Covid 19 – A country marooned by a pandemic cannot offer an alternative to China

When India went into lockdown this time last year, there was a strangely positive sentiment coming out of the business community. Their take was that countries would want to hedge against future China disruptions by moving operations at least partially to other locations – which presented India with a tremendous opportunity. Missing in this laudably optimistic view was a reasonable projection of when India could come out of a hard lockdown. Don’t you need to be open for business yourself before you can take it away from others?

There is a sinking feeling of deja vu as UK PM Boris Johnson now announces that he has cancelled his visit to India. Hong Kong has announced halting of connecting flights to and from India from tomorrow. Wait for when others like Singapore follow suit. Which they will if daily covid numbers don’t come down soon in India. They are not likely to as long as politicians insist, among other things, that there is no connection between large rallies and a rise in cases.

Before you talk a big talk, you need to walk the walk. Before India can provide emerging world leadership in fighting covid, it must get to grips with the disease and tame it itself. This cannot happen until you remain in selective denial about what causes its spread (eg Tablighi bad, Kumbh good). It also cannot happen as long as you are dreaming big macro dreams and don’t master the finer details of what it takes to keep the virus under check.

It was known since at least January that the UK and South African strains had been discovered in India. But the responsibility of contact tracing and containing the virus was delegated wholly to state govts with not much input from ICMR or the Health Ministry or other Central Govt agencies to ensure it did not snowball. Likewise, the Maha state govt kept asking ICMR to report on whether the strain discovered in Nagpur was a new mutation and ICMR kept denying the same until very recently.

It is possible that ICMR as a medical research unit needed conclusive evidence to report a finding. Which is where the Central Govt needed to have stepped in and worked with Maha on containing the new strain within Nagpur. And this stepping in requires actual grunt work; merely saying so to the media does not suffice. Both the Centre and state govts have been guilty of this.

For eg, I visited Tamil Nadu from my home state of Maha for a wedding in Feb. As per the rules, I was required to carry an Epass with me (without which my entry could be denied). But nobody ever asked me to show the Epass in Chennai – not at the airport nor outside it. A quick thermal screening was all that was done.

On similar lines, when I was talking to a person working for a CA firm that was assisting us in some import matters, he told me he was going by local train to office everyday. I asked him how this could be when he was not an essential worker and he told me that Railways had allowed buying passes online again. So people just bought passes online and travelled merrily on the trains, hoping nobody would screen and catch them. And nobody did, not from the Railways, not from the BMC.

Just as CM Uddhav Thackeray’s cautious guidance was not reflected on the ground in terms of maintaining vigilance in ensuring covid appropriate behaviour and thorough compliance with the restrictions, PM Modi’s words too remained words as the situation on the ground diverged increasingly from his exhortations to wear masks.

And…unlike last year when Modi set an example himself both in word and deed, covid ostensibly took a backseat to elections in his mind. I have never understood why BJP, that is the rank and file of its national leadership, contests each and every state election as a life and death matter, but that’s another topic for another day. The point is you could now see the PM as well as Home Minister Amit Shah appear before huge rallies…of maskless crowds. Mr Shah was also photographed maskless at the Ahmedabad stadium during the India-England series. Per Orwell’s 1984, you can make the photograph disappear from the media and pretend that yours truly is ‘lying’ but you cannot make those who have seen the photo un-see it. I am not singling out my attack on partisan lines; Mamata didi’s realization that rallies are ill advised in these times comes rather late in the day and little more than an opportunistic piggybacking on Rahul Gandhi’s announcement given that she made no bones about attending similar maskless rallies earlier in the campaign trail.

Now that our leaders were no longer practicing what they preached, the public caught on too. A UP businessman who was penalized for not wearing a mask asked why politicians weren’t wearing masks if what he did was wrong. Rajiv Bajaj too asked why business was made to suffer lockdowns while it was business as usual for politicians. And he is right about that. But…

Speaking of business. Maharashtra Chamber of Industry and Trade (CAMIT) strongly represented against lockdowns and even promised protests on the street against the same. Such a fierce display of unity, however, was missing in enforcing covid appropriate behaviour in their own respective organisations. I am one of those who did not get to continue WFH even though I work for a fairly large sized company. And there are many such. White collar employees on low salaries are being forced to come. They can either spend more than their salary on autorickshaws and stay safe…or bite the bullet and travel by local train. Is anybody really surprised that covid roared back in Mumbai?

Now…if you asked CAMIT, they would say that govt allowed us to maintain up to 50% attendance in offices. Yes, but merely because it is allowed doesn’t mean you have to be callous towards your employees. You have the option of being, er, a little more considerate, a little more mindful of employee safety. And not necessarily because you would get beat Azim Premji in philanthropy but because increased covid cases endanger everyone’s safety, including yours.

We talk about working in silos being the bane of many organizations and India has provided a demonstration of silo-ism on a macro scale. Each one giving themselves ‘exemptions’ from covid appropriate behaviour while blaming the others who do not adhere to it collectively make a total pig’s breakfast of things. Which is exactly what we have done. From low cases in Jan, we are now deep in the middle of a second wave that has already overwhelmed our hospitals and even cemeteries and crematoriums.

The stark absence of vigilant central leadership as they concerned themselves with elections was certainly a huge contributing factor. However, it’s all of us, the entirety of our society top-down. We collectively decided that covid would not be a huge problem for us even if it was for many others; we decided covid was over for office/temple/election/kumbh/ramzan etc. But covid does not know the difference between any of these things. It sees opportunities to spread and preys accordingly.

The second wave in India is deeply concerning to the world as they counted on India being able to produce and export vaccines it would not need, having already gotten on top of the virus. Now they learn that India may in fact have to import vaccines being produced ideally for countries that are unable to make them.

If you cannot rely on China because they are devious, you cannot rely on India because we are unreliable. Divergent roads leading to the same destination. Once more, just as India began dreaming of a bumper economic recovery on the strength of a strong first quarter in calendar year 2021, the second wave now leaves the near future shrouded in uncertainty.

And this time, we don’t necessarily have all of the rest of the world for company. So there’s elsewhere they can look to if India is not ready.

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