Head­line man­age­ment will not work

Down to Earth - - Sunita Narain - @suni­ta­nar

THE COVID-19 pandemic has ebbed, but only in our mind’s at­ten­tion space, and this is ex­tremely un­for­tu­nate. The virus is rav­aging now and has spread across the coun­try. It has gone be­yond cities to more re­mote states and vil­lages, where there is not even a sem­blance of health­care, for­get ven­ti­la­tors. Now is when the im­pact is worse—peo­ple who have the in­fec­tion are dou­bly, no, triply hit and hurt, dev­as­tated. They have no op­tion but to go back to work. They can­not af­ford a lock­down. They are not only hit by the disease and the lack of health­care fa­cil­i­ties, they also have to fight crip­pling poverty and now ex­treme weather-re­lated dis­as­ters.

Today, our worst night­mare—the worst-case sce­nario—is play­ing out. And some­how the com­men­tary on the daily counts seems like a re­played cricket match. It’s been too many months and now it seems like old news.

Let’s do a quick re­cap of this tu­mul­tuous year. We slipped into 2020 with­out any in­di­ca­tion of the hor­rors that awaited the world. Some­thing was hap­pen­ing in Wuhan in China, but not many of us noted it (ex­cept for your mag­a­zine—in the Fe­bru­ary 16 edi­tion we car­ried a cover story on how this virus would lead to a pandemic, and this col­umn on Fe­bru­ary 14 re­minded “this health cri­sis will dis­rupt busi­ness all across the world”).

By Fe­bru­ary and till later in March, noth­ing was amiss, not re­ally. Peo­ple could travel in and out of In­dia in­clud­ing the US Pres­i­dent who at­tended a mas­sive rally in Gu­jarat. The usual was go­ing on; in­clud­ing Par­lia­ment was in ses­sion and Mad­hya Pradesh gov­ern­ment was be­ing felled. Then came the first shock—on March 24th, the lock­down was an­nounced dra­mat­i­cally and with­out no­tice. Life came to an abrupt halt.

At­ten­tion was on the daily count—how many cases of COVID-19; where; what was the source of the in­fec­tion; and, ev­ery day’s death rate was noted. The first phase of the lock­down ended in mid-April and it seemed when it was ex­tended till May 3, 2020 and then till the end of the month that the end of the disease was within reach. But since June, things went down­hill, and fast. In the be­gin­ning of May, In­dia was adding roughly 2,500 cases each day. Today, at the end of July, we are adding over 55,000 new cases each day.

In May, there was an­other hu­man­i­tar­ian cri­sis that needed our at­ten­tion.

Hun­dreds and hun­dreds of hun­gry, help­less peo­ple fled their place of work—as the econ­omy col­lapsed and they ran out of money—to go to their vil­lages. We saw how the in­vis­i­bles of our city—peo­ple who pro­vided labour; pro­duced goods and ser­vices so cru­cial for our well-be­ing— be­came out­casts. They were lit­er­ally thrown un­der the bus; lost their lives be­cause they slept on rail­way tracks and a train went over them or a truck mowed them down. I write this, be­cause we must not for­get—we must not al­low th­ese images to be erased from our hearts and minds. All this hap­pened in our world.

On June 1, when the first lift­ing of the lock­down was an­nounced, the rush was to open up. Rightly so, as the econ­omy was on its knees, the worst-hit was the daily work­ers who had no jobs to pay for food or any­thing. Gov­ern­ment’s relief pack­ages, how­ever wel­come, were hardly suf­fi­cient to man­age the dis­tress. But this was not easy—as we opened, we had to shut again and again as the case load in­creased. Dif­fer­ent cities and dif­fer­ent state bound­aries were un­der lock­down—some for week­ends; some for a few days; and, some opened and then shut.

Num­bers are mount­ing ev­ery day; our death count is the fifth high­est in the world—In­dia’s death toll on July 30th stood at 35,800. We are now part of the world’s most in­fa­mous trini­ties of ma­cho men—the US and Brazil. And what is worse is that the cases of the virus are no longer re­stricted to cities—where there is me­dia at­ten­tion and some kind of health­care in­fra­struc­ture—but are wide­spread and hit­ting where it hurts the most.

So, as we en­ter Au­gust, let’s re­mind our­selves of this re­al­ity. COVID-19 has not gone away; it is rag­ing across the coun­try. We know that. We also know that we can deny as much that there is no com­mu­nity trans­mis­sion, but gov­ern­ments nei­ther do not have any idea of the source of the in­fec­tion nor do they have a grip on the disease. Now, our best bet is that the disease fades away—it doesn’t re­main the head­line news but an ob­scure item in some in­side pages. We need new dis­trac­tions.

But this news will not go away. Let’s be clear. If the disease ex­ists in any part of the coun­try, it will spread. If the poor are hit today, the rich—who started this trans­mis­sion in the first place in most cases—will be hit to­mor­row. The econ­omy can­not be dic­tated into ac­tion, it will be de­railed if there are fre­quent and un­planned lock­downs. So, this time, we can’t just turn the page. Head­line man­age­ment will not work, not in this case.

If the poor are hit today, the rich—who started this trans­mis­sion in the first place in most cases—will be hit to­mor­row

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