WHEN historians record the past two years, they will note that in the first half of the 21st century, a pandemic struck the world with colossal loss of life and economic disaster. They will note how some nation states have combated it scientifically, with a coordinated effort from their health and social services, police, central banks and other government departments, thus mitigating (although they too have suffered losses ) the economic, political and social impact of the pandemic. Others with poor infrastructure and political will have suffered untold devastation in direct human cost and economic misery. A quick reflection on the “Plague” (the Black Death as it was called) that hit Europe in the early 14th century shows that in addition to the massive death toll, the resulting impact on social aspects , religious, economic and political was huge. For example, the Hundred Years’ War between England and France took place simultaneously during this period. Peasant revolts in England and France at the time marked the beginning of the end of the feudal system. The impact of the heavy death toll led to women gaining prominence and also led to the empowerment of serfs, as dwindling populations no longer gave lords unlimited access to labor. Economically, a recession ensued which was accompanied by high inflation as crops were lost and fields left uncultivated. It remains to be seen what exact form the consequences of the current pandemic will take. Fortunately, so far the death toll has not been in the same category as the “plague”. However, the global economy today is a complex machine – integrated across nations with complex supply chains and interdependencies. These have all suffered some form of disruption and the resulting reaction of nations has been one of increased self-reliance and protectionism. A common theme of high inflation can be seen across the board, and we all know how disruptive that can be. Lockdowns have varied in severity from country to country and the resulting impact on mental health and the social fabric is gradually emerging.
We have been hit successively by new waves of Covid and they have impacted almost every aspect of our lives. We still don’t know if we’ve seen the end of it or if new strains and mutations will show up in the future. Various medical experts, research organizations, pharmaceutical companies, and governments continue to feed off people’s insecurities with a plethora of predictions. We have almost forgotten its origin – in China or the United States, or was it a thunderbolt thrown by the gods in their anger against us? Government laboratories, research organizations and universities have been doing their best to urgently develop the vaccines that will save mankind from the dreaded disease. The pharmaceutical industry was part of this tremendous effort and rose to the occasion (also gaining hugely afterwards). Countries raced to get the most vaccines and in this race the developed world as usual got the upper hand.
What has been the impact of these two years of devastating lockdowns, curfews, closed schools and colleges, closed or inaccessible courts, closed hospitality and entertainment venues, etc. ? During the first months, the landscape looked like a vast wasteland and each house a fortress and each human being an island in itself. The isolation was complete, no calling on anyone, no parties (except at 10 Downing Street), no shopping, no adventure. The only means of contact was a cell phone and the only leisure was reading or watching television. There was calm in the air, suspense in the house, and despair the dominant emotion. Isolation created its own psychological problems in lonely hours and gave rise to morbid, overheated imaginations. Every scratch in your throat, every cough, a slight fever and you’re off imagining all sorts of dark possibilities. The impact was felt by all, but especially by the elderly and students. As it is, old age is the epitome of loneliness, but illness and isolation make those things worse. Young school children locked in their homes for two years, deprived of the company of their peers and stuck in front of computers for online studies, what will it take to fill the void of the last two years? How will their psychological balance be affected in the long term? Will they ever fully recover, and will online education be enough to compensate for the loss of the physical interactive classroom?
However, what about those millions of children who cannot afford an online education and who do not have computers or smartphones at home? sometimes three or four kids would share a phone or climb to a higher altitude to get a signal. Rather than leaving them idle, some of the poor parents have enlisted them in the labor market – where will they find their childhood or their education? At least two batches of poor students succumbed to this. No amount of reservation, no amount of free dal and rice, no amount of free bicycles, etc. can ever replace lost education. It is education and good health that are the magic words in the fight against poverty. It was hoped against all hope that an effective nationwide health and education infrastructure would be the focus after this event. The last budget ended that hope because there are no provisions or additional funds for the kind of infrastructure and dynamism needed. The same decrepit public clinics and hospitals will continue. Unemployment has always been a challenge for our population and with the mismanagement of the pandemic, the number of unemployed people is only increasing. Even the annual labor migration is down as unemployment is everywhere, and migrants still remember the hammer that fell on them after the first lockdown. Migrants have become nowhere people, fired in subways and undesirables in states; the highways became their home until they were finally accepted into their villages. Farms and industry have no new jobs to meet these numbers.
In the meantime, in some states they will receive cash, food and alcohol for a short time due to the ongoing elections. Politicians do not talk about health or jobs, they are magicians with bags of tricks and gifts which they distribute and win the votes of the credulous. There is no talk or promise of creating a “national commission” to look into the utter failure of central and state governments to deal with this emergency, especially during the second phase of Delta when there had been enough of warning. No sir, we were busy patting each other on the back to be the best in the world and then the men started dropping like flies in droves. There was no autopsy of those who died, will there be no autopsy of the role of the state? There may be remedies if we accept that there is a problem, but we are in denial mode.
Developing countries have moved, they have anticipated the likely shocks to the economy and have taken or are taking corrective measures. They printed money when needed and now they are taking steps to control inflation. Their unemployment figures are lower than before, political setups and central banks are ready with a series of measures to take corrective action to support their economies. And U.S ? What is the plan… will someone please share? A High Court judge in Punjab and Haryana recently said: “We are the fifth or sixth largest economy in the world and hence the excuse that we are not as advanced as other country is no longer available to us…”
Is it too much to ask that governments, both at state and central level, which have vast financial and human resources from the sixth largest economy, come up with a “Marshall Plan” with a definite timetable to eradicate this scourge of poverty and misery? Poverty is man-made because the extreme disparity between the super-rich and the poor in our country has been allowed to happen…it is a systemic failure of past and present governance and it is shameful. It was high time for management to correct the course and this pyramid of disparities.
Today, we are increasingly threatened at our borders by hostile neighbours. Old alliances seem increasingly fragile and new ones distant. The multitudes of unemployed youth are fertile ground for internal conflict as they are easily manipulated by extremist elements. We must channel, train and deploy this human resource for the benefit of the nation and not let it become part of the problem. We must allow our entrepreneurs to flourish, we must support our farmers, thus ensuring the strength of the rural economy. We must provide universal health care and education. The alternative is too painful to imagine – all you have to do is study the changing political map of our geographic region over the past 300 years to jog our collective memories of what failure would look like.
– The writer is former President of UPSC, former Governor of Manipur and was J&K DGP