Inside Story

“Everyone has a horror story to tell”

Can the Indian government find the will to turn the pandemic into a “binding crisis”?

Robin Jeffrey 12 May 2021 1111 words

“Even worse are the things you hear from friends and family”: mass funeral pyres for Covid-19 victims at a makeshift cremation ground in New Delhi at the weekend. Rajat Gupta/EPA

It sounds like London during the Blitz. You huddle down. You hear the air raid sirens, and then the sound of planes. The thud of explosions draws nearer. Later you learn about casualties, if you aren’t yet one yourself. Then you brace for the next day.

That’s how the daily emails from India seem these past two months.

I’ve been in a relationship with India for fifty years. I’m very fond of the place, and that fondness has given me the good fortune of friends and associates from Thiruvananthapuram in the south to Assam in the northeast. They are middle-class people who have places to live; they don’t push a plough or drive an auto-rickshaw; and they all have internet connections.

Their messages tell the story…

31 March. Pune, Maharashtra. Writer caring for elderly relatives:

We are okay here, but India seems to be seeing a fresh wave of infections. My [elders] have had their first dose of the vaccine but till the second is done in April, I’ll remain stressed.

13 April. Kanpur, Uttar Pradesh. Writer home with extended family:

We continue to be pandemic-stricken as our govt revels in political rallies and letting the kumbh mela [river festival at Haridwar] be a centripetal virus breeding farm.

20 April. Guwahati, Assam. Scholar home with family:

The working classes simply can’t afford another lockdown. Assam started a new lockdown today… Our wonderful and hardworking helpers at home… are wearily discussing this situation over chai as I write this to you.

20 April. Thiruvananthapuram. Kerala. Teacher:

We are better off than people elsewhere, but things are really, really horrible. Even worse are the things you hear from friends and family. Everyone has links with people in Bangalore and Delhi and everyone has a horror story to tell.

22 April. Pune. Carer:

We are barely moving out of the house, but we do have domestic staff coming in. We’ll probably have to tell them to stay home for the next few weeks.

23 April. Pune. Carer:

Going out has been reduced to a bare minimum. Luckily everything is delivered to the door so direct exposure is minimal.

25 April. New Delhi. Scholar:

Things are not good here. Nearly 350,000 cases per day are going beyond coping capacity… We are all under great pressure. Our vaccination for people over 18 will start from 1st May. I expect that the cases will go down after 15th May. No one is sure of anything.

30 April. Thiruvananthapuram. Teacher:

Cases are rising in Kerala, too, to uncomfortable levels. People are talking of shortage of beds and a full lockdown. Kochi and Calicut are the worst hit. Trivandrum [Thiruvananthapuram] is not far behind.

5 May. Calicut, Kerala. Scholar home supporting family:

Today’s Covid-19 count in Kerala is above 40,000 and many acquaintances are down with it; a few have even left this world. It’s looking scary now and very near now.

8 May. Kanpur, Uttar Pradesh. Writer:

I am doing okay… physically well, mentally a bit tired of all the bad news. Being confined at home, I fail to find inspiration. Writing entails not just typing and thinking but long walks, a space to call your own and for me, the whistle of the kettle. But that’s another life.

10 May. New Delhi. Academic:

The boys [seven and ten] can’t go out. They used to play on the open level of the building, but not now.

My friends acknowledge that they manage because poor people must move around to earn a living. Poor people deliver supplies, collect garbage, clean sewers and move the vast quantities of food that must come to towns and cities every day.

You’d like to think that Covid in India is generating a “binding crisis,” a crisis so frightening and unpredictable that it affects the rich and the poor alike and leads to changes that improve conditions for everyone. The “great stink” of 1858, when the Thames flooded with raw faeces under the noses of parliament at Westminster, produced London’s sewerage system in record time. Hamburg had similar experiences with cholera and typhoid in the nineteenth century, and the Indian city of Surat had a panic over “bubonic plague” (it turned out that it wasn’t) in 1994 that turned the city from the “dirtiest in India” to one of the cleanest.

The London Blitz had similar effects. Shared suffering led to a greater readiness to share benefits. After the war, a Labour government had a mandate for vast improvements in public housing and the National Health Service. (The latter is being suggested in India.)

Could India’s Covid affliction produce long-term improvements in health systems, reduce rural–urban disparities and attack the huge gap between social classes? It’s true that the coronavirus and its mutations are democratic in that they can carry off the wealthy as well as the poor. But the wealthy have far better chances of avoiding infection, getting vaccinated and finding treatment, though it has been much harder even for them during the second wave.

The poor and low-status will also be heavily represented among the tens of millions of sufferers who are missing from the Covid official statistics released each day. And it appears the Covid crisis is accentuating class divisions.

Media outlets are under pressure from national and state governments to minimise numbers, stories and images that show the disease’s pervasiveness. Yesterday’s widely circulated stories showing bodies floating down the Ganga after being released by villagers too poor to burn them (wood is becoming expensive) will no doubt send government media managers into panic mode.

National leadership has been lacking in India’s Covid response. The prime minister and his powerful pal, the home minister, spent large chunks of time and effort campaigning in state elections in March and April and relishing large, mask-less crowds as evidence of their pulling power and their party’s chances. (The party won two small elections and lost the three big ones.)

Over the years, the prime minister and his party have excelled at electoral organisation and media management. What’s needed is to turn that expertise and capacity towards a campaign that trumpets the maxim that “none is safe until all are safe” and accompanies it with measures that fulfil the words. That will be difficult for leaders of organisations that have specialised in emphasising division, but they have the know-how. Highly effective media presentations have been one of their greatest strengths.

If Covid proved to be a binding crisis and “none is safe until all are safe” its legacy, tens of millions might have grounds to feel that the sorrow and misery have not been totally in vain. •