We are in the midst of one of the most difficult times that India has faced in its independent history. The COVID-19 crisis is sweeping across the country with a debilitating effect on lives and livelihood. However, despite the horrific toll that it takes, it is clear that we will ultimately tame the virus with a combination of the sheer human grit of medical workers and improved availability of vaccines. Before this milestone is reached, we should learn the lessons that this crisis has taught us.
I am aware that many would say that this is not the time to dig into lessons but devote all our energy towards fighting the pandemic. The dissection of our efforts could be done when the fight is won. My view is that this would be a mistake because the real lessons are learned when we are on the back foot and facing the grim reality of the situation. The true learnings are more visible in the humility of failure, not in the hubris of victory. It is a widely accepted truth that it is the victors who write history and that it is often riddled with prejudice and bias, resulting in the actual lessons being ignored.
I would also ask the readers to excuse my proclivity for putting things in a military context; that is what I know best.
Address the Inequality
The first and most important lesson is the need to address the deep inequality in our country. One prominent area of inequality is access to healthcare. It could be argued that well-equipped hospitals in cities and their clientele were also severely affected by the lack of facilities, but that is only a partial and temporary picture. While sympathizing with all who have suffered a loss, it must be accepted that the situation in our rural areas is dismal. There is no dignity even in death with unclaimed bodies floating in the rivers and a lack of clarity over the number of dead.
Healthcare facilities in rural areas were always limited, but this inequality looks set to deepen as we look ahead. Swiss pharmaceutical company Roche has introduced an antibody cocktail for the treatment of COVID-19 patients. The cost of this one patient dose is almost Rs 60,000. It is obvious that this treatment would be out of reach of a majority of the population.
Access to vaccines is also plagued by the digital divide in India. Initially, registration for vaccines for the 18-44 age group was through the CoWIN app. With internet penetration in India at 45 per cent, millions had no means to register for the vaccine. The urban-rural digital divide is evident in a statement in Rajya Sabha that as of March 31, 2020, urban India had a broadband penetration of 93 per cent compared to 29.2 per cent in rural areas.
The adverse effects of inequality on economic development, social cohesion, political stability, and trust in the government are well-known, as is the reality that India is among the countries with the highest level of wealth and gender inequality. However, the pandemic has put this in sharper focus.
Leave No Man Behind
‘Leave no man behind’ is an article of faith in the military. In the heat of the battle, it is often not possible to follow this principle; prisoners are taken, and the injured are left on the battlefield. However, the belief is deeply ingrained and forms a core value that makes the military a resilient organization. The inequality in India will not suddenly disappear, but the government must initiate policies that focus on leaving no man behind. This will make us a stronger nation.
In a war, there are either winners or losers; there is no podium position for coming second. It is an oft-heard statement these days that ‘no one is safe, until everyone is’. Hopefully, the situation created by the pandemic will teach us that certain problems transcend political ideologies, caste, creed, and religion and have to be battled with a common purpose. I use the word hopefully because there is still too much squabbling between political parties on the handling of the COVID crisis. While all our leaders claim to be concerned about the welfare of citizens, the prize that is being eyed is future political power.
It is clear that the responsibility for taking the opposition along lies with the ruling party, which today enjoys overwhelming political dominance. Inspirational leadership skills lie in prioritising collaboration over competition, sharing success, and giving credit to others. An obsession with maintaining face leads to a waste of time and energy that could be better utilised in battling the crisis. The opposition parties must also come together with the government as only a unified approach will ensure victory. Otherwise, we will all lose.
Two thousand five hundred years ago, Chinese military strategist Sun Tzu wrote, “If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles.” We seem to have ignored this adage when combating COVID-19. There is a spate of misinformation about the virus that is only making the fight more difficult. False, unscientific claims, promoted brazenly by certain Ayurvedic practitioners along with some political leaders are adversely affecting the morale of health workers who are the frontline warriors risking their lives on a daily basis.
We must also openly accept our strengths and weaknesses in dealing with the pandemic. If we do not acknowledge the reality of the problem, it is a mystery as to how appropriate solutions can be found. False confidence in our capabilities will lead to attempts to paper over the situation and adopt sub-optimal solutions. British military historian Liddell Hart wrote, “False confidence underlies most of the failures that military history records. It is the dry rot of armies.” This statement is equally applicable to all national institutions.
Finally, we must be careful in defining victory. Should victory be expressed in terms of bringing the pandemic down to a manageable level or in addressing the more considerable national impact of COVID-19 on the economy, livelihood, education, employment, poverty alleviation, etc.? We have seen the dangers of prematurely declaring success after the first wave had been controlled. All of us behaved as if we had achieved the ultimate triumph and that we needed to vindicate our success by flocking in large numbers to religious gatherings and political rallies.
What is the purpose of war, and how is success measured? Defeating the enemy is only a small part of winning a war. Genuine success comes only when the victory leads to a condition of lasting peace that benefits the people of a country. In our case, controlling the pandemic and vaccinating the population is only the first step in a long war. The victory lap should only be taken when the pain of the citizens is tackled and the country is firmly set on the path of its pre-pandemic trajectory.
Polybius, a Greek historian of the Hellenistic period, wrote, “There are two roads to reformation for mankind—one through misfortunes of their own, the other through those of others: the former is the most unmistakable, the latter the less painful.” We have already gone through our period of misfortune. We should accurately record the lessons so that those who follow can learn from them and not have to go through another painful process.