India locks down

Jyotsna Mohan describes the mood in India as the Coronavirus pandemic sweeps the globe

India locks down
If you met some folks in India’s big cities last week, you would have been confused. Lunch places were busy, dinner party menus were elaborate and there was a lingering afterglow of Holi, one colourful stab to social distancing at a time. Much like cricket scores, Coronavirus until very recently remained drawing room conversation in fancy homes, the Chinese would flatten what they started, or the curve. This was also the time it became abundantly clear that pandemic or not, ‘literate people’ in the country is a myth.

For instance, there was Bollywood singer Kanika Kapoor (of the Baby Doll fame) who returned from London and reportedly hid in a washroom to avoid being screened at the airport and then went on to party- actually, three in a row- across Delhi and Lucknow - leaving a trail of virus suspects all the way to the Parliament (yes, that too was still on). Last heard, she had forced a frustrated hospital to issue a press release imploring her to throw less starry tantrums and behave more like a patient. As many as five people had already died in India by then, but Kapoor could not be mollified even by the vegan diet she had demanded.

You see, quarantine is for common people, the entitled were still partying - politicians, celebs, Delhi’s Page 3 all travelled to Lucknow while the world was crumbling one country at a time. Actress Sonam Kapoor in Mumbai defended the singer, (maybe it was the sisterhood of the London returned) asking for some empathy, those who were voluntarily sitting at home could be pardoned for not feeling charitable. They knew that our precarious health care in the coming days could be stretched. But different rules for different folks, especially when you are the privileged.
India spends a little over one per cent of its GDP on health

Many in India, right from the top, have read the wrong memo when it comes to social distancing. Politicians were still shaking hands and stabbing backs, the president was hosting back-to-back breakfasts and neighbours thought you were from Mars or Pakistan if you declined a dinner invite. Health experts urged “break the chain,” they heard “break the law.”

But if you thought only the rich and the influential consider themselves invincible, meet the ‘phoren’ returned who comes with his own baggage of entitlement. Whether it is Manchester or Birmingham, most roads lead to Punjab, a state that was the first to enforce curfew, perhaps reports of ‘missing’ NRIs - some say as many as 90,000 have recently rushed back home - had something to do with it. A man who landed in Amritsar and hid his history passed away but left 14 people in his family infected.

We are at the cusp of Phase 3, with community spread the real worry. Trains, our lifeline have been stopped as are both international and domestic flights. Anxious labourers with their incomes gone in the blink of an eye and a rising fear of the unknown made a beeline for their villages in the kind of mass migration that truly deserves all that empathy. From most accounts, the poor and the illiterate with no livelihoods, huddling down with family are the ones respecting the unwritten laws and showing their masters how life is not cheap. Unfortunately, since our biggest healthcare challenge remains in our rural belts, in a population of 1.3 billion, they will be dismissed as collateral damage.

Some state governments have been quick off the block but complacency in our infallibility is widespread. After all, if anyone has immunity it is us Indians - pollution, Dengue, Chikungunya - we can take this head on, or so most drawing rooms until recently chest thumped. But from Day 1, despite WHO’s appeal to test, test and test some more, we have not done nearly enough, in fact our dismal testing rate (15 people per million population) is possibly the lowest in the world. We are simply not equipped.

Over the years, not much has been done to change our distrust of the public health system. India spends a little over one per cent of its GDP on health.  Despite being a medical tourism destination, private hospitals are a limited option in a country where rural population is more than 65 percent and these daily wagers, vendors and the unorganised sector are the ones for whom a bailout is redundant because they need immediate relief. Even though the government has asked private labs to cap Coronavirus tests at Rs4,500 per test, for a population that was already staring at a shaky economy, this is possibly four thousand too many.

There have been no Jack Ma or Tim Cook kind of announcements or packages from our billionaires but finally a couple of business houses have decided to pitch in with masks and ventilators. We will take what we get. Nothing stops our well-paid cricketers and Bollywood stars from their social responsibility. There is one isolation bed for every 84,000 Indians, and one doctor per 11,600 Indians as per March data. In case of a virus explosion, do the math.

On Sunday evening, the country came out on balconies to clap and clang their utensils to thank those at the frontlines Many residents had been practicing clanking for a couple of days, trying to invoke a cosmic energy (actor Amitabh Bachchan took down his tweet after being trolled for alluding that vibrations and clapping will destroy the potency of the virus) and soon after the 5-minute tribute was over, hundreds took to the streets with drums, dancing as though we had won the world cup, restrictions be damned.

Some other residents directed their energy elsewhere. They went targeting the mother of a five-year-old, who is far from ordinary in these unusual times. Captain Swati Raval was the commander of the state carrier Air India that evacuated Indian nationals back from Rome recently. Their near and dear ones safely home, residents in colonies decided to ostracise those they minutes ago paid a tribute to. Not just other crew members, even a few doctors are now almost in tears with harassment.

India has since gone into complete lockdown. With sense and sensibility still just a book on the shelf for both the well-heeled and the so- called guardians of civil society, time had run out.

The writer is a journalist based in India