India’s three great obsessions acted as super spreaders for COVID-19: politics, cricket, and religion. The matches in Ahmedabad against England, religious festivals and election rallies. There is something disingenuous about our leaders exhorting us to wear masks and avoid gatherings when they are addressing large crowds most of whom wear no masks.
The Kumbh Mela saw seven sages and 300 pilgrims testing positive for COVID-19 at the start. The government has COVID protocols in place. But over a million people gather every day and five million on special days. The imagination boggles.
We are so busy patting ourselves on the back for successes real and imaginary that we ignore proper data collection and interpretation. We take credit for developing the Oxford-Astra Zeneca vaccine simply because it is being produced at the Serum Institute in Pune.
When we say that the country has over a lakh cases daily, that is with minimal testing. To get caught off guard the first time was unfortunate; but to be unprepared a second time is unforgivable. The plate-banging and flower dropping a year back seem more puerile now. The Coronavirus has shown it isn’t impressed by slogans.
When Anthony Fauci and other doctors in the U.S. were asked why they toed the line even as President Trump was spouting ridiculous, unscientific theories, they answered that if they had quit, what little good might have come of their presence would have been denied the public.
Doctors devoted to saving lives have no time for politics, yet they are forced to toe the official line for the greater good. Politicians, who deal in power and image management, are reluctant to listen to experts in the field for fear of being shown up as folks without ideas. Insecurity manifests itself in many ways.
For not learning from our mistakes, we continue to repeat them. First we were — like most countries — in the COVID-19 mess, but we added to the disaster by creating one of our own in the terrible, unplanned lockdown which provoked the migrant crisis and untold misery. We came across as an unsympathetic, uncompassionate people. This is not unique to us, of course. At an election rally in the U.S., Trump said the COVID-19 affects only the elderly, so it wasn’t anything to worry about. The implication that his government didn’t care about the elderly was mirrored by our attitude towards migrant workers.
And now we have the vaccine mess. Why are we running dry so soon? What is the real issue? Who will explain this by treating us as intelligent people who can understand things? The messaging is so confusing.
The mistake with the handling of the virus continues with the handling of the vaccine — over centralisation. Delegation is seen as dilution of power.
We are a country that lives in the eleventh hour, said the novelist R.K. Narayan. In the end, there are enough people with the enough strength and commitment to ensure that things work out. Meanwhile, the medium is a mess.
(Suresh Menon is Contributing Editor, The Hindu)