Today, as we suffer from a prolonged and persistent onslaught of Covid-19, we may find it rewarding to think of past such happenings. In 1867, Bengal became the victim of a cholera epidemic. But the common people were so indifferent to the observance of a minimum of preventive requirements that many of them set out on a pilgrimage to the Jagannath Temple in Puri. The British Indian Government issued stringent directives to stop this journey to Puri. But pilgrims did not bother. The Government avoided hurting the religious sentiments of the people, and stressed the inevitability of the spread of cholera, resulting in numerous deaths. But pilgrims could not be deterred. Hence, in order to minimise the number of unavoidable deaths, the Government relied on health inspectors and institutional quarantine measures. Eventually, more than a lakh of people died in Bengal. Moreover, pilgrims carried cholera to Mecca, where, again, pilgrims from different parts of the world assembled in huge numbers. Naturally, cholera spread through the entire world. Millions died. But pilgrimage did not stop. Faith triumphed over life.
In 1896, the province of Bombay suffered from an epidemic--the word pandemic being not in vogue in those days -- of the Plague. The Government enforced Plague Regulations to cope with this disease. Why did the British Indian Government do so--when in Britain, despite the outbreak of cholera and influenza, such Regulations were not carried out.In1897, the year of enforcement of the Plague Regulations in Bombay, Lord Elgin was India's Viceroy. During his tenure, in 1896-97, famines occurred in central and south India. Keeping out of account the princely states, in British India alone, more than one million died due to the famines. Even in this situation, British merchants were allowed by the Government to import foodgrains. Famines aggravated the menace of rats, which moved closer to human habitations. Because of trading by the British, plague-bearing rats had the opportunity to move from Hong Kong to India. This caused a conflagration.
The British were more worried about their business than about the number of deaths in India due to the plague. Other European countries began to pester Britain soon after the outbreak of the plague in India in September 1896. Initially, the British Government tried to brand the plague as Bubonic Fever. But France and Italy refused to be pacified. Almost immediately, France stopped access to its Mediterranean ports for all British ships bound for South Asia. Europe stopped imports of leather goods from India. Moreover, scientists from Europe and America visited India, submitted reports to their respective Governments, while the report from the American group was most negative. Many Governments worried that, if the present situation persisted, very soon British ships coming from India would spread the plague in other countries.
Therefore, the British Indian Government quickly passed the Epidemic Act to communicate assurances to other countries of the world. The consequence was somewhat favourable. At the Sanitary Conference of 1897 in Venice, other countries praised this Act, expressed pleasure at the action programme of the British, and relaxed restrictions upon trade with India.
There was another reason why the aforesaid act was passed. The Head of the Indian Medical Service, James Cleghorn,and subsequently Robert Harvey, did not possess the necessary skill to deal with the plague. They were well-known physicians but not competent administrators. Therefore, an Act was brought in to enable the Government to manage the epidemic by deployment of the police and the military. A special Plague Committee was set up, Plague Officers were appointed. Military officers dominated the Plague Committees in Bombay and Pune, there being only one physician. Some overenthusiastic Government officers began to enter into Indian homes in search of plague patients. Their highhandedness provoked a lot of unrest, and led to an important incident on 22 June 1896 in Pune's main street. Two Maharashtrian youths killed the Plague Committee President W.C.Rand and Lieutenant Ayarst. This incident created a stir in the whole of India. Actually, three brothers--Damodar Hari Chapekar, Balkrishna Hari Chapekar and Basudev Hari Chapekar--planned the assassination. All of them were carrying pistols and swords--As soon as they saw Rand's car from a distance, they shouted a war cry and pounced on the victim.
In mid-April 1898, Calcutta newspapers flashed the arrival of plague in the city. Rabindranath Tagore was at that time in Shantiniketan. He was aware that there were medical examinations of outsiders to avert the transmission of the disease. In mid- April 1898, as one or two plague patients got admitted into hospitals and newspapers reported them, the city people suffered from a severe panic, and started moving out. The rush to get out was so heavy that fare of carriages and palanquins became unaffordable, and eventually, the vehicles were nearly unavailable. Hence, even numerous ladies of high society were compelled to walk on the streets of Calcutta (which they had never done before) in order to leave the city. Moreover, on May 3, 1898, attempts to carry out plague inoculation led to riots in different parts of Calcutta, Europeans being the main targets.
In Pune, however, the death of Rand made the Government of Bombay rather revengeful. Bal Gangadhar Tilak, the editor of a Marathi weekly, Keshari, printed his address on "Shivaji and Afzhal Khan' in this weekly’s issue of June 15, 1897. A few days afterwards, around the anniversary of Rand's assassination, revengeful Bombay Police, unable to trace Rand's assassin, applied the charge of sedition against Tilak to arrest him. Tilak was then a member of Bombay's legislative assembly. Yet he was not granted bail, and sent to Bombay. At the Bombay High Court, however, it was difficult to appoint a lawyer for Tilak-- so panicky was the entire lawyer community. Tilak revealed this difficulty to Sisir Kumar Ghose in Calcutta. In order to arrange the dispatch of a lawyer for Tilak from Calcutta to Bombay, a counsellors' meeting was convened at the office of the Amrita Bazar Patrika. Rabindranath was an invitee to this meeting. Attired in a long white scarf, and wearing a red paste mark on the forehead, he enlisted his name as a donor of funds for expenses on Tilak's lawyers. When Taraknath Palit did not comply with Ashutosh Chowdhury's request for contribution to this fund, Rabindranath himself met Palit and collected Rs. 1000. Eventually, a sum of about Rs.17,000 was raised to hire two eminent English barristers — Mr.New and Mr.Girth, and send them to Bombay. Jogeshchandra Chowdhury, a barrister, acting as a junior to the two Englishmen, happened to be a brother of Ashutosh Chowdhury and a son-in-law of Surendranath Banerjee. He too went to Bombay.
On September 8, 1897, Tilak’s case started in the Bombay High Court. On September 14, Justice Stacey, in agreement with the European jury, subjected Tilak to a sentence of 18 months' rigorous imprisonment. In order to appeal to Britain's Privy Council against this sentence, subscriptions were raised for a Tilak Defence Fund. Rabindranath played an effective part in adding to this fund. At the Privy Council, however, Tilak's petition was rejected. A day after Tilak's arrest, Balwant Rao Natu and his brother, Haripanth Rao Natu, were arrested on the ground of lack of loyalty to the Government. They were kept in the Ahmedabad prison without any trial. Moreover, Keshab Mahadeb Bal, the printer of Keshari, and Shankar Biswanath Kelkar, the editor of the Pune journal, 'Baibhab', were arrested. In the case of Tilak, however, Max Mueller made great efforts, and Tilak's sentence was remitted. He was released on September 6, 1898.
That the Pune assassinations made the British Government revengeful was well known. In Indian newspapers, Rabindranath protested sharply against this British attitude. On December 21, 1897, Mr. Chatherm, the Law Member of the Government of India, introduced the Sedition Bill at the Central Legislative Assembly. Countrywide protests against this Bill were ignored, and it was decided to enact the Bill into law on February 18, 1898. There was a meeting at the Calcutta Town Hall to appeal to the Viceroy for a reconsideration of this decision. Rabindranath read out an essay at this meeting. The title of this essay was 'Silencing the Voice’. In this essay, among other things, Rabindranath pointed to the emergence of an unhealthy/abnormal situation from the prevention of expression of mental agony into words, which is not beneficial to the ruler or subjects.
Whereas the Bombay Government announced the occurrence of the plague, about fifty thousand persons died in the Bombay Presidency within a year. An epidemic was nothing new in India. What was remarkable, however, was the barbarous atrocities committed by British soldiers on the pretext of combating the plague. This deeply hurt the sense of self-respect of the indigenous people. Unable to understand Indian sensitivities, the British persisted in a policy of repression, which created uncertainties about the thirteenth conference of the Indian National Congress. The impact was obvious at the ensuing Dhaka conference of the Congress party. Rabindranath played an active part in this conference. Moreover, in the Bharati magazine, he expressed satisfaction that the application of plague regulations did not assume an offensive character. In his assessment, normally, the Government hesitates to fulfil even the legitimate demands of subjects for fear of encouraging them to demand more. But, Rabindranath added, the occurrence of the plague in Calcutta witnessed the Lieutenant Governor of Bengal, Sir John Woodburne, deciding not to hurt the sensitivities of the indigenous subjects of the East. This decision indicated that Bengal was indeed ruled by a king, and not by Plague Regulations. In this way, Rabindranath felt, the subjects could have a feeling of unity with the king, and could love the king as a human being. Subjects could also then develop self-respect, Rabindranath wrote.
Rabindranath stressed the discontent of subjects and characterised it as a revolt by the subjects, in contrast to revolt against the king, as preferred by the rulers. Both the phenomena, with different titles, would be equally dissatisfactory, argued Rabindranath. As the plague struck Bengal, in places like Khana Junction, Katihar and Namukdia, centres to diagnose plague were set up for incoming passengers. Afterwards, a few more centres were established. But Rabindranath did not hesitate to condemn the state of affairs in, for example, the internment centre for plague-suspects at Khana. Arrangements at the internment centre were rather poor and objectionable. In the past, royal rulers would not only have arranged wholesome conditions but met the expenses. But, regrettably, ordinary subjects were defraying the expenses of plague-suspects at that time.
In this context, the name of Sister Nivedita deserves a special mention. Her gentle struggle against poverty and suffering was exemplary. On one occasion, when she came to Belur to meet Swami Vivekananda, she had scars of mosquito bites all over her body and face, obviously because she had been serving the distressed in mosquitoes-infested places. In the days of the plague epidemic in Calcutta, each slum in the Baghbazar area witnessed the loving presence of Nivedita. She did not care for her personal safety as she distributed money among the plague victims. Nivedita lived mainly on milk and fruits. Sometimes she avoided drinking her own milk, and used the money thus saved to buy medicines for plague patients. There was a riot in Calcutta on May 4, 1898, centring on plague inoculation, although the plague was not extremely severe in the city that year. The Government of Bengal too was remarkably restrained in its approach; the riot did not last long.
Then in 1918-20, the Spanish Flu killed about fifty million people in the world. Regarded till today as the fiercest of all known epidemics in the world, it started at an army training camp in the United States in early September 1918. The time could not have been more inconvenient, because the First World War was raging. At the outset, one American trainee soldier reported his indisposition to his superior officer; doctors at the army camp suspected that the sick soldier, suffering from very high fever, could be a victim of meningitis. In those days there was no electron microscope to detect viruses. Some eminent medical scientists thought of the disease in the American army barracks as a form of plague. Eventually, it was diagnosed as influenza - flu in short. It was not at all certain that the disease originated in Spain or had the most severe impact in that country. But, unlike some major European countries which were participants in the First World War, and hence introduced strict news censorship rules, covering news about influenza too, Spain, a non-participant in the war, did not enforce censorship. It freely published news about influenza, which probably conveyed a mistaken notion about the virulence of its impact, and was responsible for the term Spanish Flu coming into vogue. Whereas vaccines for diphtheria, tetanus, tuberculosis, and whooping cough were developed during 1920-26, the flu vaccine was developed in 1944. Doctors, therefore, compiled a lot of advice to resist the Spanish Flu. For example, they recommended that everyone should cover his face while sneezing or coughing; avoid using a towel or a glass for drinking water used by another person; stay away from a person sneezing or coughing; use a mask when entering into a room with a sick person; keep clean the teeth and face; etc. Many people died, the immediate cause of death being pneumonia. Actually, patients struck by influenza became so weak that they succumbed to an attack of pneumonia. The antibiotic to combat pneumonia was then far from being developed. Curiously, the Spanish Flu took the lives of a majority in the 15-35 age group. The greater survival capability of older persons could have been due to the fact that they suffered from but survived influenza in their earlier years, and thereby developed some immunity; younger persons did not have this opportunity to develop immunity.
In India, the impact of the Spanish Flu was quite severe. Approximately, about fifteen million people died; yet, the Spanish Flu is hardly remembered in India. But the Plague has not been forgotten.
There is a long distance between the late nineteenth-century plague and the 2020 Covid-19. A brief comparison may be interesting. The Bombay Presidency was severely hit by the plague. Maharashtra of 2020 is one of the worst Indian states affected by Covid-19. Sister Nivedita is no more working in Kolkata's slums. But there are tens of thousands of doctors and medical workers combating Covid-19 in the whole of India, whereas plague had to be fought in a few parts of the country. Some overenthusiastic British officers trespassed on the privacy of families rather unduly on the pretext of enforcement of Plague Regulations, inciting a few riots. In 2020, however, in course of the wholly legitimate performance of their duties to cope with coronavirus, doctors and medical assistants have been unduly harassed, humiliated, and even assaulted by inconsiderate citizens, the case for whose punishment cannot be overstated. Some doctors and medical workers have died of coronavirus while treating the disease, while some, though struck by the disease, have re-joined duties as soon as possible after getting cured.
There is a raging controversy about the origin of Covid. The disease has been identified with the city of Wuhan, which witnessed the first victims. Situated on the bank of the Yangtze River, Wuhan is the largest industrial centre of China. Its meat market is supposed to have bred the coronavirus. One can argue that the consumption of meat increased with the spread of industrial revolution, and the gradual but steady rise of worldwide consumerism, which, therefore, is at the root of the Wuhan virus - to take a long term view - without in any way overlooking the significance of Wuhan as the original spot for commencement of Covid. In view of the cruel slaughter of animals by human beings for centuries, the rhetoric of Covid revenge by dead animals today sounds plausible. Wuhan flesh market becomes the centrepiece of attention.
The history of interaction of human greed and cruelty to animals is alarming. For centuries there has been a manifold multiplication of reckless use of animals for food production, medicinal preparation and experimentation. This has not only meant horrendous torturing of animals but evicting them from their age-old abodes and compelling them to come close to human habitats. Along with artificial breeding, all this has increased the chances of transmission of diseases from animals to human beings. There is undoubtedly a need for elaborate research on such transmission, as also on what actually happened in Wuhan, and on the role of the Government of China in keeping the news of the virus under cover.
Even without being faintly an apologist for China, one can argue that the origin of the Wuhan virus ‑ or many other viruses ‑ can be traced to the centuries-old hostility between man and nature. Man has been far more concerned with relentlessly furthering his own interests at the expense of nature than with preserving nature or environment. Acres of green grass appeal to human beings, as does the serenity of a riverbank or a tree swinging its branches with pattering leaves. But men think of protecting these invaluable natural assets only when their own existence is threatened by depletion of these assets. In order to minimise this distance between man and nature, it may be advisable to blend village-based traditional learning with the urban institutional education of modern times.
One obvious impact of the coronavirus rage in India is the attention being paid to the inadequacy of health infrastructure in India. Government hospitals provide the most affordable and comprehensive healthcare facilities. But they leave much to be desired. Even in Bengaluru, the IT capital of India, as revealed in national television channels on 19-20 July 2020, Government hospitals have inestimable deficiencies. Pictures of pigs and piglets roaming on the corridor of a Covid hospital have been repeatedly displayed on the television. Moreover, apathy of staffers, reports The Times of India on 21 July 2020, has led to the death of several persons. Turned away by three hospitals, including the KC General Hospital, a lady eventually delivered a baby in an auto rickshaw ‑ the baby was dead. In another case, seven hospitals denied admission to a 7-month-old girl having symptoms of influenza; the girl died. In another instance, a young man took her sister to several hospitals; refused admission, the lady died of Covid-19; her fault was the failure to produce coronavirus test reports.
Such examples can be multiplied not only from Bengaluru but also from other cities and towns ‑ from Government and private hospitals. At Bareilly, for instance, torrents of water have been seen flowing into a hall where Covid patients are lying. Refusal of admission to patients on the (true or false) grounds of non-availability of beds, oxygen, ventilators, etc. has been quite common. Even the unwarranted absence of doctors on a Sunday has been cited for harassment of Covid patients. Nevertheless, it will be thoroughly unfair to depict the Covid situation in India as entirely negative. The record of Government and private institutions has been highly commendable in many significant matters, e.g. rate of testing, establishment of new Covid Hospitals and testing laboratories, rate of recovery, and rate of death of Covid patients (along with co-morbidities).
It is far from certain as to when a coronavirus-resistant vaccine will be available. Optimists point to successful trials in the United States of America and the United Kingdom, and put the year of availability in 2021. History, however, is against optimists. Normally, the development and marketing of a vaccine takes 10-15 years. Anyhurry, even if involuntary, may leave gaps in the procedure of preparation of a vaccine. This may be disastrous. In 1955, for example, in the month of April, more than 200,000 American children were administered the polio vaccine. But some undetected error in the preparation of the vaccine led to the death of ten children, disablement of 200, and infection among 40,000. There are other examples forbidding optimism about the early arrival of an anti-Covid vaccine. Many years have passed in the search for antidotes against HIV-AIDS or SARS, but without success. One institution at Oxford University, with which, fortunately, an Indian agency is linked up, is hopeful about marketing a Covid vaccine in 2021, and exporting it to India. It is extremely doubtful if this hope will materialise, and even if it does, the price of the vaccine and accessibility of the poor remain major issues. Russia’s announcement ‑ in August 2020 ‑ of mass inoculation by its own vaccine from October 2020 has aroused great expectations. But critics have expressed their worry about inadequacies of trials driven by Russia’s concern for capturing the market and gaining publicity.
The mentality of the people at the time of Covid outbreak is a cause of contemplation. It is a mixed bag. Some people are large hearted and take corona-affected neighbours to a hospital without fear of infection. Some have engaged in nursing neighbours in home quarantine. Others, including students, have collected funds to feed people out of work due to the pandemic. In the most difficult task ‑ that of cremation of persons who have died of coronavirus ‑ such persons have made considerable efforts, taking the help of the police and political leaders, and completed the task. Unfortunately, there is another category of persons who behave most horrifyingly. They oppose home quarantine of a neighbour, resist the entry of a person to his apartment after treatment in a hospital for a fracture due to an accident (equating it to a case of Covid), oppose the legitimate return to his own apartment from a hospital which has declared him Covid-free after necessary treatment, etc.
In this context, the case of a 70-year old man is enlightening in many ways. Driven out from his Kolkata home years ago, he used to work in a shop whose proprietor arranged his stay in a temple. When affected by Covid symptoms, he had to leave the temple, and take shelter on a footpath. Neighbours did not bother, but one of them had the good sense to inform the Covid Care Network (CCN), a private organisation of good Samaritans, who immediately arranged the admission and due treatment of the old man at the MR Bangur Hospital. But hospital beds may not always be available. Some cities,e.g. New Delhi, have surplus hospital beds for Covid patients. Certainly, many cities suffer from a deficit. Currently, the pandemic is ravaging areas, which are mainly urban. As it gradually reaches rural areas, the task facing Government and private bodies will be far tougher than at present. A wishful, though not entirely implausible, thinking is that by the time coronavirus spreads to rural areas, both public and private medical establishments may be able to acquire considerable capability to combat it.
Some eminent doctors have offered innovative suggestions to create this capability. There are persons with medical degrees from foreign universities which are not recognised in India. They can be asked to work in Covid hospitals. If they perform well, their degrees may be officially recognised. Similarly, some nursing students, yet to appear for their final examination, may earn exemption from this examination if they work satisfactorily in a Covid hospital for a prescribed period. In this connection, it may be stressed that community medicine specialists must be given due social recognition, and epidemiology should be offered a respectable place in the medical curriculum. All this can insure against a situation of unmanageable shortage of medical staff during an emergency like the Covid-19 pandemic.
There are 28 states and 8 union territories in India. Some states have fared better than others in coping with the disease. For instance, Delhi suffered from a horribly high rate of infection-- often nearly at India's top. But, in early August 2020, Delhi can appear to other states as a successful performer in the war against Covid (even though the possibility of retardation cannot be totally precluded). Cooperation between the state and central governments must be deemed to be a major contributor to this success. Taking the country as a whole, such cooperation was urgently needed between the Indian Council of Medical Research(ICMR), National Centre of Disease Control (NCDC), Directorate General of Health Services (DGHS), and Department of Health Research(DHR). This cooperation was not noticeable in Covid days -- just like in pre-Covid days. The Union government in India has relied on the National Disaster Management Agency (NDMA) to fight the new pandemic -- although the older ones -- cholera, malaria, typhoid, TB -- are yet to be brought under complete control. On August 6, 2020, India’s Covid numbers crossed two million; India, compared to Brazil and America, logged the fastest movement from one to two million in 21 days.
In this connection, some deplorable events catch attention. On August 6, 2020, in Ahmedabad's Shrey Hospital, the ICU ward caught fire, asphyxiating eight Covid patients to death. A short circuit caused the fire in this private hospital, which had the requisite authorisation from the Ahmedabad Municipal Corporation to treat coronavirus patients. Strangely, Shrey Hospital did not have any No Objection Certificate from the fire authorities. On August 9, 2020, the Swarna Palace Hotel in Vijayawada, functioning as a coronavirus-care centre, caught fire due to a short circuit in an airconditioning unit. Ten patients died. If these incidents are kept in view, one wonders how the country will be able to cope with the long term complications of coronavirus infection, which can affect the brain, heart, kidney or lungs. Wuhan, for instance, patients, after recovery from Covid-19, have reportedly suffered from lung problems. In the long run, the country will have to prepare for enormous expenses on periodic scanning and ultrasound examinations for ex-Covid patients.
Undoubtedly, various problems of Covid times deserve much greater attention than speculation on post-Covid circumstances. Take, for instance, the unavoidable need for ambulances. Owners/drivers of ambulances have been engaged in reckless acts beyond imagination. They have demanded and/or extorted five thousand rupees for three and a half kilometres, eleven hundred rupees per kilometre, and so on in a variety of cases. In one case, an ambulance driver, carrying a patient from a hospital after recovery, dropped him far away from his residence. Policemen are seldom known to have punished oppressive ambulance drivers, although, at the initial stage of lockdown, they were quite active in cracking down on persons violating lockdown. Afterwards, due to a political signal, Kolkata Police became somewhat lenient. The people forgot about social distancing, and there was overcrowding in streets, shops or malls. Soon, however, a renewed fear of Covid upsurge led to a change in instructions for Kolkata Police, who became very firm with transgressors of lockdown. Deplorably, policemen cannot always observe essential limits. For instance, near a slum area, they may beat up persons sleeping on the road simply because they have no space to lie down at home.
In lockdown days, many upper-class people stayed in their homes in peaceful laziness. They did not think probably of slum dwellers, and certainly not of migrants. An unavoidably panicky, and therefore sudden, announcement of lockdown in March 2020 left in a sort of stupor a vast number of migrant workers in different parts of India as also their employers. As for the poor labourers, this reaction was natural and justifiable, especially when they happened to be original residents of distant villages. But, for well-to-do employers, this was unpardonable. The employers ought to have had the foresight to provide the workers with temporary accommodation, if not food, so that at the end of the lockdown (which was never contemplated to be permanent), they could restart their businesses without much problem about finding labourers. Deplorably, no report seems to have appeared, testifying to such wisdom on the part of employers. Therefore, most migrant workers had to leave for their villages, because the option was often to live in shanties under the illegal control of local thugs, paying exorbitant rents. According to a Union labour ministry survey, by mid-July 2020, nearly one crore migrant workers reached their ancestral homes in villages, whereas about two and a half lakh continued to linger in the adopted state. Needless to add, like all such surveys, this survey gives an incomplete picture of some—not all—states and union territories. Yet, they offer estimates valuable for a realistic comprehension of the existing problem.
According to a non-official survey, in the period between end-May and mid-July 2020, 22.5% of migrant workers departed from cities on foot, 17.8% on buses,11.6% on trains, 10.2% on small motor vehicles, 7.8% on trucks, 6.9% partly on foot and partly on vehicles, 2.6% on cycles, and only 1.5% on tractors. More than 50% of these migrants reported that they received no help from local authorities for their travels . The same non-official survey noted that, of those villagers who possessed ration cards, 71% received rice or wheat from the government at the time of the lockdown; of those 17% who did not possess ration cards, interestingly, 27% reported the supply of rice or wheat by authorities. Of the surveyed rural households, 71% complained mostly of income being lower than in the pre- lockdown days. Naturally, more than 68% reported very high or high financial difficulty being experienced in lockdown months. As to medical treatment or medicines, 38% of villagers being surveyed spoke of lack of availability occasionally or often.
If one turns to a mid-August 2020 report from the Union Ministry of Food and Consumer Affairs, one may feel more satisfied about the supply of foodgrains to migrant workers. Under the Atmanirbhar Bharat Scheme, migrant labourers without ration cards, totalling about 2.5 crore, obtained a free supply of food grains. This was 90% of the estimated target, i.e.2.8 crore, as anticipated by the government. There was no migrant worker without a ration card, who did not receive supplies. Some states even had surplus foodgrains, at their disposal, because the actual number of migrants fell short of the estimated number. In addition to the Atmanirbhar Bharat Scheme, migrants without ration cards (and even others)benefited from PM Garib Kalyan Ann Yojana as also the National Food Security Act (NFSA). In spite of the lockdown, a number of states—Bihar, Jammu and Kashmir, Tripura and Uttar Pradesh—distributed 1.3 crore ration cards.
A number of non-official agencies, carrying out surveys in 11 states from end-June to early July 2020, have communicated in early August 2020 that 2/3rd of migrant labourers have either expressed their desire to go back to cities for work or have already returned. Significantly, about 25% of migrant workers chose to move to other cities instead of returning to their villages. Of the returnees, as the surveys point out, 45% have decided to go back to urban centres, whereas 29% have already done so. In the cities, about 25% of those who have arrived, cannot get jobs immediately. Of those who are seeking future again in cities, 85% have gained access to the system of public distribution of food grains, etc.while 71% have secured gas ovens(mostly through the Ujwala scheme). As to the direct money transfer under the PM Kisan Yojana, the number of beneficiaries stands at 38%.
At the end or recesses of lockdown, in order to overcome labour shortage, industrialists have even hired aircraft, not to speak of trains or buses, to bring back migrants from their homes. Yet, paradoxically, despite the enormous contribution of migrant workers to the economies of various states(as also India as a whole), states of Andhra Pradesh, Haryana, Karnataka, Madhya Pradesh and Maharashtra have devised curbs on jobs for non-locals, which are at various stages of planning and implementation. It may be stressed that migrant workers usually find their jobs in textiles and construction, which do not attract locals, who, normally secure 90% of industrial jobs, even when there is no policy of reservation. Gradually, reservations may be redundant, because many state governments have projects to improve skills/qualifications of locals. Significantly, technology has come to the rescue of migrants—at any rate those who are not illiterates or semi-literates—and who are capable of using apps and websites which publicise jobs available in various sites. Employers too find it convenient to recruit through websites and apps, which supply details about the qualifications of potential employees. This is much less burdensome than giving an advertisement, and going through hundreds of applications for, maybe, one or two vacancies. Some migrants have been lucky to get jobs in this way and earn more than what they did in pre-Covid days.
In Covid days, hospitals, especially private hospitals, have emerged as the greatest threats to the lives, properties and dignity of individuals and families in India. Whereas in government hospitals charges are moderate, beds may not be available. In private hospitals, beds may be available but auctioned off invisibly to the highest bidder. Certainly, private hospitals have a right to survive and prosper without government assistance. Undoubtedly, they have a right to multiply incomes by providing sanctuaries at fabulous rents to top flight underworld dons evading police clutches on false medical grounds. They perform a duty to the nation by way of medical tourism and earn valuable foreign exchange when they cater to rich patients from some neighbouring countries. But as countless stories emerge—of ordinary persons being fleeced of five lakhs of rupees for a stay of 3-4 days at a private hospital—public opinion gets firmer and firmer in the assessment that nearly all private hospitals should be replaced by government hospitals or government-aided clinics run by charitable trusts like the Balananda Brahmachari Hospital. A legitimate query is whether the government is taking due care of the clinics organised by charitable trusts. It may be desirable to invest anew more in these clinics than in government hospitals. After all, the performance of government hospitals is seldom encouraging, even if their performance has improved in Covid days. Perhaps a thorough reorganisation of the incentive-disincentive structure in government hospitals has become essential.
The West Bengal Clinical Establishment Regulatory Commission (WBCERC) has taken important steps towards granting relief to patients treated in private hospitals. On August 28, 2020, representatives of 15 hospitals in Kolkata and the districts met Commission members. It was agreed that for patients without insurance cover or corporate tie-ups, bed charges would remain as they were on March 31, 2020. These patients, paying cash, will also be entitled to a discount of 20% on consumables, and 10% on medicines, barring some high-end medicines, whereas the Commission proposed to contact pharmaceutical companies producing these medicines. Bed charges on 31 March 2020 will prevail till December 31, 2020. Moreover, the Commission directed some private hospitals to refund such payments to patients as were deemed to have been overbilled. For instance, one hospital was asked to refund Rs. 1.5 lakh, another Rs27,000, and a third Rs15,000. As to patients with corporate or insurance support, bed charges on 31 March 2020 will stay. Lack of payment of advance must not dictate foreclosure of admission to a private hospital. Relatives of a patient must be informed in time of any test requiring payment of Rs2000 or more. Rate charts must be displayed at several prominent spots in a private hospital. Moreover, patient parties must not be compelled to buy medicines from the pharmacy inside a private hospital.
The West Bengal government can claim great credit in the matter of supply of ambulances. Instead of being torture chambers extorting huge amounts for short distances, they have emerged as messengers of hope. One has only to call the centralised health portal number, and an ambulance will arrive within a reasonably short period of time. The service is free. GKV-EMRI is the operator Competitive bidding resulted in its choice. There are 110 GPS-fitted ambulances in Kolkata, and 400 more in the rest of West Bengal. In order to comprehend the importance of this service, one has only to quote one instance: over a period of ten weeks, in Kolkata alone, 65000 Covid patients have availed of GPS ambulances.
As of August 31, 2020, India crosses 80 thousand Covid cases in a day, whereas the global toll crosses 25 million. The World Health Organisation expects the pandemic to end within two years. So, the war is on—at institutional and individual levels.
In post-Covid times, not to speak of diverse efforts by Union and state governments, even individuals sometimes work wonders. In Mumbai, for instance, actor Sonu Sood is already known to have helped post- Covid migrants significantly. He has sent more than a lakh of migrants back home safely by bus, instead of walking wearily on unsafe roads. But now he finds himself addressing a much more difficult task: arranging jobs for migrants who have left their city employment. Sood has established contacts with about ten thousand schools in order to upgrade or refine the skills of migrants for the facilitation of placement in various workplaces. He has to plan for hundreds of thousands of jobs and set up tens of thousands of interviews. Fortunately, his friends and colleagues are making handsome contributions. Sood’s mode of operation is as sensitive as it is personally calibrated. For example, he came across a video that showed daughters of a farmer pulling a plough due to lack of finances for the purchase of oxen. He procured a tractor for this farmer—a priceless gift.
This brief essay may be concluded with a reference to a somewhat neglected aspect of the impact of Covid-19: mental illness. It obviously results from a disruption of the daily routine of work and leisure. One cannot go to schools, colleges, offices, or to a neighbourhood park or club. Children, adults and old persons will be affected diversely by mental afflictions. But all will be afflicted. Manifestations may vary remarkably. A child may lose appetite and keep away his most favourite dish. An old man, though usually talkative, may prefer silence. An adult may unnecessarily and viciously quarrel with the spouse. If mental infirmity takes a violent and/or uncontrollable turn, there will remain no option but to take the help of a professional clinical psychologist. This too will require the removal of a mental block from family seniors. They have to overcome any false stigma attached to mental ailments in contrast to physical ailments Physical-mental illnesses form a sort of continuum, just as their manifestations hover around commonalities. In coronavirus days, it is essential to remain aware of all these complexities in order to deal with a novel virus with a multidimensional impact.