Grief, anger, frustration and cynicism are colliding in personal and public space — and the convergence has left millions afraid and alone, fearful and lonesome. The vignettes of angst and anxiety streaming onto mobile devices are vivid.
The magnitude of the surge and the resultant crisis is manifest in the data and the images. On Friday, India recorded 2,34,692 cases and 1341 fatalities — that is 162 cases every minute and a death nearly every minute. To get a sense of the surge consider this: In just 60 days, the count of active cases has shot over ten times—from 1.38 lakh to 16.7 lakh between February 16 and April 17 and the death toll from 109 to 1,147.
How did we get here? Cognitive scientist Alexandra Horowitz observes “attention is an intentional unapologetic discriminator”. India lost crucial management time as its governments simply took their eye off the ball to tend to political interests. Yes, there are new mutants and undoubtedly people let their guard down. And public behaviour was emboldened by the signals emanating from political leadership. The circumstance India finds itself in stems from the epidemic of wilful blindness afflicting governance.
Critical to understanding how India landed in this crisis calls for unpacking the process of governance. The political class has much to answer for — and they must carry the cross. That said there is no reason to give a free pass to the Babudom which is tasked with the duty of dissent and obliged to guide public policy — as civil servants and as members of autonomous bodies — to ensure the well-being of citizens.
A parade of unstated and stated questions await answers. Take the timing and conduct of elections. Did the Election Commission consult the Health Ministry or the Covid Task Force on possible implications of the campaign and polls given the backdrop of the pandemic? Did the EC have any discussion with the parties on mitigating possible consequences of mega rallies and opt for virtual campaigning??
The second issue which merits interrogation is the organisation of Kumbh Mela. Estimates suggest over 40 lakh persons took the dip in the Ganges. Did Uttarakhand and the Centre consult public health experts? It would be instructive to know if the Covid Task Force reviewed the plans. Faith is not subject to the statute of limitations but surely someone somewhere had considered the possibility of a surge given the density of pilgrims.
It has been argued that nobody saw the force of the surge. Sure, but did the EC or the government have a scientific basis to assume that a second wave was not on the horizon – in fact, case count was already on the rise between mid-February and the proclamation of the polls on February 26 and, of course, the inception of the Kumbh Mela. India’s public health literature is replete with instances of mass events followed by epidemics. Indeed the Epidemic Diseases Act of 1897 deployed to manage Covid19 requires governments to take steps “necessary to prevent the outbreak of such disease or the spread thereof”.
The Pandora’s box has been ripped open. Hope now rests on acceleration of vaccination. Again the ministry and the ‘experts’ have muddied the process with obduracy and left the promise in a muddle. There is the question of poorly designed procurement of vaccines — for instance why has the procurement of Covishield been so adhoc? Last week the government opened up vaccine imports, but there is no clarity on why this couldn’t be done earlier. The needless confusion over price controls has impacted expansion of capacity and output — there is no inherent contradiction in government giving vaccines free to those it wants and the private sector charging those who can pay. Enabling the entry of global vaccines would have propelled ‘atmanirbhar’ manufacturing and expanded India’s footprint in the supply chain.
The consequences of mis-steps are yet panning out – in poll-bound states and in the wake of pilgrims returning from the Kumbh. Already five states have initiated the first step of Maharashtra’s ‘Misal Model’ — night curfews followed by weekend closure followed by 15-day curfew. The feel good factor triggered by the budget and optimistic GDP forecasts now face clear downside risks.
The concept of wilful blindness owes its etymology to 19th century jurisprudence. Persons/entities are duty bound to know that which could be known and that which should be known. Usually applied in criminal and corporate law, the principle is applicable to those charged with governance too.
Author of The Gated Republic, Aadhaar: A Biometric History of India’s 12 Digit Revolution, and Accidental India