The technical definition of bandwidth is “a range of frequencies in a given signal”.
However, in contemporary times, the word has blossomed with remarkable adaptability. Today it can be used to express the energy and capacity required to deal with a situation, or to even express the cost of directing efforts towards one task over the other. Therefore, it is a good word to do rough anatomy of any present situation such as the grave COVID-19 second wave crisis that is unfolding in front of us.
Just when an autorickshaw driver or a cook in a restaurant or a construction worker or a salesman in a shop or a salon owner had started to re-direct their bandwidth towards restoring livelihoods after the first wave of COVID-19, the second wave sucked it for attention.
The meagre savings from the last few months for a pucca house or children’s education or a wedding had to be emptied out for a rushed exodus (and expensive) back home or to cough up for an oxygen cylinder. What do we even say to those who had to shell out for a hearse van and a cremation due to COVID-19 and to those who had to divert all their precious bandwidth a second time in less than a year just to survive the next day?
If supply chains were a living organism, they too would be equally baffled. The logistics either suspended or is diverted to emergency use is causing disruptions in the movement of goods and jobs. Farmers are facing delays in their crop off-take. Shopkeepers are back in their homes twiddling their thumbs about the immediate future. Daily wagers are thinking about the labour contractor who has yet not turned up to assign work.
An unprepared state
The state’s moral obligation is to ensure that its own bandwidth in good times is deployed in a manner that society’s bandwidth faces minimum disruption during the time of crisis. Can the argument that “COVID-19 is a global crisis” strong enough for the government to absolve itself from the current state of affairs?
Surely COVID-19 has hit the world hard and few can claim to be unscathed from it. But, the extent of caseload, the severity of the society’s diversion of bandwidth to fight for mere survival, and the collapse of the ability to record infections and deaths, let alone the installed capacity to treat them surely make India a standout example of incapacity and helplessness.
That our employment is largely informal, that our public healthcare infrastructure is rickety and underinvested, that trained manpower to manage an epidemic is needed more than a new hospital building, that our tax to GDP ratio is among the lowest for a major economy, which leave our coffers wafer-thin to account for such health risks are undisputed facts. The state is well in the know that during the times of such a health crisis, these vulnerabilities exacerbate making the crisis far more severe for India than it should be.
What was the mitigation plan of the state during the good times to minimise the impact of the crisis? The moot question also is whether the state is aligned towards this thought as a matter routine or not? But this is an issue with many interdependencies.
The realisation that India does not even have enough tankers to transport oxygen during the crisis, and to then mobilise resources to address during a crisis, is expected of any sane state representative. But to design modularity in transport during happier times to address this issue during a crisis is the sign of a state that appreciates the cost of society’s bandwidth misfire during such a crisis.
Importing one less fighter jet means arming hundreds of public hospitals with thousands of extra ventilators and CAT scan machines, actually requires an appreciation for a softer foreign policy rather than a muscular one that merely dissipates as hot air in the time of crisis.
It means understanding the risk that when natural bio-diversity hotspots are encroached upon through unproven river-linking project that is a huge drain on public exchequer, novel zoonotic viruses can move from wildlife into humans and cause such a crisis – an inference that is fast becoming a fact. It, therefore, makes sense for a responsible state to extinguish such projects in happier times and direct resources to increase India’s expenditure on public healthcare than to fight the aftermath of the virus.
It means the appreciation of Anganwadi and ASHA workers in happier times with better pay, facilities, welfare and infrastructure, so that in the time of crisis they rise up as motivated front-line soldiers for health delivery and care. It means the spine to acknowledge the explicit difference between quackery and science, thereby ensuring funding for genome studies that lookout for new mutants of the coronavirus, and that it is not abruptly halted, and those unproven concoctions are not promoted as cures.
It means that state-commissioned surveys to measure the impact of COVID-19 on the economy should express the worst possible outlooks and do not become an exercise of self-praise that market the elusive V-shape economic recovery. It means to appreciate the sanity of pursuing human development indicators as a mark of a nation’s progress than of overly investing in economic growth at all costs that results in misplaced priorities of private profits without jobs, public health and environment.
But the state can side with all these undesirable choices and yet exit the crisis unscathed because the political economy that supports it is sure of the franchise’s insecurity, vulnerability and bias. These get expressed as a fascination for muscular and scornful posturing against our neighbours, for pageantry-based foreign policy, for grand motorways/tourist hotspots that cut through the heart of ecologically sensitive zones as signs of progress, and for the centralisation of powers as a sign of strong governance.
This gives the state the confidence that in happier times, survivors will pass off this crisis as God’s will and not give a fleeting thought to the fact that it was the misplaced bandwidth of the government that makes them misfire their own bandwidth from one crisis to the next.
Ankur Bisen is senior vice-president of Technopak Advisors and author of WASTED. He can be reached on Twitter @AnkurBisen1.