Coronavirus lockdown 3.0: Has the Narendra Modi government risked incapacitating India?

Shekhar Gupta
Sunday, 3 May 2020

India needed to get back to work in stages. But by not getting the country out of the induced coma of the lockdown, Modi govt has risked incapacitating it.

Just how successful has the coronavirus lockdown been? Just how bad would the situation have been if it wasn’t this total? What will happen if it is relaxed?

How can you take a chance in a country of 138 crore, mostly poor, people? Didn’t the prime minister say, “jaan hai to jahan hai”? Jaan toh hai, we are all alive. We have the lowest per million fatality rate from coronavirus for any major country. Therefore, thank your chosen God, be grateful to the prime minister, so far, so good. And retreat indoors.

Really? Do you believe that that is all we need to do now, nearly 40 days into the most stringent and compliant lockdown in the world? Almost all of us are managing to stay alive, but our livelihoods are in deep freeze. For far too many fellow Indians these will never return. Tens of crores who’ve been lifted out of poverty post-1991 are half a wheezing breath away from slipping back there. We are alive of course, but as many of you would remember the famous words of Amitabh Bachchan in the 1979 hit Mr Natwarlal, yeh jeena bhi koyi jeena hai lallu?

Or let me set the Hindi cinema calendar back three more decades and offer you a more prosaic explanation of the same situation, if with the help of fine poetry.

Late Gopaldas Neeraj (1925-2018) is remembered mostly as a poet of deep melancholia. Never mind that he also wrote some of the most lifting romantic lines that transcend generations, including Likhe jo Khat Tujhe (for Shashi Kapoor, Kanyadaan, 1968) and Phoolon ke rang se (Dev Anand, Prem Pujari, 1970).

But his imprimatur for poetic immortality comes from his saddest: Karwan guzar gaya, gubaar dekhte rahe... (the caravan passed me by, and I was left staring at the dust-clouds in its wake). Sung by Mohammed Rafi and composed by Roshan in 1966 Tanuja starrer Nai Umar ki Nai Fasal, it was the ultimate song of self-pity for the jilted, defeated lover.

It was so frightfully sad that it lent itself naturally to becoming the most parodied of our early school years. The refrain, in the parody version sung most often at school events, changed to: Mar gaya mareez hum bukhar dekhte rahe (all I did was keep checking the temperature, but the patient died).

I understand the connection between fever-checking and corona and the risk of being accused of trivialising a once-in-a-century tragedy. But continuing, unthinkingly, with the same lockdown would amount to exactly this. If the virus doesn’t kill us, joblessness, hunger, desolation, depression, loss of self-esteem will.

In any case, our economy would be left in a tailspin not seen since 1972-75. Or worse, some year’s pre-Independence. That is why the comparisons and analogies I am using here are not exaggerated or unjustified. This economy is like the patient (mareez) who’d die while we will spend all our time checking our body temperatures. We sent the patient into quarantine, don’t let it become his death-bed. It’s time to resume going to work now.

As the government’s latest decisions—two-week lockdown extension and very selective opening up in most of the country—show, this is not about to happen soon. That absolute power corrupts absolutely is old hat. Check out the history of any state or establishment. It can also delude you absolutely.

That is why the central government is now micromanaging not just the affairs of all the states in a supposedly federal republic, but also us individuals’ day-to-day lives. Never mind that it infantilises billion-plus people. How else do you look at the firman banning pillion riders on two-wheelers? How are couples who do not have a car supposed to get by now?

The State may not have the cash or the fiscal headroom to print money—unlike the US, blessed with the world’s reserve currency—to spend its way out of a crisis. But it has an Army, Navy and Air Force, to shore up your spirits as we will see next week. Flypasts, bands, even helicopters dropping flowers over hospitals treating coronavirus patients are cute ideas. But in a situation where lakhs of workers at the lowest levels of the employment chain would still be walking back home, this is true 2020 equivalent of ‘let them eat cake’.

What they need, on the other hand, is a more determined reopening and a reassurance that their jobs are not only not going away, but resuming soon. India needs a get-back-to-work, if in stages messages. Not flypasts to celebrate this mass retreat.

During the Vietnam war, the press corps had given the daily US military briefings a name: Five O’Clock Follies. Such a thing happens when an establishment begins to see its people as infants. Watch the daily Ministry of Health briefings in New Delhi, supposedly giving an overview of the COVID-19 situation in the country.

These are so anodyne, so monotonous and so shy of taking any questions that you could pretty much name these as Four O’Clock Follies. Just the numbers of cases and deaths, how much better we are doing than the rest of the world, day after day after day after day. Out of sheer exasperation at the lack of information, I even landed up at one of these the other day, attending a PIB briefing after a couple of decades, if not longer.

I did also ask a question: “Of all the active cases now, how many are on a ventilator?” The lone scientist/doctor there didn’t answer this, a civil servant did. ICMR/health authorities routinely state something like, the percentage of people in serious condition. Or something to that effect. No, follow up, no nothing. Just a restatement of the familiar old bureaucratic tactics: “I won’t ever lie to you. But if you ask me my name, I shall give you my date of birth.”

Three months after the first COVID-19 case was reported in India, we need more than a daily scoreboard of numbers. That can be simply tweeted by someone at a fixed time in a day. Nor do we deserve daily instructions, dos and don’ts. We need to see the road ahead, a path to some kind of normalcy.

Or, we will end up being reduced to a nation of beggars, waiting for sarkari orders and largesse for survival. We are getting deluded by how inspirationally compliant Indians are with this unthinking, once-size-fits-all, Tughlaq-style lockdown.

The main reason we are so compliant is that we are so fearful. Fear, pessimism, fatalism, self-pity are all viruses more infectious than coronavirus, more destructive and in a strange sort of a way, addictive. This nation of 138 crore people, hailed globally for being so aspirational and entrepreneurial, is now sitting in the trenches with no idea what is coming two weeks from now.

We know that in medicine, there is a valid concept of putting a grievously ill patient under medically induced coma, to allow the body to recover. But you must know when to lift it, to enable the patient to live on her own. If you let her go on in coma and pat your back each time you check the vitals they are normal, you risk falling into the old trap called SNAFU: Situation Normal, but All ....ed (Google) Up.

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