In India, Covid-19 pandemic has brought with it a blessing or two

The vaccines have been produced by private companies, but decades of socialism have trained us to allow political leaders to take credit for everything.

With his flair for melodrama, Narendra Modi personally launched the nationwide vaccination drive against Covid last week. The vaccines have been produced by private companies, but decades of socialism have trained us to allow political leaders to take credit for everything. Having spent many years watching fine, upstanding Indians kowtow to the Dynasty, I had hoped that Modi would govern in a manner that would demand less servility. Especially after he announced from the ramparts of the Red Fort, early in his first term, that he saw himself as the ‘pradhan sevak’ of the people.

As inexplicable is Modi’s neglect of the two areas in which decades of rule by the Dynasty produced dismal results: education and healthcare. If the pandemic has brought one blessing, it is that it has forced Narendra Modi to notice the abysmal state of health services even in states governed by his own chief ministers. The blame for India having the worst public hospitals, and despite having some of the best private hospitals in the world, lies squarely on the Congress party rule. What makes this criminal neglect unforgivable is that the party’s ruling Dynasty was founded by a man who tried to spread modern, scientific ideas in the hope that they would dispel India’s ancient superstitions.

Modi’s tent includes people filled with not just ancient superstitions but obscurantism and blind faith in the medicinal properties of cow dung and cow urine. He could have brought ‘parivartan’ by showing as much passion for improving public health services as he did for Swachh Bharat. He chose to allow obscurantism to prevail until the pandemic made it impossible. Remember how when inaugurating an Ambani hospital in Mumbai he said ancient Indians knew about plastic surgery and proof was that Ganesha was given the head of an elephant? How did he forget Sushruta, considered the world’s first plastic surgeon, and whose method for surgery on noses has been modernised but is still valid today? In the initial days of the pandemic, Modi ordered a nationwide beating of ‘thalis’ and lighting of candles, so how could he reprimand those who bathed in cow dung and said cow urine was the ultimate cure? Instead of a Ministry of Cows in Delhi, would it not have been better to have a ministry that took charge of really improving our dismal health services?

The pandemic has forced us to turn our gaze to another area that was shamefully neglected under decades of Congress rule. Schools. The Economist had a piece last week that talked of how millions of Mumbai’s slum children attending cheap private schools were no longer in school because their parents could not afford smartphones for online lessons. It was a sad, shameful story about how desperately India needs to pay attention to school education, and the most shameful statistic it quoted was the World Bank saying that only 55% of Indian children can read or understand a simple story.

This dreadful state of affairs has not come to happen in the past seven years. It has taken decades of criminal negligence for things to come to this pass. Decades in which schools for ‘the people’ were treated with contempt by the officials who built them because they knew that they need never have to send their own children to them. So, this is something that cannot be blamed on Modi. What can be blamed on him is that he has done almost nothing in the past seven years to make things better.

Most Indian states with the worst schools are governed by BJP chief ministers. So had the Prime Minister shown as much interest in improving schools as he did in sanitation, there is no question that schools would have improved. There is still time. Some of the most primitive schools I have visited exist in the states of Uttar Pradesh and Bihar. If Modi wants to ensure that our vaunted ‘demographic dividend’ does not end up in the waste basket, he needs to concentrate on school education with the passion he showed for Swachh Bharat.

The pandemic has brought with it almost no blessings anywhere in the world. It has brought death and horror and terrible suffering. But, in India it has brought with it a blessing or two. The first is that it has killed fewer people per million than in almost any other country and it has made us notice those areas of governance that have been horribly neglected for much too long. If they had not been, we would not face the possibility that millions of India’s most vulnerable children will not learn to read or write ever. It has made us notice that most government hospitals lack basic facilities like modern systems to get rid of medical waste. Like fire safety. Ten newborn babies died in their cribs in a government hospital in Maharashtra last week simply because of obsolete fire equipment.

This news would have made headlines in a country with real public healthcare. It disappeared within hours in India because when it is poor children who die, nobody really cares. It is a shameful, ugly attitude that has developed over decades of callous ‘socialism’, but Modi could have brought the change that he promised. And he still can. It is no longer acceptable that India should have the best private schools and hospitals in the world and the very worst.

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