The second Covid wave in India, which has already made the first wave look like a picnic, should have one big lesson for us Indians: don’t expect governments, experts or the media to make things better.
Governments react to public and media expectations about “doing something”, even if most of the things they do cannot make a difference in the short run.
Mini lockdowns, night curfews, closure of shops and ban on livelihoods are again becoming the norm, with babus deciding what is “essential” and what is not to contain the virus’s spread.
It took just two tweets by Anil Ambani’s son Anmol to deflate all the pretensions of those in “charge” of dealing with the pandemic.
He tweeted: “Professional actors can continue shooting their films, professional cricketers can play their sport late into the night, professional politicians can continue their rallies with masses of people. But your business or work is not essential. Still don’t get it?”
He added a punchline in another tweet: “What does essential even mean? Each individual’s work is essential to them. #Scamdemic.”
It is a bit excessive to insinuate a scam in how governments, including Maharashtra’s, are dealing with the scary Covid spike which is rapidly moving towards the one million active cases mark, but 28-year-old Anmol’s tweets are today’s equivalent of the child shouting in innocence that “The emperor has no clothes”.
This is a pandemic where no one really has all the right answers. Like the blind men and the elephant, we all have only a partial understanding of the truth. No model to deal with the pandemic can be guaranteed to work in all situations.
We talked of the Swedish model, the German model, the Korean model, and the Wuhan model prematurely. And, in our own case, we rushed to celebrate the Kerala model, even the Agra or Bhilwara models, based on some short-term success in containing the spread of the virus around this time last year. But it is the virus which is laughing at us once again.
This should teach us a few things.
First, humility. No one, not even experts, can be presumed to have complete knowledge of what needs to be done today, just as they didn’t have too much useful knowledge for us last year.
Today, even on the question of vaccination, there are those who wonder if it will do us any good, and those who suggest that it must be rolled out to the entire population in a matter of months. We have to presume that having the vaccine is better than not having one, but we cannot guarantee that it will give us herd immunity or defeat the virus all on its own.
Second, commonsense. Commonsense should tell us that killing livelihoods in a relatively poor country is no way to kill a virus we can’t see or detect easily without a test that takes hours to yield results.
In short, the test only tells us we haven’t (or have) got the virus after the event. It does not tell us we won’t get it tomorrow if we don’t have it today. The only value of the test lies in its ability to tell us who we should isolate or treat or trace for contacts.
This is useful and we must do this, but it cannot trump the need for people to earn a living or go about a large part of their daily lives without draconian restrictions.
Third, wisdom. The public in democracies expects governments to provide answers to every passing problem they face. While Covid does not appear to be just a passing problem, in the context of mankind’s history, it is surely a passing problem.
The Spanish flu of a hundred years ago did just that – come and go. It left behind a trail of death and disease, but we are quite as likely to see a high number of deaths from road accidents if human movements were freer.
Governments can help cushion the devastation and shocks caused by the virus, but they cannot prevent it altogether. Expecting them to do so will end up doing more damage. We need to learn to expect less from government, and more from ourselves.
Fourth, human nature. The virus has impacted us precisely in areas that are intensely human. Humans are social beings, but today we are told that we must stay away from other humans.
Humans have known that the one thing that is truly free and available to all in abundance is the air they breathe; but they are now told that they must wear masks and make it difficult for themselves to breathe.
The Covid fatigue and non-compliance we are seeing, apart from boorish individuals who think the rules don’t apply to them, is largely the result of experts asking us to behave less like humans in order to avoid giving or getting infections. Human nature cannot be ultimately suppressed.
Fifth, media. The proliferation of media and the resultant information deluge is not necessarily a boon today. The media benefits by feeding scare stories. Even when they outwardly advice calm, indirectly they force certain actions from governments that ought not to be in a rush to “do something”.
The media – even when it is honestly doing its job – fills our heads with conflicting stories that ultimately frighten us and drive us towards deaf denial. After some time, the information overload reduces our ability to make sense of the news and we then take advice from the neighbour who seems to know something, or follow the herd – sometimes down the wrong path.
The fight against Covid is going to be won – we are going to win it for sure even though we don’t know how or when or why it will happen. It will be won because our pharma giants have cracked the vaccination and treatment problems, because our governments have managed to do more of the right things than the wrong ones, or because the virus itself has mutated to a point where it has become benign and a mere parasite that does not endanger our lives.
But the key to winning the fight is not with the expert, the government or the healthcare fraternity. It lies in our ability to ultimately figure out, despite the fog created by contradictory information, the right behaviours and practices to keep ourselves safe. The insight we all need to have is that people know what is good for them, even if they take a while to figure it out.
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