In this tweet, a father in India tags the Prime Minister, the Home Minister, and a Bharatiya Janata Party Politician for help getting cochlear implant batteries for his daughter, pointing to them as essential. Families in India and Pakistan have told me about their inability to get cochlear implant parts during the pandemic. In many cases they have turned to other families—via global Facebook and WhatsApp groups—to participate in the informal buying and selling of parts. I have also talked with Indian families who have had to leave the city and return to their villages making it difficult, even impossible to get replacement parts or to perform work-arounds (jugaad) on broken parts. In one case, a father said that they had to leave for their village so quickly that they wound up leaving their child’s implant processor behind.
Cochlear implant corporations, surgeons, and audiologists, among others, often represent cochlear implants as lifelines, a means to accessing and living in the world, an option that is not really an option. They also represent them as dependable. The slogan for one leading cochlear implant corporation is, “Hear for you. Always.” However, a cochlear implant is a magnet, a cable, and requires a steady stream of disposable or rechargeable batteries. A cochlear implant is also a fallible piece of technology. It can break or be eaten by a dog. A cochlear implant needs to be maintained. What happens when supply chains of batteries, magnets, and cables dry up and audiology clinics and cochlear implant distributors have shut their doors?
Michele Friedner is a medical anthropologist and assistant professor in the Department of Comparative Human Development at the University of Chicago. She has just finished a book on cochlear implants in India and wishes that cochlear implant logistics were easier for families to navigate.