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The year of living foolishly

If you have been following the news then there are certain things you probably already know.

You are probably aware that the Covid epidemic has reached an all-time high in India.


You must be aware that on Wednesday 9 September, there were 89,700 new cases of Covid in India. In Maharashtra alone, there are 20,130 cases. In Delhi, where we were told the epidemic had been largely controlled, the number of new cases was between 3600 to 4000 depending on which figures you believed.


   At no stage, since all this began in March, has the situation ever been worse.


   You probably also know that Covid is hitting the headlines again (well, did it ever really go away?) in Western countries. The UK has imposed restrictions forbidding gatherings of more than six people. France is asking its citizens to wear masks again. So are many European countries which believed that they had successfully fought off Covid.


   But the biggest news has come from America. According to a soon-to-be-published book by Bob Woodward, President Donald Trump already knew how deadly Covid was in February/March this year when he was telling Americans not to worry and dismissing fears  of a pandemic that would hit the US.


   Woodward tape-recorded his conversations with Trump and on one of the tapes, he has Trump saying that he is deliberately playing down the scale of the epidemic. This tape has caused such an uproar that it dominated Wednesday’s White House press conference, all the TV news shows and campaign speeches. Trump’s opponent in November’s Presidential election, Joe Biden, has already accused the President of negligence and gross irresponsibility. The issue will not go away.


   I mention the global uproar only to contrast it with the situation that prevails in India. Although we are now worse off than we have ever been, the Covid pandemic has been edged out of the main headlines in many newspapers. And on TV news it barely gets a mention.


   As the government and the official medical establishment had not expected this huge spurt in numbers, it sounds fair to say that they really have no idea of how to handle this epidemic. You could even argue that it has been mishandled with lockdowns that destroyed the economy and caused untold misery to thousands of migrant workers because of the needless suddenness with which the lockdowns were imposed. And, as the numbers rise, you could even claim that the government has mishandled the situation.


   But here’s the funny thing: nobody cares. Nobody blames anybody. Nobody even seems to notice that in the middle of the worst recession in three decades, we have the second largest number of Covid cases in the world. And that there is no sign that we have turned the corner.


   Why is this?


   Well, some of it is obviously the failure of the media. At a time when so many of us face the prospect of bankruptcy, unemployment, loss of income, sickness or even death over the next few months, the visual media are more interested in harassing harmless postmen outside Kangana Ranaut’s house. What’s more, we approve. Viewers and readers would rather watch the Rhea-Kangana show than be told about the very real crises that face us.


"In India, on the other hand, the economy has already gone to the toilet and nobody seems to think that it might affect the government’s popularity."

   So, it is not just the media. We really don’t take Covid as seriously as they do in the West. Nobody is going to hold the government accountable as they do in Western countries or express any great curiosity over the failure of our Covid-fighting strategy.


   What we want is distraction. Reality is just too tiresome.


   I have been trying to figure out what’s behind the curious reluctance of educated Indians to give a damn about our own circumstances.


   The Covid stuff, I can partly understand. It has been six months since the pandemic reached India and we now have Covid-fatigue. Most of us who washed our hands obsessively at the start of his pandemic now wash them once a day or so. We look for reasons not to wear masks. We don’t care that much about physical distancing. And so on.


   And there are other factors that we must take into account. As high as our total numbers are, on a per-million-of-the-population basis, they don’t seem nearly as frightening. On the other hand, every one of us knows people who have been infected by the Corona Virus. And even if we didn’t know them personally we also know of people who have died of Covid.


   But it is true that we have, on the whole, been lucky. Covid seems to kill less of us in India than it does elsewhere. The official figure of deaths is just over two per cent of all cases. But given that the actual number of infections is clearly being under-reported, while deaths are more difficult to hide, the true death rate is around one per cent.


   So we have lost our fear of death-by-Covid. We may get it, we think, but it will be like a bad case of flu. It certainly won’t kill us.


   That may explain why we have become so complacent about Covid. But it does not explain why we seem so cool about the recession or don't worry that it might turn into a depression.


   In the US, as Woodward’s book points out, Trump cares only about the economy because he thinks that if it continues faltering, it might harm his prospects for re-election. In India, on the other hand, the economy has already gone to the toilet and nobody seems to think that it might affect the government’s popularity. When political analysts talk about the forthcoming Bihar election, they consider how the Sushant Singh factor will affect voting behaviour. They don’t even bother to discuss how the collapsing economy will influence the way votes are cast.


   When the history of this period is written, 2020 will go down as one of the most mystifying years in Indian history. It will be remembered as  the year that a pandemic put our lives on hold, when the dream of the India growth story finally died and when our ancient border disputes with China came back to haunt us.


   But it will also be the year when Indians marched towards the future, our eyes closed, our ears blocked and our minds focused on every distraction that we could find.


   It won’t just be the year of living dangerously. It will be the year of living foolishly.




  • Harry 12 Sep 2020

    I reckon the media do not necessarily represents fear of common man. People are worried about jobs and economy but if TV only shows Kangana and Rhea then nothing much people can do about it and doesn't mean we aren't bothered other things. Unfortunately your article does not present a solution either. It'd good to have some views on solution rather than rant!

  • Akash 11 Sep 2020

    I think the death rate also is not reliable.
    If you see the deaths by age band in India, you will notice there is no skew towards elderly (age 60 & beyond ) which is contrary to what is observed anywhere. Almost across the world the fatalities are skewed towards older age bands. A fair/logical conclusion from this is that deaths in higher age bands are not being attributed correctly as most people in those age bands have co-morbid conditions.

Posted On: 11 Sep 2020 11:41 AM
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