The hunt for a cure begins with telling the truth

In the pandemic fight, India must uphold the principle of truth and responsibility, starting at the highest levels

Updated - March 31, 2020 12:09 am IST

Published - March 31, 2020 12:02 am IST

Staring into the unblinking eyes of a global pandemic, many of us are re-discovering the importance of truth. Indians who travelled abroad in recent weeks hid their travel histories. Some went to the extent of taking paracetamol to lower their body temperature, thereby bypassing tests at airports. We were shocked that bureaucrats, even doctors, helped relatives evade quarantine. Now things are at a pass that journalists are being threatened for revealing the truth about how ill-equipped doctors and health workers are, or how ill-organised the state response is. We fret about the dishonesty — of individuals and of governments — since our lives are at stake. Yet, what were we expecting? An overnight transformation of the nation’s soul?

A receding of truth

Truth is often mocked as an inconvenience, as the domain of fools or saints. ‘Mahatma’ Gandhi finds few takers. We use his tools, demonstrations, fasts, marches, but we shun his core principles. Gandhiji called for ‘Satyagrah’, for resistance via truth, and for truth-telling itself becoming an article of faith. After Gandhiji’s assassination, however, truth began to recede from public discourse. Eventually, it became entirely dispensable. Matters have come to such a pass now that politicians can shrug off falsehoods uttered in public as ‘chunaavi jumla’, a tale told to win elections. Thus, elections have been degraded to a tall tale telling contest.

Meanwhile, peace activists are labelled terrorists. Doctors are imprisoned for months, despite having devoted themselves to the care of some of the most vulnerable among us. Businessmen form shell companies to take loans from banks. Forest and environmental clearances are a different kind of brazen lie.

When was the last time there was a massive public uproar about our leaders concealing truth, or flip-flopping on facts presented in court, or lying in Parliament? Assuming falsehoods were based on faulty information, when was the last time our leaders apologised for misleading us?

Far from seeing it as a ‘sin’, as a symptom of moral degradation with life-and-death consequences for us, we have grown inured to falsehood. I have lost count of the number of times I have heard admiration in the voices of fellow citizens when they comment upon politicians’ penchant for endlessly, inventively, lying to the nation. How then, in the middle of a terrifying pandemic, do we suddenly expect honesty?

The building of public character takes generations. It requires leaders who uphold the principle of honesty, who urge us to re-examine our intimate and perceived reality. Here is one such nugget of reality: India spends only 1.28% of its GDP on health. Here is another: over 55 million Indians were pushed below the poverty line in 2011-12 because of out-of-pocket health expenses. And another: in 2014-15, the government led by Prime Minister Modi slashed an already pitiful health budget by 20%. And this: despite warnings from the World Health Organization, despite COVID-19 deaths being reported in China and Italy, India continued to export protective medical equipment.

There are many more truths to confront. Sanitation workers are not given any protective equipment but are not allowed to stay home. They are expected to handle infected masks with their bare hands. Nor are they given soap and water on the spot. Do we really believe that the government intends to control the pandemic?

On the lockdown

A lockdown is useless unless all citizens are guaranteed food and shelter and medical aid on call. A government that announces a lockdown without making arrangements for the poor, the elderly, the already ailing, is simply adding to the body count. That is another truth. The spectre of a miserable, lonely death confronts us. But for us to resist such deaths, we must reject all the lies and obfuscations that lead up to it. There have been concerted attempts to deflect responsibility there. Listening to certain media commentators, one would imagine that the current Prime Minister is a composite of Jawaharlal Nehru, Sonia Gandhi and Rahul Gandhi, rather than the incumbent Narendra Modi.

The crisis staring us in the face requires quick, empathetic, creative decision-making. Health workers are begging the government for adequate protective equipment. Diverting existing factories and resources to this cause could have been an overnight decision two weeks ago. The Prime Minister’s relief fund had thousands of crores of rupees sitting in it. Food, transport and sanitation for migrant workers could have been organised. It should have taken two minutes to issue an order. We still do not know if and when the order was issued.

The argument that governments can only do so much has collapsed. Truth is, we do expect the government to pull out all the stops when our own lives are threatened. It is also clear that highly subsidised universities are necessary. We need doctors, scientists, social scientists, gender researchers, and journalists working in collaboration. We all need health care, water, electricity, Internet access. We do not need detention centres. We certainly do not need to spend one paisa on refashioning the Parliament building.

Those of us who have access to diverse news outlets have watched the way Kerala, Cuba and South Korea responded to the pandemic. The simple truth is, systems work best when they work for all. It is also clear that we can have such systems, but the first necessary step is to surrender caste, class and religious biases. We must decide now whether we want to pull together into a universal safety net, or be devoured by the virus of falsehood.

Annie Zaidi is a writer and film-maker

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