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India's wealthy, middle classes need to do some soul searching about COVID surge

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Ravish Kumar, an Indian journalist and the 2019 recipient of the Ramon Magsaysay Award, recently shared on his personal blog that he is battling COVID-19. He wrote that our nation has become like an empty tumbler — we have nothing left, not even the essential oxygen we need to breathe. 

He is right.

India’s second wave of COVID-19 has collapsed the poor, the middle class and the rich into one sea of humanity, all of whom are gasping for oxygen and knowing that timely care would have saved tens of thousands of lives.

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We believed our own false propaganda about India experiencing prosperity and the new middle class numbering about 250 million. We were wowed with the rest of the world. But now reality has hit everyone. 

While medical experts are saying no one is safe until everyone is safe, there is a strong message to the middle class which continues to ignore the plight of the majority of Indians who are struggling to survive.

For years the middle class, which prospered because of the economic liberalization of India, simply turned a blind eye to the myriad of deficiencies in India’s’ public healthcare system, which was allowed to disintegrate in rural areas and small towns. Very few in the middle class seemed concerned that their ability to receive healthcare in private hospitals mushrooming across India also meant that members of poor and marginalized communities would be forced to borrow or sell their property and face exploitation by money lenders. 

Let us not forget to commend the minority within the middle class who do not bow to political pressure and do speak out for those who are suffering in the midst of this crisis. But the death of a collective social conscience in the middle class is destroying India, not only in its healthcare but in multiple areas of social cohesion.

The lack of social conscience among the wealthy class is even more disturbing. They thought nothing of flying away to the Maldives or some other exotic safe place to protect themselves from COVID-19 and celebrated their travels on Instagram. They have the luxury of forgetting their home and their neighbors. 

Yet, the middle and wealthy classes must realize that India’s new prosperity is tenuous at best because until most Indians prosper, the rest cannot reach their fullest potential. 

The majority of the poor know that many doctors hired by the government end up having private practices because of the low salaries the government pays its doctors and nurses. The decline of the public healthcare system should not be a surprise. In response, there are plenty of private hospitals and 5-star hospitals there for those who can come up with the money. 

In this health crisis the Indian judiciary has become a beacon of hope, as it has taken on the state and central government. The judiciary is the last resort for Indians to assert their basic human right to live. Right now 10 of our high courts, along with the Supreme Court, are asking hard questions of the various governments, including the election commission, which held elections for five states without implementing COVID-19 safety protocols. The government allowed for a religious festival in northern India, which led to super spreader events across the country, particularly in rural areas.

The Supreme Court along with the central government has now instituted a national task force of medical practitioners and government officials to ensure that all of India will have an adequate supply of oxygen in all of its healthcare facilities. The Supreme Court wants a “scientific plan,” not just slogans and meaningless announcements, which are the bread and butter of all political propaganda. 

Our hospitals are crammed with the rich, the poor, the middle classes. And they are filled with people of all faiths. This virus continues to be no respecter of persons. 

This COVID-19 crisis in my beloved India is further evidence that it is its citizens who have failed our nation and displayed a crass kind of nationalism toward our own people.

Will the severely shaken middle and wealthy classes at last realize that this is a crisis of their own making because they have ignored the health needs of the poor?

When this second wave peaks, my prayer is that the middle and wealthy classes do not simply return to business as usual without first demanding from the government that the healthcare infrastructure for all classes across India becomes a national priority. I do not want to even imagine the alternative, as medical professionals are predicting a third wave and variants of the virus will have dire consequences, particularly for children.

In an interdependent, populous India, any major health issue — any new viral outbreak —  will eventually affect all of us. The right to life, work and health is not only for the educated, the wealthy or for the increasingly prospering middle class, but for every Indian. 

We have to rise up as one unified India, regardless of our religious, ethnic, and socioeconomic backgrounds. A national concern for our neighbors and a seismic paradigm shift is what is needed at this critical hour in India’s history.

Joseph D’Souza is the founder of Dignity Freedom Network, which delivers humanitarian aid to the marginalized and outcasts of South Asia. He is archbishop of the Anglican Good Shepherd Church of India and president of the All India Christian Council.

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