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OP-ED: White flags on Covid-19

  • Published at 09:30 pm September 24th, 2020
India Coronavirus Mumbai
People board a passenger bus during rush hour at a bus terminal, amidst the coronavirus outbreak, in Mumbai on September 9, 2020 Reuters

India has given up

There is no global coronavirus emergency apparent when you visit Baba au Rhum, the popular bistro at the heart of the tourist strip of North Goa. 

India’s smallest state -- and by far its most beloved resort destination -- has been fully open for business since the beginning of September, and this relaxed, breezy, shack-style restaurant is packed with visitors from around the country. Very few of them are wearing masks, and neither are most of the servers and kitchen staff. 

“What’s the point? We’re all going to get it anyway,” says one of the owners, “I don’t believe in corona.” 

But right outside his premises, in the old neighbourhoods of the same village, and all across the neighbouring area, the people of Goa continue to live in fear, and live with severe privations because the Covid-19 virus has been rampaging unchecked. Right outside its bamboo balustrades there are people dying, but back in Baba au Rhum they are partying like it’s 2019.

This is not an isolated phenomenon. All over the world, it has been amply demonstrated that millions of people are chafed to breaking point under the strictures demanded by our collective predicament. 

The antics in Trump’s America -- which are now cheer-led directly from the White House -- are well known, but far fewer people paid attention when considerable masses of Germans rallied against pandemic protocols in Berlin last month. Many of them even attempted to storm the Reichstag.

Still, there is one crucial difference. Germany has mastered “the curve” and, despite some incremental surges in the recent summer months, that country’s total number of new cases currently hovers between 1,000 and 2,000. 

By contrast, despite imposing the extraordinarily draconian, disgracefully poorly-planned “world’s strictest lockdown” earlier this year, India has no handle whatsoever on Covid-19. 

The numbers speak for themselves. Virtually every day this month, India set another new record for the highest number of positive coronavirus patients in any country since the beginning of this global pandemic, always pushing towards 100,000. 

But even that number is misleading, because the country is scaling down testing at full speed. There are no tests on either end of flights to and from Goa, for example. This means untold masses of cases are going uncounted, but their impact is spreading nonetheless.

All this has immensely significant real-life costs. Earlier this week, the Singapore-based Capital Economics, an independent research analyst, said: “Success in bringing the Covid-19 outbreak under control in Pakistan, Sri Lanka, and to a lesser extent Bangladesh has enabled activity in these places to rebound much faster than in India, where new infections continue to surge. This supports our view that India will suffer a far sharper contraction in GDP this year than its regional peers.”

One might imagine this story would be front and centre in India’s media. But in a continually baffling twist, it is not. 

The Economist put it rather well under the headline “Covid? What Covid?” 

They wrote: “What story should top the news? That Covid-19 cases are rising by nearly 100,000 a day? That the economy shrank by a shocking 23.9% last quarter? Or perhaps that an increasingly bellicose China is massing troops on the border? No! 

"Even with the darkest prospects in decades looming over India’s 1.3 billion people, the spotlights of its main TV news channels have in recent weeks focused instead on the private lives of a clutch of Bollywood stars.”

That reference is to the ridiculously overblown controversies surrounding the death by suicide of the minor Hindi movies actor Sushant Singh Rajput, which has steadily morphed into an egregious police campaign against Bollywood icons who might or might not have procured and consumed cannabis. 

In a country where hundreds of thousands of sadhus ritually fire up chillums every single day, this particular witch-hunt seems transparently manufactured.

And yet it persists. The Economist says about “this great distraction” that “elections in Bihar, to be held before December, represent the biggest political test for Narendra Modi, the prime minister, and his Bharatiya Janata Party since this year’s multiple crises began. The state is India’s third most populous, and is famed for the caste-infected complexity of its politics. The party’s strategists appear to have seen the actor’s suicide as a chance to pose as upholders of rustic Bihari virtue in contrast to the wickedness of Mumbai.”

How will India remember the Covid-19 era, with its cynical shenanigans, overt blame games, naked power grabs, and the cavalier disregard for both human life and rights?

That bottom line is apparent: As the country spins past 5.7 million acknowledged cases, and an inevitable reckoning as the worst-affected country. 

We already know that every corner of the world has been tested, and many countries survived while a mere handful thrived. 

But some failed, and the most prominent is India.

Vivek Menezes is a writer based in Goa, India.

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