I see pity in the faces of people I encounter, so much that in their eyes I can almost see the cliche images of sari-clad village women that NGOs depict on their report covers. “India is poor,” they tell me, nodding as if this is enough to explain the humanitarian catastrophe unfolding in India.
Everyone I know in India is grieving. Every family has a story of someone they have lost in the past few weeks to this dreadful virus. But to attribute such agency to this virus simply because we are “poor” is to fall for the discourse that our criminal government in India wants us to believe.
The constructed discourse around “poor” countries
That many of my non-Indian colleagues think of poor sari-clad village women when they think of India indicates the existence of a global discourse in which certain parts of the world are represented as “poor.” That my friends in India imagine Tunisia as a “poor Muslim African country” also points to the same discourse. When I talk to them about the protests against police brutality here in Tunisia, this is the discourse I encounter: “They are poor!”
The « poor » explanation saves us from naming those who do have agency, those who regularly commit crimes. This explanation allows us to pretend that the cause of the problem is too abstract to ever have a solution. “Poor” brings to us images of sari-clad women in rural India, of the unemployed young men of Kasserine. Pity becomes the solution! “They are poor!”
Are we really “poor”?
In May 5, the Embassy of India in France Facebook page posted pictures of the latest dispatches of three Rafale fighter jets from France to India. The highlight of the images is the young Indian men, presumably from the Indian Air Force, maskless and smiling.
During a visit to France in 2015, India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced that India would buy 36 Rafale jets from France. The cost? 7.87 billion euros, or around 9.5 billion US dollars.
The Indian government has chosen, year after year, to allocate significantly more money to defense rather than to healthcare. In the annual state budget for 2021-22, the government plans to spend around 10 percent of its budget on defense and only 2 percent on health. India spent around 2.4 percent of its total budget on health in 2020-21. That these numbers have barely changed since the pandemic struck in India is proof that the catastrophe we are seeing more than one year after first reported Covid cases, is man-made.
India continues to have one of the lowest public healthcare budgets in the world. The total spending (at both state and central level) comes to around 1.3 percent of GDP; the average in other BRICS countries comes to around 3.6 percent. The decision to have a skeletal public healthcare structure has always been deliberate, and made by the government in power!
What I see here in Tunisia is similar: increasing expenditure on defense and security, and decreasing public spending on healthcare. Tunisia spent only 5.4 percent of total government spending on public health, compared to 38 percent on defense, in 2017.
What would our lives have looked like if all this money from defense expenditures had been directed to healthcare? What if we bought fewer guns, fewer army tanks to target protesters in Delhi and Tunis, and instead spent that money on making it easier to get Covid tests and to get vaccinated?
Poverty as a consequence of politics
I do not seek to deny the existence of poverty. Poverty is persistent, tangible, and reproducing itself every second here in Tunisia and in my home in India. But poverty is not the cause of the health crisis we are seeing in the Global South. Poverty is not the cause of police violence, nor of the increasing number of youth who find themselves unemployed or forced into prisons. Poverty is not the cause of the humanitarian catastrophe that we are witnessing in India.
Like the current reckless mass murder, poverty is a consequence of the intentional politics of those who do have agency! Unequal social structures have been created, and these structures are maintained, intentionally, because it benefits those in power.
Covid catastrophe as a crime
Notes of mourning cover my social media timeline, and I read them all. As someone who has no god, I hope that me reading these is a prayer. To whom? I don’t know! I feel frozen, for I don’t know how I can mourn such a scale of death. “This is murder,” I repeat to myself. So many of these lives could have been easily saved.
Back in February and March, my parents would tell me about the maskless election campaigns all over India. Key politicians appeared without masks in public. A political discourse that we had been victorious over the virus was being diffused for the election season. In early March 2021, Health Minister Harsh Vardhan went on to declare that Covid was already on its way out, even as the number of cases was steadily rising.
The government also allowed the Hindu pilgrimage, which involves a mass bathing in the sacred river, to take place in April. As predicted, the pilgrimage was a Covid super-spreader. Hindu pilgrimages are good advertisement grounds for Hindutva nationalism, especially in election season. Votes come before lives, it seems!
The “India is poor” discourse forgets that the world’s largest vaccine production facility is located in India. Yet “government negligence, corporate profiteering, opaque contracting, and the inequities of the global pharma market” meant that we find ourselves facing a vaccine shortage that has been deliberately created! Over the last year, the opportunity to revamp the country’s health infrastructure during crucial period was deliberately missed. Evidence of government’s mishandling of the Covid catastrophe is slowly emerging at multiple levels. This mismanagement of crucial responsibilities continues to result in death, in murder, as I write.
What we are witnessing is a crime. The criminals are sitting in power in Delhi, with no accountability. It is our responsibility to name those who have the agency, those who have the power, those directly responsible for this man-made humanitarian catastrophe!