The healthcare sector told a similar story of predation. According to the BMJ, today, India has just 0.8 doctors and 0.7 hospital beds per 1000 population and is the third largest military spender in the world, after the US and China. But not everyone was left without healthcare. The private healthcare industry exploded under neoliberalism, with the country ranking among the top 20 countries for its private healthcare spending, while being amongst the lowest for spending on public health.
Austerity, as Ruthie Gilmore teaches us, is the “organized abandonment” of life and life-making paired with “organized violence.” The closing of schools and hospitals and the expansion of prisons and defense budgets hold a mirror to each other.
Austerity, however, merely amplifies what is a key organizing principle of capitalism, the lowering of the value of human life. While capitalism strives to lower the value of labor power in order to increase surplus value, what this means concretely for the working class is, following Rosemary Hennessy’s concept of abjection, what we might call the manufacture of abjection. This mechanism goes beyond the economic effort of lowering wages. Indeed, wages are mostly effectively lowered when capital can successfully lower the parameters of social reproduction of life and labor power. Social oppressions such as race, gender, and caste are some of the key drivers for lowering social reproduction.
We should be reminded of a dark passage in Capital where Marx describes how, during his time in Britain, women were “still occasionally used instead of horses for hauling canal boats, because the labour required to produce horses and machines is an accurately known quantity, while that required to maintain the women of the surplus-population is below all calculation.” Michael Goldfield recently made a similar point about the role of slavery and racism in the US, showing how “both planters and northern industry benefitted from cheap labor whose lower limit was determined by racism” producing across time “a callous disregard for human dignity and the sanctity of human life.” To paraphrase Gilmore, where life is not precious, life is not precious.
We are seeing this murderous logic – of capitalism devaluing life through austerity – playing out in India on such a scale that even the rich and powerful are not safe. A former ambassador died while waiting in the parking lot of a Delhi hospital. There are no hospital beds. There are no ambulances. In Surat, an industrial city in Gujarat, the grills used to burn bodies have been operating so relentlessly that the iron on some of them melted. Almost all the mortuary staff in crematoriums and burning ghats are from Dalit or Bahujan communities, whose average monthly pay is around $134. They are working round the clock, without any PPE, providing last rites, grief counselling and consolation to families who in life would have probably advocated for their continued ritual segregation from elite society. Bezwada Wilson, an organizer for the rights and welfare of sanitation workers, told VICE World News, “No one knows how many cremation workers have tested positive for this deadly disease and no one knows how many have died as a result. It is because government officials don’t see the cremation workers and sanitation workers as human.”
But as the country gasps for oxygen, the stock of Linde India, a supplier of medical oxygen, has doubled. Adar Poonawalla has honorably done a Ted Cruz, fled India and sought refuge in his modest London mansion, as have the ultrarich in their private jets.
Meanwhile the rest of India burns, as BJP leaders continue to peddle cow dung and cow urine as medical solutions to covid 19. As of Saturday, only 1.9 percent of India’s population has been fully vaccinated and over 400,000 new daily infections are confirmed by tests, the actual figure is surely far higher.
Capitalist State against the People
Narendra Modi, more than any Prime Minister since the 1980s, has brutally wielded the might of the Indian state to shape a polity safe for capital, Hindutva has been the ideological battering ram for this project. While absent from any life-making work, such as healthcare or education, the state has been all too present in death-making, from the Gazafication of Kashmir to erecting detention camps for Muslims, Dalits, and Adivasis. Indeed, it’s not the state that is currently keeping the neoliberalism-ravaged health care system operational, but ordinary people. Teams of volunteers have set up mutual aid networks across the devasted landscape and are trying to reduce harm in ingenious and deeply loving ways. Gurudwaras and mosques are working tirelessly to provide food. The fascist Shiv Sena’s chief Uddhav Thackeray was forced to thank the Muslims of Ichalkaranji town of Maharashtra for donating Zakat money to fund a 10-bed ICU at a local hospital. People have set up COVID helplines to reach the sick and the suffering and are setting up car pools to act as ambulances, while politicians in Maharashtra and Gujarat have been seen hoarding essential drugs and oxygen to sell at a hiked price on the market.