A schoolgirl has her temperature taken as part of safety protocols against Covid-19 in Amritsar on July 26. A third of India’s children are left out of e-learning, virtual classrooms and internet-based technologies. (Photo: AFP)
His eyes seemed swollen with unshed tears when Rashtriya Janata Dal (National People’s Party) member Manoj Kumar Jha rose to speak in the Rajya Sabha, the upper house of India's parliament, last week.
“Never before in the history of parliament has there been an obituary reference between two sessions of the house to as many as 50 sitting and past members who have passed away,” he said, referring to the mandatory respectful statement that is read out by the presiding officer at the start of a new session.
Jha, a professor who teaches in Delhi, mentioned that among those who died of Covid-19 were several sitting members, one of them quite young; many other members survived after a grim fight.
It is not a question of numbers or of apportioning blame, the professor said. But the living owed an apology to each of the dead in the pandemic, especially in the ghastly second wave across India.
“It was a nightmare,” he said, recalling his own experience. “I would get a hundred calls from people begging my help to get their relatives an oxygen cylinder.”
We could not help at all, or help maybe one in a hundred, and we were powerful politicians, members of parliament, he said in his speech that went viral on social media.
We will never know just how many people have died of Covid-19 in India since it broke in spring last year
There is of course no apology forthcoming from the federal government in this session of parliament, or indeed anytime soon in the future.
The government denies there was any shortage of oxygen or that anyone died for want of oxygen supply in India’s hospitals.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi issued certificates of excellence to chief ministers of states ruled by his Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), though he did sack the then federal health minister, the hapless Harsh Vardhan of Delhi, a medical doctor unlike the man who replaced him.
We will never know just how many people have died of Covid-19 in India since it broke in spring last year. There is a vast chasm between the 400,000 or so that the government admits to knowing and the many estimates, the highest of which peaks at more than 4 million.
The computations differ, relying on various yardsticks, but most consider the increase in the number of deaths over the average recorded in the pre-pandemic years.
It is not difficult to assume that official figures are wrong. Everyone knows that other than those who were brought to hospital infected with the virus and died there, no testing was done on others who passed away at home, or in villages far from any medical infrastructure, big or small.
More than numbers, people are looking for closure — emotional and spiritual, and palliative in the interim.
The deaths, as Jha said more than once, and the burials had not been dignified. Bodies were buried in the sand or left floating down the Ganges.
“As humans, we need dignity in life. But even more than that, everyone deserves a dignified death,” Jha said.
Even as we wait, perhaps forever, for that closure apology to come from the government and its leadership, there is a need for communities to collectively remember that passage we have all had through the valley of the shadow of death.
The Catholic Church, I learn, has announced a series of prayer days to mourn, as a community, the passing of so many dear ones — a collective requiem to the known and unknown persons who fell prey to the terrible virus.
There should be a day of national mourning and remembrance. It will help.
The impact of the pandemic, both in its human aspect and on the country, will unfold fully over the next few years, just like the medical impact of what is now called long Covid, where niggling symptoms strike those who have fully recovered.
A non-partisan civil society report on governance released this week by the NGO collaborative Wada Na Todo warned how Covid-19 only catalyzed the process of the Indian economy’s de-acceleration.
The pandemic struck India at a time when the process of de-development was under way for a few years. Few, if any, serious policies and rectification measures had been taken, with virtually all growth and development indicators declining rather dramatically.
The pandemic has created a humanitarian crisis and socioeconomic inequalities, severely affecting the disadvantaged section of the population
The pre-pandemic economic scenario had already witnessed a fall in ranking in almost all growth and development indicators including India’s ranking on the global hunger index; undernourished children; inequality index; gender equality index; environment performance; water and air quality, the report says.
The pandemic has created a humanitarian crisis and socioeconomic inequalities, severely affecting the disadvantaged section of the population.
The detrimental effects impacted most of the citizens with a massive rise in income inequality; the top 1 percent of the population holding more than four times the wealth held by the lowest 70 percent.
“Unfortunately, there is still a section of India’s population who are made to feel they belong to a bygone era of violent discrimination,” the report says.
One would like to imagine that given the need for physical distancing, violence against the Dalits, tribal people, Muslims, Christians and women would have reduced. However, atrocities continued unabated.
It is a gloomy report. One wonders if anyone has answers to the questions raised on its 130 pages, endorsed by 110 groups working on issues of sustainability, human rights, civil liberties, education, housing and the environment.
What are we doing for the next generation and the generations to come? The report says: “Education could be an answer, but with Covid-19 not allowing our young citizens to attend school for an entire academic year (and more), there is much that the government could do.”
In fact, the pandemic has added another inequality to the list. A third of India’s children are left out of e-learning, virtual classrooms and internet-based technologies, denying them equal opportunities of growth.
Covid-19 is casting a long shadow over the vast country.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official editorial position of UCA News.