Updated: March 14, 2021 8:35:53 am
Last week marked the grim anniversary on which the world as we knew it changed forever. On March 10 the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a pandemic. And, just like that, travel, holidays, cinemas, restaurants, bookshops, parties, festivals and all the other things we always took for granted disappeared. For some the nightmare the pandemic has brought was intensified by disease and death. Those of us who did not lose someone we loved or get sick ourselves are the lucky ones.
This week I write from that village by the sea where I happened to be when the Prime Minister announced that brutal first lockdown. I consider myself especially lucky that I was able to spend the pandemic here in this village filled with fresh air and the sound of the sea. And not cooped up in an apartment in some city. My deepest sympathies are with those who had to suffer that kind of confinement.
On March 24 last year when the Prime Minister announced that from midnight that day everything in India would come to a halt, the first reaction in this village was panic. People who had days earlier participated happily in a day long ‘Janata Curfew’ and banged their pots and pans to celebrate its end, were thrown off balance. The worst affected were workers from distant villages who suddenly lost their jobs. The village economy is built on fishing and tourism. It is to work on the fishing boats and in the small hotels, rustic homestays and noisy, neon-lit restaurants that these workers come. Unlike in the cities where migrant workers suffered terribly, in this village people found ways of helping the outsiders survive till they could go home. The village temple distributed food to those in need and at first there was compassion and goodwill in abundance.
Then as days went by and the disease continued its relentless march, anxiety and fear spread and the village banned outsiders from coming here because they believed it was them who brought the disease. Nobody died in this village and only a few people got sick, but a blanket of dread hung over everything for months. What made life more difficult was that weeks after the lockdown ended came Cyclone Nisarga. It ripped off the roofs of village homes and tore down old trees and fragile electricity poles. Luckily, nobody was killed in this village but there are times still when the sound of huge trees being uprooted and the howl of those cyclonic winds still rings in my ears.
Compared to what the village went through last year, this one seems to have begun on a happier note. The tourists are back, the little homestay-type hotels are full, new hotels and restaurants have opened in the village and the beach shacks that offer boating and jet-skis have been resurrected. Sometimes it feels as if the nightmare has ended, but then comes news of a ‘surge’ in Mumbai and in other districts of Maharashtra, and once more panic spreads. But, now there are vaccinations available and people have adjusted to the idea that Covid-19 is going to be around for a while. Those who keep track of Covid admit that they find it remarkable that the ‘experts’ who predicted that there would be 500,000 deaths in India by last July have been proved so wrong. Where are those experts by the way?
What has been most impressive is that India with its hopelessly inadequate public healthcare facilities has somehow managed to handle the pandemic almost painlessly. People I know who tested positive and had to be quarantined in Covid centres report that they were kept in clean wards and looked after well. The only complaints they had were about toilets being overcrowded and filthy. It is unfortunate that the Prime Minister’s emphasis on Swachh Bharat during his first term in office had such little effect on those who run government hospitals and clinics. But, old habits take time to die and the fact that our public health services did not collapse is truly a miracle.
The problem with writing a political column is that political conversations never end, even when there is a pandemic. So, every chance I get, I find myself chatting to local people to discover how they feel about the way in which the government has handled the pandemic. What I have gleaned is that except for that first lockdown which most people believe was too sudden and too harsh, nobody blames the Prime Minister for anything. They do not pay as much attention to his monthly monologues as they once used to, but they believe that he did his best in a very difficult time. He remains popular.
On a personal level I have managed to travel to Mumbai to take my first vaccination and have managed to travel twice to Delhi on flights that were scrupulously clean and socially distanced. But, through airports where social distancing was impossible. On these visits that I have made outside this village by the sea, I have tried to see as few people as possible and to spend as little time as possible in public places. I have, though, begun to long now for the world to go back to the way it was, but whenever I feel this longing has become too intense, I remind myself that I am lucky to have survived.
This column first appeared in the print edition on March 14, 2021 under the title ‘A rural view of Covid-19’.
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