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Catastrophic Lockdown

Perhaps the Government could have given itself two days to think out solutions to the problems likely to be unleashed by the lockdown and a reasonable notice should have been given to the public to get ready for the lockdown. Unfortunately, the current closure is eerily similar to demonetisation ~ firstly, no time was given to the public to prepare and secondly, rules of the game are fluid, evolving as the situation unfolds.

Devendra Saksena | New Delhi |

Many unpleasant truths have surfaced in the wake of the Coronavirus or Covid-19 pandemic. The announcement of the 21-day lockdown had some contrasting outcomes; on the one hand we witnessed the sad spectacle of migrant workers desperately walking hundreds and even thousands of kilometres to reach their hometowns, where they were cold-shouldered by their neighbours.

On the other, we had a number of celebrities, politicians and bureaucrats endangering public health by their irresponsible antics. A famous singer allegedly skipped mandatory screening and met a large number of people before testing positive for Covid-19. During her hospital stay, she behaved like a primadonna prompting the director of the hospital to request her to behave like a patient and not like a star.

A young IAS officer ‘escaped’ from quarantine to visit his hometown, more than 2000 kilometres away. The UP Chief Minister organised a puja, the day after the PM instructed everyone not to congregate for religious gatherings. The police too have chipped in with their lathis; people found outside their homes are thrashed first and questioned afterwards.

After too many videos showing police brutalities surfaced, a similar number of videos showing police offering food to the destitute or helping the needy started making the rounds; just like if someone criticises the Establishment then apologists spring up and try to sidetrack the discussion. The University of WhatsApp is out in full force; any number of clips from sci-fi movies are doing the rounds with the express aim of terrifying an already frightened population.

Some mischievous elements regularly put up social media posts, painting doomsday scenarios. For added effect, the authorship of such posts is attributed to some respectable person or institution. Public morale is irretrievably dented by the time such sham posts are called out. Social media trolls have not been sitting idle; they are demonising a particular community for the calamity that has befallen us. Social isolation through a lockdown may or not be effective in stopping a full-blown Coronavirus outbreak but once the nation’s entire resources are committed towards maintaining the lockdown, all citizens are dutybound to see that the lockdown is observed both in letter and spirit.

The Government, both State and Central, should reciprocate by doing their best to mitigate the common man’s hardship. However, it appears that instead of resolute action, optics has become the main aim of all public authorities. The current chaotic situation suggests that the Government was as unprepared as the public for the crises precipitated by the lockdown. Perhaps the Government could have given itself two days to think out solutions to the problems likely to be unleashed by the lockdown and a reasonable notice should have been given to the public to get ready for the lockdown.

Unfortunately, the current closure is eerily similar to demonetisation ~ firstly, no time was given to the public to prepare and secondly, rules of the game are fluid, evolving as the situation unfolds. Though, one does hope that the goal of the lockdown is not redefined, as was done, in the case of demonetisation. The Coronavirus scare has fully exposed our selfish and uncaring attitude. Health professionals, who were lauded by five minutes of clapping, banging and conch blowing were simultaneously ostracised by their neighbours and threatened with eviction by their landlords.

A similar fate awaited the airline crew that had flown Indians stranded in foreign lands. Employers have ruthlessly retrenched staff and reduced the wages of the employees retained by them. People have become so heartless that videos of police thrashing innocent citizens have drawn applause from the public. The Telangana CM has threatened to issue shoot-at-sight orders against people venturing out on the streets ~ a sort of ‘I’ll shoot you to keep you alive’ kind of response.

The middle class has understood ‘social distancing’ not as physical distancing but as distancing oneself in all respects from one’s neighbours, friends and acquaintances. The paranoia associated with Coronavirus is so great that members of the same housing society act as if everyone else is infected. One risks social ostracization if one even steps out of his house for a breath of fresh air. How one wishes that the Government would issue an authoritative note on what practices are dangerous and what are not.

If all kinds of activities are prohibited for the entire lockdown period I am afraid that many of us would end up with serious mental issues by the time the lockdown ends.Many in the country have risen to alleviate the suffering brought about by the lockdown. Business leaders like the Tatas, actors like Akshay Kumar, temples like the Balaji temple and the Vaishno Devi temple, have pledged meaningful amounts for this purpose. Many individuals are contributing their mite. Clubs too have risen to the occasion.

Rajpath Club and Karnavati Club in Ahmedabad are contributing 10,000 food packets each, every day. All State Governments are trying to organise food and accommodation for migrant workers. Health workers, airline staff, sanitation workers have done their duty and much more. The USA, Western Europe, Dubai and China, the so-called most developed countries are being mercilessly ravaged by the Coronavirus.

The health systems of such countries, far advanced than ours, have reached breaking point. Despite a broken-down sanitation system and widespread pollution, the Indian subcontinent and Africa have escaped the worst depredations of the Coronavirus, probably, because of a non-functional health system our people have much greater immunity towards all kinds of diseases. The effect of the lockdown has been catastrophic for our economy.

All economic activities have come to a complete halt, factories are closed, a bumper crop awaits harvesting but labour is not available because of movement restrictions. Crops which have been harvested cannot be brought to the market. Daily wage earners have no employment and no prospects of employment in the near future. In this dismal scenario, the Government would be well advised to start planning to bring the economy on rails, once the lockdown is lifted.

Along with Coronavirus, SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome), H1N1 (Swine Flu), Bird Flu, MERS (Middle East Respiratory Syndrome), Ebola, Zika and Nipah ~ all the recent pandemics ~ are of animal origin. Known as zoonotic diseases, which literally means “disease from animals,” these diseases are caused by pathogens which have the ability to infect both humans and animals. Zoonotic diseases are much more common than what we realize; approximately 58 per cent of all human diseases are zoonotic diseases.

By destroying the natural habitat of animals, man has come into contact with wild animals and has been infected by their diseases. The origin of most zoonotic diseases can be traced to China, where the population relishes wildlife like bats and pangolins. Viewed in this context, there appears to be some truth in President Trump’s rant against China for world-wide export of the Coronavirus. But every dark cloud, has a silver lining.

Suddenly as human activities have been minimised, we see blue skies, lakes are magically cleaner and animals are reappearing in their habitats. Ravindra Kumar in his article “Coronavirus Pandemic: Should we really look for a vaccine?” (The Statesman, 23 March) has rightly pointed out that the real reason for the recurring catastrophes is the abuse of nature.

As we go from one pandemic to another, we have to realise that the spread of deadly viruses can be prevented only if we radically change our rapacious behaviour. We have to learn to live in harmony with nature; the unlimited quest for riches and comforts has to cease. Pollution, climate change and deforestation have to be taken up as our foremost priorities.

Distributive justice has to take precedence over creation of more wealth for the already wealthy. As profligates we are doomed but we can live happily, if we practice moderation. As the Bible says: “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” (Matthew 5:3)

(The writer is a retired Principal Chief Commissioner of Income-Tax)