The second wave of the COVID-19 pandemic has been wreaking havoc in India. Over the last couple of weeks, the world has witnessed horrific scenes of people dying due to the lack of medical oxygen, hospital beds and so on. There isn’t enough place for the dead in crematoriums and graveyards, nor enough wood for the pyres. Bodies have been washing up on the banks of Ganges river in Uttar Pradesh and Bihar in the last few days, perhaps because of the near impossibility of a proper funeral.
How and why did things come to such a pass when, after almost a year of the first appearance of the virus, it looked like there was a reduction in both infections and mortality?
There is now ample documentation of how the Narendra Modi government let its guard down, became complacent and declared ‘victory’ against the virus all too early, with little regard to scientific advice and without recourse to sufficient and accurate data. The virus hit back with deadlier mutant variations and now people are dropping dead like flies all across the country. The sense of this unimaginable tragedy is made acute by the knowledge that a vast number of these deaths could have been prevented had the government prepared in advance and taken the pandemic seriously. It didn’t. The misfortune was unavoidable, but the injustice of it was not. So, where does the buck stop?
In the light of attempts being made to pass off this colossal disaster as an ‘act of God’, or a misfortune that no one could control, predict or prevent, in order to deflect accountability and responsibility from the government, I examine what is happening and what has happened through the distinction between misfortune and injustice proposed by the eminent political theorist Judith Shklar in her book Faces of Injustice. Shklar says that natural disasters like earthquakes or pandemics could be viewed as either an instance of misfortune or injustice, depending on how the powers that be respond to the initial event.
These events are not necessarily a case of misfortune alone. They could be very well an act of injustice – either passive or active – beyond the occurrence of the natural disaster itself. And sometimes it is not easy to draw the line between the two. When a natural disaster like an earthquake, a tsunami or a pandemic hits (a case of misfortune in itself) they could very well turn into patent cases of injustice if there are human and political factors involved in exacerbating the suffering resulting from it.
For instance, the public authorities could turn a blind eye and choose not to mitigate the suffering of affected people or may not have prepared well in advance despite warnings made possible by technological advancements. In that event, it is not right to view it as a case of misfortune beyond human control. Instead, the proper way to make sense of it is as a case of flagrant injustice wherein immense suffering and loss of human life could have been prevented if only the people in power and positions of responsibility had acted as they were mandated to.
For a healthy, democratic polity, it is crucial to guard against the attempts to mistake cases of injustice for those of misfortune. In spite of the fact that it isn’t always easy to draw the line, it is crucial to foreground the perspective and grievances of victims, and take their view into full account in any evaluation of what constitutes injustice and how to address it. Because “anything less”, Shklar points out, “is not only unfair, it is also politically dangerous”.
Moreover, the expression of anger by the victims and those who speak on their behalf – be it journalists or social media users or civil society – becomes a contribution to the public good because it helps in keeping tyrannical governments in check. The silencing of the victims or using punitive state force on them only extends the injustice further.
When we look at the Indian government’s response to this public health crisis it becomes abundantly clear how the natural disaster soon turned into a flagrant case of injustice.
The way this government ignored scientific advice about community spread and allowed superspreader religious festivals for political gains, chose multi-phase elections over human lives, and has been squandering upward of Rs 20,000 crore of public money to meet the kingly fancies of its supreme leader by building the Central Vista instead of putting in place a solid COVID-19 policy is quite well known by now.
This is public money and in a democracy one man shouldn’t be able to decide what to do with it. In the face of the calamitous consequences of the second wave, going ahead with this project betrays the insensitivity of the government and is a clear case of injustice. This money could have been used during this crisis to ramp up medical supplies, build hospitals or at least create field hospitals (which were announced but most are yet to be seen on the ground) and better equip the existing ones with the necessary infrastructure to save the lives of citizens. And if it wasn’t enough that public money is prioritised for such vainglorious projects at a time of a public health crisis, the Central Vista construction work has now been declared an essential service. There has been some public outcry against this project but the work on it continues unabated.
When we examine the Central government’s vaccination policy, we find that it blithely leaves the public health matter of preventive protection by a vaccine to the mercy of market forces. The Supreme Court, which tried to intervene in the matter to ensure fair distribution, was asked by this government to stay away and not meddle in the affairs of the government. Is the likely failure of large-scale and quick vaccination of most Indians then a misfortune or an active injustice by the government on its citizens?
Clearly, in all of the above acts and choices of the government, it is the deliberate selection of one action over another in the face of this lethal pandemic that turns the misfortune into a case of injustice, or rather, in fact makes it a patent case of active injustice.
All too often in India, the people who are responsible for such injustices easily get away with it because they have been able to portray it as misfortune for which, they claim, they could hardly be blamed. We have rich examples of this kind of spin and obfuscation in the popular and mainstream print and TV media, both by the government and its lackeys.
The coronavirus may well have been a natural disaster that has struck the world, and India was no exception. But the subsequent botched response that has resulted in the current carnage here is a consequence of human – all too human – actions of the powers that be. Or to put it differently, in the face of the cataclysmic failure of the government, there is no shadow of doubt that this is a political act of active injustice for which the current administration is squarely responsible.
Stalin (in)famously said, “The death of one man is a tragedy. The death of a million is a statistic.” What we cannot forget is that every one of those millions that make up the statistics of death for the state are still personal tragedies for those who lost someone. For the Indian government that deals with its citizens as data points, and seems to live for electoral math (which hasn’t gone too well for it lately), Stalin’s words may exemplify how it is looking at the lakhs of COVID-19 deaths. But for those who now mourn their loved ones, every one of those deaths is a lifelong personal tragedy. And many of those personal tragedies are an act of active injustice.
Misfortune can be handled and mitigated. Active injustice must be opposed in order for us to be free of it.
Irshad Rashid has a PhD in Political Science and lives in Kashmir.