Till the demographics shifted again. This time all that scoffing over what had been happening for a long time – on social media and public posts – started turning into a greater albeit quieter discomfort, restricted to family and friends on WhatsApp groups. We did subtle welfare checks, squirmed at some of the uncomfortable crystal-ball gazing by a few and reluctantly took to staying indoors. We bought more masks and sanitizers, selectively wearing the first and overusing the second. We rushed to get scans and blood tests at the first signs of a cough. It all still seemed under control.
Covid-19 cases declined from September 2020 to mid-February 2021. In January, India increased its oxygen exports by 734 percent and dispatched around 193 million doses of vaccines to other countries. By then, most of affluent India had gone back to business as usual, tired of being homebound and primed for the festival season, which had coincided with a dip in infections. Diwali in mid-November 2020 and the new year had tempted us back to roam free. Herd immunity seemed to have been achieved, and believing the worst was behind us, we easily drank in the official claims of having reached an “endgame” as easily as a pint at the local pub or city club.
The shape-changing pressures from different ends – home isolation, travel restrictions, closure of liquor shops, and endless Zoom calls – pushed us right back into avoidable misadventures, fraught with the risk of inhaling our own well-educated ignorance in ill-ventilated spaces. It seemed easy enough to forget the masks in our pockets or leave them at home. All that time, as the brutal second wave was slowly creeping up on us, fueled by micro groups that would go on to become “super-spreaders”, educated Indians hemmed and hawed – and hummed with indignation, continuing to blame everyone but themselves.
After pride, the fall
Then in April 2021, the demographics took a shockingly unexpected turn, as the deadly virus burrowed its way into our family trees and circles of friends. Suddenly, the statistics were not just digits anymore. They were people we knew. People like us. People who had hosted Diwali and Holi parties, who boasted of rock-solid immunity and healthy lifestyles, who had long believed that the spreading disease was someone else’s problem. Suddenly, we were the ones affected.
Us. The educated, well-heeled lot. The ones who would soon scramble to obtain personal oxygen cylinders and concentrators, preventive antibiotics and expensive pulse oximeters. Suddenly we were faced with a lack of access to what we had always taken for granted – a way in, or a way out. Business as usual.
Now we sit stunned in our empty drawing rooms, wondering what happened, our televisions no longer tuned into the cricket but to heartbreaking images from around the country. We recoil from peeking at those WhatsApp messages, afraid of our own shadows and our own mortality, as we brace ourselves for the next piece of global-record-breaking data or bad news.
Two weeks after the worst of it, with more yet to come, the wind is shifting yet again. This disaster – so unimaginably vast in scale – is the worst that any of us alive have ever seen. And being of our collective making, it is now bringing out the worst and best of humanity, not just in this country but across a world stunned by India’s steep decline into chaos and tragedy. The horrendous human cost has been compounded by the socioeconomic impact of the pandemic across the world. According to one report earlier this week, India's second wave has cost 7 million people their jobs, marking a nearly 1.5 percentage point spike in the country's overall unemployment rate over the past month. And that is just one unfortunate data point.
On a day that India has crossed the 400,000 mark in daily positive cases of Covid-19 for the first time ever, with nearly 4,000 deaths in the past 24 hours, I write this reflection as a distressed yet proud Indian. It is plain even now to see that there is as much to celebrate about the collective Indian conscience as there is to deride. I write this in hope and gratitude, as someone who spent nearly two terrifying months on a ventilator two years ago.
Gasping for air has become as petrifying a reality as the failure of our collective imaginations – or the lack of a modern, progressive healthcare strategy – as we struggle to overcome our collective despair in the face of an indiscriminating pandemic. We need less fear, including the spreading of near hysteria, both in the domestic and global press, about India and its failure to cope. We chose to ignore an impending and possibly avoidable national disaster. But it is here now, and so are we. And we need to get through it.