India’s experience with the COVID-19 pandemic has been particularly severe, with the second wave taking on truly apocalyptic proportions. The people of the country – its working masses in particular – have faced a double whammy, with an assault on their livelihoods as well as a public health disaster. Narendra Modi’s government has run a very poor immunization program, prioritizing big business profits over the need to save lives.
The roots of the crisis do not lie in the dysfunction of the state as such. In fact, India’s neoliberal state is functioning exactly the way it was designed. But in West Bengal, thousands of “Red Volunteers” belonging to organizations led by the Indian left have sought to offset the toll of state institutions. They brought solidarity and mutual aid in an exemplary manner to meet the needs of the population in terms of food and medical assistance.
Modi’s government is dominated by the far right Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, to which Modi himself belongs. He is so blatantly devoted to the interests of big business that he has exploited the pandemic to create new ways to maximize profits. He passed several laws, including four labor codes and three agricultural laws, while granting tax cuts, interest-free loans and beneficial privatizations of public assets to the Indian business class.
In the meantime, there has been no sign of much needed assistance and social assistance programs. Many economists have identified the urgent need for job creation programs and cash transfers to workers in order to generate demand in the Indian economy and get it back on track. Their recommendations have fallen on deaf ears.
Modi’s aggressive market fundamentalism has gone hand in hand with forms of anti-scientific irrationalism that have made the fight against COVID-19 much more difficult. As India’s healthcare system crumbles under the impact of destructive neoliberal policies and the economy tips into stagnation, the world’s second most populous country is going through a truly catastrophic crisis.
In this year’s West Bengal assembly elections, the Trinamool Congress (TMC) of Mamata Banerjee became the clear winner, with 48% of the vote and 213 seats out of 292. The people of West Bengal chose the TMC for resist the forward march of the Bharatiya of Modi. Janata party. This does not change the fact that the policies pursued by the ruling TMC over the past decade, since it first won the West Bengal elections in 2011, are responsible for the miserable condition of the people. residents of the state in the midst of the pandemic.
The TMC government has cut state spending in key sectors such as health and education, following a rigid budget austerity line. The pan-Indian phenomenon of rising unemployment was even more pronounced in West Bengal, and out-of-state migration increased as a result. TMC’s much-vaunted welfare regimes were actually peanuts compared to the huge drop in wages suffered by the working masses.
In this context, the people of West Bengal have been pushed to the wall by the pandemic and by the devastating cyclones. Red volunteers stepped in to provide much needed relief. Created in Calcutta by organizations of young people and students who sympathize with the Communist Party of India (Marxist), they have mobilized a large number of young people to come to the aid of those who are on the brink of public health. Their ongoing work is in line with similar efforts by leftist forces in other parts of India and around the world.
During the first wave of the pandemic, the major problem was the loss of livelihoods due to unforeseen lockdowns imposed by the government. Red volunteers began to organize free vegetable markets, community kitchens and the distribution of free food. They also provided medical assistance in every district of West Bengal. Female comrades took the initiative to provide menstrual kits to people at their doorstep.
Collective kitchens have gradually transformed into sramajibi Canteens (canteens for workers) where a full meal costs only 20 rupees. More than 150 canteens have been established statewide, feeding between 250 and 500 people a day. At a time when starving deaths were reported daily, these canteens saved countless people from starvation.
The second wave of COVID-19 hit the Indian working class much harder than the first. The authorities’ lack of preparedness combined with India’s inadequate medical infrastructure to produce a crisis with a staggering death rate. Scenes of people dying from lack of oxygen have become commonplace, as have mass cremations and corpses washed up on riversides. Modi’s government refused to take responsibility and let people suffer without proper treatment. Indian private hospitals have increased their rates, taking advantage of the crisis.
The Red Volunteers stepped up further and started sourcing oxygen cylinders from different sources so they could use them to save lives. Taxi drivers working for taxi apps Ola and Uber, whose union is affiliated with the Center of Left Indian Trade Unions, have also launched a dedicated taxi service for COVID-19 patients. In some cases, the Red Volunteers have taken on the responsibility of arranging the cremation of the body of a deceased person after authorities refused to do so.
These efforts have been widely appreciated by different sections of society. People started to depend on the Red Volunteers more than on the local government. They were also nominated for the Healthgiri Awards sponsored by the news magazine India today, which honored “the selfless work of unsung heroes who have helped India in the fight against COVID-19”.
Some people on the left have questioned the value of such projects, arguing that they are minimal compared to the needs of the masses and that they reduce us to playing the role of NGOs when we should be channeling popular anger against the regime. neoliberal. But this argument is wrong and fails to recognize the importance of relief work in a larger context.
It is obvious that the Red Volunteers cannot meet all the needs for food, medicine, oxygen supplies and other items. They cannot replace the role of the state. However, that doesn’t mean that no matter how much relief they can providing is insignificant. The Red Volunteers built on already established frameworks of solidarity and raised them to a higher level.
Unlike bourgeois volunteering which consists in directing the crumbs from the table of the rich to the mouths of the poor, the humanitarian action of the Red Volunteers is based on the mobilization of collective resources (work as money) which come from the working masses. themselves. In addition to offering help to people, they sought to mobilize them to demand universal vaccination and protest visible corruption in medical facilities.
It may still be a long way from what is needed. But as Bertolt Brecht wrote in his famous poem “A Bed for the Night”, capturing both the limits and the importance of such work,
it won’t change the world
It will not improve relationships between men
It will not shorten the age of exploitation
But a few men have a bed for the night
One night the wind is away from them
The snow intended for them falls on the road.
There are well-founded concerns that relief work in the aftermath of disasters such as Hurricane Katrina in the United States or the recent forest fires in Greece will simply help the neoliberal state to stabilize the situation and dispel the crisis. anger he provoked. The Red Volunteers have been alert to this danger and have combined relief efforts with measures to politicize the crisis.
Providing affordable food in community kitchens reveals the reluctance of government officials to expand public distribution systems. Medical support reveals the neglect of health infrastructure by the state. Giving free classes to working class children reveals the injustice of the “digital divide” in education.
It would be defeatist to say that we must not feed anyone because we cannot feed everyone who is hungry. In fact, by providing food to as many people as possible, we show the superiority of a system based on solidarity, even when it has to function within the overall framework of a system based on profit. This is precisely what the Red Volunteers are doing in West Bengal today, and what we will continue to do.