Any man’s death diminishes me

This too shall pass, though the price will be high. Human nature will bounce back. Many sincere resolutions will be consigned to oblivion. We may even forget, once again, the bliss of blue skies and birdsong, or the beauty of a sunrise. We may again take good health for granted, our tomorrows as certain. Crowded supermarkets, mindless consumption, incessant shuttle flights and the pursuit of pelf and power may become our reality again. In the light of a new day, it is easy to forget the dark night: the twin tragedies of the Spanish flu and World War I gave way to the heady abandon of the Roaring Twenties.

But while we have the clarity that comes only when life hangs by a thread, let us reflect. It is clear that the world was unprepared for the Covid-19 crisis and we cannot be absolved of collective responsibility by calling it a Black Swan event—rare, near impossible and unforeseeable. As metaphors go, the Grey Rhino is more appropriate—the big obvious thing that was coming at us, and which we chose to ignore. The virus itself may be new, but our unpreparedness to deal with a global health crisis was staring us in the face. The warnings were clear: SARS, Zika, Ebola; each time we thought it was someone else’s problem. The result is global chaos: stark shortages of hospital beds, ventilators, personal protective equipment; knee-jerk responses insufficiently informed by scientific guidance; disparate decisions on travel, trade, social distancing and lockdowns. Let’s face it: somewhere along the way we lost the plot. Priorities got terribly distorted, globally: you only have to compare defence budgets with health allocations. Arrogance did the rest: countries forgot that nature could strike back, a pandemic could humble us.

Illustration: Bhaskaran Illustration: Bhaskaran

Since this is no longer one country’s problem, the response has to be both singular as well as collective. While health ministries will hopefully do the heavy lifting to correct distortions within, diplomacy too must play its role. Foreign policy is meant to better enable the alleviation of domestic concerns. This glib axiom needs to take real shape. For India—and we can take no comfort in the fact that other countries are worse hit—this crisis has put an urgent objective in focus: build a robust, affordable and accessible health care system. At present, the government health system is a shambles and the vast majority of our 1.3 billion people cannot afford treatment at expensive private hospitals. International health cooperation can substantially bolster domestic effort in this regard. The foreign ministry can act as our sword arm to increase investment in the health sector, technology transfer and collaboration in manufacture of health equipment. It can also facilitate exchange of best practices in public and preventive health as well as targeted engagement with the WHO, World Bank and platforms like G-20. Business as usual is no longer an option in the conduct of international relations: strategic great games, high-level visits, the arms race, trade wars and so on will sound hollow unless we also build in a response to this global tragedy. Diplomacy has to create conducive conditions in which money can be safely directed at people-centred sectors, in this case, health.

Too often, over the last few weeks, have I heard the cynical comment that more people die in India of TB than will die from Covid-19. That may or may not be true, but not a single person should die for want of care. To recall John Donne: “…any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind/ And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.”