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The Covid-19 Crisis and the Failure of Educated India

Thursday, May 6, 2021

In a personal reflection on the ongoing Covid-19 crisis in India, writer and communications strategist Preeti Singh argues that the complacency and heedless behavior of well-educated Indians in response to the pandemic have led to the perilous and desperate situation the country is now in.

The Covid-19 Crisis and the Failure of Educated India

Struggling to breathe, struggling to survive: With hospital beds filled, coronavirus patients take oxygen in a makeshift communal facility in Ghaziabad, Uttar Pradesh (Credit: PradeepGaurs / Shutterstock.com)

I finally watched the Hollywood movie Contagion last month. Finding myself at the “extreme-risk” end of the spectrum, it took me an entire year in isolation to muster the courage and look at the way the imagined global pandemic played out. In India, when we were first hit with news of a virus that had started spreading its tentacles around the world, a lot of people had referenced the almost unbelievable similarities with the 2011 film – art imitating life imitating art. Like the movie’s punchline, it was like watching the disaster unfold in reverse.

In those early days, it was quite common to hear the refrain that this was an isolated and manageable “disease”. Or that it was affecting people who were traveling to or from the country. So, first we dubbed it as an upper-middle-class phenomenon, leaving the majority of the Indian middle class and lower-income groups largely untouched. We dismissed or downplayed the failure of more advanced Western healthcare systems to deal with its surreal spread, largely unafraid of catching it in suitably distant India, though of course the virus had started its insidious journey just next door.

We were oblivious and complacent – till the news of the first few infections started trickling in. Till the first reported deaths from Covid-19. Till the demographic factors of the rapidly spreading disease took over.

I remember a sociology teacher in Delhi almost two decades ago. She once asked a bunch of boys in our coaching class whether they would accept a dowry from a rich girl’s family. She then promptly told all those who had answered “yes” to stand up and leave the room but not before she had explained the logic behind irresponsible societal behavior by those who have the power or influence. The rich and educated, she said, set unfortunate precedents and expectations that the illiterate or lower-income groups are ill equipped to understand, even as they are forced to follow what they presume to be the accepted norms or well-informed prescriptions.

This is exactly how well-heeled India failed the rest of the nation. No one – least of all educated, middle-class India – was willing to press the panic button until it was too late.

Test kits were easily available only a few weeks ago. Most labs could tell you in a day, two at most, whether you had caught the potentially lethal bug. Medicines and some home remedies would help us see it through, we were told, and we chose to believe the easier explanations for its spread: bad hygiene, overpopulated pockets, illiteracy, lack of education.

On another front, insurance companies were offering to cover our hospitalization costs under Covid-19 add-ons. Vaccinations had begun around the globe, and we were well on our way to flattening the curve. So, we bought those policies, a host of immunity boosters, trendy face masks and fancy hand sanitizers – using everything but well-informed, functional awareness against a deadly and highly infectious virus.

Amid the coronavirus crisis, elderly queue for pension payments in Beawar, Rajasthan (Credit Sumit Saraswat / Shutterstock.com)

Amid the coronavirus crisis, elderly queue for pension payments in Beawar, Rajasthan (Credit Sumit Saraswat / Shutterstock.com)

Armed with our confidence and our newly bought coronavirus kitbags, we continued to labour under a false sense of bravado, as we tracked weekly statistics on our phones. Things were bad, but not quite for people like us. The virus had moved from being an upper middle-class concern to one of the lower-income groups. It plied the dusty slums and cramped bylanes – and multiplied. We believed we would “manage” if circumstances got any hairier – manage to get a bed in our preferred private hospital, to buy expensive albeit easily available over-the-counter (OTC) antibiotics and other medicines, given India’s lax rules governing pharmaceuticals. And manage to get a doctor’s appointment.

We still believed we would generously be able to give up our place in line to someone older or more in need – so they could breathe, so they could survive.

What we did was continue what we have mostly done in times of national turmoil – blame the powers that be and lament the irresponsibility of a few. We largely felt free of blame. Everyone else was fair game.

The international media was exaggerating the situation and stirring up global hysteria and opprobrium. The Indian media was biased. The opposition was trying to score a few cheap points in an election year. Depending on whom you asked, the government was either trying its best or failing miserably in developing a strategy to tackle the spread. This was the chatter in drawing-room discussions, wedding celebrations and private parties that were surprisingly back in full swing by the close of 2020.

Maskless, reckless, senseless

As the disease burden on an overpopulated and asymmetrically privileged nation slowly started to climb, the first tentative stirrings of discomfort appeared. Many of us, who had, in the past, written or argued about the need for greater spend on public health – more hospitals and doctors, more beds, wider primary care, responsive emergency services, better training institutes, among other things – were suddenly horrified at what was happening around us, just as we had been about the dire but distant data-driven scenarios we saw playing out and roundly condemned. No one else seemed too worried about it so we kept our suspicions to ourselves for fear of being fearmongers.

We should have known better. We went to school and college, studied hygiene and biology, learnt about the Spanish flu and followed analyses from the countries that were worst hit in the first wave. We had even explained the initial situation to those who could not understand the world around them anymore, including our domestic help. And then we went ahead and forgot all that just as easily as we did our school lessons.

As for the politics, the performance of most political parties bordered on tragicomedy: “Do as I do, not as I say”. Karma-loving India should have known better. Every time, people gathered in the name of religion or democracy, such as at the Kumbh festival or election rallies, most leaders, familiar faces to their unsuspecting crowds, refused to set an example by wearing masks or maintaining social distance under the public gaze.

The cricket must go on: India faces off with England in Ahmedabad, Gujarat (Credit: BCCI)

The cricket must go on: India faces off with England in Ahmedabad, Gujarat (Credit: BCCI)

Then there was the cricket – a religion in this country. The latest season of the Indian Premier League was (finally) called off, indefinitely, after a handful of players and coaches tested positive for Covid-19. Cricket is a close-contact team sport, and we have always known that. It is also a spectator sport unlike any other, in a country obsessed by it. In supposedly better times, in mid-March this year, an India-England Twenty20 (T20, a short format of the game) match in a swanky new stadium in the prime minister’s home state of Gujarat brought 57,000 people together, reported to be the largest public gathering since the beginning of Covid-19 restrictions. Many of us made conscious choices to be a part of such well-appointed crowds.

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.

Opinions expressed in articles published by AsiaGlobal Online reflect only those of the authors and do not necessarily represent the views of AsiaGlobal Online or the Asia Global Institute

Author

Preeti Singh

Preeti Singh

Writer and communications strategist

Preeti Singh is a journalist, editor and communications specialist, based in India. She has worked as a senior advisor at 9.9 Insights (an independent strategic advisor of the Washington DC-based Albright Stonebridge Group), as a journalist in both print and digital media, and as a business editor and researcher. She has two decades of experience at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses (a premier national defence and security think tank), as part of the op-ed team at The Hindustan Times, India’s leading news media house, and as an editor in integrated media companies, 9.9 Media and BW Businessworld. She holds a master’s degree in Indian history and an M.Phil. in disarmament studies and was a Chevening Gurukul Scholar at the London School of Economics and Political Science – the British government’s flagship leadership program for young Indian achievers. She edits nonfiction books and teaches business writing and communications in various management programs.


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