The autorickshaw has become the metaphor of our deprivations. Serviceable, even loveable at other times; a comforting staple of our humdrum urban pell-mell. But as a last resort during a pandemic? An old lady criss-crossed four districts of Karnataka looking for a hospital bed. In an autorickshaw. She couldn’t survive the ordeal. From UP and Bihar, images pour in of the dead being carried to heaven (or hell) in autorickshaws. As for Delhi, autos became a common sight—doubling up as makeshift oxygen beds outside hospitals, or carrying emergency supplies. Or firewood.
The humble three-wheeler’s conversion into this new avatar is quite telling. As if the nation has lost a wheel. A nation in short supply—of everything from the material to the spiritual. Not enough ambulances, hospital beds, oxygen, medicines. If an auto could be powdered and repurposed into Remdesivir, we would have tried that. This new saviour transport also tells us how far we’re from the five-trillion-dollar economy dream. The first wave of corona had already mauled our economy; we could scarcely wait to get up before the count of ten. Now the world is telling us, with its photo lens focused on our misery, that we’re back in the age where only charms and incantations worked. Through snake-charmer imagery that we spent decades hiding from, disowning, outgrowing. The savage satirism of Charlie Hebdo never cares to hide its own schadenfreude, but we brought about that allusion to “33 million gods” through our own actions.
Tens of thousands of closely packed, semi-bare bodies, smeared in vermilion, taking a dip in the holy river amidst a pandemic offers exactly the picture of irrationality the world loves to ascribe to India. If they were chasing moksha, the wish certainly seemed to have been granted—days later, bodies were being fished out by the dozens a few hundred kilometres downstream on the same river. The rest took corona home. India-baiters are not in short supply around the world, but we don’t disappoint, do we?
Unconcern, then panic, then overreaction, then complacency, then overconfidence, then gloom… our tragedy could be plotted through our own thought-free sentiments, almost like a data scientist’s Covid-19 graph. Having been handed a harsh lesson last year, we should have learnt. But instead of care and vigil, we instilled a taste for profligacy. Now our lives will never be the same again. There’s no Central Vista where our past and present will intersect neatly with a salubrious future. Too many people have died needlessly for that.
We were playing fast and loose, kindling those animal spirits that went missing from the economy, and chasing votes, when the virus returned in sundry mutant avatars, like some mythical demon. By then, the Covid care centres had been dismantled, oxygen plants were breathing easy, and vaccines had been sent abroad. The viral tsunami hit us hard because we were walking tall pretending to be millionaires. The US and Russia had stocked up or pre-ordered. We were convinced about our own infallibility. We had Poonawalla, we had an indigenous brand too, what could possibly go wrong? Well, when the dam broke, our reservoirs emptied out double-quick.
Karnataka, which has a “double engine” government, has suspended vaccination for the 18-45 age-group even before it could start. Now it’s telling its 45+ citizens enrolled for the second dose to come back after 12-16 weeks. They are even spinning a fraudulent medical rationale around it. Ministers are frothing at the mouth at how the courts are decreeing that normalcy be restored—that vaccines and oxygen must flow. “Where will we get oxygen from? There’s not enough supply. Or vaccines? There’s no production. The courts have no business getting into matters of administration!” one blurted out.
Remember when the courts got into auctioning spectrum and managing cricket? Who clapped then? Most of them did. No one then listened to Manmohan Singh’s feeble-voiced warning about an “international conspiracy”. Now we’re all being warned on WhatsApp about global agents of evil who want to show us down, and turn us into psychological wrecks by displaying images of distress and death, particularly in VIP city Varanasi. WhatsApp University is not to be taken lightly—we are after all ruled by a Kingdom of Messaging.
But the university of life first. We don’t have enough RT-PCR kits—a medium-sized lab gets 15,000 requests for testing on average, each day, in one single zone of a city. The only way out is vaccination. The second wave has already taken away family, friends, acquaintances. How do we organise ourselves before the third, fourth and who knows how many more waves hit us? There won’t be any economy to revive if there are no people. The situation is so dire that states are now calling for global tenders to secure their people. Their own scanty treasuries will bleed further.
But what about PMCares? Well, if the PM really cares—and there are no signs yet that he does—he would not leave all the people in the states to fend for themselves. All Indians live in the states, remember? Only 3.82 crore Indians—2.8% of our population—have been fully vaccinated. A ‘New New Delhi’ will not solve that crisis. No new monument can create the desired history if it stands on a bed of shrieking cadavers.