Doing the Deeds to Make Our Words Credible

By Rudi Heredia, SJ

From the Great Flood in Noah’s time to the ten plagues of Pharao’s Egypt, from the terrible wars that built up and brought down great empires and civilizations, from climate change and continental environmental degradations that brought famines, floods and fires, natural disasters and human engendered ones, all these have been embedded in our history. The present pandemic is one more, this time on a global scale.

Human responses to such social disasters have been as varied as their societies and cultures and the search for a meaning, both personal and collective, when such tragedies strike has been a constant in human life. What can such injustice and suffering mean in the context of a divine Providence? Religious believers have interpreted this as a punishment from God, as Gandhi did the 1934 Bihar earthquake as a punishment for caste. This other-worldly response was quite unconvincing to rationalists and atheists and even very problematic to believers.

Moreover, such disasters often precipitate a poplar response to charismatic demagogues with simplified analysis and instant solutions. However, their mass appeal and their authoritarian regimes have left underlying issues unresolved and compound an already bad situation.  

Moreover, addressing such traumas with scientific expertise has its limitations. For as Max Weber argued, science was about instrumental rationality, not value rationality and hence unequal to the problem of finding meaning. Not that science should be ignored, but by itself it cannot give a comprehensive and meaningful vision to human life. The present Covid pandemic forces us to confront these head on: “what’s it all about”: why us, why me, why now,… How do we respond to these continuing social traumas? How do we prepare ourselvesto face the next one?

To begin will numbers as a reality check on which to base a viable response to this present pandemic: the most reliable statistics, come from a highly regarded data journalist, Rukmini S. Her seminal work in many states has been widely reported. In an interview with Karan Thapar for the Wire on 10 July this year, she claimed that the most reliable estimate of total COVID-19 deaths in the country since the start of the pandemic in March 2020 is 2.5 million. She used three separate estimates premised on three different ways of calculation to come up with this figure.

During the second wave, between February-March and May-June best estimate of COVID-19 deaths this year, are probably around 1.5 million. Shockingly, the official figure as of 10 July is a mere 407,145. This is more than a gross under estimation. Many deaths in remote areas of the country go unreported and in many cases even in urbanised India, the cause of death has been deliberately omitted although this is a statutory requirement.

Yet the pavements crowded with funeral pyres and the bodies floating in the Ganga negate the official narrative regarding Covid deaths. People have watched their near and dear ones die gasping for breath because oxygen cylinders and ventilators were unavailable. These shearing images can’t be wished away. Some state governments’ response was a complicit denial and filing FIRs on those who dared to report or complain about the deficiencies as being anti-national!

Even after the Court finally intervened this continued for a while, until the Central Government also intervened. Surely we need some honesty and transparency in this matter if we are to show a minimal respect for the dead. Official denial of the scale of this tragedy is a vain attempt to hide the incompetence of governments devoid of any compassion but intoxicate with their own hubris.

After the empty boasts of stemming the first wave with an abrupt and cruel lockdown, giving  people just four hours’ notice, there was little sign of preparedness for the devastating second wave. This catastrophe has been caused by the arrogance and incompetence of the government and its political leadership, which allowed religious melas and elections rallies to proceed unhindered. No one can belie the spread effect these had on the Covid virus.

Moreover, the structures of inequality and injustice, of prejudice and discrimination that cause the social impact of any negative change to weigh more heavily on those with the least resources to buffer it. Thus while the Covid pandemic was a global disaster, the affluent countries were better able to cope than the poorer ones with more limited resources. And among these and within them it is always the marginalised who are the worst off in such a disaster.

A study by the Azim Premji Institute in Bengaluru estimated that some 230 million fell below the poverty line since the pandemic struck India in 2020.  These added to the millions already there, some 20.9 percent, or 273 million according to the World Bank data, April 2020. These are all part of the marginalised population of our country, the most vulnerable to any socio-economic set back: the Schedule Castes and Tribes, the OBCs, and others in the informal sector of the economy, self -employed or daily wage earners. If the statistics given by Rukmini S. were to be subdivided by such categories these marginalised would be grossly over-represented.

We need to take to heart the indelible images of the hundreds of thousands of people, who had lost everything in the cities to which they had migrated to find work, walking hundreds of miles, after the first lockdown, carrying their meagre belongings, hoping to reach their  rural homes. There was no alternative means of travel, no trains or buses. A petition in the Supreme Court on 15 May 2021 to direct the government to provide some assistance to these migrant labourers after months of government inaction, was not entertained. Many senior lawyers remarked on this as a failure of the Court and so later it did take notice of the migrants’ plight, but to no real effect.

A global disaster like a pandemic doesn’t by itself make for a level playing field. Justice, however, demands that we provide the have-nots access to the means of empowerment: the social and physical infrastructure, the technology and information, the care services and security to help them help themselves, and thus to better their life options and bargaining power.  They can then better enable to face such social disasters. This is more effectively done as a cooperative effort together, respecting differences and diversity. Only then will it bring structural not merely positional change, a circulation of elites with new ones displacing the older ones and so reiterating the cycle.

Further we must demythologise the religious nationalism that has engendered a divisive hate politics that marginalises the minorities. Such majoritarianism hollows out our democracy, making ineffective all countervailing institutions, like the judiciary, universities, trade unions, making them appendages of an incompetent authoritarian state, focused only on perpetuating its power and suppressing dissent, dismissive of any compassion for Gandhiji’s last and least.

A just society no longer seems to be the first priority of our ruling elite. Since Independence these have pursued a hidden agenda focused on growth in a none-too-subtle, self-serving, self-justifying manner. Little wonder our society is riddled with corruption and self-promoting political leaders who pay mere lip service to the imperative of good governance.

In this scenario of internal colonialism, where do we position ourselves?If we are to commit ourselves to an option for the poor and the promotion of justice,then we must be a committed to their liberation from injustice and repression, not to promote any partisan ideology or a fundamentalist faith or even institutional power.We need a viable agenda and pursue it with discerning prudence and vigorous courage.

Highly stratified and divided societies are prone to populist politics and charismatic demagogues with over-simplified answers and instant solutions.For when our society is stratified into haves and have-nots, the powerful and powerless, the elite and the subaltern, then the exploitation of the consequent inequalities intensifies, and perpetuates these divisions. To reverse this drift we must confront some hard questions.

How do we incarnate and renew our vision and mission for the future that is crashing in on us? How can we come together to become prophetic witnesses to a community of sharing and caring, focused on the common good of all but especially the marginalised poor? Do we want to be a happy people or would we rather be a powerful nation – an inclusive and tolerant society or just a rich and affluent one? Do we want our multicultural and pluri-religious heritage to be displaced by majoritarianism and extremism, our political secularism by  religio-nationalism? 

Out response to the crises and challenges confronting us today must becomethe prophetic agenda for our contribution. This paper raises questions to help the readers to construct their own agenda, hoping that then they will then be better able and more seriously committed to owning it.

But first we must do the deeds that will make our words and witness credible.

Fr. Rudi Heredia, SJ is an author and researcher. He can be reached at: