There are less than 10 of them in a queue, their eyes burning into the camera, their saris bright against their wiry frames, their gaze averted from a security force personnel carrying a gun and a thermal scanner, one hand each clad in an incongruously white glove, and no masks. Maybe that’s all “the festival of democracy” could afford these voters lined up at a polling centre in Bokaro, Jharkhand, for a by-election on November 3 — one glove each. And the farce of humanity vs Covid-19 added yet another chapter.
Two seasons have now passed since we were told to shut ourselves down. We went into pandemic panic when winter was still in the air; we are back at the beginnings of winter. Meanwhile, even as the coronavirus numbers in the national capital look the same in terms of cases, the hand-wringing is now over pollution. Having spent nearly a year in masks, we don’t protest as the authorities do the annual exercise of reeling out “solutions” that are coming, or Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal tells us it is our “third wave” of the coronavirus, and experts say there are “multiple peaks” ahead.
A serious personal episode with Covid-19 means I should not be playing it down. The fear of those 15 days — exacerbated by the unknowns we kept reading about — is not a feeling one can easily erase. However, as the situation drags on, we must ask ourselves which spectre do we dread the most. And if we are being dishonest in not acknowledging a truth staring us in the face.
Do we have an answer for the voter who told this paper in Bihar that he can’t understand why he was paying the price for the lockdown… “I don’t know of anyone who has died of corona.” Or another who questioned the Covid-19 measures at polling booths, as life goes on around… “Does the virus only live here?”
Do we not wonder why the Black Lives Matter protests that swept American cities didn’t lead to any super-spreader events, despite doomsday predictions? Do we ever ask why the slums opposite our flats have not seen a surge, and neither have the villages where the migrants headed back? Do we even want to know the pestilences they are actually battling?
Do we not deserve to know the truth about Sweden, a country that decided to take the virus in its stride, and whose case curve may end up no different than others? In actuality, do we really believe Sweden will end up paying the same cost as its European counterparts, swinging between extreme laxity and extreme crackdowns, in the long term? When we look out the window, can we seriously deny that we (and almost the entire world) has come around to the Sweden position — wear a mask in public, avoid contact, wash hands, and carry on?
Are we going to ignore what the protests against lockdowns in Europe, or the voting in the US unswayed by the coronavirus, or the crowds surging to rallies in Bihar in that most elemental of hopes, a job, are telling us? Is the much better performance of countries with poorer health facilities but younger populations (Asia, Africa) telling us something?
Do we continue to kid ourselves that any government has any sure answers to Covid-19? Can we so easily swat away rapid antigen tests or sero surveys as the answer one day and a waste the next, when we really are asking for the impossible in a country of 125 crore, and where to imagine social distancing is an act of casual cruelty?
And do we really think a vaccine will be the miracle shot, when it usually takes years for such an event? Do we really think that till that happens, in the most optimistic framework of an year, but of course much longer, we are okay with living how we are? And keep denying that every time we step out the door, or let ourselves in, the lie just keeps getting bigger and bigger?
How long can those experts who have been telling us that there is another way be blocked out for speaking the unspeakable, as governments fortify their edifices on coronavirus stakes? Are we aiming for that Western utopia of a sanitised world — as one expert called it — where risks are to be whittled down to the minimal, when they can never be? That kid on a trainer cycle, with helmet, elbow and knee pads, pedalling inside the colony, with a parent hovering behind, is a start.
Yet, there are no harder calls than a parent’s. Every request by my children to be allowed out beyond my self-declared but minimum-logic boundary of the neighbourhood park is an exercise in balancing “risks”, rebelling against every instinct telling me each turn in one’s life is about this. And that the truth is, we may already be living “with” the virus, like we live with those other risks.
But I can hardly claim all the answers. When the school sent a form last week regarding if we wanted to send our Class 10 daughter back to physical classes, we said no. I thought about how I would look her in the face when I put her on the school bus. Later, she told me most parents had said yes. I couldn’t look her in the face still.
National Editor Shalini Langer curates the fortnightly ‘She Said’ column
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