The real heroes among us

Published: 11 April, 2020 04:48 IST | Lindsay Pereira | Mumbai

If there is one thing this pandemic has taught us it is that we are paying high salaries to the wrong kind of people

We continue to focus on bailout packages for banks and airlines, instead of boosting funds for healthcare workers, scientists, teachers. Pic/ Pradeep Dhivar
We continue to focus on bailout packages for banks and airlines, instead of boosting funds for healthcare workers, scientists, teachers. Pic/ Pradeep Dhivar

picThe best memes and GIFs are usually the ones that contain more than a kernel of truth. One of my favourites that went viral on WhatsApp groups over the past month featured a scientist asking the world's reporters to turn to footballers for a COVID-19 cure. She said this because we all know about the millions paid to sportspeople for endorsing a particular brand of shoes, and the pittance that scientists the world over have to rely on when it comes to saving lives.

These lessons cropped up time and again, on our respective timelines, as cities continued to shut down. There were videos of people stepping onto their balconies in Spain to applaud their nurses and healthcare workers. There was that photograph of an exhausted doctor asleep on a stretcher after the last patient had been wheeled out of an emergency room. There were the thousands of medical support staff waving goodbye to their partners and children and walking into hospitals while the rest of us were tasked with simply staying indoors.

Through it all, one of the things that bothered me most was a piece of information regarding someone I happen to know. It concerned his salary, which hovered in an eye-watering space involving millions of dollars, all of which had supposedly been paid to him for years because of his role as an investment manager. He could also have been a hedge fund advisor or the manager of a mutual fund for all I know, but that was not really the point. How, I kept asking myself, were these immoral amounts of money being paid to people who do nothing of any value for humanity?

I use the word immoral on purpose, because it implies an act at odds with something good. I recognise how this may sound like a rant against capitalism, but refuse to believe that it makes sense to pay people more for their ability to generate wealth than for their ability to do something that can change everyone's lives for the better.

The pandemic will end up teaching us all kinds of lessons, of course, about how we look at healthcare for instance, or how we need to evaluate our preparedness for more such epidemics in the years to come. I hope it teaches us to question what we take for granted too, and why we insist on placing people on pedestals for all the wrong reasons. The heroes who will emerge from this crisis will not be the celebrities, bankers, or politicians who have always gravitated towards the limelight. They will be teachers, daily wage workers, restaurant workers, nurses, and a host of other people doing jobs that routinely place them in a position of risk, for salaries that deny them the ability to live decent lives when they get back home.

There have been all kinds of frightening statistics thrown up in the wake of this outbreak, specifically with reference to India. While the rest of the world put out the message that washing hands with soap was an effective first line of defence, we had to contend with the fact that approximately 160 million of us — reports helpfully added that this was more than the population of Russia — have no access to clean water.

Then there was the problem of social distancing in some of the world's most densely populated cities, combined with literacy levels that made it impossible to even get the message out to people who resolutely refused to stay indoors. Reports like these ought to function like triggers, compelling governments to make drastic changes to the way public money is spent, and making sure we pay the right kind of people more to ensure our children won't be as unprepared for a crisis as we have always been. We continue to focus on bailout packages for banks and airlines, instead of boosting funds for healthcare workers, scientists, teachers, and those who do not have the luxury of staying home at times like these.

There was another telling image that went viral for all the right reasons, featuring the infamous Statue of Unity that was built at a staggering cost. The caption alongside mentioned how it was shut for weeks, while hospitals built decades ago operated at full capacity, round the clock. We have to ask ourselves where our taxes are being used, and to what end. If India has learned anything at all, I hope it is the lesson that we need more hospitals, not more statues.

When he isn't ranting about all things Mumbai, Lindsay Pereira can be almost sweet. He tweets @lindsaypereira
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