Political pundits, academics, sociologists and media pundits have offered numerous explainations for the second tsunami of the Coronavirus pandemic. It is several times worse than the first wave which forced the lockdown of industry and business for over six weeks from March 25, 2020. Education institutions including preschools, schools and colleges have been under strict closure for over a year and school leaving exams have been postponed indefinitely. The devastation inflicted by way of children’s learning loss for over 12 months, damage of the country’s already severely under-developed human capital and its implications for national productivity in years to come, can only be speculated upon.
Yet while expert analyses have correctly diagnosed the proximate causes of the second wave which is likely to undo all the gains of the national lockdown of last year, there is negligible acknowledgement of the root cause of the pandemic. It is continuous neglect of public education since the dawn of independence. It’s shameful that contemporary India hosts over 300 million comprehensively illiterate adult citizens — a cohort equal to the entire population of the United States of America. In the circumstances, it’s unsurprising that the logic of masking, social distancing and observing elementary rules of hygiene is widely ignored. It’s also a measure of the cognitive and logical capabilities of the country’s political class that it is unable to discern the inherent contradiction in asking the public to social distance while simultaneously addressing mammoth election rallies in which Covid safety rules are flouted with impunity.
Likewise in defiance of all reason and common sense, the Kumbh Mela which reportedly attracted 13 million Hindu devotees to the temple town of Haridwar since February, was permitted to be held. Therefore although self-serving politicians tend to blame the partying middle class for irresponsible pandemic behaviour, the fault is with themselves that the second Covid surge has attained monstrous proportions. The plain truth is that there is a direct cause-effect linkage between the political rallies called by all party leaders (including prime minister Modi), the Kumbh Mela and congruent spike in Covid positive cases and fatalities. In short, the nation is paying a deadly price for sustained underinvestment in education and human capital development. In the Spanish flu pandemic of 1915-20 when 75 percent of the Indian subcontinent’s 300 million population was illiterate, the death toll was six 14 million. This time around when one-third of the 1.5 billion population is illiterate and another third only functionally literate, the loss of lives and livelihoods may be less because of advances in medical science, but is still likely to be very heavy by contemporary standards. The writing on the wall is very clear: Pull out all stops to provide quality education for all. Or perish.