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‘India and the Pandemic: The First Year’ review: A deadly pathogen and the difficult path to recovery

If we think of the people of India as one human body, what would constitute its immune system? The health infrastructure? Democracy? Public institutions such as the media and judiciary? Or is it the government of the day? Perhaps it’s a combination of all these elements. If this hypothetical ‘human’ dies of a disease that is preventable (through a vaccine) as well as curable (through timely emergency care), then it would mean not only that this person’s immunity was congenitally weak, but also that he was stupid enough not to strengthen his immunity. Has India been stupid in its response to the COVID-19 pandemic?

Reading the 24 essays that comprise India and the Pandemic, it is difficult to conclude otherwise. The pieces, written during the course of 2020 for The India Forum, a digital journal, have aged rather well. In the Introduction, for instance, Faizi Ahmad, C.J. Kuncheria and C. Rammanohar Reddy warn of “more lockdowns” in the “second year of the virus”.

In January, when the book was published, this may have sounded alarmist. Today, the warning sounds prescient — not least because it stems from an accurate assessment of the state’s orientation, which has consistently prioritised image management over crisis management. This orientation, evident in March 2020, has extended to the present, when India is reeling under a far more virulent ‘second wave’ of infections.

Layered view

This anthology brings to bear on the pandemic expert minds from different fields, including history, economics, sociology, political science, law, architecture, psychology, public health, and gender studies. The essays are grouped into eight thematic sections: ‘Early Stages of COVID-19 in India’, ‘Dealing with Pandemics in India’s History’, ‘COVID-19: The Initial Impact’, ‘The Law, the Judiciary, and COVID-19’, ‘The Lockdown and After’, ‘Impact on the Economy’, ‘Impact on Society’, and ‘The Future’.

Taken together, they present a richly layered view of the multiple dimensions of India’s COVID-19 story up to December 2020. Even without the devastations of April 2021, it’s not a pretty picture.

No matter where one looks — be it public health, the economy, education, migrant welfare, judiciary, human rights — the common thread running through the state’s response to the pandemic is summed up in two phrases: “absence of community” and “a lack of humanity”.

The saving grace, in the first year, was the Herculean efforts by healthcare workers and citizens’ groups. But the magnitude of the second wave has been such that while frontline workers and activists were overwhelmed, public health infrastructure — degraded by years of neglect — has collapsed under the weight of an exponential rise in cases.

In the context of the ‘first wave’ last year, the volume raises several questions, especially about the draconian lockdown: was it justified if we could not afford to compensate for lost incomes?

Lockdowns and income

If the idea of a lockdown is to contain transmission while the state builds capacity, why didn’t India use this period to build capacity? If there was going to be no investment in expanding public health infrastructure, what purpose did the lockdown serve — other than postponing the inevitable while destroying livelihoods in the name of saving lives?

Strangely, even the pessimism of the anthology editors seems understated. “It does seem doubtful,” they write, “whether human societies will learn from the first year of COVID-19 to organise a more conflict-free interaction with wildlife and nature.”

Forget wildlife, in a nation currently gasping for oxygen, the most pressing challenge is a relatively modest one: subduing the raging epidemic of tribalistic fever, whose primary symptoms are loss of empathy for those who eat, dress or pray differently and impaired ability to seek accountability from those in power. Somehow, it’s difficult to shake off a nagging sense that India’s miseries right now have to do with more than one deadly pathogen.

India and the Pandemic: The First Year; Essays from The India Forum, Orient BlackSwan, ₹695.

sampath.g@thehindu.co.in


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