SINCE mid-March, India’s ruling class has been bewildered by the elusive coronavirus which somehow escapes the iron grip of the authorities no matter what they do. They just can’t seem to figure out how it is that they can’t lock it behind bars or beat it out of people. They shut down all travel, banned businesses from operating, put more than a billion people on house arrest with constant police patrols and drone surveillance, and yet this virus keeps popping up all over the place. How it is going around? Secret tunnels, I guess.
Our leaders have been pondering this question since the lockdown was initiated and come to the same conclusion every time, that perhaps a little more repression would do the trick, an even stricter lockdown might scare the virus away. But this virus seems to be made of something else. It doesn’t even fear the police batons in the shadow of which many people have found themselves cowering in the last few weeks. How is it that the authorities keep testing people and they keep coming up as infected? Are these people getting themselves infected on purpose? Or are they saboteurs who want to derail the glorious rule of our dear leader?
About two months ago, when India was still under the first phase of the lockdown, the state government of New Delhi, India’s national capital, decided to follow the South Korean model based on 5 Ts: Testing, Tracing, Treatment, Team work, and Tracking & monitoring. Somehow Mr Kejriwal, the chief minister of the state of New Delhi, forgot to mention that South Korea never locked its citizens in their homes. Perhaps he thought that Indians are responsive only to the language of ‘danda’ (stick). The chief minister of another state wasn’t as coy when he threatened a ‘shoot on sight’ order for lockdown violators. Was anyone surprised that an elected representative in the so-called ‘world’s largest democracy’ could say something like that? I wasn’t.
Throughout the country, police have set an exemplary model of lockdown enforcement that only China can rival. Perhaps western leaders should look to India for guidance on how to deal with lockdown violators. Then they could do away with petty fines and soft authoritarianism designed to break the will of the citizens and break some bones instead. Perhaps in time it would become a case study taught in the political science departments around the world.
‘The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.’
Einstein may or may not have said this but whoever it was did not take one factor into account. What if the person doing the same thing over and over again is convinced that he is right? The leaders of communist regimes around the world were also firm believers in the idea that if their policies failed, it could only be because anti-revolutionary elements hidden among the populace don’t want them to succeed. Whenever reality and their Marxist ideas came into conflict, they firmly sided with ideology. Why? Because they were convinced that they were right and that sooner or later the universe would have to agree. So, in response to their failure, they launched a massive effort to root out the wreckers of the revolution through denunciations, arrests, gulags and a good old bullet in the head. But the socialist utopia still didn’t materialise, which proved yet again that the saboteurs were entrenched even deeper in the crevices of their societies and a little more hosing might draw them out. And they hosed all right.
Leaders in India are convinced that they were right to impose a nation-wide curfew and no matter how many times they fail they will continue to believe that. Sooner or later the disease will subside and they will be proved right because the onus is on everybody else to prove them wrong. Heads I win and tails you lose.
‘The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results unless you can blame it on someone else.’
The blame game is on full display in India, as I suppose it is in every country. The opposition accuses the ruling party for not doing something sooner or bigger or better, the ruling party touts its successes and blames the opposition for politicising the pandemic. The Agitprop (Agitation and Propaganda Department) aka news media blames the citizens for daring to come out of their homes without state approval. Middle classes in the country have found the perfect scapegoats in migrant workers. People who have been barely inconvenienced by the lockdown are expressing their disdain for those who struggle each day to survive. These workers who now have no jobs, no money and no food, thanks to the government, were asked to live like rats in cramped spaces in the cities, enduring such hardships so that they could provide a living for their parents, wives and children back home. They were promised that the lockdown would not be extended after the first phase of 21 days. They had only to ride it out and then they could go back to work. And then came lockdown phases 2, 3 and 4.
People living in high rise apartments are furious that these workers won’t just lock themselves up in their rat-holes indefinitely. Footage of thousands of workers walking for hundreds of miles trying to get back to their villages invoke only anger and apathy. People who have never had to depend on the state for anything are bemused as to why these workers would leave the cities when the state is providing for everything. The same people who until yesterday would complain about the political corruption and inefficiency of the state are today its ardent supporters. They can’t grasp the difference between a statistical category ‘poor’ and flesh and blood human beings who have lost everything in this hunt for the elusive coronavirus. Spending millions on a statistical category does not translate to direct help to a living breathing person.
It’s not as if any of this is new information. There’s a reason that no one in the middle classes would ever go to a state-run hospital or send their children to state schools or queue outside the public distribution centres for groceries. (Yes, we still have those in India.) There has never been a government in the world which has ever effectively achieved what the Indian government is trying to do, provide food, shelter and medical services to over 10million people. And it’s not blind optimism, just arrogance. The arrogance of trying to bend the reality to one’s whims.
I can see the effect of the lockdown around me, the same disdain and apathy that exists in the larger society for the poor festers in my own home. The same narrative, the propaganda talking points pre-approved by the state being repeated by the regular people. I sense the threat people feel when someone from one of the large cities arrives in the locality. I hear members of my family repeating numbers about the death count like sheep without any context. No one seems to notice the gaping hole in these numbers that is staring right at them, ‘compared with what?’ The blind adherence to the narrative is breathtaking and utterly disappointing.
The fourth instalment of the lockdown is about to end and another is due to begin today. Unironically it is being called unlockdown 1.0 instead of lockdown 5.0. You have to give credit where credit is due: this government has got some innovative propagandists. I am sure the ‘unlockdown’ will have many tired sequels as well. There is speculation about more relaxations in the next phase. But that defeats the whole flawed logic of the lockdown. If it hasn’t produced the desired result four times, why would the fifth be any different? Why not lift the lockdown, let the economic life restart and treat only people who do get sick? Rather than directing enormous resources to the enforcement of the lockdown orders, couldn’t they be put to better use in improving the medical facilities? Considering that most infected people do not need hospitalisation, children under 18 are more likely to die from a bolt of lightning than Covid and spread of infection among the healthy would help attain herd immunity, surely taking care of the old and vulnerable would be a more manageable job that wouldn’t require trampling on the civil liberties of the population at large.
But if there never was a coherent evidence-based argument about imposing a lockdown then why would there be about lifting it? The belief that if not for the lockdown, millions would have died is nothing but a belief, a dogma of the religion of Covid. Not one ounce of evidence has been produced in support of it. (Computer models are not evidence; they are hypotheses when tested against reality have been found wanting.) You have to take it on faith. Just believe. Besides, why would there be an answer forthcoming when the questions haven’t been asked in the first place? Our masters on high know what they are doing. You don’t have to concern yourself with the minutiae or knowhow of it, you won’t understand it anyway. So just shut up and obey.
People living in North Korea don’t know what’s beyond the borders of their country, some don’t even know what’s beyond their prison camp. In India, we have free access to all the information in the world and yet the extent of conformity is something even Soviet leaders would have envied. Twenty-first century India is really an open society with closed minds where inquiry and questioning of the authority is anathema.