Indian society has a tendency to understand risk in all-or-nothing terms as has come into sharp focus during the COVID-19 pandemic. It is a realm where individual liberty takes primacy over collective responsibility.
The experience of the last 10-months shows the focus of the government on the risk of spread of the infection from an infected to others, rather than the risk that the infected person faces through the infection. Public health messaging through ‘Aarogya Setu’ app refers to “high-risk” “moderate-risk” or “healthy or low-risk” individuals. Public-service announcements on radio are framing ‘using sanitisers’ ‘wearing of masks’ and ‘social-distancing’ as “virtuous” thereby semantically differentiating the refusal to do so as admirably masculine and nonconformist.
India on Saturday 16 January 2021 kicked off the world’s largest immunisation exercise against Covid-19. If all goes to plan, 30 crore people may be vaccinated against the contagion by July end. This mass-vaccination project, unfortunately, for the moment targets barely 2% of the population, 30 million persons out of a population of 1400 million. In first 4-days, less than 1% of these 30 million targeted-persons have actually received the first of the two-shot-regimen. Nearly one-thirds of the targeted-persons did not turn-up to get the vaccination done. At this pace, even this project will take next 100 weeks for completion. 100 weeks is 2-years, which means well into 2023. What would become of the rest 98% of the population is not clear at this moment. The Government of India’s moral, international and legal obligations make it imperative that COVID-19 vaccines are free and universal. There is no doubting the sincerity of the intentions of the government, but the implementation of the intentions leaves people in a limbo.
Social shaming and punitive enforcement of public health measures are both ineffective and unethical. Shaming and policing tactics shift undue responsibility for contagion management from institutions to individuals, and places further burdens on communities that, in the case of COVID, already suffer disproportionate rates of infection.
The risks are never unidirectional and that risk management always involves weighing multiple factors. COVID-19 is not the only risk people have to consider when they make decisions about most aspects of their daily lives. An inability to work from home means very real, material risks like losing income, losing housing, losing the ability to provide and care for families. Shaming people for their risk behaviours is not just unethical and ineffective. Such behaviours are not a binary matter of “risky” or “not risky,” but one of choosing which risks to take.
It is critical for the Government to correctly diagnose, manage, mitigate, and treat COVID-19 as it occurs. , and to do their best to keep it from having major. It is an even more critical thing for the government to consider communal consequences, with regard to COVID, which is far more easily transmissible and whose uncontrolled spread has massive costs for nearly every aspect of public life.
It is important to find ways to help people live their lives during the pandemic. Nevertheless, doing so must not come at the expense of other people’s ability to stay alive, let alone be in public at all. The more inconsiderate those nondisabled people are about containment measures, the longer many disabled and chronically ill people will have to maintain the strictest possible measures simply to stay alive.
It is true that all social activities bear some level of risk. It is equally true that, to a certain extent, we must each decide how to balance the risk of contracting and transmitting the virus against the psychological, social, economic, and often competing medical risks of limiting various kinds of activity. The evil complexity of risk management during this pandemic requires all of us to be better, more considerate social actors. When we as individuals make decisions about what risks to take, we should look at the details soberly and seriously consider how our choices affect what choices are available to others in our communities.
We should direct our frustration at institutional failures instead of individual ones. The amount of COVID-related talk that is exclusively about individual risk management is neither accidental nor inevitable. It is a consequence of the massive disregard of duty on the part of the governments to give clear information and distribute the resources necessary for everyone. It is equally a consequence of the ways our political and healthcare systems already make it gratuitously difficult to access vital care and resources by way of inadequate health coverage.
Putting it bluntly, the almost exclusive focus on individual risk that has characterised governmental speech on COVID persists because institutions tasked with reducing the risk burdens of individual cannot or will not do their jobs.
This emphasis on individual attention to risk-mitigation is especially poignant and unsettling when one realises that this governmental discourse is occurring in tandem with their awareness that the infrastructure necessary to manage that status lies in ruins.
Our public institutions have the obligation to manage and mitigate the infection risk in ways that allow everyone to flourish. We must not lose sight of where the burden of risk management ought to fall. We must not fall prey to the temptation to punish individuals for institutional failures.
We are unable to figure out how to proceed amid caring for one another and watching more and more of our number suffer or even die. Even if we have the ability to pay for the vaccine, willingness to pay for it, ability to reject taking the vaccine and the ability to raise our voice against the system, we do not seem to have the ability to get the vaccine in reality.
First published 19 Jan 2021.
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