Health

COVID-19: A Nation's Soul Scarred Beyond Recognition in United Grief

Our flailing and floundering response as a nation to an unprecedented catastrophe will be etched in public memory as an unpardonable sin by those entrusted with the destiny of the nation.

Driven by a compelling need to unburden an unbearable sense of grief, this piece is also a supplication for divine mercy in these calamitous times. It is about the moral impoverishment of an ancient society and wanton abandonment of empathy as the essential condition of our coexistence.

A nation ravaged by a surging pandemic and the accompanying hopelessness despair, destitution, sickness and death is numbed by the scale of human misery. The vastly understated official figures of daily deaths at 38,000 with over four lakh new cases every day and rising with a positivity rate of 36% in the national capital tell a story of pain and ineptitude.

With less than 2% of the nation’s population adequately vaccinated to date in a country of 1.4 billion people, our flailing and floundering  response as a nation to an unprecedented catastrophe will be etched in public memory as an unpardonable sin by those entrusted with the destiny of the nation. The enormity of the challenge notwithstanding and granting the bonafide of those in power, their interrogation on the touchstone of “Raj Dharma and Rashtraneeti” is inescapable.

Also read: Questions About Modi Govt’s Handling of the COVID Surge That We Don’t Have Answers To

Proud citizens of a resurgent nation that seek a place on the high table of global politics have been reduced to beggary — begging for a gasp of breath, a ventilator, hospital bed, medicines, a chance to be vaccinated on a non-discriminatory basis, transportation of the sick and the deceased, sources of information for medical relief, and above all a cylinder of oxygen to buy time in a hope to live, have robbed us of our innate dignity that defines our humanity. The trauma of seeing a loved one slip away gasping for breath while struggling to hold on to life wanting to live is a burden too heavy to carry and I should know, having lost my wife to lung failure. That she did not go for lack of oxygen seems a Divine benediction today.

And we die a thousand deaths suffering the loss of our soul every time our dignity is wounded; when the dead do not find space in cremation grounds; when bodies are piled one upon the other waiting to be cremated even as unending funeral pyres test the boundaries of our grief; when the helpless die in rickshaws, scooters and makeshift ambulances outside hospital gates for want of oxygen or hospitalisation, alone and in the cold without family or friend; when the nearest and dearest ones are forced to turn away or when nurses steal critical drugs to profiteer over human misery.

A COVID-19 patient receives free oxygen, provided by a Sikh organization at Indirapuram Gurudwara, in Ghaziabad, Saturday, April 24, 2021. Photo: PTI/Atul Yadav.

When the allocation of a ventilator depends on the age of the patient, we know what we are or have become – a savage society.

How else can we respond to Sahir Ludhiyanvi’s damning interrogatory: Kahan hain, kahan hain muhafiz khudi ke (whither the sentinels of honour; whither its measure), except by way of humble repentance for our moral, political and societal excesses?

Living with the thought of dying alone with none to hold our hand in the last moments, not able to feel the warmth of those who are integral to our lives remains mourning in perpetuity.

Loneliness, as Mother Teresa reminded us, is about the feeling of being unloved. Thoughts about the futility of human relationships and dispensability of those who define us, have added to an unprecedented sense of aloneness.

Gulzar’s poignant verse, depicting a decline in human bonding even in normal times says it all: Zindagi yun hui basar tanha, kafila saath aur safar tanha (life was spent alone, surrounded by a crowd). But this is not the life we want for ourselves and the generations to come.

Wailing mothers, grieving children and the helplessness of the marginalised mock our politics and proclaim a failure of the dignitarian promise of our national charter.

Failure of institutions

Our ‘raucous’ democracy remains enthralled with electoral triumphs and the vanquishing of political opponents even as the nation’s soul is scarred beyond recognition. Political parties are complicit in their failure to prevent large political gatherings, protest movements, or religious congregations – all of which are responsible for the pandemic’s massive surge in the country.

Also read: The Virus and the Math of Vaccine, Votes and Worship

Our exalted institutions of democracy including the Parliament, the Election Commission and even the Supreme Court failed the nation.Despite its celebrated jurisprudence on human rights, the court’s inability to issue binding judicial diktats against the holding of large electoral rallies in the time of pandemic is wholly inexplicable considering the indisputable evidence that huge physical gatherings compromise the social distancing norms and the legally enforceable COVID-related protocols.

A woman with breathing problem waits inside an ambulance for her turn to enter a COVID-19 hospital for treatment, amidst the spread of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) in Ahmedabad, India, April 28, 2021. Photo: Reuters/Amit Dave.

An eloquent newspaper headline about a high court sums up in varying degrees the unintended but a collective failure nevertheless, of our constitutional institutions. It reads: “Delhi HC hearing plea to get him ICU bed, man dies in wait”.  Clearly, in matters of life and death judicial inaction cannot pass off as an act of judicial restraint. Constitutional courts with a large remit need not be reminded that securing the right to life is the first charge on the exercise of judicial power and that in moments of test, justice and judgment cannot lie apart.

The politicians for their part must know that “the struggle of man against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting” and that the excesses of power are invariably called to account. We must all accept that the embrace of humility and a rejection of hubris, in the order of things, is both a sign of strength and a condition of our existence.The anguish and deep sorrow that inspires this piece is beyond the ‘realm of articulate thought’. But hopefully, the soaring and silent ache in the heart is self communicating. Grief, felt in the innermost recesses of our being heals, even if it is a terrible burden of being. And we know that “God brings men in deep waters not to drown them but to cleanse them”.

Ashwani Kumar is a former Union Minister for Law and Justice.