The day Mahatma Gandhi reached Bihar’s Champaran to get a first-hand experience of the plight of indigo cultivators, he was greeted with an order to leave the district immediately as he was seen as a threat to ‘public peace’.
The refusal to comply with the order resulted in a summon, asking him to appear before a magistrate two days later. He is reported to have told the court that his defiance was not meant to disrespect the lawful authority. Rather, it was out of his obedience to “the higher law of our being, the voice of conscience.” That was in 1917. A year later, the Spanish flu hit the world, claiming millions of lives. An estimated one crore Indians fell victim to the deadly virus. The victims included members of Gandhi’s own family and also a relative of Gandhi’s close associate Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan, also known as Frontier Gandhi.
Now that we are in the midst of yet another global pandemic, perhaps not as deadly as the one we experienced nearly hundred years ago, what would Gandhi’s voice of conscience have told us to do?
How would he have reacted to the reports of crumbling public infrastructure and skyrocketing cost of treatment in private healthcare?
ICMR Should Have Paid Attention To Voice of Collective Conscience
A passage from a 2019 essay published in the Indian Journal of Medical Research (IJMR) is worth quoting here. It says: “Today, healthcare is a costly affair. Gandhi was a practical idealist by all means. Therefore, he wanted to test all other systems of medicines in order to help the masses and provide affordable alternatives to the people at large. The medical fraternity should consider this noble profession as a service and find out ways and means to reach out to the ‘so far’ unreached.” The operative word here is affordable. Have we ensured that in the midst of a pandemic?
Incidentally, IJMR is an Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR) publication, and the ICMR happens to be at the forefront of the country’s fight against the COVID-19 pandemic.
ICMR, more than any organisation, should have known that healthcare in the private sector accounts for nearly 80 percent of all out-patient care and 60 percent of in-patient care.
It should have also known that private sector healthcare is at least 6 times costlier than what is the case with regard to the government sector.
Did Gandhi’s Talisman Cross Anyone’s Mind While Taking Decisions to Fight the Pandemic?
Despite such glaring deficiencies, we went ahead with our rickety public healthcare infrastructure in our fight against a pandemic that has humbled even the best healthcare systems in the world.
Gandhi’s voice of conscience should have asked us many probing questions. He would have asked whether his talisman crossed anyone’s mind while taking drastic decisions like the strictest of lockdowns. His talisman clearly tells us to recall the face of the poorest and ask yourself whether your decision is going to be of any use to them.
With the benefit of hindsight, we now know that the lockdown neither halted the transmission of the deadly virus nor did it alert us to the urgent need for significantly augmenting the public health infrastructure.
The way the crisis of migrants unfolded in days following the hastily announced nationwide lockdown, it seems that the decision hurt the poorest the most. Now that we have gone for an accelerated reopening, as the cases have begun to spike up and government hospitals are bursting at the seams, this phase too is going to hit the poorest the hardest.
Tackling COVID the Gandhian Way
The Mahatma would definitely have disapproved of such knee-jerk reactions. Here is what Bapu would have perhaps advocated:
- Private or public healthcare, the government should bear the full cost of COVID-19 patients – from testing to hospitalisation. After all, the US government has pledged USD 100 billion to take care of healthcare needs of all corona patients. Why can’t our government do the same? This is no ordinary situation. If at all there is time to show the real intent of a welfare state, there is no better time to do so than now. The government bearing the cost of treatment makes economic sense also. If the government decides to take care of the healthcare aspect, people will have that much more confidence going about their tasks as they should. Business as usual is what is required at this stage if we are serious about repairing the damage done to the economy.
- The least the government could do was to put a limit on the cost of treatment in private care. While some state governments have done so, it should have been done all across the country. As it is, private care is way too expensive in the country. At least during the pandemic, why can’t the cost of treatment in private care be brought at par with the government care? Bapu would certainly have launched a satyagraha if he had seen the rate cards of private hospitals. There is no denying that private players are not supposed to be doing all the heavy-lifting. They should be compensated by the government.
Is It Too Late For Course Correction?
Bapu was all for devolution of power. Since the virus has affected the entire country, planning at the local level is of utmost importance, if we are serious about tackling it. A top-down approach has not only crippled the economy, it has not been effective in tackling the virus either. Can we do some course correction now?
Bapu has been the conscience-keeper of our country. It is high time we followed his advice as he would have given us if he were alive.
(Mayank Mishra is a senior journalist who writes on Indian economy and politics, and their intersection. He tweets at @Mayankprem. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed in this article are that of the writer’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)