Indians, in many ways, are accustomed to deal with the failures of the State. Over the years, we have dealt with power shortages by installing generator sets, compensated for the lack of public transport by using personal vehicles, travelled on pot-holed roads, made up for the absence of clean drinking water through water filtration devices or bottled water and, more recently, installed air purifiers to deal with urban pollution. The public health infrastructure was always ramshackle at best, but we managed. There was no panic.
Yet, the second wave of the Covid-19 pandemic exposed the appalling inadequacy of health infrastructure in cities and the abject failure of governments at the Centre and in the states to anticipate, plan or speedily respond to emergencies despite having a year to prepare after the first phase of the Covid crisis. There was sufficient evidence across the world that the coronavirus returns in some way, especially if Covid protocols are not followed and if most of the population is not vaccinated. We saw the virtual collapse of the healthcare system in cities across the country as it was overwhelmed by waves of infected patients. There were no ambulances to transport the sick to hospitals, hospital beds and oxygen were in scarce supply and there was a shortage of medical staff to tend to patients. Crematoriums, too, were overwhelmed and, in many cases, where entire families tested positive, there was nobody to perform the last rites for the dead. Now that the virus has spread to the smaller towns and the villages, where the government is the main provider of healthcare, the truly appalling conditions have been laid bare. The State has either vanished or has been too leaden-footed to respond effectively.
Just as it takes a crisis to uncover the heroes in our midst, this pandemic too has revealed a whole set of Indians who rose to the occasion to fill the vacuum left by the State in helping the afflicted. In the first wave, it was a remarkable group of doctors, health workers and government servants who went beyond the call of duty to care for the sick. In the second wave, they were joined by another extraordinary group of men and women who made up for the missing State. From arranging for ambulances and life-saving drugs to looking for hospital beds, oxygen and food for the needy to even serving as volunteers in crematoriums—our heroes were everywhere. Disregarding the grave risk to their lives and their families, they stepped up to the challenge.
A mother and son duo in a Kerala village transports Covid-19 patients to hospitals; the Delhi Sikh Gurdwara Management Committee runs ‘oxygen langars’ for the needy; a group of IITians runs Mumbai’s largest ambulance aggregator; a lady in Lucknow handles the funerals of pandemic fatalities; a young theatre artist in Kolkata cooks and delivers food to Covid patients. Many are individuals of modest means—the autorickshaw driver from Kolhapur who provides a free transport service for Covid patients is financially supported by his wife and daughter-in-law. Some were survivors themselves who channelled personal suffering into altruism and compassion. Patna’s ‘Oxygen Man’, Gaurav Rai, who provides cylinders for free, gasped for breath as a Covid patient last year. The houseboat owner from Srinagar’s Dal Lake, ostracised by his neighbours when he contracted the virus, went on to build a floating ambulance to help them. All our heroes are linked by a common thread—a deep empathy for their fellow citizens. “Having suffered myself, I know what gasping for air means. And seeing someone recover, the relief on his face and that of his family, it’s like a gift from God,” says Rai.
Our cover story, ‘Republic of Self-Help’, compiled by our bureaus, documents the stories of 31 extraordinary individuals and organisations that have made a difference during the second Covid wave. We have taken people who helped others in five key areas—providing medical assistance, oxygen, transport, food and with the last rites. Our list is only illustrative of thousands of people like those we have covered across the country who lent a helping hand to their fellow citizens in the worst natural disaster of our times.
As heartening as it sounds, this inspirational phenomenon has its flip side: a State that has failed its citizens. Citizens should not, and indeed cannot, replace the State with its vast resources and manpower. They can, at best, fill in the gaps. It should be a matter of shame for the government of India that people were left to their own devices in such an emergency. We all must demand accountability from our elected representatives and not let them shirk their responsibility to provide good governance, especially when we continue to be faced with the prospect of rolling waves of the pandemic. Being labelled the ‘Republic of Self-Help’ is no badge of honour for our nation. We are proud to be ‘The Republic of India’, which is bigger than all of us. However, its citizens need to be treated better.
(India Today Editor-in-Chief's note for the cover story, ‘Republic of Self-Help’, for May 31, 2021)