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COVID-19 is not a 'great leveller'

Why do we romanticise resilience?


Disclaimer: I have no intentions to undermine or exaggerate the sorrow and pain of any particular community compared to the other.


Appalled, saddened, overwhelmed- these could have been the reactions of most of us after seeing the unimaginable pictures of dead bodies floating in the river flowing between two infamous poor states of India. During the second COVID-19 wave, we struggled as a country, gasping for oxygen that had been assured a few months back and living under the illusion that there are enough vaccines for everyone. In short, “sab changa si”(all is well). However, the situation flipped in a blink of an eye, and we witnessed one of the biggest catastrophes ever inflicted on humankind. 


India is currently the second-worst affected country by COVID-19, though with the highest single-day spike ever reported by any country to date. The aggression with which the disease has spread in India remains unparalleled, worse than in Italy, UK and Brazil. Even the USA, the worst affected country in the world, did not face the ferocity of this disease at this scale. Considering what India has been witnessing, as a citizen, I have my reservations in describing the pandemic as a "great leveller". When we regard the COVID-19 pandemic as a great leveller, we assume the virus to affect "all" equally, irrespective of individuals' social, political, economic, and geographical positioning. This appears to be an over-simplistic and romanticised depiction of a highly complex and multi-layered societal event. 


My reservations with the COVID-19 pandemic in being called a "great leveller" are based on the argument of "resilience". Resilience, here, can be defined as the ability to bounce back and adapt to the changing reality. Let me elaborate on this with an example. If we consider the case of the worst-hit country, the US - it has been resilient enough to adapt to the 'new normal' and probably bounce back (or is in the process) from the gloom of the wrecking disease. As per a report by India Today, the US has managed to vaccinate 47% of its population with at least one dose, thereby providing a better chance to the citizens to get immunity against the disease. This case of state-sponsored resilience enables the people to bounce back from the crisis. In the Indian scenario, it is needless to describe and reiterate the laments of India and how the healthcare system is grappling. The second wave has revealed multiple loopholes of the disaster governance of the given crises, let alone bouncing back.


Even before the second wave, the almost draconian lockdown of last year was met with significant criticism for violating human rights. The sudden locking up of the country had led to a mass exodus from cities where the migrant wage labourers were left to walk thousands of kilometres, without food and water, back to their hometowns/villages in the scorching heat. In such crises, the state-sponsored resilience in the country is seemingly absent or is inadequate to cater to the vast population. Let’s take for instance, the situation of vaccination in India. Regardless of the ongoing debates and speculation about the availability of vaccines, the data suggests that India has not even vaccinated 11% of its population even with one dose. In comparison with the USA, this number is deficient and even otherwise. This snail-paced vaccination drive has exposed the country's vast population to the virus without any guard or immunity, thereby minimising the chances of bouncing back or getting resilient. 


Thus, despite being exposed to the virus with high positivity and death rates, the resilience varies between the two countries. Many would argue that disaster governance assuring resilience is dependent on various pre-given factors, which may be country-specific like the political will of the elected government, efficiency of and accessibility to health care services, budgetary allocation to health, population of the country, the existent overall health of the economy, structures of governance, coordination between different state apparatuses, the response of the citizens in terms of abiding the covid protocol, etc. If all these factors are taken into account that has resulted in the sheer mismanagement of the pandemic, India's situation is way more concerning than that of the USA. Therefore, to what extent can we call the pandemic a "great leveller" remains debatable and, in fact, dismissible.

 


Within India itself, the pandemic cannot be described as a great leveller. The resilience among the population depends on social, political, and economic capital, which has its roots in the caste-class system and individuals or groups' gender and religious identity. For instance, handwashing at the pandemic is a luxury in the Mumbai slums comprising unprivileged class and caste residents, as 78% of the community lacked water supply. Similarly, affording to follow other essential COVID related protocols such as social distancing or resorting to highly "infamous" WFH (work from home) as an alternative for working from collective office spaces has been restricted to a specific section of the society like- the urban elites working in the corporate sector and residing in gated colonies, townships. Such practices are far from the reality of the individuals or groups living in the densely populated urban slums in the country. Due to their nature of work and lack of access to technology, most unprivileged individuals or groups have faced the brunt of the pandemic without or lack of support from the state. One such category of individuals vulnerable to the deadly virus due to their nature of work is the crematorium workers. These workers are constantly at high risk and are often not geared with any safety equipment. They are not even registered as frontline workers, which would have sped fast and prioritised their vaccination to guarantee some degree of resistance against the disease. The plight of these workers is a clear example of the lack of state-sponsored resilience, which minimises their chance of bouncing back.

 

In research conducted by Oxfam to study the impact of the pandemic in India, it was revealed that Dalits, Adivasis, Muslims and women had been the hardest hit during the pandemic. One of the reasons for the misery of these groups or individuals has been the lack of access to technology. Digital empowerment of the society has been the motto of Digital India, the flagship programme of the Indian government assuring access to technology. However, the pandemic has revealed the myopic vision of such programmes and has hinted at the privilege and power play attached to technology access. The following statistics on the vaccination drive suggest the same- "Only 870 women are receiving the jab for every 1000 men".


This trend points to how women from numerous patriarchal households in India are deprived of getting vaccinated. Lack of general awareness, scepticism against vaccines, lack of access to devices and internet for booking vaccine slots by the women of these households, false rumours like loss of fertility due to vaccination or the sheer lack of concern about the women's health by the patriarchs of such families can be reasoned for this gender disparity in immunization. The situation is probably worse for the transgender community, where less than 4% are vaccinated. Distressed by the digital divide, among other factors in the inability to book vaccine slots, the transgender community is now demanding separate vaccination centres. The digital divide is also visible in the inconsistency in vaccination in urban and rural areas of India. Rural India had witnessed a surge in the COVID cases during the second wave compared to the first one. However, there were reports of lack of testing and under-counting and under-reporting of patients from most of these areas where almost two-thirds of the Indian population reside. The vaccination drives in these areas are also very slow-paced. In a report by The Wire, among India's 114 least developed districts with a population of 176 million, only 23 million people have been vaccinated.

 

The pandemic and how different sections of society are coping with it are indicative of two things- firstly, the brunt of lapse in governance or management, here as reflected in the vaccination drive, is faced majorly by the unprivileged, the marginalised sections of the society. Their lack of political, economic and social capital significantly hinders their chances of bouncing back in such crises. In comparison, the privileged section can display greater resilience even in these exceptional times due to the possession of the capital(ascribed or achieved). Moreover, it assures the elite section better accessibility and networking, which is seen in booking vaccination slots online, following COVID protocols such as social distancing, etc. Therefore, despite adverse conditions, it is generally the privileged to gain the maximum from the state-sponsored resilience (of whatever degree) or use their capital to shield themselves.

 


It should be noted here that such interplay of power and capital is operative at different scales and levels- from neighbourhoods, villages, cities to national and international levels. Secondly, the pandemic has also showcased- what happens when science and technology are infused within a society with multiple hierarchies interplaying simultaneously. In the case of vaccination drive, the disparity or social inequality, instrumental in the unequal possession of capital, within the society inhibited the percolation of scientific endeavour, here the vaccines. This prevents the marginalised sections of the society from benefiting from the scientific inventions, discoveries and the "so-called accessible technology". Therefore, when science and technology, irrespective of its "objectivity", is operationalised within a hierarchical society, its benefits also get hierarchised where the privileged yield the maximum returns. Consequentially, resilience is hierarchised too, especially in the pandemic where the vaccines are the ultimate resort to bounce back from this swamp.

 

Currently, the vaccination drive in India has undergone a few strategic changes. The current programme version has re-centralised the vaccination plan from June,1 where the Centre will buy and give jabs to the states free of cost. At the same time, procurement of foreign vaccines is also being facilitated to maximise vaccine availability. To overcome the digital divide in vaccination, the government has now lifted the compulsion of online registration. Any adult can go to the nearest vaccination centre and get vaccinated with on-spot registration. Such initiatives and changes in the action plan may enable the government to overcome the loopholes in the vaccination drive and achieve the same levels of credibility as that of the Polio vaccination programme. However, we are still left with questions like- how effective would the new strategies be in catering to the marginalised sections of the society and assuring them resilience? Is the momentum of the drive decent enough to face the challenges of the anticipated waves?


Thus, while giving importance to expert opinions, the need of the hour is to adopt a bottom-up scientific approach for a thorough micro assessment of the scenario and develop an action plan that is inclusive of the marginalised. Meanwhile, let's stop over-romanticising the pandemic globally and nationally as a "great leveller".

About the author

Sumedha is a PhD scholar at the School of Habitat Studies, Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai. She is a trained sociologist and her current PhD research explores themes like public health risk, urban governance, sanitation infrastructure, speculative urbanism. Instagram: @sumedha._p

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