Since March, at both the national and state level, the government’s measures to contain the spread of the coronavirus have been a game of Russian roulette – they announce lockdowns overnight, in pretty much the same way they announced demonetisation, thus causing a run on vegetable markets and grocery stores in quite the same manner people rushed to banks and ATMs a few years ago; then contemplate phased lockdowns, deny the rumours, and spring them upon the public anyway; then open liquor stores and places of worship, satisfying the cravings of a few with no concern for the greater good of the greater number.
While fights have broken out over people not wearing masks, some even ending in murder, wearing a mask around one’s chin instead of over one’s nose and mouth is not considered a violation.
Through the drastic lockdowns and foolish relaxations, the authorities have made wild swings between paranoia and ineptitude.
One of the greatest concerns at the moment is the spread of the coronavirus in prisons, in which it appears hygiene is still not of any importance. Several activists who have been thorns in the side of the government, including poet Varavara Rao who has been awaiting trial since 2018 and Krishak Mukti Sangram Samiti leader Akhil Gogoi, have tested positive for the virus.
In the meanwhile, Amitabh Bachchan has become something of a poster boy for Covid infection, tweeting and blogging from his hospital bed. In early May, he was defiant about having shot for the new season of Kaun Banega Crorepati, writing in a blog post titled Day 4442, “So yes I worked .. got a problem with that .. keep it to yourself then .. damned if you pour it out here in this locked in condition .. sufficient precaution as much that could be taken was taken .. and what had been scheduled for 2 days , was completed in one day .. starting 6pm .. ending a short while NOW!!!” (sic.) He could only have become keener to go and work in the two months since.
The Tirupati temple, which has reportedly reduced the number of pilgrims to 10,000 per day—a tenth of the usual number—is still open to public darshans, despite 18 out of 50 priests, 140 employees of the Tirumala Tirupati Devasthanam trust, and 43 policemen deputed for duty at the temple testing positive since it opened to the public on June 8. Bizarrely, pilgrims were exempted from the strict lockdown which was enforced in the district from July 20. One policeman and the former head priest at the temple, Srinivasa Murthy Deekshitulu, have lost their lives to the virus.
Pilgrims are eager to visit the temple at a time when there will be less of a rush, and they can spend longer than ten seconds looking at the idol. But even if only a tenth of the usual strength is allowed, that still makes for more than 500 visitors to the temple an hour. It is impossible for social distancing norms to be followed under such circumstances.
Most foolish of all is the series of protests by people who insist on the reopening of services. Yes, it is extremely inconvenient that public transport is not operational and it is possible that several state governments may have erred on the side of safety. But nothing can justify hundreds of people gathering to stage their protests, casting aside all social distancing norms.
Earlier this week, commuters staged a dharna on the train tracks in Bombay, demanding that they be allowed to use the local. This disrupted services for those working in essential sectors, and put everyone at risk. The protest was triggered by an announcement that buses would not ply from the Nalasopara bus stand during lockdown. With the Maharashtra state government launching “Mission Begin Again” and anxious to portray itself as being on top of the situation, we must prepare for a sharp rise in cases.
The economy cannot be allowed to collapse, and it is not necessarily a choice between livelihoods and lives – as long as people take precautions and follow safety norms, we can contain the spread of the virus even while resuming our lives. But we must accept that we cannot live as we used to, that standing elbow to elbow and coughing into the air and spitting onto the street and breathing down necks should be – as they always should have been – relics of an ignorant age.
But for as long as we demand our “rights” to worship en masse and travel en masse and confuse face masks for neckpieces, there is no way we can save ourselves from the pandemic.
More Columns by Nandini Krishnan:
Nobel for economist, tailspin for economy
Why the Diaspora has so much love to give
Hindi debate: We are all obsessed with homogeneity
We are choking the earth
The delusionary Indian intellectual
India's culture of worship has to end
Nandini is the author of Invisible Men: Inside India's Transmasculine Networks (2018) and Hitched: The Modern Woman and Arranged Marriage (2013). She tweets @k_nandini. Her website is: www.nandinikrishnan.com