One is still not certain whether Covid-19 is largely airborne, but we are more than sure that it is and was airport-borne. It was definitely imported by aircraft passengers, usually better educated or economically advantaged, mainly from advanced Western countries. They went on generously transmitting it in all cities as most of our tracking systems are primitive. There were, of course, some pockets that export lesser-qualified ECR (Emigration Clearance Required) passport holders too, but if we trace the earliest spreaders, we find that most belonged to the more fortunate strata. And what is more distressing is that several of our educated infectors knew fully well that they had symptoms of the disease (some were certain) or had been exposed to those who had. Neither their degrees nor their conscience could, however, persuade them to quarantine themselves. The state where I live had the glorious distinction of sending the chief secretary and home secretary “back to the pavilion” after the first ball of the first over. A senior bureaucrat of the state administration, who had to meet them frequently, suppressed the fact that she was most probably infected by her enterprising young UK-returned son. He, in turn, reportedly picked it up in his university, after dancing with literally fairer Covid patients. Back home, he went around with his buddies, merrily infecting shopping malls and restaurants.
Education can hardly override our dominant socially-inconsiderate cultural genes. We honk rather madly during traffic jams and trample over each other in our insane rush to disembark. We are all terribly angry and upset with the Modi government and I have also criticised it for its many sins of omission and commission. But let us, for once, look around us to see how minuscule a percentage of the citizenry heeded any restriction imposed by the Central, state or local governments. Masks were very rarely used, even at the height of the first wave, but we were critical of police lathis hitting soft targets and cribbed when they were caught and fined.
Our primary grouse against the series of lockdowns last year was not the economic collapse they entailed, but because our maids and helping hands were not able to come or not allowed to enter. As advised nonstop by busybodies and do-gooders on social media, we stocked unnecessary medicine and hoarded foodstuff. As a result, genuine patients of thyroid had to suffer for want of hydroxychloroquine, because Trump revealed his hitherto unknown medical wisdom. Unlike Americans, however, we did not corner mind-boggling quantities of toilet paper, as we have our own ways of doing justice to the bottom. But we ensured that medicine shops ran out of vitamin C, zinc supplements and even Dettol. Most people who had never touched alcohol in their lives splashed so much of it on their palms that doctors started fearing a new type of cirrhosis.
Frankly, this was the first time that death has been so unfairly democratic and no amount of pull, push or power appears to help. In fact, the poor, who had no high-level connections, appeared less vulnerable than our pricey gated communities. Our villages were much safer as air travellers visit them less. But then, the hyper-dramatic and unplanned lockdowns ensured that infections reached the interior when migrants were forced to return home.
We have a right to blame the regime for its unpreparedness in tackling the second wave, but were we ourselves prepared? As soon as daily infections came down from almost one lakh to some 9,000 and the number of deaths fell, many urban folk headed for the hills or to the seaside. Large gatherings became commonplace once again. These did not help matters. Our better informed strata read all about the second and third waves that lashed more developed countries, but very few (who are so critical today) actually discussed how these could devastate us as well. We speculated that Indians were hardier than Westerners and all of us welcomed 2021 as the year that would surely get us out of the accursed 2020. The government was unnecessarily over-centralised and its myopia is evident in its lack of planning for oxygen, additional beds or vaccines. But pray, what prevented prosperous hospitals from setting up oxygen plants or adding to their facilities? Some did try, but none can deny that most hospital managements had also started believing in India’s miracle. Many made tidy profits and were more bothered about releasing facilities and investments blocked by Covid. Of course, many besotted citizens attributed all credit to the nation’s leader—who never refuses them.
True, we had no reliable Dr Fauci. But specialists and civil society members also have their role to play—even when they are scorned or are shown terror tactics. However, professional complainers and self-appointed experts, especially those who habitually cry wolf, lose credibility soon. Statistics regarding India’s demand and supply of medical oxygen and vaccine production could be worked out quite roughly, as is being done now, and the government forewarned rather noisily, until it listened. Those outside the government could also make projections of best-case and worst-case scenarios and offer them to policymakers, more vigorously than what they may actually have done. After all, a nation is certainly more than just its leaders and its bureaucrats.
Retired civil servant. Former Culture Secretary and ex-CEO, Prasar Bharati
(email@example.com, Tweets @jawharsircar)