Photo: Indrajit Das/Creative Commons
Situation of the street during Corona crisis in Kolkata
NATIONALISE PRIVATE HOSPITALS & PHARMA INDUSTRY NOW!!
Atypical to any elected leader of the most populous democracy; India, Mr Modi announced a 21-day lockdown on Sunday with all the emotional pomp. Maybe an emphasis was needed at this moment of extreme vulnerability, but Modi mostly relied on emotive content without any real substance. Undoubtedly India too is struck with an unprecedented health emergency, that demands utmost exigent, yet practical measures in all earnestness. Though it is understandable the reason for lockdown and physical distancing as one of the ways to deal with COVID-19, but Modi’s claim that it is the only way is not correct.
The Only Solution?
Physical Distancing is very important and critical. Yes, for sure. But is that the only solution? And is that what health experts are saying? Far from the truth. But before we go there, let us deal with physical distancing. Let us do it to the best of our capacity. But that would not be accomplished simply by issuing a newer and newer dictum. 90% of our workforce is employed in the unorganized sector. Without making any alternative provisions of their livelihood, you can’t expect them to just shut it down like that. As an article by Bubudatta Pradhan and Archana Chaudhary rightly declared ‘Social distancing is a luxury that workers on Rs. 152 a day can’t afford.’ (https://economictimes.indiatimes.com/news/economy/indicators/social-distancing-a-luxury-that-workers-on-rs-152-a-day-cant-afford/articleshow/74770167.cms?from=mdr) Also, an elaborate arrangement of providing essential supplies to people is needed or else people are bound to step out to buy them. Most of all, we must appreciate limits of doing it in a country like ours where millions of people are forced to live in absolutely cramped slums (around 1.20 lakh people per square km in case of Mumbai). How on earth can one implement physical distancing there?
But the way lockdown is being touted as the only solution is not only incorrect or naive but deceptive. If you follow media, one could not miss a conscious narrative being built that lauds government for its measures putting square blame of the virus spread on allegedly irresponsible behaviour of people and their non-compliance of State orders. This is treacherous, if not outrageous.
To put the record straight, health experts including WHO has very categorically warned against employing physical distancing as the only measure. In the words of WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus “Asking people to stay at home and other physical-distancing measures are an important way of slowing down the spread of the virus and buying time — but they are defensive measures. World leaders and health officials won’t be able to defeat COVID-19 if they rely only on defensive measures such as physical distancing and requiring people to stay at home.” So to put it in perspective, physical distancing is not completely achievable in a country like India and even if the government insists on doing it, it is hardly taking due financial and other measures. But even if achieved, it at best would buy more time but not combat the pandemic. That’s crystal clear.
Then why is that Government, again and again, projecting Physical distancing as a panacea? Official figures of Corona cases in the country stand as 469 confirmed (as of 24th March) with 10 deaths. Are they true? No, they are grossly misrepresenting. The fact is we have horribly low testing facilities and consequently have tested the least possible number of cases. Till 22nd March, India had only 72 testing facilities. Extensive testing and early detection is the single most important thing we needed to combat Corona. As WHO head put it, “To win, we need to attack the virus with aggressive and targeted tactics — testing every suspected case, isolating and caring for every confirmed case and tracing and quarantining every close contact.” WHO and all health experts have been issuing a dictum ‘Test, Test and Test’.
Early Testing was crucial and has been central to the containment strategy in a few countries like South Korea, Singapore with relative success at containing the epidemic. Our failure on this front has been most glaring. There have been many cases when patients referred for Corona tests by medical practitioners but were driven away at Test centres citing they had no travel history or any known direct contact with foreign travellers. Juxtapose that against approach followed by other countries like South Korea. It not only had its hospitals equipped with Testing but also set up an additional 600 testing centres to screen as many people as possible and as quickly as possible. It included many drive-through stations and walk-in centres. It was only obvious to encourage those with symptoms to seek testing. We chose the opposite. At times it even included even foreign travellers. As per ‘India Today’ report dated 18th March, a British citizen with symptoms of cough, breathing difficulty and a private clinic’s referral for a Corona test was turned away. In a yet more shocking incident, only 3 among 256 evacuated from Iran were tested for Corona. This was on March 16 when it was clear that Iran was severely affected by the epidemic to the extent of building mass graves.
It has been a scandalous (if not criminal) neglect by the Modi government to scale up testing facilities and carry out extensive testing. And it can hardly play innocent pointing at the nature of pandemic. The first case in India appeared as early as 30th January and still as late as to foresee its spread and take lessons from other affected countries. Considering the incubation period of a few weeks, it was possible to mass-produce Testing kits as was done by South Korea and set up as many Testing facilities. But this was not done. Perhaps the government was too busy to deal with other pressing matters as Delhi elections or horse-trading Jyotiraditya Scindia in Madhya Pradesh. Not to mention the super urgency shown by it in dealing with ‘anti-national’ women at Shaheen Baug and students at JNU, Jamia! Neglect was most conspicuous in March when it became clear that it was spreading wider. This had alarmed many and few even came out in open expressing their apprehensions at the abysmal rate of testing. In an article on the print, Shivam Vij went to the extent of declaring “By failing to scale up testing coronavirus, India may have lost crucial time. Let’s hope it doesn’t happen, but if a mass explosion of coronavirus is upon us, it will be because of the Indian government’s refusal to test a large number of suspected patients.” (https://theprint.in/opinion/by-failing-to-scale-up-testing-coronavirus-india-may-have-lost-crucial-time/383639/). This is on 19th March when our great leader made an equally great announcement of Janata Curfew. An announcement that had deluged the social media with awe at the masterstroke of Modi that was to break the chain and as per his devotees the clapping at 5 pm was to create vibrations that would kill the virus. Not to mention Gomutra parties arranged by Hindutva brigade that had allegedly protected many from any possible Corona infections. Alas, none of this happened and Corona continued to spread. Perhaps the Indian ruling class wants to contribute to the rumour-mill theory of a Chinese conspiracy?
The way forward
As a part of reckless neoliberal policies, our public services were acutely starved and whatever thin services we had were consciously sabotaged in the past 3 decades. This was to facilitate the private investment in these sectors so that capitalists could rip off more and more profits. And they did, in trillions not billions. Our public Health care is one of such sectors that had been profusely bleeding due to such policies. Now when we are already in the emergency, take a look at our health facilities. India has only 8 doctors per 10,000 people against 41 in Italy and 71 in South Korea. We have only one (ill-equipped and staffed) public hospital for 55,000 people. Do we stand a chance to combat the pandemic with such a thin public health service? If at all, we are serious at containing the loss of lives to a figure that would be horrible (few thousands), we must mobilize our entire health and allied sectors to its full extent. Or else the figure could be beyond horrible. And it means the entire health sector including private hospitals.
But so far, the holy cow of private enterprises has not been touched. Take an example of Pune metropolitan from where this article is being written. Till 22nd March (the historical Junta Curfew day) it had only 1 public hospital where suspected patients could be tested and isolated. Bear in mind, this is a city that inhabits 5 million and is the single largest place of Corona detected cases. Not that it doesn’t have more public hospitals. It does have few which could have been set up for Corona much earlier. But it has many more, scores of huge private hospitals – many of them boasting themselves as multi-speciality. Why are they not part of this War against Corona? A section of the private sector especially small and medium hospitals stand aside while those big players are looking at the crisis with an eye of an investor waiting for a deal from the government. 12 private labs are already authorized to conduct Corona testing but not without compromising the sanctity of capital. These labs include H. N. Reliance, SRL Ltd., Lal Path Labs and other big corporate giants many of whom are listed on stock exchanges. They are allowed to charge Rs. 4500 for Test. Government is in a discussion (read as commercial negotiations) with big hospitals on setting up ICU, Quarantine wards for handling Corona patients. Mumbai Corporation declared that they are coming up with rules and regulations for these hospitals so that they do not resort to overcharging. Hahaha!! Big laugh. These corporate giants are too expert at lubricating the government machinery to get deterred by such regulations.
Nationalize them NOW
This is nothing less than a loot. How could we allow private entities to profit while the rest of the country is under health emergency? Let us get it straight. There is no way we are going to deal with this emergency without bringing the whole health sector under public control. And not just private hospitals, labs but also pharmaceutical companies and those manufacturing medical, surgical equipment. While social media messages advising to wear masks and sanitizers are abound, what is the current status of these and other safety products? Horrible. A meeting held by textile ministry noted, “There is a shortage of body coveralls and N-95 masks. There is a shortage of material and the rate of supply is not able to meet the rising demand.”
The order was placed for 1 million 3-ply masks with a vendor. So far, the supplier has provided only 200,000 masks. And guess what? The vendor is seeking a 266% revision of prices. That’s capitalism. The lust for profits and milking the crisis for it is not an anomaly but very much organic and congenital to capitalism. With this state of the situation, we could have a horrendous scenario where medical staff in itself is not protected against infection. Not to mention other supplies like ventilators and so on very much needed to treat patients.
Unite for the struggle
It is only by nationalizing these industries and hospitals that we could at least mobilize all the resources at our disposal to deal with this unprecedented situation. Anything less than that would only lead to an exponential rise in loss of lives. While Trump could hardly be the example to invoke for anything meaningful, as a matter of fact, even he was compelled to sign an order invoking Defense Production Act so that private industry could be forced to produce basic supplies to treat Covid-19 patients. Obviously, he is a capitalist stooge and would not perhaps use it or use in compliance with corporate interests. But that indicates the desperate situation faced even by the US. Spain has already announced the nationalization of all private hospitals on 16th March itself. Another aspect of nationalizing hospitals, pharma and the associated industry is that in the absence of such a step almost all of the provisions made for Corona would easily end up in those private hands towards various procurements paralyzing further measures to contain the pandemic.
What really stops India from taking this step? Obviously, it is our political system in general and Modi-Shah led BJP that is deeply entrenched in capitalist interests. It was not difficult for the government to bring private hospitals under its control and start thousands of testing centres way back in February itself. It was essentially the sanctity of private property that prevented it from doing so. We have already paid a big price for it with perhaps thousands (if not more) cases of Covid-19 remaining undetected and allowed to spread. There has been a scandalous delay in even ordering basic supplies. The order for 1 million 3-ply masks was placed on 21st March that is just a few days back. This is criminal. And even now, the government is too reluctant to change its course. Yesterday Modi announced 15,000 crore package to strengthen healthcare. A cruel joke or did we hear it wrong? The budget of Pune Municipal Corporation this year was Rs. 6229 cr. And that of Mumbai was Rs. 30,692 cr, more than double of what our great leader has announced for this crisis.
Capitalist lackeys in power would not do this unless we build a mass struggle for it. We must. Lives of millions of working and toiling masses of this country are at stake. For those millionaires and billionaires, they could easily get access to elite treatments but not so for us.
We Demand –
Nationalise all private hospitals
Nationalize them all under the democratic control of health sector workers. Setup Testing facilities, ICU wards, Isolation facilities at as many hospitals.
Nationalize Pharmaceutical and Manufacturing companies
This is very much needed. Without adequate supplies, neither medical staff can function nor would be they secure.
Tax the Billionaires
Surely 15,000 cr is a cruel joke. Dealing with the situation may need crores of rupees. There is huge money out there concentrated in few hands made by capitalist plunder of resources, people. Seize it now. That 1 % at the top own 73% of the country’s wealth. Even 10% tax on them would give enough money to deal with the crisis. Do it now.
Mass supply of protective equipment
The government must provide adequate protective kits and associated gears to medical staff as well as all those involved in essential works.
Seize the stock of other essential supplies including food stocks to prevent black marketing or hoarding. Impose stringent price controls. More importantly, for millions of workers in the unorganized sector, lockdown means hunger. So a month-long ration must be supplied through the public distribution system.
Mass Relief measures for workers in the unorganized sector
For BPL account holders and daily wage workers, the government must transfer Rs. 5000 minimum towards their sustenance. Public distribution system must be invoked to provide a supply of food-grains and other essentials to those needy.
Extend the assistance to small businesses
Small businesses including shop owners, traders are also undergoing misery. Adequate financial assistance needs to be extended to them.
No company or employer to be allowed to lay off workers or reduce their wages. Capitalists have accumulated enough profits from the toil of workers.
We Appeal To All –
To stay within homes and not to go out unless absolutely needed. This crisis is bound to invigorate scores of youth and workers, they will be searching for alternatives to this rotten system of Capitalism, we fervently appeal to all to join the fight for Socialism.
Socialism is a system where industries, banks, health care and other entities are owned by the public under the democratic control of workers and are run not for profits of few individuals but to meet the needs of society, and that includes not just material needs but also the right to healthy and clean environment.
JOIN THE STRUGGLE NOW
New Socialist Alternative, Pune