With Maharashtra health minister saying the state is headed for a lockdown if things don’t change, night curfews across India, spike in Covid infections, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s talk of micro-containment zones, and images of labourers squeezed into trains going home, it feels like yesterday once more.
This time last year, we were holed up in our homes and glued to our screens. A little over 500 cases of the novel coronavirus had been detected. Outside, thousands of migrant workers chose to walk to their villages instead of surviving an unanticipated nation-wide lockdown that would rob them of their jobs. Many perished anyway. Only a handful of people saw it first-hand.
Fast forward to 2021. After a few months of relative calm and a near return to normality (if crowds at election rallies are any indication), a second wave of infections is surging through the nation. ICUs are fast filling up, test positivity is steadily climbing, and newspapers are filled with dreaded headlines of rising deaths and migrant workers returning homes.
This second coming has brought with itself a sense of déjà vu, something most of us believed won’t come back so strongly. And that is why these mini lockdowns, curbs on social gatherings, mandatory mask wearing in cars even when travelling alone, and not to miss the daily government briefings that define Covid-appropriate behaviour, is ThePrint’s Newsmaker of the Week.
Response vs reaction
To be sure, some lessons have been learned since the virus first took grip in India last year: high testing is the key to detecting the virus’s movement, young people spread the virus the most, and masks and hand hygiene are indispensable, regardless of the circumstances.
But the rise in cases have also brought with it a spate of unreasonable restrictions that feel all too familiar.
The shadow of the lockdown is ever-present, having now taken the form of night curfews and weekend restrictions. In Delhi, the high court ruled that single drivers in cars must be masked — even though they pose no real risk to anybody. Resident Welfare Associations (RWA) are once again being roped in to “curb” the spread of the virus by monitoring the movement of people — even at the cost of privacy.
The year since lockdown
When cases first began to rise in India in March last year, little was known about the novel coronavirus. Even the idea of healthy people wearing masks was under debate by the World Health Organization and US Centre for Disease Control.
What followed were reactionary, knee-jerk measures to control the spread of the virus. Chief among them was the world’s strictest lockdown, which a BBC investigation revealed was not only ill-planned but didn’t account for the opinions of experts. The devastation it unleashed caused joblessness to rise and plunged the economy into a crisis.
Those whose professions made them more vulnerable to the infection were stigmatised and discriminated against. To supplement the spirit of the lockdown, RWAs, particularly in northern India, took charge by restricting the entry of non-residents into their gated colonies — a decision that deepened the class divide. Chemicals were dunked on people in the name of sanitisation, and the use of single-use plastics sky-rocketed. What then came as reactionary measures and were mostly unplanned may just have a greater stamp of authority this time around, many fear.
A year on, we know far more about the virus: some studies show that lockdowns don’t help prevent transmission, that the spread through surfaces is low, and masks, social distancing, and frequent handwashing are still the most effective preventive measures.
But as the economy began opening up, cases decreased, and vaccines were introduced, lockdown fatigue set in. People have since let their guard down. And parties, weddings, get-togethers started in full flare again.
“This coronavirus is nothing. I don’t believe it will harm me or my family. If something happens, it’s up to God to save us,” a shopkeeper told ThePrint’s reporters back in November 2020.
Now, the second wave of infections has elicited responses to the coronavirus that include both, the overly cautious “preventive measures,” and complete disregard for Covid norms. Even as certain states go back into lockdown — albeit in a limited way — others are in the throes of elections, with thousands of people attending rallies.
Back to square one
For all the steps we’ve taken forward — learning to treat symptoms sooner rather than later and ramping up health infrastructure to accommodate new cases — holding on to a false sense of security vis-à-vis lockdowns and other measures, take us back to square one.
The Delhi High Court’s order on solo drivers flies in the face of the science behind the coronavirus’s spread, as does the requirement for middle passengers to wear PPE in airplanes.
Delhi, Maharashtra, Karnataka, Gujarat, and Madhya Pradesh have all decided to go into partial lockdown given the rise in cases. Chhattisgarh will impose a full lockdown in one district. This, even though the Centre has said weekend lockdowns have limited effect.
A recently published report by the State Bank of India also found that lockdowns aren’t effective and that widening the ongoing vaccination drive was the best way forward.
At the other extreme, in states undergoing elections, the governments have made no effort to enforce social distancing or mask wearing at their rallies.
Virologist Shahid Jameel wrote in an op-ed that the future of the pandemic — and how we choose to treat the virus — is in our hands. “Pandemics are caused by infectious agents but spread by humans. The control, therefore, depends as much on how humans behave as on medical intervention,” he wrote.
Views are personal.