More than 2,000 people a day are dying in India of COVID-19. Most of them in Delhi and Maharashtra, neither place has had a recent election or election rally, generally considered a super-spreader.
But whether politics — speeches, rallies and corner meetings — is the reason for the Second Coming, as the poet would have phrased it, is academic now.
In Gurgaon (a National Capital Region), where I stay, on Tuesday and Wednesday alone 106 bodies were cremated, thanks to COVID.
With the disease comes many fears. Including the fear of reality. The health authorities in Gurgaon, as in any city or state, (under)reported four deaths on Tuesday and six on Wednesday. They probably thought if they admitted the real numbers there would be panic. Or that they might lose their jobs under a dispensation that swears by statistics.
They would be right. There is panic. The inevitable lockdown in Delhi and Mumbai has added to it. Roads are deserted once again. Shops closed. And migrant labourers crowd bus and railway stations once again.
On Tuesday, Prime Minister Narendra Modi — trolled as Nerondra in a toga, like Nero who played the fiddle while Rome burnt — addressed what is left of the nation.
He pretty much said, truthfully enough, that the public should behave: wear masks, maintain social distance, and wash hands, get the vaccination done.
We should. But that is not easy, especially the last, as it turns out. A recent article in The Guardian said the health system in India has collapsed: not enough serum, not enough oxygen, not enough beds. And, of course, the eternal problem of India: not enough money.
A vast number of people are being laid off. Media and advertising are crippled. Real estate has had the ground taken from under its feet. Those people with some savings are getting around 4.5 per cent return, which is nothing.
Clearly, the Modi government has not been too imaginative. This would have been, for instance, the occasion to ease newsprint prices for, say, the media. This would also have been the time to slash GST. But Nirmala Sitharaman is not popular as the most brilliant economist in town. Ask Chidambaram.
With health and economy in shambles, Modi is facing, despite his putting on a brave face, the worst weather of his sail. He still talks in cliches and superlatives, and soundbites and slogans. All of it looks and sounds jaded. And all around him, the sea is raging.
The situation will pass. But people would have paid a price. In Noida, a border city between Delhi and Uttar Pradesh, the COVID-dead are being burnt by the roadside, because the overcrowded crematoriums can’t take them in. In places like Bidar in Karnataka, patients are lying on footpaths next to full-up hospitals. The Pinarayi Vijayan government in Kerala keeps promising a lot, but the numbers are rising like oil prices.
On Wednesday, the government hiked the price per vaccination from ₹250 to ₹400 for private hospitals and ₹600 for a pop for the states. For private players who naturally would have hoarded the serum, this is a windfall.
The government would have done much better in care and goodwill if it had made the injections free and called out the army medical corps and volunteers to hit the ground in mobile medical units in consultation with the states.
The Modi government will yet get a shot in the arm if they do well in states like Bengal where assembly elections were recently held. They may then see it as a further endorsement of their policies and the now mythical personality of Mr Modi.
They would be wrong. The elections were held just before the Second Surge. If a media survey/poll is held just now, the results could not make the prime minister happy. This is probably the reason why no one is doing it.
The fact is that a virus, constantly mutating and re-strategising its attempt at culling the weak and the old from the population — or so it appears, a kind of terrible cleaning up, which a Hitler might approve — has exposed the Modi government’s idea is that governance is primarily the image-enhancement of just one personality: that of the prime minister.
In Thursday’s leading papers, the full front page advertisement (released by the Karnataka government on the expansion plans of ‘Namma Metro’ in Bengaluru) thanks a towering picture of a beaming Mr Modi. This celebration is not wrong on the face of it. Except that the banner headline on the next page says: ‘World’s worst outbreak.’ The need to associate oneself with a good thing seems at odds with the pestilential reality all around. That West Bengal went for its sixth phase of polling on Thursday might be coincidental with the release of the feel-good ad.
The Plague, an Albert Camus novel written in 1948, and set in the Algerian city of Oran, begins with the protagonist, Dr Rieux, noting rats dying by their hundreds. The novel goes on to show how the pandemic alters or reinforces most people’s behaviour for the worst across ideology and class. By the end of the novel, the plague has laid waste the city, before being brought somewhat under control by the hard work of Dr Rieux and his friends. But they realise the plague will never be fully vanquished. The virus just hides somewhere, perhaps, in the human body itself, waiting for the right time to return and begin its work. Camus seems to imply that the virus has come out from the people themselves.
That we have come to a point in history where a disease legitimises our deepest fear, the fear of the Other, the fellow human being, represents a crisis in our relationships. The mask as a symbol that we can’t ever trust to expose our true self to another, and so disguise is now a social norm; social distancing as a way of keeping each other (always) at an arm’s distance: shake hands no more, for touch could kill; and repeated washing of our hands as a Pilate-gesture of absolving oneself of one’s responsibility towards another. It’s all quite Biblical and it is now.
We must know by now that this nation and its people are at war. It is just that the government is just too scared of its image to officially declare it.