By Bhaskar Sarkar
It isn’t the best of times, it isn’t the worst of times. It is an age of survival, an age of lack of information in the epoch of information.
This is a chronicle of a man struggling with misinformation and the virus simultaneously amidst the pandemic and the epidemic of social prejudices. This is a chronicle of a man who neither has the considerable wealth and social capital to anticipate a better escape from the bitter truth nor a man with so little wealth as to hope for a miracle; this is the narrative of a man who can only try to acquire the ultimate privilege, only to later realise that he is just an opinion maker in a society without an opinion: I am a middle-class man amidst a pandemic.
First of all, I identify myself as a champion of the socialist public health system and open bureaucracy. Like any other state in the world, India too is combating the COVID19 pandemic with a public health system. As I said before, being from the middle class means you have the knowledge to acquire the ultimate privileges of society but can hardly adjust your growing socio-political aspirations to the fact that you are not a grandee of the society but just a mere number in the tally sheet of the infected millions. The middle class in all big cities, for whom any private health care is an escape route, has continued to prefer private COVID19 treatments even in this pandemic. I and my family members decided to stay in the public health system and found some serious loopholes in the bureaucratic management of the pandemic, exposing it as futile. I would like to frame my observations in the light of the philosopher Max Weber’s theory of bureaucracy and how our federal state is actually headless, running around naked in anticipation that no one would point that out.
I understand the fact that this virus and its medicinal remedies are new to the medical field. However, associations like the World Health Organisation have taken the job to distribute the knowledge among all countries and, henceforth, it is the job for the states to trickle it down to the ground level professionals. Interestingly, India still has an ineffective mechanism to properly distribute the latest knowledge to the professional working in any remote location. For instance, even after a certain symptom and its remedies are commonly known to the doctors working in the cities, the doctors in the suburbs and villages know little about it. This example is just a prototype of failed management of knowledge on the state’s part. From a middle-class man’s perspective, I could have presumed that knowledge is trickling down in the following fashion:
WHO-Central Government-Regional Government-District Bureaucracy-Block Bureaucracy
However, one can never certainly incline oneself to acquiesce whether the assumed channelization even exists. Like any other popular governments in India, West Bengal is also relying on its ground-level workers to cross-check the health conditions of the patients in home quarantine over the telephone. The job of these ground-level workers is to reassure the patients over and again that the government is with them in this struggle. Interestingly, when one is in urgent need of any remedy or suffering from anxiety due to social stigmas and boycotting, the ground level workers with no power have to leave their field and the patients only to tell them that higher officials will look into their matter. When you contact the higher officials, they are obviously too busy to handle their workload and refer the issue to the ground-level workers, again in telephonic encouragement. Popular governments all over the world have made something very clear – the handling of the pandemic is with a motif and without a goal. Thus, the bureaucracy is helping governments in achieving these motifs. However, in our country, this arrangement seems to run amok around a vicious circle! Let me give an example. When I was in need of a certain medical facility, I had to call each official within a certain hierarchy from the level of the ground staff all the way up to the state government level and way back again to confirm its availability. Is this a typical example of red tape? For me, the answer is ‘No’. Because, they all agreed to help me as their sense of duty dictates so, but the lack was in them having the intention to fulfill the goal, not just the motif. This is why I called the state a headless entity running around in a prescribed way without actually knowing what to do. While calling the Central, State and Block level COVID19 helpline numbers, I got to know they don’t even possess the minimum facility of the current contact details of the only COVID19 hospital in my district, or even that of the district’s main health care centre or ambulances, but are still ambitious enough to call themselves ‘helplines’.
In a tragic turn of events, a co-patient of my room stood the entire night shouting for an oxygen mask only to be faced with the irritated faces of the helpers, eventually finding his death the very next morning. The concerned Government regulated private hospital took good care of him while in admission, because there is a considerable amount allocated by the government upon admission, but was reluctant enough to cross check his health as the doctors themselves prefer to stand ten feet away from the patient, only to ask questions and leave. This man became a number in the tally sheet. This is not a failure of the public health system but a lack of motivation from the popular government’s part in surveillance and distribution. The iron fist of a government will only solidify the sense and punctuality of duty of the officials, but what we really need is the motivation to put a head with conscience on the headless state’s body.
I could have expressed myself as an anonymous narrator but I have chosen to publicise my socio-political background, because the middle class tends to believe that it is in control of the opinion making hegemony of any given society. This is probably untrue or waits to be empirically proved, but my point here is that the middle class is a group with the information about the existence of knowledge but without the information about the application of this knowledge of privilege. In short, we are certain that there is a key, we probably have the key but don’t know what to unlock with it. The upper class possesses the key while the lower class can only dream about the key.
On the other hand, social boycotting and economic-downward mobility are becoming common characteristics in all social arenas. The village I live in is not an exception either. But we, as responsible members of the community, imparted our knowledge of how to pressurise a malfunctioning bureaucracy and how to boost health with minimum household products; eventually, other residents overcame these stigmas and this saved us from a total social boycott. We later established a commune model house of resources with the help of those who had something extra in their hands in order to distribute among those who didn’t. Anyway, that is a story for another day. At this juncture of body politics in this world, I am quite certain that people’s racial, religious, and social backgrounds manipulate government officials in unequal distribution of services. Not to mention how the well-fed privileged healthy population built a strong immunity in combating the virus, which is again open to be empirically proved in the future. At this battle of survival, we, the middle class, are fortunate than our lower-class counterparts because of our accessibility of knowledge of services and power of manipulation. This is why my personal chronicle is in a tone of satire and self-criticism and in the hope that the opinion maker class of the society will one day eventually have an opinion about how to put a head on the headless body of this state in order to build a better public health system and a conscientious and more humane bureaucracy.
Bhaskar Sarkar is a Postgraduate student at the University of Hyderabad. He is an activist who hopes to acquire the opinion of society one day.