The third Covid wave is imminent and as a nation we do not know what it holds for us: a worse catastrophe in terms of the death toll, another lockdown and breakdown of the economy, relapses and re-infections, a more virulent triple mutant, or just a milder attack? Nobody really knows, and it is from the humility of lack of knowledge the real quest for solutions begins. If it is the hubris of the vishwaguru claim that caused the pain of the devastating second wave, it ought to be the memory of the floating corpses on the Ganga that makes us prepared for the third wave.
Political rallies and religious congregations are the real super-spreaders and this tamasha cannot be allowed to destroy the health and wealth of the nation yet again.
The first lockdown, which was the severest in the world, was all about unleashing the police on the unsuspecting citizenry — mostly the migrant labour, the poorest of the poor, some of whom died on the railway tracks trying to dodge the police. It, obviously, was a grand success because we were doing what we were most accustomed to: the medieval use of brute force to achieve a complex objective. A year later, governments across the country realised that tackling Covid was not about cops wielding the lathi at those venturing out of their homes. It was about hospital beds, Intensive Care Units, oxygen supply, ventilators and caregivers. It was about being modern and scientific in thinking and action; in respecting those who are ready to sacrifice their lives to care for others in a non-transactional relationship based on science and evidence-based methodologies.
Yet, we are taking a U-turn as a society. While the government promoted nationwide plate-clanging as a sign of appreciation for caregivers last year, now the government's favourite men in saffron robes are attacking those very doctors who lost so much — including their lives — during this one year. The BJP and the Sangh Parivar had richly harvested the anxieties of a largely pre-modern, rural society to come to power, propping up religious and often regressive totems in the process. But now, these totems have come alive and are forcing the pre-modern society to be anti-modern.
During these devastating times of Covid, we seem to be embarking on a dangerous journey from being pious and foolish to being outright anti-science. From our first Prime Minister famously posing for a photograph doing the difficult shirshasana to his daughter’s controversial yoga guru, there has been no dearth of official patronage for this ancient Indian practice. But pride in ancient India is no substitute for ICU beds or piped oxygen supply or cutting-edge research for Covid cure. The Union government is the greatest disseminator of information and can overwhelm all other independent news outlets put together in terms of its official authority. So, when a person endorsed by the government attacks science, a weak rejoinder is not enough to regain the government’s credibility. The person ought to be prosecuted or at least be proscribed from making unscientific claims.
Rural and even large parts of urban India being pre-modern is not a choice but the burden of our colonial history — of being kept on a starvation diet by an alien government for a couple of centuries. Ours is a slow march to modernity while struggling to find ourselves among clashing identities and crippling indignities. It would take a long time for an average Indian to shrug off the weight of shibboleths, pseudo-science and quackeries. A semi-literate mind obviously cannot distinguish between the real potential of ayurveda, siddha or unani traditions and the blind belief in empty claims of charlatans. One system of medicine need not be identified with a particular religion or ideology or a political entity, it only needs to stand the test of contemporary science, just like Rajendra Chola’s or Shah Jahan’s buildings.
Many in the Sangh Parivar believe that India became vulnerable to foreign conquests because Indians were not organised with a unity of purpose and identity. Well, it is easier to believe that India was weakened when we lost our scientific temper, replacing science with superstition, astronomy with astrology, mobility with servility and invention with exclusion. Yet, we have come a long way, becoming not just self-sufficient but creating huge export capacities in vaccine production. We simply cannot afford to be dragged down by people with commercial interests, such as Ramdev, to dictate unscientific prescriptions.
Hopefully, the governments in Delhi, Mumbai and elsewhere have learnt their lessons in improving the health infrastructure, but there needs to be a complete change in how we hold our rulers to account. There can no longer be corpse-laden rivers flowing from the Himalayan foothills into the sea. Chief ministers cannot be seen dropping their masks in public while welcoming turncoats from other parties. It will soon be election time in Punjab, Uttarakhand, Uttar Pradesh and Goa. Political rallies and religious congregations are the real super-spreaders that have accentuated the second wave and these tamashas cannot be allowed to destroy the health and wealth of the nation yet again.
Politics and religion have been totally dispensable to those gasping for oxygen in the ICUs, or those searching for a hospital bed or an oxygen cylinder. As the lockdowns are eased and vaccination gains momentum, let the governments remember the lessons of April-May 2021. The age of grand rallies is over; voters no longer get impressed by the number of paid attendees and they do not make up their mind straining their ears in a sea of humanity. This is the new age of dissemination of ideas through the media — old and new. Voters have the luxury of sitting at home, reading, watching and listening to news and views and coming to a conclusion. I know faithful who now choose between a local preacher and one in Chicago. Let priests and politicians not fool us about succour for the soul — what we need is succour for the body, which may not withstand another wave and lockdown.
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