418,000 dead and counting. Pretty much the entire world on lockdown for close to 3 months, thoroughfares and by-lanes deserted, previously dusty road shoulders now concealed by tall grass and big cats strolling city streets is as post-apocalyptic a scene as it gets. As the outbreak in Wuhan turned into an epidemic and then crossed oceans to ravage countries the world over in the shape of a pandemic, many governments jolted out of their stupor by the magnitude and severity of the crisis scampered to seal borders and lock entire countries down as knee-jerk reactions. Advice from medical experts flip-flopped on a daily basis. No masks required one day to masks mandatory the other. Some heads of state started out by calling it a hoax, and then graduated to tweeting out potential cures without any scientific basis, others derided social distancing and masks while some others exhorted their citizens to comes out onto their balconies, stand at the windows and doors and clang utensils and light lamps and candles. Only a few went about mounting a calibrated response, while simultaneously aggressively ramping up testing, implementing common sense restrictions and relaxations where applicable and reassuring their citizens by deeds and not just words that the state was with them through this crisis. In India, we were busy singling out groups of people to shift blame on for precipitating the crisis! Even if these groups were derelict in their duty to heed the government’s advisories we wasted precious time and bandwidth trying to pin the blame on them as opposed to effectively quarantining them and thereby preventing further transmission.
This was followed by the emergence and ramp up of a new-fangled sector which saw a mad rush to produce/procure face masks, Personal protective equipment (PPE), hand sanitisers, testing kits and respirators in a bid to keep the virus at bay/save lives. Such was the ‘desperation’ that liquor companies pivoted to manufacturing alcohol based sanitisers and automobile manufacturers jumped in to produce respirators! Speaking of testing kits, despite the aggressive posturing and calls for ostracisation, most countries including ours had to fall back on the Chinese to supply the initial tranches! Maintaining physical distance in public and washing hands frequently became ‘conditioned’ reflexes. Spitting in public, a birthright, was upgraded to a punishable offence. Makeshift hospitals were setup on a war footing in anticipation of a Tsunami of new infections with China and Italy serving as ominous early warning systems. By the second month of the crisis, economies around the globe were beginning to be torpedoed by the virus as industrial and farm output sank dramatically, consumer spending on non-essentials came to a virtual standstill, no new cars being sold, no new gadgets or appliances being bought, air travel crashed, markets experienced a non-stop nosebleed.
On the epidemiological front, the race to develop a cure and a vaccine started in earnest and is still on but both seem to be a fair distance away. In the absence of a cure, scores died. More death is imminent! Every day brought with it new postulations about the nature of the virus and manner of transmission(e.g. aerosol or not), its impact on humans, means/actions of keeping it at bay and potential cures. These cures starting from gargling warm water to Ayurvedic medicine (Yoga Guru Ramdev and Co. are allegedly close to a cure!) to the much-hyped and even more politicised Hydroxychloroquine were being callously thrown around. What became increasingly clear through all of this flux though is the fact that nobody had definitive answers. Just that few applied common sense whereas others dealt mostly in nonsense!
Back home in India, an unprecedented exodus of migrant workforce from cities and towns back to their villages unfolded in front of our eyes. These workers already living in pitiable conditions under a lockdown were soon overwhelmed not only by the frightening spectre of the disease but also by apathetic employers, heartless landlords, a xenophobic environment and atrociously dysfunctional government apparatuses. These migrants with fading hope and with no available means of sustenance and transport took to the highways on foot with entire families in tow. This already colossal and problematic undertaking was made even more challenging and dangerous for the simple fact that it was being done bang in the middle of the gruelling Indian summer with daytime temperatures getting up to the high forties! Expectedly, many perished en route due to hunger, thirst, exertion and accidents and those that finally reached are broken souls. The pathetic quarantine facilities that welcomed the migrants in their villages or district headquarters ensured that the ordeal was about to get worse. Many more as I write this are probably still seeking shelter under culverts and bridges with nothing but a faint hope and a feeble prayer that the almighty will send an angel to rescue them.
With the aforesaid events serving as the dystopian backdrop, we are now at a point where governments across the world are starting to relax the draconian restrictions. A bulk of them capitulating to pressure from flatlining economies, poverty taunting with its diabolical dance and populations sick and tired of their freedoms being curtailed. While this gradual easing of lockdown restrictions might be the way forward in parts of Europe and Asia (Korea, China, Singapore etc.) which have recovered or are well on the road to recovery, many have questioned the wisdom of doing the same in India. India despite having kept a lid on the number of infections and the mortality rate initially thanks largely to the total lockdown recently surpassed Spain’s tally to rise to the 5th spot on the Covid-19 leaderboard. She is beginning to witness an exponential rise in community transmission (a fact denied by all governments), testing clearly hasn’t been able to keep pace, reports have started to emerge of the health infrastructure under severe stress and notably so in the two biggest metropolitan centres with the highest concentration of infections. A public health system at a breaking point. A case of having kicked the can down the road.
Moreover, social distancing is wishful thinking for many at the lower end of the socio-economic spectrum who reside mostly in densely populated slums or ghettos in urban centres and in cramped quarters in rural areas. Recent media reports have borne out that fact where in one instance, the local administration ordered a migrant couple who had just returned to their village to home quarantine inside their 12*10 ft family hut which already housed a family of 8! What a ludicrous ask! Add to that the fact that there is widespread unemployment, no social security cheques forthcoming and dwindling healthcare facilities for non-Covid-19 related ailments for the poor and the marginalised. The long and the short of it is that India is by all accounts ill-prepared to deal with the fallout of large scale community transmission which will almost certainly result in a meltdown of our healthcare system and consequently heavy fatalities. Both Covid and non-Covid alike.
In all fairness, sans commerce and agriculture – anxiety, frustration, hunger and depression will probably get them before Corona does! Farmers who weren’t able to sell their produce recently took the extreme step of taking their own lives, small business owners who have had to shutter their businesses owing to the lockdown are in dire straits financially and also most likely at their wits’ end as well. The food business which used to be a huge employment avenue in the unorganised segment for one has been especially hard hit by the closure of vending zones, restaurants and hotels. Many restaurants have either permanently shut doors or are staring down the barrel despite the recent order to reopen. That has left many penniless and hopeless in its wake. That said, pretty much every sector in the economy has taken a punch in the gut and is down for the count.
Besides the assault on the economy, there is an invisible and insidious enemy that is slowly but surely taking its toll. Mental health issues like depression are being exacerbated by isolation, fear, stress and anxiety constitute another epidemic that is sweeping across populations but has thus far been pushed into the background and out of public discourse as it isn’t snuffing out enough lives like the virus. That said, its ill-effects will surely be manifested in the times to come and one fears the lasting impact will be calamitous to societies. Spikes in crimes against women and children, domestic violence and unwanted pregnancies are distinct possibilities.
As is evident from the factors above, the decision to open up or close down is unbelievably hard. To use a cliche that has been bandied about on TV and in print a million times by now, how do you balance lives and livelihoods? A million dollar question if there ever was one!
Silver linings: For starters, the government has responded by widening the ambit legislatively of the infamous and grossly inefficient Public distribution system (PDS) and despite its obvious shortcomings it has actually proved to be a lifeline for many. Then there is the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (MGNREGA) which is being rebooted nationwide to provide avenues to work for cash. Additionally, the mortality rate thus far in India has been surprisingly and thankfully lower than it was in either China, Europe or the US. This has been attributed to various manner of things starting from our claims of possessing robust immune systems (a combination of BCG vaccinations and exposure to bacteria and viruses from an early age) to the intense heat of the Indian summer to an overall younger demographic etc. Last but not least, the fervour for charity visible in India in this moment of adversity has been quite heartening. The various Chief Ministerial relief funds and the two national relief funds namely the PMNRF and the newly minted PMCARES have received handsome donations (No accountability for the latter as of yet and still waiting to see how and where is will be used). That apart, a slew of non-governmental organisations as well as well-meaning individuals have done a phenomenal job of helping out the migrant labourers and their families not only get back home but also survive through this ordeal. They also have been tremendous in providing relief and aid to the poor who are either fall outside the PDS net or aren’t able to access it and also to the lonely, old and infirm and even stray animals. The real question though is for how long will these welfare schemes last and for how long will the good samaritans continue to be the last line of defence between a life of dignity and an ignominious death!
Dark Clouds: Despite these ephemeral rays of hope, systemic inadequacies and inefficiencies, institutional apathy, and a whimsical polity constitute a monolithic barrier. Add to that the lack of discipline and the utter disregard for the law amongst the citizenry of India and we have a surefire recipe for an impending catastrophe. Many Indian states still have a partial lockdown hours and weekend shutdowns in place but that hasn’t deterred the public from flocking marketplaces and other public areas with scant regard for physical distancing as well as adherence to other norms like wearing masks. That apart, many governments around the world, including ours, are obsessed with incriminating China of not only having allegedly ‘lab-created’ this virus as a potential biological weapon but also wilfully withholding information about the outbreak till very late. Calls for bans and boycotts of Chinese products have reached a crescendo which has an unmistakable nationalistic ring to it. China on its part has responded to its characterisation as a bugbear and taking advantage of this crisis has surreptitiously encroached Indian territory across the Line of Actual Control (effective border demarcated between India and China). The Indian government despite having its hands full with the virus, a Chinese invasion and an object of Nepalese ire is quite unbelievably also trying to topple non-BJP governments in a few states! All of this is playing out when they ought to be single-mindedly focusing all their energies on combating the virus! That anger toward the Chinese ‘may’ perhaps turn out to not be misplaced and consequently justified but is now really the time to engage in retribution?!
There are also the widespread allegations of the underreporting of the Covid19 death figures which have cast a long shadow on the credibility of the government agencies. Reports of private hospitals turning away suspected Covid19 patients is also becoming worryingly frequent. There have also been several reports of acute shortages of PPEs for health workers as well as attacks on them by irate members of the public. Both these actions have put them in harms way. This is particularly unconscionable as these very folks are putting their lives at risk to save ours! And for the nth time, testing has been grossly inadequate.
How to stop the flood from drowning us all: It is high time our governments (central and state) put politics aside for once, called an armistice and worked off of a common agenda. Our Corona Warriors (doctors, nurses, police, paramedics, municipal employees, public health officials et.al.) who are at the front lines of this crisis have not only put their best foot forward but also have played their best hand. It is imperative therefore that we back our Corona Warriors to the hilt in every possible way starting with ensuring their safety (laws have been promulgated to address that but need to be enforced) to making sure they have the equipment to protect themselves to giving them the tools and means to take the fight to Covid-19. Furthermore, rapid testing should be made available free of cost and schools should be turned into testing centres (like voting centres/booths) which will allow suspected cases to be tested without having them travel too far from their homes. The commodious school premises will also make adherence and enforcement of the social distancing norms far easier.
This is also a perfect opportunity to take all government services online on a war footing with government departments pivoting to serving citizens over the phone and the internet. If the Aarogya Setu app can be so aggressively pushed out to millions of Indian smartphone users then surely the government can use the same powers of persuasion to push for mass adoption e-governance apps! The government must also encourage and incentivise the private sector to do the same with special emphasis on developing/bolstering online ordering and delivery framework throughout the country. This will enable businesses to keep their doors open and thereby keep many if not all gainfully employed. Those who can work from home/remotely must be incentivised to continue doing so. All educational institutions must remain shut until the threat from the virus has been completely neutralised. Online education policies should be devised to allow for the school year to continue while ensuring the health of the students isn’t compromised by excessive screen and sitting time. Factories and farmlands should be allowed to function but with reduced manpower to enable them to keep functioning until there is a marked improvement in the situation. Most importantly, as many economists have already noted, the government would do well to not only expand the ambit of MGNREGA but also allow for cash payments albeit as a temporary step to ensure that the poorest of the poor (who either aren’t enrolled yet or can’t access banking) have have instant money in their pockets to feed themselves and their families. That along with a lump sum direct cash transfer to all bank accounts below a certain income threshold will be a real shot in the arm.
Last but not least, the government must not back off from speaking truth to the public. The public has the right to know how grim the situation really is so that they can react accordingly. Withholding information will only result in making the public complacent and more prone to contracting or spreading the virus. The authorities must reveal the full facts and simultaneously take well thought out and concrete steps to bolster the morale of the public. Not answering questions and doubling down e.g. related to data privacy of contact tracing apps will only engender suspicion and prevent adoption which ultimately will prove detrimental to the overall cause.
It is now or never and there is no better time to acknowledge, accept and adapt just like we did with the footshake and Namaste instead of the handshake!