On Partisanship, Education Levels, and Free Vaccines

आब-ओ-हवा देश की बहुत साफ़ है
कायदा है, कानून है, इनसाफ़ है
अल्लाह मियाँ जाने कोई जिये या मरे
आदमी को खून वून सब माफ़ है
... हाल चाल चंगा सी , 
सब कुछ चंगा सी 

- (with due apoligies to) Kishore Kumar, Mukesh, Salil Chowdhury, and Gulzar

In 2006, two political scientists, Charles Taber and Milton Lodge, conducted an experiment to examine the way Americans thought about two randomly chosen controversial political issues: gun control and affirmative action. The participants were given arguments from both the sides to assess the strength and weakness of each. One would have thought that being asked to review the pros and cons, people with opposing views might create a shared understanding amoung them. Instead, they tried to look through the points that backed their existing beliefs as much as they can. When invited to assess the opposing arguments, they would spend considerable time thinking up ways to shoot them. Why did this happen? As Tim Harford writes in How to Make the World Add Up, “Of all the emotional responses we might have, the most politically relevant are motivated by partisanship. People with a strong political affiliation want to be on the right side of things.”

Harford goes on to talk about Gallup Poll conducted in 2015 which reflected how much Democrats and Republicans in the US worried about the climate change. He writes:

 “Scientific evidence is scientific evidence. Our beliefs around climate change shouldn’t skew left and right. But they do… [Interestingly,] more scientifically literate Republicans and Democrats are further apart [in their views] than those who know very little about science.”

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Something similar has panned out in India over the past few years and has been exacerbated during the pandemic.

The world’s largest democracy successfully ducked the first wave of Covid-19, though not that easily. It came at the cost of the lives of migrant laborers, and millions of middle class families who were pushed into poverty due to the economic contraction. Our already frail healthcare infrastructure was stretched to the extreme as the struggle to find vacant hospital beds intensified.

But, soon Covid-19 cases started to decline rapidly. From the peak of around 97,000 daily cases in the month of September, we went to around 9,000 in February this year. A Parliamentary Standing Committee, back in November 2020, produced a report predicting a severe second wave.

The best and the only option for us was to vaccinate as many people as we can, but India’s vaccine demand-supply math shows a royal Govt screwup where there is a huge supply side problem. On top of that, the Central Government has decided not to vaccinate the people in the age bracket 18-45, and asked the states to do so. Hence, the various State Governments will procure vaccines at a specified price from the two manufacturers that we currently have (Serum Institute of India and Bharat Biotech), and will vaccinate the people at any price they decide.  With lack of supply, this would mean an intense tussle between the State Governments and the Private players.

Unable to address this issue much earlier, the Centre failed miserably in preventing the wrath of the second wave. We all know whatever is happening in the whole country right now.

People would have been expected to call for quick action from their leaders in building up our healthcare system after the first wave. But, they went on to justify government’s action to not provide free vaccination to all. Rather than holding the leaders in power accountable for organizing election rallies in the middle of the second wave, people started playing the blame game. They engaged themselves in the “positivity drive”

Having watched the social media debates, I could conclude that just like the study I mentioned at the start, the educated were being more polarized. I saw one op-ed asking the opposition party to shut their mouth. One Gentlemen tweeted that if individuals can vaccinate their dogs for thousands of rupees then why cry about paid vaccination in government centers. If I were to answer it, I would just say that it is Government’s moral duty to provide free vaccines. And only those keep dog as a pet who can afford those thousands of rupees!

As Amit Varma wrote in a Times of India column, “We have normalized the failures of the state. We have become blind believers in the Religion of Government.”

Partisanship will take us nowhere, especially at this point of time. If we can’t question today, we will never be able to do so. Let’s become citizens.

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