W.B.Yeats’ poem The Second Coming talks of “falcons cannot hear the falconer”, a picture of anarchy where things have fallen apart and the centre cannot hold and the “blood dimmed tide is loosed’’. What anarchical outcomes emerge when the falconer does not know his falcons?
It is writ large on Covid management. First of all, a countrywide lockdown converted a public health issue to a police or internal security issue, questionable at the very minimum. Data showed the concentration was in 12 cities, but the whole country was under curfew, stopping work, closing factories, disrupting supply-chains and inflicting untold misery on people.
This war on Corona was fought with the ammunition of the previous war. A toolkit of the past was used for a problem of the future. Whereas science and data should have given guidance, a stringent lockdown ensured shutting out of data points. Scientific opinion was available but used selectively for expediency. Covid-19 is a flu like disease where the contagion spreads quickly but in terms of lethality it is nowhere near that of other viruses.
It can be dangerous for the 65+ age group and immune-suppressed people and is disproportionately harsh on slum dwellers and poor who are vulnerable because of myriad health problems which compromise them. But after all it is a fever which has got its target and like fire it cannot spread when fuel is not there. But instead of calming down the public, the ham-handed approach only created fear, mostly exaggerated and completely out of sync with reality.
Police forces were given the task of implementation as often happens in states with concentrated power. Not only was a countrywide lockdown the first in India’s 5,000-year history, it was being handled as a law and order issue for the first time too. Lao-Tzu, the Chinese thinker had said long ago “the more law and order are made prominent, more thieves and robbers there will be.” At the very minimum, unintended consequences showed up.
Delivery boys and frontline medical warriors got beaten up. The latter are often without PPEs even today. They get beaten up in their work, their safety and dignity imperilled. They are even denied entry if affected by Covid, as a risk averse, self-absorbed and paranoid middle class is likely to behave. Inter se responsibility of Home and Health Ministry changed.
The issue became not the management of the epidemic but of control and giving effect to not so well thought out guidelines of the former. The pandemic of fear had overtaken the pandemic itself. India’s migrant population is estimated to be around 120 million. Once the migrants were out of jobs or thrown out of their houses, they wanted to go back home.
All borders were sealed and they were not allowed to travel. They started walking in the hot sun. How many among them died, no one will know. Receiving states raised barricades on the basis of engineered court orders and despatching states refused trains. This probably involved tens of million migrant labour. The falconer did not know this group well. Otherwise, a fiveday window would have been enough for them to go back home in trains and buses.
The fear of the middle class that they would be spreaders of the virus held back the falconer. Ironically, after 40 days in camps, infection had proved to be minimal among them. Slum dwellers in cities with deplorable habitat, health and environmental conditions were sitting ducks for the infection. They number 65 million as per the 2011 census and are most likely to have doubled by now.
Beyond voting, they are invisible. They became visible when the infection raged and threatened the ambient equilibrium. Instead of taking out affected people and quickly carrying out tests of antibodies, the line of least resistance was followed by declaring affected slums as containment zones. But it was known that no containment was really possible when 6-10 people stay in 80-100 square feet tenements.
Back in villages, the people who initially were ready to receive migrants suddenly developed cold feet. Fear had overtaken them too. They objected to the migrants’ return. The falconer should have known that when fear spreads, it will hit back and the collateral damage will be on the most needy. Empowering even RWAs meant a new kind of tyranny.
The colonial British administrator with all his weaknesses had spotted this trait of tyranny. Evidently, formal and informal tyranny emerged. Inside slums, young men who were free now took it upon themselves to enforce social distancing. Interpretation has always been a problem with the self-appointed. In a perfectly non-quarantined basti, these youngsters enforced distancing with a heavy hand even if people were sitting in their verandah.
Sarpanches were given the special power of district magistrates in some areas. Not a bad idea in itself, but expectedly the unintended consequences emerged. People with pre-existing conditions could not go to hospitals even though emergency centres were open. Anecdotally one comes across some cases of death. But the real figure will not emerge.
Deaths in small towns, whether they died because of Covid or with Covid will never be arrived at. Many could not make it to the hospital without transportation. The falconer does not appear to know his turf and falcons. When understanding of people is so sparse, missing empathy is understandable. Politicians may be knowing people as electoral atoms, as transactional units but not as what they are.
The over-reach, acts of omission and commission may have some underlying purpose which cannot be known to public. May be slumping back to village republics which will surely happen post-Covid needed to be prefaced by such lack of understanding of people. It is doubtful if the falconer understands the falcons.
(The writer is a former Secretary (Higher Education) to the Government of India)