COVID19: Political viewpoints beyond the Right-doing and the Wrong-doing

To protect my own sanity during the lockdown, I have avoided opinion-based, political debates and panel discussions, whether they are on Whatsapp with family, or on news channels on television, or on social media. I make up for the lack of diversity in perspective by reading from multiple reliable sources. What I have been missing is the collective voices of politicians across the spectrum in one space. The Open Field last week offered me the opportunity to explore how our elected leaders are processing the pandemic.

You should not read this article if you want to understand my critique of each speaker’s viewpoint. You should read it if you want to see the pandemic from a political representative’s perspective.

The three speakers were brought together in The Open Field, which was facilitated by Co.lab^x in collaboration with Indian School of Democracy

I had many reflections during the 90-minutes:

Having the benefit of hindsight, it is easy to critique the response of the government. Listening to the speakers share with honesty and vulnerability about their own experience pushed me to think otherwise.

To give you a lens of how I reached this realization, I wanted to share two examples from the space. I wanted to paraphrase Unmeshji’s reflection on locking down inter-state travel with very little notice to people: “Back then, the risk of infection was actually low, but we were too afraid to take a chance. And now, the risk of infection has increased, but we are feeling less afraid to open up travel.” Another speaker, Saurabhji, shared how moving from a ‘lockdown to break the chain’ to ‘living with corona’ has been a quick transition and he has not been able to identify the right orientation to anchor himself in.

Words that the speakers used to represent the pandemic were ‘random’, ‘uncertain’, ‘unimaginable’, ‘unpredictable’, ‘lacking definition’, ‘no clear solutions’. These words were similar to how I felt about the crisis at the start of the lockdown in India. I wondered what I would have done in their situation.

All speakers accepted the early struggles (like ramping up hospital beds or testing and tracing infected people), the ongoing challenges (like the one faced by migrant labors, small businesses, etc), and the underlying issues (like the class divides, the federal structure, etc).

At the same time, these challenges also helped them find an opportunity to improve the government response and processes, at least in the medium-term. There were many examples of this, of which I am quoting a few:

  • Priyankaji shared how they realized early that transparency in reporting numbers was helpful; more positive cases need not necessarily mean a bad thing if that information helps them track, trace, contain, and respond to crisis better. As a result, she shared how the mortality rate has reduced, recovery rate increased and the doubling rate has slowed down.
  • Saurabhji shared how 72 lakh people with ration cards were getting support, but nearly 35 lakh without ration cards were not. They had to quickly innovate with temporary ration cards to include these people in the ration & food distribution while maintaining accountability structures of the government. As a result, 50% more citizens in Delhi were receiving government benefits.

That said, I felt the questions that brought up deeper issues (like why governments haven’t addressed the migrant labourers’ needs earlier) were left inadequately answered. I don’t know why that was the case — Was it the lack of time? Was it the lack of answers? Was it the lack of will? Was it a lack of ability?

Leonard Cohen had shared “There is a crack in everything, that’s how the light gets in.” I see these changes in the crisis as the light through the cracks. Simultaneously, I wonder how much light we, as a society, want to let in at one go.

A theme for change that resonated among all three speakers was the need to have a localized, contextual response to the pandemic. We have to reconsider how states and the center work together, giving due consideration to the diverse needs and abilities of each region. The same should be true at other levels of governance (like the State and its districts). Priyanka envisioned this relationship to be that of a caring big brother to a younger sibling. At the same time, there was an acknowledgment of the role that the center can play in coordinating certain key matters (for example, ones that are inter-state and may require standardization, like air travel norms).

Saurabh highlighted an interesting dimension, stating “No one sitting in power wants to distribute the power to anyone else. The current environment is about the centralization of power. People who have powers want to hold onto power and they have their own reasons.” This comment left me thinking about what the possible reasons are.

These are the times of debates on TV where everyone speaking over another and no one is listening. To be honest, I was worried that a conversation between three politicians will become a bit of a ‘Me vs. You’ debate. However, my fear was unfounded. I saw all three speakers demonstrate the ability to listen and share with openness and vulnerability.

It reinforced my belief that the quality of dialogue among people reflects the quality of the container in which the people are held. The learning space left me thinking of this quote from Rumi:

Notes:

When asked how people can help, the speakers shared three requests:

  • We have not reached the peak of the pandemic yet. Take all precautions to not get COVID19. This action will help the government in a long way.
  • Information is power and it must be processed. Help is needed in converting the large amount of information to meaningful legislation.
  • The fallout of unemployment will come back to bite us as a society. Pay salaries, or at least a percentage of them, to people who you employ.

Here are my other posts about reflections from The Open Field:

  1. The Response of Government Stakeholders to the Crisis
  2. The role of Technology Platforms in times of COVID19
  3. Private Sector and COVID19
  4. Rural India and COVID19

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