As of today, June 19, India’s COVID-19 cases tally has crossed three lakhs (3,18,000) with around 12,573 deaths. India is fourth in the global count, 8,602,039 cases, with 456,791 deaths.
COVID-19 causes severe infection, and, in severe acute cases, death. The disease may also be asymptomatic, the ‘why’ and ‘how’ of it are still under research. Persons otherwise sick and suffering, such as diabetics, or those with respiratory problems, fever, lung infection (pneumonia), and elderly are more vulnerable. Those under-nourished, with weak immune systems, particularly the weaker sections and those at the margins of society are also more prone to the disease.
Humanity has never been free from diseases, but COVID-19 is the first to engulf the whole of it. The world was not prepared for such a global calamity, or calamity of planetary dimensions. Apart from the virologic and medical reasons, the cycle runs thus: Humanity-induced COVID-19; COVID-19 induced the pandemic across the globe; pandemic induced lockdowns; lockdowns induced human insulation, hardship, misery, distress deaths, and so on.
The main reason for the global spread of the disease can be attributed to globalisation since the 1980s, resulting in the global integration of various economies and societies, facilitating more travel, meetings, summit humanitarianism, hugging, hand-shakes, and so on.
COVID-19 first hit Wuhan in China, between August and December 2019. When the infection began to spread across the countries, and death toll began to increase, the very news of the disease was so frightening that many thought the world, the human world, is nearing its end.
People generally had a sinking feeling, fear of death rushing to them; or briefly, the fear of the Biblical apocalypse – an event involving destruction or damage on a catastrophic scale. The rest is not yet history, it is present, and the future has yet to unfold.
A recent email from Darren Walker, Ford Foundation President, began thus:
“We are experiencing the unprecedented. The world we knew before COVID-19 has been permanently upended. Our lives—our histories—are forever split in two: before coronavirus and after.”
Let me start with the ‘before’. In our case, in the case of India, COVID-19 has been an eye-opener of a failed state and a failed nation for 70 years since it became a democratic republic. The phrase ‘nation-building’ remained mere rhetoric.
Nation-building, to the extent it took place, helped mainly the historically and traditionally entrenched upper castes. As a result, India lacked, and is still lacking the much needed basic and developmental infrastructure, distributive justice, planning and development of inclusive institutional frameworks to take care of citizens as a whole irrespective of caste, class, or creed.
In other words, many Indians still lack the much-needed provisions for food, clothing, shelter, education, healthcare, and employment. All these together are needed for a reasonably happy, decent, dignified and peaceful living by individuals, families, and societies at large.
Instead of focusing on these issues, our politicians wasted valuable time of the nation and its people for vote-banks based on caste, language, communal and religious formations, and so on. The result has been a dormant society, a society in stasis (a state of inactivity), in moral turpitude, devoid of physical, intellectual, and moral development – a society devoid of disparities and discriminations.
What we now have is a discordant society of disparate social groups whose markers of social status, social welfare or illfare were laid down long before India’s Independence.
The year 2014 was expected to bring in a new era with Narendra Modi as PM. We thought the BJP’s election manifesto of “Sabkha Sath, Sabka Vikas” will be a dream-come-true. But it turned out to be a manifesto of betrayals, and we began to continue again in a nation betrayed by its own elected leaders. I shall not go into the last six years of Modi’s rule. I have done it elsewhere.
As COVID-19 is between the ‘before’ and ‘after’ mentioned above, a few words on it. We are familiar with bacteria. All of them do not cause disease. Some of them are used in food (Yogurt), as preservatives, and are necessary for human health and even preventing diseases (immune-boosting effects, ie. probiotics). It is too early to talk about the world or, in our case, India, after COVID-19. By one estimate, the dreaded disease and deaths caused by it are said to continue for at least 36 months.
The virus might have appeared in August 2019, though its outbreak was in December or so. As a neighbouring country, India should have immediately started preparations to prevent the spread of the disease. Instead, PM Modi frittered away the nation’s time first by hobnobbing with Donald Trump, and then in electoral manipulations.
When Modi eventually announced the nation’s lockdown on March 25, with just four hours’ notice to the states (a reflection of his autocratic style) it was a case of too little, too late. He passed on the responsibility of dealing with Covid-19 to the state governments.
With far too inadequate medical, spatial and related paraphernalia or material and human resources, the states began to scramble to protect their citizens, with whatever resources they could garner.
In a country where public health, public education, and public housing (free or affordable) are scarce, and the available facilities are not well-managed, private institutions thrive for commerce and greed. That has been happening during the handling of COVID-19 also.
India is not new to calamities. It has a Disaster Management Act, and it has mandated CSR under the Companies Act, 2013 Despite this, there are not enough public places and public spaces for rescue and rehabilitation in calamities. As India is also not new to epidemics or pandemics, that is, contagious diseases, given the poor literacy and educational levels of our population, and lack of awareness on matters of individual and social concern, not much was done to sensitise the people about the disease, and the precautions to be taken to protect themselves.
Modi’s exhortation of the ‘balconywallas‘ to ‘power off’ for ten minutes, light candles, or switch on the light on our mobiles, was trivia, mainly because many people do not have such facilities– those without any shelter, and so on. In any case, how that would have prevented COVID-19 is another Modi-mystery. Most sensibly, the Kerala CM said the measure was unscientific, though he switched off the lights and lighted candles out of respect for the PM’s chair.
In India the usage of ‘social distancing‘ is an insult to injury; for we all know that Indian society is still caste-based, and traditionally thrived on ‘distance and touch pollution’. Ideally, the usage should have been ‘physical distancing’.
But even this is impractical in many cases as people huddle in limited spaces, and cannot live without touching each other and without physical proximity.
Cleanliness: Frequent hand-wash, use of sanitizers, and use of costly face-masks. Who could go for such luxuries in a country where many people do not get even potable water?
That sudden demand for these items and the scarce supply of life-saving drugs and ventilators helped the business class to hurriedly go for such products – whether genuine, spurious, dubious, are debatable – with COVID-19 labels and stickers on them to augment their wealth is a different issue.
Hamstrung masses: Lockdown meant draconian prohibitions and restrictions such as on workplaces, movement of people, street vendors, and those who made a living from casual work, manual labour, work in hotels, salons, and restrictions on travel, quarantine for returnees, and so on. To all of them, the lockdown meant untold hardship, denial and deprivation of opportunities, and the loss of lives and livelihood sources.
Physical dislocation: Worst still, is physical dislocation. From the time of the lockdown, people were not allowed to be on the move.
We have seen pathetic scenes on TV channels, of people unable to see their dear ones even when dead. We have read reports of persons cycling hundreds of miles to see a dear one on their death-bed. We have seen lakhs of people ‘escaping’, not so much from COVID-19, as from the fear of death, rigours of lockdown, walking hundreds of miles to reach their homes. Many died on the way out of exhaustion and starvation. Many died on rail tracks. Many died by suicide. I am referring to what is reported in the media as migrant workers.
They are not migrants. They are Indian citizens whose life and liberty are supposedly protected by our Constitution; and whose education, employment, health, happiness, and so on are also within the ambit of the Constitution.
If the nation has failed to integrate the workers in the unorganised sector and their families with the mainstream society even after 70 years, will mutations of myriad viruses getting into our blood cells, infecting and killing many, bring in a new humane order, and new social arrangements of equality and fair play; humanise our economy, polity and society, and bring about a new normal? I doubt it.
PM Modi may wish away the COVID-19 cataclysm with the cliché “let the devil take the hindmost.” And, here is another wag from Kollam in Kerala who has installed the idol of Corona Devi (goddess COVID-19) at a shrine attached to his home, a replica of SARS-CoV-2 with its spiky tentacles, as a new addition to the pantheon of 33 crore Hindu gods.
To conclude, if COVID-19 gives up its grip on our country, COVID-19 would have proved George Orwell (1984) right: “As a nation, we will be in the tight grip of tried and tested surveillance machinery.”