Covid-19: Time to rethink State-private sector ties
Those of us who can afford private sector medical care by bypassing government health services, and can hire guards to provide us security, often crib about the government. But we should think about what would happen if the government was not there to fall back on now.
Those of us fortunate enough to be locked down in a home that is well-equipped with facilities such as running water, electricity, gas, and a kitchen for hygienic cooking, now have plenty of time to think about the way we live our lives and the changes that will come about as a result of the coronavirus pandemic (Covid-19).
In his address on March 24, Prime Minister Narendra Modi said, “This crisis has certainly brought on a very difficult time for the poor.” Perhaps we, the fortunate ones, should think about the reasons why, once again, it is the poor who are going to bear the heaviest burden of this health disaster.
British author Simon Kuper wrote in The Financial Times that even at this early stage, some change has occurred. “... the coronavirus has achieved something that government policies and moral awakening couldn’t: it is pushing us into green living,” he said, referring to the dramatic increase in people working from home. Fewer commuters mean less pollution created by the transport system. There is already good news about declining carbon emissions over recent days.
Avoiding commuting in trains and buses so crowded that there isn’t room for the proverbial sesame seed will reduce the strain on commuters. But what about those who have travelled great distances to their places of work — India’s 120 million or so migrant workers? They continue to live in slums, dotted all over India or on the sites where they work, like the Haryana brick-kiln workers I wrote about in this column earlier, held as bonded labour in miserable conditions. The migrant slumdwellers are unable to take the recommended precautions against Covid-19.
Their cheek-by-jowl housing with perhaps five people living in a space of 100 sq-ft, the muddy passages so narrow that they can’t pass each other without touching, makes social distancing impossible. As for washing hands regularly, forget it. All too often, there isn’t the water and soap needed for that. Their only hope is the government’s scheme to provide them with housing by monetising the land on which their slums stand takes off in a big way.
In an article in The Business Standard, Sunita Narain of the Centre for Science and Environment stresses the need to redesign demand so that water wastage and water supply are reduced. At present, she points out, “Large numbers of people in our cities do not get access to piped water supply. They get water from tankers or depend on dirty and unreliable water sources.”
Those of us who can afford private sector medical care by bypassing government health services, and can hire guards to provide us security, often crib about the government. But we should think about what would happen if the government was not there to fall back on now. We have relied on government hospitals to treat cases which have tested positive for Covid-19. Governments, both state and central, are providing the police to enforce the quarantine. Governments are now being called on to pay the wages for workers that employers are not able to.
Fyodor Dostoyevsky wrote, “The mystery of human existence lies not just in staying alive but in finding something to live for.” It is natural at this time to think about staying alive, but the lockdown gives us time to think about the purpose of staying alive, too. The purpose or goal that the pandemic points to is the achievement of governance, which looks after everyone’s basic needs.
That to me means thinking beyond the tired binary alternative of capitalist market magic versus socialist government domination. It means looking for a balance between the two, the middle-path, the traditional Indian way. That is to say the public and private sector having mutual respect, and each working in their proper spheres for the greater common good.
The views expressed are personal