Fractured Beacons of Idealism and the Neglect of Moral Obligations

Essay, COVID-19, Government, Anil Anand

The largest democracy and the most powerful nation have been left disrobed of their pageantry and power – shamefully failing their own citizens, revealing their disintegrating moral façade.

It is said that the measure of a person is not what they do when things are going well, but rather how they respond at times of adversity.

In the words of Martin Luther King Jr.:

“The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy. The true neighbour will risk his position, his prestige, and even his life for the welfare of others.”[1]

One of the many lessons brought to bear by COVID-19 has been our ability, as societies around the world, to respond to our own challenges while maintaining the connectedness that has come to define us as a global community. It has been a time when true character has been revealed.

There have been many examples of local and national responses that have demonstrated the character and grit expected of decent and just societies.  But there have also been colossal failures.

Two such failures have been by the largest democracy, India, and the most powerful nation, the United States of America,  both left revealing their fractured values.

China first reported the detection of an unknown strain of virus in Wuhan, to the World Health Organization (WHO) Country Office in China on 31 December 2019, an event that changed the world as we have known it.

Eleven million residents of Wuhan city were placed under an unprecedented quarantine. Soon thereafter Italy quarantined around 16 million people in the country’s northern Lombardy region, which within days was extended to the entire country, and  Iran would report 8,042 cases with 291 deaths.[2]

On March 11 the World Health Organization declared the outbreak to be a “pandemic”,  and Europe was declared the new “epicenter” with more reported cases and deaths than the rest of the world combined, beyond China.

As the epicentre shifted to Europe, on March 12 China shipped medical supplies and support staff to assist Italy and Spain in their efforts to contain the virus.

By March 14 Spain recorded a spike of nearly 2,000 new cases with more than 3,800 confirmed cases and 84 deaths, resulting in a partial lockdown.

Germany sealed its borders with France, Austria, Switzerland, Luxembourg and Denmark to curb the virus’ spread, and on March 16 Canada announced plans to close the border to non-citizens, as the country’s number of confirmed cases rose to 339 with one death.

Belgium would follow by locking down the country, becoming the fourth nation in Europe to enact a nationwide quarantine, after Italy, France and Spain, as the United States was emerging as a new epicentre.

On March 22, Cuba, itself subject to trade embargo, dispatched a brigade of doctors and nurses to Italy to help in the fight.

Even Russia began flying giant 11-76 military planes loaded with medical supplies to Italy on March 22 as a gesture labelled “From Moscow with Love”;  and the European Union dispatched 21.5 million dollars in humanitarian aid to Iran.

India finally placed the country, a fifth of humanity, under a 21-day lockdown on March 24, 84 days after China reported the outbreak to the WHO and 54 days after India’s first reported case on January 30.

India temporarily suspended almost all visas and closed the land border starting on March 13, almost 71 days after China reported to WHO and 25 days after its own first case of COVID-19.

It would appear that India’s self-confidence in responding to the virus, was misplaced and perhaps even negligent. India, with a fifth of the global population, unlike other countries and perhaps the worse slums and marginalized populations, should have been far more concerned and prepared for the potential damages.

On March 7 Delhi was still reeling from the capital’s worst religious riots in decades, with 53 known dead, corpses still being discovered in drainage ditches, and hundreds of wounded languishing in understaffed medical facilities. It was clear even at that time that India’s medical system was not prepared to respond to a large scale disaster.

In the weeks and months following the emergence of the COVID-19 virus, India did almost nothing to systematically prepare its vulnerable for the ensuing onslaught of the COVID-19.

There was almost no observable change in behaviour of the public; media reports focused on the challenges in China and blaming foreign tourists for importing the virus to the nation.  Homeopathic remedies and superstitious belief abounded as ways to fend against the virus, and several popular Indian news stations touted India’s capacity to respond to the virus as being superior to that of other nations.

There were no restrictions at congested wholesale markets, technology centres, or hospitals. Delhi’s central public hospital the All India Institute Of Medical Science (AIIMS) was lined with dying and sick patients and their families sleeping on the lawns and beside the walkways leading to the hospital entrance, not to mention the halls and corridors, days and weeks before the lock-down.

The after-effects of the lethargic response has resulted in a social fracture; the widespread lack of personal protective equipment (PPE) for front-line medical workers, some resorting to torn raincoats, and bringing into question why India airlifted 15 tonnes of medical supplies to China on February  26.[3]

There are reports of medical staff being evicted from their residences for fear that they may communicate the virus,[4]chaos at bus terminals caused by migrant workers attempting to flee to their villages,[5] and the ostracization of foreigners.

As widely reported, the sudden and unexpected announcement of the lock-down has left most families ill-prepared for the lengthy quarantine, left millions of subsistence level labourers without prospect of any income, shelter or food and effectively segregated the poor from the middle and upper classes. In fact, the lock-down set into motion potentially catastrophic mass migrations transporting COVID-19 across the nation.

Citizens have been herded and sprayed en masse in the streets, and migrants returning to their villages have had to resort to living in trees.[6]

Despite India’s status as the world’s largest democracy, these are not the responses reflective of a democratic society. All that a 21-day lockdown has provided is a reprieve for the government to figure a way out of their mismanagement, a fact confirmed by Prime Minister Modi’s apology to the nation:

“I apologize for taking these harsh steps that have caused difficulties in your lives, especially the poor people,” Modi said in his monthly address, broadcast by state radio. “I know some of you will be angry with me. But these tough measures were needed to win this battle.”[7]

The citizens of India deserved a well thought out response and mobilization; instead what they have is a reflexive draconian lock-down.

The absurdity of the response has included a Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) leader hosting a cow’s urine consumption party as a containment for COVID-19, and Amitab Bachan, a popular and former politician suggesting that people blow conch shells as a means of warding off the virus.

India has failed its citizens, especially the majority of vulnerable and destitute who lack voices and will inevitably fade away without the government’s sympathy or empathy.

The ultimate measure of a society is not where it stands in moments of prosperity, comfort and convenience, but where it stands at times of challenge and controversy. India has failed.

In contrast, while Canada’s response has not been flawless, our own government is standing by every citizen, rich, poor, employed, unemployed, young, and old to ensure that no one is left behind. For the most part, Canada has put aside future concerns for ensuring that this society confirms our collective responsibility for our neighbours- for every single Canadian.

India can not and should not be considered a democracy simply because it gives its citizens the right to vote.  It should no longer be considered an emerging power when it has so openly, and callously demonstrated its disregard for the vast majority of its citizens.

Democracy is not the right to vote; democracy is the right to be counted, and India has failed to live up to its obligations to its voters- every voter, all citizens.

The other fractured beacon of justice is closer to home, the United States of America- The most powerful, the wealthiest, and relied upon the nation in time of need has itself collapsed under the strain of COVID-19.

On March 15 President Trump painted an optimistic and disingenuous scenario despite the experiences of several countries around the world, proclaiming “There’s a very contagious virus, but it’s something we have tremendous control over.”[8]

Instead, on March 26 the United States recorded a milestone in the crisis having recorded more COVID-19 cases than any other country in the world.[9]

Unprepared, lacking in infrastructure, medical equipment, planning, and coordination, the country has hobbled from one makeshift policy fiasco to another, just pulling back from the verge of reconciling acceptable losses within the first few weeks of the crisis.

The lieutenant governor of Texas, Dan Patrick, argued in an interview that the United States should go back to work, and that grandparents like him should not want to sacrifice the country’s economy during the COVID-19 crisis.[10]

So much for a country that proclaims  “The United States has always had a pretty sacred rule, and that is: we don’t leave our men or women in uniform behind,” and yet quick to consider leaving behind the elderly and vulnerable for the mighty dollar.[11]

Once described as ‘… a beacon, still a magnet for all who must have freedom, for all the Pilgrims from all the lost places who are hurtling through the darkness, toward home”,[12]  the land of the free and the home of the brave now leaves its own virus stricken nationals languishing on cruise ships with no port to come home to.

Unlike countries that offered and supported others through the delivery of medical aid, personnel, and cooperation, the United States has been bidding up the costs of PPE against its own citizens while pleading for support from the very partners it has abandoned, marginalized and criticized over the past four years. And even systematically seeking out and diverting PPE supplies intended for Canada and other countries for their own use – a systematic betrayal of ethical values and indicative of the fractured and false state of American ethics.[13]

The United States has not only failed to be the beacon it holds itself to be, but it has also amply confirmed its crumbling moral standard.

In contrast, Canada’s response in repatriating its citizens, coordinating the voluntary retooling of manufacturers to produce national medical equipment, and working across parties to structure a calm, cohesive, and efficient response has been far more demonstrative of a home of the free and brave.

Despite their failures, the two beacons, one of democracy and the other of free economics and global power, seem to find solace in each other’s policies. Modhi’s government spent more time and effort in laying out the red carpet, pageantry, and propaganda for Trump’s two visits to India in February than preparing to deal with the coming crisis. Both more concerned with their personal image and ratings than the wellbeing of their citizens.

As Sir Wilfred Laurier, Canada’s 7th Prime Minister assured: “For here [in Canada], I want the marble to remain the marble; the granite to remain the granite; the oak to remain the oak; and out of these elements, I would build a nation great among the nations of the world.”

All Canadians should be proud of how our governments, at all levels and across all party lines, have arisen to the task – unwavering and uncompromising of our values.

 

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Endnotes

[1] https://constitutioncenter.org/blog/10-famous-quotes-from-dr-martin-luther-king-jr-2

[2] https://www.nbcnews.com/health/health-news/coronavirus-timeline-tracking-critical-moments-covid-19-n1154341

[3] Ghoshal,Devjyot and Kalara. “Indian doctors fight coronavirus with raincoats, helmets amid lack of equipment’ Reuters, march 31, 2020 https://www.reuters.com/article/us-health-coronavirus-india-doctors/indian-doctors-fight-coronavirus-with-raincoats-helmets-amid-lack-of-equipment-idUSKBN21I0X0  Accessed: April 3, 2020

[4] Hindustan Times “Covid-19: Delhi govt’s warning to landlords asking medical staff to leave” March 25, 2020 https://www.hindustantimes.com/india-news/coronavirus-update-delhi-govt-to-take-strict-against-those-who-force-medical-staff-to-vacate-house/story-UexhYwnYJUMu2YVJN22wPK.html Accessed: April 2, 2020

[5] BBC News, ‘Huge crowds as lockdown sparks mass migration”, March 30, 2020.

https://www.bbc.com/news/av/world-asia-india-52093574/coronavirus-huge-crowds-as-india-lockdown-sparks-mass-migration Accessed: April 2, 2020

[6] BBC News. Coronavirus: Why some people with symptoms in India are living in trees, April 2, 2020,  https://www.bbc.com/news/av/world-asia-52129158/coronavirus-why-some-people-with-symptoms-in-india-are-living-in-trees  Accessed: April 3, 2020

[7] Schmali, Emily and Hussain, Aijaz; Global News; “India’s Narendra Modi apologizes to citizens amid 3-week coronavirus lockdown” Associated Press – Global News, Posted March 29, 2020 8:48 am, https://globalnews.ca/news/6747584/coronavirus-india-modi-apology/ Accessed: April 2, 2020

[8] Torres, Ella. “A timeline of Cuomo’s and Trump’s responses to coronavirus outbreak” ABC News 3 April 2020 https://abcnews.go.com/US/timeline-cuomos-trumps-responses-coronavirus-outbreak/story?id=69914641  Accessed: April 3, 2020

[9] Rettner, Rachael. “US is new epicenter of the coronavirus pandemic” LiveScience https://www.livescience.com March 27, 2020 Accessed: April 3, 2020

[10] Rodriguez, Adrianna. “Texas’ lieutenant governor suggests grandparents are willing to die for US economy” USA TODAY March 24, 2020  https://www.usatoday.com/story/news/nation/2020/03/24/covid-19-texas-official-suggests-elderly-willing-die-economy/2905990001/  Accessed: April 3, 2020

[11] Galdorisi, George. “Why we leave no man behind” CNN News, Updated June 9, 2014

https://www.cnn.com/2014/06/09/opinion/galdorisi-leave-no-man-behind/index.html Accessed: April 3, 2020

[12] Reagan, Ronald, Transcript of Reagan’s Farewell Address to American People,

Jan. 12, 1989 https://www.nytimes.com/1989/01/12/news/transcript-of-reagan-s-farewell-address-to-american-people.html Accessed: April 3, 2020

[13] Pitofsky, Marina. “Trudeau worried supplies meant for Canada have been diverted to US” April 3, 2020 https://thehill.com/policy/international/americas/490969-trudeau-worried-supplies-meant-for-canada-have-been-diverted-toAccessed: April 3, 2020

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