A 101-year-old man once went to a doctor on a wheelchair with a young wife and announced he was about to become a father.
The doctor replied: “Oh, great. But first let me tell you what happened this morning when I went to the jungle for my morning walk.”
“Please tell me.”
“Just as was crossing a rivulet,” the doctor replied, “I saw a tiger ahead of me. Afraid that it would attack me, I pointed my umbrella and the tiger died of bullet wounds.”
“Impossible,” cried the old man, “someone else must have fired the shot from behind.”
“Exactly,” the doctor replied with a poker face.
A similar cause-and-effect joke is playing out in the media about the Indian government’s coronavirus response. Claiming that it has done a great job of containing the virus, curtailing its mortality rate, the government is patting itself on the back for delivering India from the clutches of a pandemic.
Its bragging rights are being claimed primarily through two arguments.
In an interview with news agency ANI, Union Home Minister Amit Shah has been saying India has done much better than the developed nations of the West, and is far ahead of comparable countries like Brazil.
“Indian government fought well against Coronavirus. I can’t advise Rahul Gandhi, that’s the job of his party leaders. Some people are vakradrashti (retrograde), they see wrong even in the right things. India fought well against and our figures are much better compared to the world,” Shah argued.
At the risk of getting a bit off-track, it must be pointed that the Narendra Modi government sometimes behaves in a strange manner. When the law and order situation is a mess because of the pandemic panic (or changes in the citizenship law), migrants are out on the roads in the absence of transport facilities and shelter, the home minister goes AWOL (absent without leave). And when it is time for the health minister to speak about the pandemic, inspect hospitals, assess facilities, the home minister emerges on the scene.
But, coming back to the point about the government going ga-ga over its corona success, even the prime minister has taken a similar line.
Sharing his Mann ki Baat on Sunday (June 28), the PM said India managed to control the pandemic because of proactive decisions like a strict lockdown. In the previous episode of his monthly address to the nation, Modi had said: “Our population itself is many times that of most countries. The challenges facing the country too are of a different kind, yet Corona did not spread as fast as it did in other countries of the world. The mortality rate of the coronavirus, too, is a lot less in our country.”
Yes, India has so far done better than the US and many European countries on two parameters — infection and mortality rates. But, when compared with countries in the subcontinent, and even in Asia, India has been the worst performer, both in terms of absolute numbers and fatality rate.
Thailand, one of the first countries, affected by the pandemic has had just 3,162 cases and 58 deaths. Indonesia, Malaysia, Taiwan, and Singapore — the other prominent countries in the region, have figures of 52,812 (2,720), 8,606 (121), 447 (7), and 43,246 (26).*
In the subcontinent, our immediate neighbor Pakistan has had 2,03,000 cases and 4,118 deaths; Bangladesh 1,34,000 cases and 1,695 deaths, and Sri Lanka has had 2,014 cases and 11 deaths.
From these figures, two things are clear. One, India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Iran are the only countries in the region, actually all of Asia, with more than 1,00,000 cases and, thus, are among the worst hit in this part of the world. We can argue that the per million infection rates are a better indicator of the spread of a pandemic. But, on this criterion too the front-runners are India, Pakistan, and Iran.
Pakistan (2.02 per cent), though, has a lower mortality rate than India’s 3.04 per cent till date. In fact, Bangladesh (1.26 per cent), Sri Lanka (0.54 per cent), Malaysia (1.4 per cent), Thailand (1.8 per cent), and Singapore (0.54 per cent) have all fared better in curtailing mortality rates.
There is a caveat though: some of the figures, especially from the subcontinent, may not be correct and may have to be revised in the future. But, the same can be said about India.
So, to boast India has done quite well, it would be a legerdemain based on the idea of comparing apples with oranges. By comparing India with the West and Brazil, where the President acted like an idiot, we are ignoring the fact that countries falling in the Indian subcontinent and in our eastern neighborhood have also done well, and some phenomenally better than us.
The government’s claim of having halted the march of the pandemic is dubious because of two more reasons: One, we have still not been able to flatten the curve of the pandemic while many other countries have gone back to normal life after bringing down the infection rates. Two, after locking down the country for almost three months, India still doesn’t know when the pandemic will hit a peak, or if there would be a second wave.
We have just told ourselves that the virus is now part of our lives and we need to learn to live with.
On Sunday, incidentally, as Shah was lauding India’s success story, many newspapers were pointing out that for the first time the daily growth of cases had crossed the 20,000 mark and the overall figure was now in excess of 5,00,000, ready to blast past the US figures and put India at the top of the list of affected countries in a few weeks. Don’t forget, the pandemic is still not over even if the government is doing a victory lap on TV.
In all probability, as figures and trends from Asia show, India has benefitted because of a combination of factors — its geographical location, weather pattern, and demography. These factors appear to have helped almost all of Southeast Asia and the Indian subcontinent to keep the pandemic below a critical level, so far.
A preliminary study of the pandemic in the two-month period, between January and March, found that 90 per cent of people who had tested positive for COVID-19 had done so in non-tropical countries, with temperatures in the range of 3º to 17º C. The study also found that 90 per cent of cases were recorded in areas where the absolute humidity was in the range of 3 to 9 g/m3. Correspondingly, 72 per cent of testing had been undertaken in countries with similarly humid weather. Did weather play a role in curtailing the spread in Asia? Was the West more vulnerable in the East because of genetic, environmental reasons? We do not know.
But, from the figures for Asia you can see that as the Nazgul flies — or crow, if you are not a JRR Tolkien fan — the mortality rate generally goes up from east to west. Why this is so is a question only epidemiologists can answer. But, there has to be some explanation for the fact that countries closer to China fared much better than Germany, Italy, France, Britain, and the US.
Coming back to the point about the old man and his claim of impregnating his young wife, let’s give credit for India’s success in keeping the overall numbers lower than those predicted by experts at the start of the pandemic where it is due. In all probability, we just got lucky, like Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Nepal, and Southeast Asia.
Like the old man in the joke, the government certainly didn’t fire the shot that’s the current reason for its ecstasy.
(The Federal seeks to present views and opinions from all sides of the spectrum. The information, ideas or opinions in the articles are of the author and do not reflect the views of The Federal.)