As India’s Covid tsunami is sending jitters across the world, with television footage showing scenes resembling an Armageddon, none can sit idle inside bubbles thinking we are safe. Can we sit doing nothing when the neighbor’s house is on fire and its flames are threatening to engulf us as well?
The COVID-19 pandemic is a global crisis requiring a global response. We live together or die together. It is only global unity that offers a flicker of hope, while disunity, discords and differences will only bring about a situation where the dead will have to bury or cremate themselves.
Panchatantra is an ancient Indian collection of fables known to every Indian from the Himalayas in the north to Kanyakumai in the southern tip. India’s bedeviled Prime Minister Narendra Modi has spoken about its virtues pointing out how animals have been used by ancient story tellers to drive home words of wisdom and intellect.
One such story tells about a flock of pigeons which got caught in the net laid by a hunter who had strewn a layer of grains over it. Each bird struggled in different directions to fly away with the net, but the net was so heavy for a single bird to fly away with. The flock’s wise leader then told the despondent birds which had thought their end was near not to lose hope in the strength of their unity. He said, “If all of us make a joint effort in one direction, we will be able to fly away with the nest before the hunter devours us.” This they did and eventually the birds were saved with friendly mice with their sharp teeth cutting the net to free the birds.
The moral of the story is that unity is strength that could save us in extreme difficulty. It is still not too late to make a concerted effort to save the humanity as we precariously sit on the cusp of annihilation that is threatening to overwhelm us. In a competitive world where every nation pursues one-upmanship in the name of national interest, suggestions of finding strength in unity may be scoffed at by many people as unrealistic idealism. But given the gravity of the situation we face today, idealism is new realism.
The world needs to come under one central command, at least until we defeat the invisible covid virus which is regularly threatening us with a new virulent strain which is more vicious than the previous one. Who should comprise this central command? Definitely not an undemocratic United Nations Security Council, where the veto wielding members have prevented just solutions to the world’s conflicts as they give more importance to their obscene political interests than the need to uphold justice and end the suffering of the teeming millions in conflict zones.
Perhaps G-20 which brings together the world’s strongest 20 economies could be the right forum to act as the collective central command. Of course, like the pigeons in the Panchatantra story, every nation should shelve its national-interest driven political rivalries. If national interest is replaced by the humanity’s interest, the solution that we are looking for is at hand. The World Health Organisation may be the global agency tasked with dealing with pandemics and diseases, but it lacks the political power and the economic resources required to fight the global war.
Imagine US President Joe Biden, China’s President Xi Jinping and Russia’s President Vladimir Putin together with other G20 leaders discussing the crisis on a daily basis in a virtual war room and taking unanimous decisions to direct the covid war. This is while they forego the shenanigans of the dirty world politics they indulge in, wishing rival powers nothing but doom. Only through such a collective effort and a global arsenal of physical and logistical resources, will we know which country requires what vaccine and how much; which country requires how many ventilators, ICU beds and oxygen concentrators; and which country requires how many doctors and health services workers. If world leaders do not come together to fight the virus war and decide to pursue their national interests which incite them to do nothing when nations they perceive to be hostile are being devoured by the covid virus, then they are guilty of genocide, however much they justify their silence or wickedness as geopolitical strategy.
When India, the world’s second most populous country with 1.3 billion people is collapsing and its people live in fear with the afflicted not knowing whether they will survive to live the next minute and the healthy openly saying it is only a matter of time before they too contract the virus, the rest of the world cannot clear its conscience by sending a few oxygen concentrators and a few million dollars in aid. Mind you, it is India today, and it could be your nation tomorrow. India’s southern neighbour, Sri Lanka, is also facing an alarming spike in covid cases. Will the affluent nations wait till the situation becomes worse, like in India, for them to send some vaccines, oxygen concentrators and aid to set up makeshift hospitals? The same question applies to any country that is grappling with not only the pandemic but pandemic-related economic downturn amid an unnerving uncertainty as to what the future holds for them.
As India is struggling to cope with the situation with on average 340,000 afflicted with the pandemic, while health facilities are stretched much beyond its elasticity, there are also many lessons to be learnt. India’s crisis, to a great extent, is the making of its own political leadership which allowed mass gatherings such as religious festivals and election meetings with the Prime Minister himself walking with the crowd without wearing facemasks or following the physical distance guidelines.
Nations cannot afford to dream of becoming regional or global superpowers while carrying populations of sick people. There is nothing wrong in dreaming the superpower dream. But the approach should be well balanced. Spending more than one can afford on defence while health is allocated a pittance in national budget is certainly not the approach to become a superpower. India spends just over 1 percent of its GDP on health, appallingly one of the lowest in the world, while its defence expenditure is almost double that amount or more than 15 percent of the national budget. The sickishly poor allocation for health has encouraged the growth of a cancer called private medical mafia. Although the Indian government did promise to increase the health allocation by more than 137 percent in the last budget, calling it a ‘Get Well Budget’ and ‘Wealth and Wellness budget’, critics say this has not happened as promised.
If all nations freeze their rivalries and cold wars with other nations and divert their excessive defence expenditure towards improving their health infrastructures at least until such time the pandemic is eliminated, we may be in a better position to face the crisis, even if we cannot come to an agreement on forming a war room under a collective central command to fight the covid war.