘bat’ out a vaccine. Till then, humanity suffers the scaling spread of a pandemic unprecedented in its global reach. Several thousand lives have been lost, economies have plummeted, over-burdened health systems are clasping on to their feeble resources. The only protection against this micro-organism is our home and ‘social distancing’ remains the only known vaccine. However, home and social distancing is a luxury which not everyone can afford in India.
Writing about the previous century’s plague, the French critic René Girard said that “the distinctiveness of the plague is that it ultimately destroys all forms of distinctiveness”. In the same vein, the coronavirus’ appetite is ravenous and indifferent to the boundaries of society. And yet this pandemic has been deeply divisive. Unequal access to healthcare services; ostracization of communities viz. healthcare professionals, certain religious communities; impact on the migrant workers and the disadvantaged are some issues which have arisen in the Indian context. The worst affected are not virus-stricken but the poor, the labourers, the migrants, the daily-wage workers, the Dalits, the Adivasis, and other marginalised sections constituting a majority of the population.
The mass impoverishment visible in the slums makes a mockery of simple rules of hygiene and social distancing. Undoubtedly, the governmental campaigns of awareness, masks, soap and water are laudable but may prove to be insignificant under the avalanche of the devastating effects of the pandemic. The starved and homeless migrant for whom susceptibility to the virus is not a priority in the face of hunger and survival, has been left to negotiate the politics of train transportation. The harsh injustice of the social structure ridicules the right to dignity of a seemingly civilised race. Even in death, the dignity flowing from right to life is lost as dead bodies of Covid-19 patients are left unattended. For the daily-wage worker or labourer who cannot afford the luxury of working from home, the inequality stands accentuated with every passing moment. The difficult situation claims to pit the right to life against the right to livelihood. Is survival more significant than the need to earn livelihood to survive? The constitutional rights to equality and education become a distant dream as the world goes digital. The degrees of distress intensify with the failure of public distribution systems as basic food and accessible health-care remains elusive. Add to that a comatose judiciary and voila, we have a recipe for ruin.
Confucius rightly said, “Destruction has noise, but creation is quiet”. As the noisy din of Covid-19 leaves destruction in its wake, it is time for quiet creation. It’s time to recall the forgotten fundamental duties that we owe, as members of civil society. Rights and duties form an integral part of the Indian constitutional architecture. Justice in these grave times comes through unknown social groups, the messiahs for migrants who have overcome the socio-economic differences and are managing to salvage the right to life for the impoverished. It is these citizens who have paved the way for the erasure of embedded social differences. After all Article 51A(d) of the Indian Constitution calls upon every citizen to render national service in times of need. It is now that people of this land must wake up to eliminate ‘corona-untouchability’ and corona-racism, thereby compelling the courts and state to opt for course-correction. Fundamentally, even a coronavirus infected body is a human being possessed of rights and freedoms. We the people must throw down the gauntlet to the state and courts to intercept this adversity with righteousness. It is the moral obligation of the populace of this nation to sustain the rule of law.
In this undisputed public health crisis, people have shown adaptability and resilience. Nevertheless, there is a dire need of humility percolating down to a place where we are open to listening to each other and caring for those who need attention. The health-care workers need our respect and empathy instead of complaints and assault. The poor employee needs his wages to survive. Undoubtedly, the pandemic has left everyone economically stricken except the extremely wealthy. The resources must flow from the haves to the have-nots besides the reserves from the coffers of a welfare state. Even the state cannot recuse itself from this responsibility by citing financial constraints. In addition to addressing hunger and starvation, it is duty-bound to provide proximate and free health care to the poor and the marginalised. As an informed citizenry, we must insist that the state enlist the assistance of experts in the field of public health augmented by epidemiologists and policymakers which will ensure a result-oriented approach. The liberty, freedoms and dignity of the citizens must form the core of any action, and transparency and accountability the structure of any state proceeding.
There is no recipe and no precedence to tackle this sinister pandemic. The state and society must join hands as state action without conscientious citizen participation would mean throwing resources down the drain. The people, the ultimate sovereign cannot presume invincibility against the virus devoid of the institutional power of the state. The people must continue their eternal vigil to sustain and maintain the largest democracy on earth. They must participate with the zeal and fanaticism in the dance of preservation of humanity. It is time to be tough without being cruel.