Is it too much to expect Modi govt to put people first in efforts to rebuild country once pandemic recedes?
Modi govt’s pro-corporate policies unabashedly benefit a handful of the rich in the country, even as the unprivileged must bear with a shambolic healthcare system and non-existent job opportunities
The circulation of variants of coronavirus is declining, but it should not make the people and public health authorities lower their guards against COVID-19. The government still needs to prepare the healthcare system ready to face any future threats, and keep people at the heart of the post-pandemic recovery.
India must note the outcome of the meeting of WHO’s Technical Advisory Group on SAR-CoV-2 Virus Evolution (TAG-VE) held on February 22 which cautioned the world after discussing the available data on transmissibility and severity of variants as well as their impact on diagnostics, therapeutics, and vaccines, that the public health authorities should continue to monitor BA.2 as a distinct sublineage of Omicron, currently the dominant variant circulating globally.
It must also be noted that Omicron is made up of several sublineages, including BA.1 and BA.2, all of which are being monitored and studies are still underway. That is why the UN agency has urged countries to remain vigilant, to monitor and report sequences and to conduct independent and comparative analyses.
People in India and the government must not thus lower their guards against the threat of COVID-19 variants circulating currently or their future mutations given the unpreparedness of our healthcare system due to which the country suffered unprecedented loss of lives and livelihoods.
We have suffered for almost two years by now, but the Modi government is still in slumber. The Indian healthcare system’s preparedness needed much more than Rs 86,200.65 crore provided in the Union Budget 2022-23.
The Union Budget allocation shows that the Modi government is not very interested in making the Indian healthcare system strong enough to successfully face future threats to people’s health both from infectious and non-infectious diseases.
The budget allocation of the financial year 2022-23 was 16 per cent more than what was provided in the budget 2021-22, but it is a matter of great concern that the spending on ‘medical and public health’ has been reduced from Rs 74,820 crore in 2021-22 to Rs 41,011 crore in 2022-23.
The government explanation for the reduction of Rs 33,809 crore in this regard was “lower requirement of vaccination”. However, it does not mean that medical requirement of the people apart from vaccination has been reduced, but the Union Budget 2022-23 has simply ignored them.
Our healthcare system cannot be made strong enough to tackle future threats on such a small health budget of the Union of India, and hence, much will depend on the expenditure by the already fund-starved state governments, since health is a state subject.
Given the scarce health facilities in the country, which are largely available in our urban areas, leaving the rural folk almost on the mercy of God, people cannot afford to take risk by violating the protocols of Covid-appropriate behaviour, and if they do, they do it on their own peril.
The Centre and the state governments also need to remain extra alert and enforce Covid-appropriate behaviour at least until they are able to provide health facilities for the current Covid and non-Covid patients.
Common people in the country in general have financially become almost destitute. The COVID-19 crisis has led to joblessness and the disease made people spend whatever they had saved. Many of them have thus been indebted, poverty is rising, inequalities are widening, and household incomes are dwindling.
The Modi government needs to acknowledge that its policies did not come to the rescue of common people but instead made billionaires’ profits soar.
Recent data has indicated that 86 per cent of the people have been under great financial distress, forcing them to curtain essential expenditure such as on food, or even delaying urgent medical treatment.
In this scenario, the only way out seems to be adoption of human-centred recovery measures that put people first.
The three-day forum convened by ILO to discuss the issue has explained it thus: “Putting people first means achieving universal social protection, the best line of defence against shocks of all kinds and critical to a just transition”.
The situation has become miserable for women, in particular, all over the world, and India is not an exception, as they face rising unemployment and shoulder most of the burden for care. Without a social safety net and decent job opportunities, many women will not be able to re-enter the workforce.
Social security for the poverty stricken need to be strengthened and widened since the poverty estimates prior to the pandemic are no longer valid. COVID-19 crisis and subsequent lockdowns and disruption in the economy pushed millions of middle class people below poverty line, but they are not able to get even food under the Food Security Act.
Job market conditions are also very bad, and it remains difficult for the workforce to return to their jobs. Majority of the workforce is also not covered under any of the social security measures.
There is no employment guarantee scheme in urban areas, and allocation for schemes for rural areas such as MGNREGA has actually been cut by 25 per cent in the Union Budget 2022-23, at a time when demand for jobs is on the increase.
Lives and livelihoods are thus reeling under great stress, and people could get relief only if Modi government puts people at the centre of all the planning. COVID-19 has proved beyond doubt that if we cannot protect health, we cannot protect the economy.
Pro-corporate policies can only benefit a handful of the rich, as we have been witnessing in India, but not the entire population.
A strong healthcare system and full coverage under social security net will be the only answer to the present predicaments.
Views are personal