The quest to understand what works in tackling the pandemic has been a global obsession — particularly among epidemiologists, politicos, policy wonks and punters in the market. The received wisdom of theorists was that Europe had cracked the puzzle leading to lament across the US — juxtaposition of falling cases in Europe with the rising curve in the US made the narrative politically seductive.
Fact is context matters. Countries which have balanced citizens’ rights and obligations have done better. Political optics of doing well frequently rests on others doing badly — triggering schadenfreude, that bizarre sensation of satisfaction from witnessing suffering elsewhere.
Schadenfreude has German origins but it is not without consanguineous cousins in the neighbourhood. The French experience joie maligne — literally, diabolical delight in other people’s suffering. The Danes know it as skadefryd, the Swedes say Skadeglädje, the Russians call it zloradstvo.
This week, Europe woke up from the false dawn to a state of alarm. Faced with a spike in cases, its biggest economies Germany and France locked down. Spiralling cases saw the Czech Republic impose a dusk to dawn curfew. Italy shuttered cinemas and gyms and directed early closure of bars and restaurants. In Russia, Vladimir Putin ordered a national mask mandate as the case count spiked. Ironically, China which is where the virus emanated from, continues to retain bragging rights and experience xing-zai-le-huo, which is schadenfreude in Mandarin.
India may or may not have a phrase for schadenfreude in one of its many languages but the surge in Europe and the fears haunting winter-bound North America hold lessons for its people. For sure, India can draw comfort from the low case mortality and recovery rate as indeed in the drop in daily infections from over 97,000 cases to 45,000. However, there is no room for complacency.
For sure, India has the advantage of a younger populace and does not face the kind of winter which is setting in on the northern hemisphere. Yet, the threat of resurgence is real —given the size of its populace, given the context of densities of population and poverty and the reality of poor air quality due to pollution. The scale of contagiosity is illustrated by the series of sero survey reports — almost everyone knows of or has had someone in the family infected by COVID-19.
India is in festival season — the risks of infectious outbreaks during festivals have been recorded as early as in 1861 by the Royal Commission on health. In the past months, spikes in infection have followed after Ganesh Chaturthi in Mumbai, following Jagannath Rath Yatra in Odisha, Onam in Kerala and Dussehra in Delhi. It is with good reason that PM Narendra Modi warned in his address to the nation, “In this festive season, markets are bright again but we need to remember that the lockdown might have ended but COVID-19 still persists.”
The relaxation of lockdown may have been calibrated but public behaviour has been far from exemplary in terms of social distancing or mask wearing. Aggravating the culture of complacency and wilful neglect are interpretations of tangential theories — like the one doing the rounds in the WhatsApp universe on how poor living conditions render immunity from COVID-19. Fact is conditions didn’t grant immunity or prevent deaths among poor Blacks and Hispanics in the US.
Then there is the persistent intellectualisation of the construct of herd immunity. There is as yet no clear view on immunity — instances abound of those contracting the virus again even if some of those infected have been asymptomatic. The lifespan of the antibodies spawned post recovery is yet being assessed and studies show the durability of these depend on intensity, on existing conditions, age of those infected and unknowns.
Finally, the vaccine is as yet a hope on the horizon and its safety, efficacy and durability are matters being analysed by experts. The spectre of infection spike in what is loosely defined as second wave is about lives and about livelihoods. Not every country can print currency to pave a path of stimulus, not many countries can borrow to fund consumption, jobs and lives. India’s state governments have struggled to arrest the spread of the virus even as they loosened the controls to open up engagement of people with the economy.
Yes, the economy appears to be recovering but it is useful to remember mass public transport systems, schools, colleges and most importantly the face-to-face economy employing millions are barely open — and for good reasons as the threat of the virus persists. The stock market may suggest a Panglossian outlook. The reality is the pandemic is scarring and reconfiguring the structural contours of the political economy.
Fact is per capita income as per IMF is expected to recover only by 2023. SMEs and the self-employed are perched on the brink of distress or have slid into penury. The delinquency level of small borrowers and credit card subscribers, the queue for restructuring of loans are nominal indicators of the state of individual and institutional balance sheets.
The next wave and possible lockdowns will threaten not just livelihoods, but existence of millions. How India does in the next few decades will be determined by public policy and the conduct of Indians over the next few weeks.
Author of The Gated Republic, Aadhaar: A Biometric History of India’s 12 Digit Revolution, and Accidental India