The pandemic has posed many challenges, and like a prism broken many a white light into its component colours. We saw many fault lines exposed. We have seen graciousness, heard stories of compassion and applauded the bravery of a teenage girl who cycled 1,200 kilometres to take her father to the safety of their village.
We have seen bigotry, pettiness and fear-induced irrational human behaviour as well. While we as ordinary citizens have demonstrated the whole spectrum of human emotions and behaviour, what rankles is the behaviour and actions of some officials and some governments.
Two specific instances are worth mentioning. The first: when migrants with dwindling savings, no incomes, vanishing food rations, and more importantly, gripped with a fear of death, took to mass exodus, the behaviour of some governments and their coercive arms — the police, pushed back people at their borders.
What is disturbing is not so much the lack of planning, or the foresight to imagine the consequences of our dramatically announced policies, but the insensitivity of the national government in not quickly reacting to the migrants’ plight and doing what was needed.
As a nation, we should have coordinated at least the local transport. Every State on the national highway could have provided its buses with PPE-protected drivers, and helped transit the mass of workers to the next border. The next State could have taken over from there while providing them with basic amenities like water, food and masks.
What would it have cost us as a nation? A Rs 1,000 per head? Let us say two crore people walked, it’s a mere Rs 2,000 crore! Why were we so immobilised? What were we concerned about? Wanting to look good on numbers? Defining Indians as belonging to a State, not seeing the others as our brothers and sisters, but only as potential carriers of infection?
The second, is a recent report of a district in North India flooding a rarely used canal to stop migrant workers from their own State from coming in. The apparent reason, as quoted in a newspaper, is that the district administration was concerned that its ‘good’ numbers may be affected! Since when is looking good more important than doing good?
This is where the whole narrative that we allowed ourselves to be sold matters. What are the metrics of success? Having less infections on paper at any cost? Having less deaths on paper at any cost? The problem is with the way we define success or the metrics that we set for ourselves for success.
How can our metrics be so myopic? The said district administration seems to have fallen for shortsighted logic. It is possible that they had limited resources. However one wonders, could they not have asked for help from senior officers or someone at the State level instead of resorting to such a measure?
It is like some of our own behaviour, keeping our front yards clean and pushing the dirt into the neighbours’ front yards or safely into a no-man’s land. We seem to believe if we manage our numbers for our district, then it is fine. By doing so, aren’t we sweeping the problem under the carpet and behaving like the proverbial ostrich?
Metrics are a double-edged sword. Anyone who has attended any basic management class would remember, what gets measured gets done, and what gets rewarded, gets repeated. Metrics are necessary, but the questions should be — is the metric being employed, and aspired to be managed, an appropriate one or is it taking us away from our core purpose?
For example, some private corporate hospitals manage their metrics of ‘high survivability’ of patients by taking recourse to one of the following: They tend to deny admitting difficult and complicated cases, not because they don’t have the competence or resources to deal with it, but because they worry about the low probability of success.
Secondly, they may discharge a patient when s/he becomes critical and they don’t see a chance of the person recovering. Sometimes out of sheer desperation, the family takes the patient to a government facility after being discharged. And, we criticize government hospitals for poor metrics of ‘low survivability’! Is it ethical of doctors, who have sworn to save patients’ lives as professionals, to deny services in order to keep their success metrics high?
Winning the War
So what ought to be the metrics during these difficult Covid times? Can compassion, providing services, availability of beds, access to tests, be metrics?
There are also faults with the way we think and the way some of our media depicts success. If this is war, we know there will be casualties, some will die. But the larger question is, what are the metrics of winning the war? We may remember the famous saying, it is OK to lose some battles, but eventually, we ought to win the war! Any general would like to keep the loss of his men and women as low as possible.
Maybe media also ought to publish the enabling acts, provisioning of services, as an important metric rather than merely celebrate low numbers or meaninglessly criticise low numbers. Maybe higher officials and politicians should stop worrying about increasing numbers, but plan to handle them.
Maybe the creative measures taken to stop the spread of the disease could also be celebrated. Maybe there are more and better metrics that we need to define, measure and manage, than just low numbers. The blind obsession with low numbers or any metric that defeats the core purpose, and divides people, and geographical boundaries must end.
We have seen a leader like KCR who spoke in such warm terms to migrant workers. To ensure they understand, he even spoke in Hindi. Telangana probably was the first State to send migrant workers on the Shramik Express to their home States with dignity.
We have seen a Chief Minister like Pinarayi Vijayan call migrant labour as guest workers and dignify them, and provide services and food. We have also seen a Chief Minister putting restrictions on the guest workers wanting to return home.
Hope we do not lose our collective humanity, and values of compassion and care, to look good on mythical metrics. We need to expand our vision, and not get limited by narrow and perverse definitions of success. Nobility, wisdom and humanity must prevail.
(The author is founding CEO of HMRI and 104 Health Help Line)
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