After the deadly pandemic of Covid 19, how will society evolve? Has covid 19 changed the mindset of the majority of Indians? Now people are more insecure on the fronts of social, economical and emotional
By Rashme Sehgal
If World War – II was the turning point of our historical consciousness in the twentieth century, the Covid 19 pandemic is no less a turning point at the start of the twenty-first century. The twentieth century witnessed three great influenza pandemics. The Spanish flu affected one-third of the world’s population and killed 50 million people.
This was followed by two other great influenza pandemics namely the H2N2 of 1957 which killed about 1.1 people followed by the H3N2 flu of 1968 people which resulted in one million deaths namely of the elderly over 65 years of age.
Covid 19 has already claimed more than 6,71,490 victims by end-July 2020 although several experts believe the figure could be much higher. In India alone, we have crossed the 1.9 million affected figure with cases rising at the rate of over 55,000 every day. But first things first.
The one-day Janata curfew held on March 22 which ended with the banging of plates and the ringing of bells was only a prelude to an iron tight countrywide clampdown that would grip the country for a horrendous nine weeks. Of course, when the lockdown first started, none of us had the slightest clue of what was happening. Prime Minister Narendra Modi bravely informed us that the Mahabharat battle had lasted eighteen days and our nation would win the war against the coronavirus within the next 21 days.
We believed him although there we were receiving dire warnings from western countries. On March 21, Italy reported 793 deaths in one day and had already reported over 5000 deaths. On the fateful day of March 24 when Modi announced the first lockdown, India had reported only ten cases.
There was a wave of confidence that we would be able to keep the coronavirus at bay though hindsight has shown there was no scientific evidence for this belief. Initial reactions were limited to stocking up of food and other essential items, getting used to having to work from the home and worst of all, not being able to meet friends and relatives.
It was over the long and lonely weeks that were to follow that reality hit home. For those of us who live alone, television and the mobile became our mainstay and our only link to the external world.
No more visits to restaurants, movie theatres, malls, parks or eating ice cream at India Gate. No gyms. No libraries. No clubs. With parks being shut, no daily visits to the neighbourhood park for some gup shup. No going for drives. No making short journeys to nearby cities. And worst of all, for us journalists, no press conferences where reporters meet up and get a leg on all the recent political developments. It was just one long unending NO.
For those who lived in gated societies a whole new world of drudgery opened up from having to cook, dish wash, sweep and mop and worst of all, no access to newspapers that helped to lighten up the mood every morning as one flipped the pages to peruse the mixture of news and entertainment.
As we sat alone in our drawing rooms, the social media was awash with assertions and counter assertions depending on our political leanings. There was no clarity about the strain of the virus. Did it indeed originate from the meat markets of Wuhan- difficult to believe- or did it originate from a laboratory in Wuhan? If this was not bad enough, there were strong attempts by China to downplay the effects of this virus going so far as to inform the world in January 2020 that the virus was not contagious.
The WHO echoed these sentiments and its director Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus went to the extent of praising China for ‘its commitment to transparency’ even though China had concealed the extent of the outbreak from the world during its early stages. And because the WHO maintained that travel bans were ‘ineffective’ in curbing the spread of the virus, several countries did not take the immediate step of suspending all international travel.
Unemployment has grown exponentially and India has ended up losing 130 million jobs from which 40 per cent are blue collar jobs says a report by Global Consultants
Eyebrows were also raised at the veracity of the Chinese claims that the situation in Wuhan had stabilised after 4600 deaths from 83,000 cases by the middle of April. If China wanted to show the world that they were a model country in the way they had dealt with the pandemic, India despite Modi’s brave words was a country that soon began to unravel following the announcement of the first lockdown.
Following the government’s decision to close borders and halt public transportation in end March, hundreds of desperate migrant workers including women and children began to gather at the ISBT at Kashmiri Gate and at the Anand Vihar bus stand to find transportation in order to make their way home. Jobs had evaporated and money was scarce. A mahamari (pandemic) was taking over the nation and they wanted to `die in the safety and security of their own homes.’
Covid 19 triggered the largest migration post independence with millions leaving our shuttered cities to return to their villages. Over two hundred migrants lost their lives in road accidents during this lockdown period according to data compiled by the Save LIFE Foundation, a road safety NGO. In all there have been 1461 accidents over the course of the nationwide lockdown between March 25 to May 31 in which 750 people were killed including several hundred migrants.
If this was not bad enough, the nation woke up on May 19, to see pictures of 19 men and women being run over by a freight train because they had slept on the tracks and did not hear the train whistle. It was obvious, these workers had thought that since passenger trains were not plying, they had presumed the same for freight trains also. There was not a word of remorse from the government.
Not a single political leader stepped out from the confines of their air conditioned homes to commiserate the sight of these millions trudging back home. Rather, several states refused to allow them in insisting they spend time in makeshift quarantine centres so that they could complete a fourteen day quarantine. It was only after they cleared the Corona test that they could proceed further. Following mounting criticism, the government agreed to start transporting workers home on special trains on May 1.
The political, social and economic consequences of the pandemic were beginning to strike home. If the social consequences were increasing the sense of despair of families struggling to find hospitals where they could take their loved ones for Covid treatment, the other fall out has been a concomitant rise in domestic violence and child sexual abuse.
Some housewives complained of how their husbands spent their time watching pornography in front of the children and if they complain about this, the husbands would start beating them up. The situation on the economic front is equally bleak.
In all there have been 1461 accidents over the course of the nationwide lockdown between March 25 to May 31 in which 750 people were killed including several hundred migrants
Covid 19 has struck the final nail in an overall bleak economic situation where the slowing down of industrial activity has been accelerated because of these extended lock downs. Unemployment has grown exponentially and India has ended up losing 130 million jobs from which 40 per cent are blue collar jobs says a report by Global Consultants.
Affected The Most
One of the worst hits has been India’s dynamic news media industry with its crores of readers. Dwindling advertisements and a serious disruption in circulation of newspapers and magazines has seen media houses resort to massive layoffs, salary cuts, as also ‘advised’ employees to take leave without pay. There have been several instances where publications have been forced to shut down.
The Evening Star, an evening newspaper published from Mysore has shut shop as did Hamara Mahanagar, a Hindi newspaper published from Mumbai, Pune and Nashik. Mid-day published from Mumbai recently announced it was closing shop as did Raghav Bahl, founder of The Quint and Bloomberg Quint, who has shut down his business news website and his television division. Outlook magazine is said to be facing a temporary suspension. The list seems to be endless.
The government has not thought it fit to interfere or bail the media out of this dire situation. It is obvious it suits the government who was not happy with the mounting 24/7 cycle of news coverage with its constant updates. Even the `goddi’ media which does not hesitate to sing the prime minister’s praise day and night has no choice but to focus on the failings of the government even when this is being attributed to other functionaries as also to the legacy of the Nehru-Gandhi family. The situation on the political front has been equally dismal.
The pandemic has been used as a pretext to not just centralise power and suppress dissent, worse it has been a period to dilute labour laws especially at the state level. To cite an example, the Uttar Pradesh government suspended 35 of the 38 labour laws in the state for a period of three years. This they believed was done to attract much-needed investment in a state battered by Covid 19.
Trade unions cried hoarse that this legislation had turned the clock back one hundred years. Even the Bharatiya Mazdoor Sangh, the labour wing of the RSS, has criticised this decision which they have said is a `bigger problem than even the pandemic’. Commenting on these anti-labour laws, economist Prof Jayati Ghosh believed these would prove counterproductive in the long run.
Ghosh pointed out that when labour is deprived of minimum wages and when they have to work long hours, this does not allow healthy and safe working conditions or increase productivity. The issue is that with little political activity on the ground, governments believe they can get away with such anti-people measures.
Family comes First
On an individual level, this has been a good time to give a perspective to one’s life. Once one realises the fragility of life, we begin to refocus ourselves. Instead of wasting time over social media and unnecessary parties, many people believe we should now focus on spending time with people we really care about.
Our priorities have changed dramatically. Many of us today realise the importance of family life and the need to spend time with our children and with family elders. The lockdown provided time to understand just how consumeristic we have become. Buying new clothes, expensive toiletries, cars and other gizmos in order to keep up with the Jonas. Our whole life has revolved in displaying our wealth and possessions to our relatives, neighbours and friends.
But the key turning point with the average Indian is the realisation of the importance to establish a relationship with nature. More and more Indians realise that it is nature that sustains human life and needs to be protected from the growing fangless of technocrats and technocracies. The lockdown ensured that pollution in our cities had become less.
With pilgrims no longer bathing in our rivers and with hotels and restaurants no longer dumping their waste in them, the Ganges, Yamuna and all our rivers became cleaner. Birds and animals that were on the verge of extinction suddenly began to resurface to the joy of the average citizen.
Dwindling advertisements and a serious disruption in circulation of newspapers and magazines has seen media houses resort to massive layoffs, salary cuts, as also ‘advised’ employees to take leave without pay
Today, India has crossed over 16 lakh confirmed Covid-19 cases and the numbers continue to rise. More than 13,000 people have died because of the coronavirus. The states with the highest number of cases are Maharashtra, Tamil Nadu, Delhi, Gujarat and Uttar Pradesh though Karnataka, West Bengal and Bihar have also seen an upsurge.
Of course several Indians are taking consolation on the fact that the death rate in the US, which has a much smaller population, is much higher than that of India. Their policies also remain chaotic and bizarrely uncoordinated which speaks very poorly for a first world country.
There are several unknowns as we deal with this pandemic. No one knows for how long it will last and whether one wave will be followed by subsequent surges. There was some belief that the potency of the virus would wane once the summer had started. This has not been the case. There is at present no clarity about just what is the most effective medication to handle it even as the search for new vaccines is going on across several countries.
Economists warn that the recession could soon turn into a global recession. There is no crystal ball to tell us what curve the future will take. With joblessness on the rise there is a fear that hunger can soon stalk the land. The effects of this pandemic are being felt across the land.
One fact that has become clear to all is that the effects of the disease have been borne more by the poor than the rich. The rich have the luxury of insulating themselves in their homes. The poor need to work in order to survive. Whether the workplace or even the home can provide the requisite social distancing and sanitisation is not always possible.
What then are the measures the state governments will take to ensure a modicum measure of control to ensure the pandemic does not spread has to be seen. It is almost as though a game of dice is being played and the direct cost of this is human mortality.