In early March of this year, I was in a hospital bed in Delhi for a week following a Covid diagnosis. This was just about four weeks before the second wave hit the country, showcasing the dystopic deadliness of the virus. It was strangely calm at that time with fewer than ten Covid patients at the facility; the same hospital was recently treating close to 400.
I’d occasionally chat with the nurses who recalled the ‘Covid times’ earlier in the year when each nurse had to attend to up to a dozen patients at a time. But thankfully that, they said, was in the past; the virus had been controlled. Later, I thought of those nurses and how in a mere few weeks their lives had been upended, of the nightmare they were living through. How many patients were they attending to during the latest peak: 25, 30, 40? Were they themselves OK? Not all of them had been vaccinated.
Maybe because I inhabited the calm before the Indian storm, I couldn’t trust or respect the current sense of wellbeing in the US. Yes, it’s different with nearly half the population vaccinated and a falling positive rate. But the Indian mutant, as other mutants, was already among us.
Are the vaccines powerful enough? They can be tweaked, we’ve been told, to address mutant variations. But the overwhelming part of the global population remains unvaccinated and will have scant access for years to come. The mutants will grow. Will we be playing catch up? And for how long?
Coronavirus came with a simple message which the rich and powerful are refusing to hear. It’s an equal opportunity virus, with zero regard for economic or political status.
The Indian elite is having a very hard time with the message. After all, who cared what share of the GDP went into healthcare, as long as there was excellent care for the upper and upper middle classes when they needed it. As much as the murderous Modi government is culpable for the recent crisis, it is working on a foundation of the unimaginative and pro-elite health care policy pursued by the Congress Party for decades.
Suddenly this approach by the elite no longer worked. The rich were on the streets along with everyone else, scrambling for hospital beds and oxygen cylinders. It turns out that that pesky GDP thing matters. No amount of pie-hoarding by the powerful is protection enough when the pie itself is tiny.
I was afraid to pick up my phone in the morning some days, unsure of what dreadful news it might carry of my friends, my extended family. And I was reminded of last April. My cousin in Calcutta with family and friends in the US suffered from a similar anxiety about us in New York. Then, it was her worrying about the next bit of terrible news. It’s happening in turns. The virus is hard at work with its message.
The thinking is that the vaccines will save us this time – at least in the richer parts of the world. Maybe they will. But what if there is another wave, a more virulent mutant wave, maybe? Will there be enough beds this time? Enough ventilators? Enough quarantine care centres so the elderly are not again forced to take their chances?
And where is the preparation for the next crisis? Like Modi, Trump and Johnson contributed handily to the crisis, but also like in India, the roots of the crisis run deeper in these countries. Vaccines are not all-powerful; they can never be a replacement for a robust health infrastructure, and one that offers equal care to all.
The power of the vaccine is directly proportionate to the number of people who are vaccinated. It’s a simple equation, but one that our government leaders can’t quite comprehend: as the world burns, they continue to pledge allegiance only to patents and profits.
India and South Africa have requested that intellectual property rights be waived so Global South countries can produce their own vaccines, but our leaders tell us that the waiver will be the death of innovation. It’s inside-out logic: these states are pleading for that knowledge so they can innovate and save lives. But for these pro-business elites, when has it really been about knowledge or lives?
The virus demands that we make choices. One option is to keep the false sense of security afforded us by capital—we’re OK with our vaccines, even if people die in the streets in other parts of the world—or we treat a pandemic for what it is: a global affliction. Ensure that a critical mass of the global population is vaccinated. Make sure that people are cared for when there are those inevitable breakouts in different parts of the world.
But how, an EU leader might ask, can we ever ensure that the people of Somalia are vaccinated, much less that they receive proper health care? Let’s not be fooled. They know how: it was a cabal of their kind who rode rough-shod over the idea of national sovereignty, and forced countries of the Global South to decimate their economies and adjust their structures in the interest of capital. A structural adjustment in the reverse direction is, of course, deemed impossible.
There is only one way out of Covid – beat it at its own game. We have to be resilient and egalitarian. More resilience will require more than vaccines, and it will necessitate massive investment in healthcare to ensure there is no paucity of drugs or oxygen or beds.
To be more egalitarian is to diffuse the power of the boundaries that separate the fast food worker from the investment banker, and the lines that demarcate New York from New Delhi. The virus has no problems with that, so why should we? No one is safe until everyone is safe.