The Costs of A Pandemic

The disease has brought, death, misery, unemployment and grief upon households, people are wracked by fear and suspicion of their neighbours, but for the government it brought a reprieve.

Neera Chandhoke | June 24, 2020

The Costs of A Pandemic

  The Economics Times

In 1897 in Maharashtra the colonial government introduced the Epidemic Diseases Act to deal with bubonic plague that swept the region. The Act prohibited public gatherings, and regulated travel, routine screening, segregation, and quarantine. In the process the government acquired enormous powers to regulate the lives of Indians. Dissent was prohibited, and Bal Gangadhar Tilak, described as the ‘father of Indian unrest’ by Valentine Chirol of The Times (London) was sentenced to a long period of imprisonment. His newspaper, the Kesari had criticised government measures to tackle the epidemic. Large scale repression resulted in the explosion of discontent.

In June 1897 two brothers Damodar Hari Chapekar and Balkrishna Hari Chapekar assassinated W.C Rand the plague commissioner of Poona, and Lieutenant Charles Egerton Ayerst, an officer of the administration. Both were held responsible for the administrative excesses that were committed in the course of checking the plague in Poona. As the administration invaded private domains till then closed to outsiders, acute desire for revenge took hold of many a young man. Penning his biography in jail, Damodar Chaperkar wrote: “There was plague in the Bombay Presidency, earthquake on the Calcutta side, and a terrible famine all over India. How (un)generous it was (for the Queen of England) to cause the rayats already bent with three such formidable calamities, to celebrate the sixtieth year of her reign at such a critical juncture instead of relieving them from those calamities”. The two brothers were sentenced to death and hanged in the summer of 1899. This act sparked off a revolutionary terrorist movement across the country.

Independent India retained the Act but failed to incorporate the basic rights of people- to health care, the right of vulnerable populations to special consideration and, and the right to hold the government accountable. When the pandemic struck the country state governments invoked the law. Use of the same law that had granted immense power to the colonial government in 1897 bore similar outcomes: imposition of draconian laws that curtailed the civil liberties of the people, and failure to look after the welfare of the most vulnerable communities that had been locked out of the economy, society and politics by the lock down imposed on March 24.

When disease struck the country, the economy was shut down, pitiless owners of small capital shut their doors on workers, callous landlords demand rent from penniless tenants, food is short, and the rulers were simply indifferent. Since the government had abandoned them, thousands of migrant workers began to walk to a place they call home. They walked the highways of the country with torn and bloodied feet, backs bent under the weight of their pitiful belongings, eyes dimmed by loss of hope, bellies distended by hunger and throats parched for lack of water towards a place they thought of as home. Most of them have nothing except the hope that when they reach home they will not be hungry. Every expectation that the city offers refuge in times of crisis has been relegated to the wayside. But Indian villages that beckon thousands of workers are not the embodiment of idyllic Ruritania, nor are they rural Utopias presented in Bollywood films of the 1960s. For the most part life in the Indian village is marked by desperation and deprivation. And yet for millions of people who work in bleak urban spaces their village is home. The government deserted the most vulnerable section of our people. And we failed to recognise the enormity of the humanitarian crisis that was unfolding before our eyes. ‘Karvan guzar gaya gubar dekhte rahe’ [The caravan passed and we watched in silence the dust churned by the travellers]. The government conceptualised the lockdown as the solution to the many ills brought about by the pandemic, but it failed to recognise the enormity of the suffering and misery that would be cast on the heads of over a million Indians.

Every economist worth her or his name, leaders of opposition parties, and activists urged the government to put money in the hands of people involuntarily displaced from their homes by an ‘Act of God. The central government refused to listen. Nor has it heeded the lesson that Covid-19 has relentlessly and mercilessly taught countries, every government has to place health at the centre of its welfare policies, that welfare is a must for countries that have huge numbers of the poor, and that it is only states like Kerala that could manage the onslaught of the disease because the state has established through vibrant social movements and responsive governments a functioning health system. But the central government unfolded plans to rebuild Central Vista and on building a memorial to all prime ministers. The cost is exhorbitant.

How easily governments dispense with basic human rights in the name of managing pandemics? We bear witness to the fact that a group of helpless workers were hosed down with chemical solutions in Bareilly, Uttar Pradesh. Consider media pictures of policemen, indiscriminately swinging lathis to punish individuals who have been forced to defy the lockdown. And more troublesome is the way the government has proceeded with its agenda for arresting student leaders of the anti-CAA protests that swept the country from December till the third week of March. The disease has brought, death, misery, unemployment and grief upon households, people are wracked by fear and suspicion of their neighbours, but for the government it brought a reprieve. The entire country had risen up in protests against Government policies to introduce religion into citizenship. It has risen in solidarity with its people who will be affected by these perverse laws. Today they have had to roll back their protests. At a time when prisons are being emptied out for fear of contamination, young people, scholars and activists are being jailed for reasons that have yet to be proved. This is a shocking violation of the rights of the Indian citizens. The government has locked us down, imposed curfew on gatherings, and given to the police extraordinary powers to humiliate and arrest people at will. A will to democracy movement that had attracted international opinion had to be brought to a halt. For the government the moment was convenient.

There is larger cause for unease. In emergencies governments have to adopt extraordinary powers. Reports from across the world of authoritarian leaders giving to themselves unprecedented power at the expense of legislatures, judiciary, the media, civil society, and civil liberties set off ripples of doubt. When the disease has run its course, will these leaders abdicate the power they have amassed in Times of Coronavirus.? Will they restore institutions that inspire public confidence, because these are brakes on unbridled power? The prospect seems remote. If democratic India continues to invoke draconian colonial laws that were drafted in another time, and for another purpose, why should we expect anything different in the future?

On 16 March 2020, United Nations human rights experts issued a statement expressing deep concern with the way leaders were amassing power ostensibly for dealing with the pandemic. The statement urged governments to avoid an ‘overreach’ of security measures when they respond to the coronavirus outbreak. Emergency powers, the experts insisted, should not be used to quash dissent. More significantly these measures have to be proportionate, necessary and non-discriminatory. Some states and security institutions, continued the statement, will find the use of emergency powers attractive because it offers shortcuts. There is need to ensure that excessive powers are not hardwired into legal and political systems. Care should be taken to see that restrictions are narrowly tailored. We urge States, concluded the statement, to remain steadfast in maintaining a human rights-based approach to regulating this pandemic. Sadly for our government an epidemic is an opportunity to accumulate power.

Prof. Neera Chandhoke is a political theorist and author. She taught Political Science at Delhi University.


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