By Sanjay Kapoor
In a country of 1.3 billion people, how many got infected by Coronavirus?
Government estimates suggests about 10 million odd people out of which a majority of them belonged to 4-5 big states. In the last 10 months of the sway of Covid19, it is clear that a majority of the country was not impacted by the pandemic; many citizens across the nation seem to have been more at the receiving end of police brutality and administrative restrictions!
Indeed, many of these areas managed to keep the pandemic at bay either due to alleged high immunity caused by poor adherence to hygiene, as in the case of UP, Bihar and many big city slums (https://theprint.in/health/indias-low-hygiene-gives-it-more-immunity-against-virus-helps-in-covid-fight-csir-study/531801/), or, due to low exposure to outsiders who may have disseminated the virus. This means that if it were not for our compulsive, unhygienic life, due to abysmal social and economic conditions and low-quality governance, millions would have died due to the government’s abjectly lopsided and uninformed decisions.
The questions people kept asking from this roaming writer is that why were they subjected to the strict lockdown and why should they now be vaccinated to protect them — from what?
I traveled to some parts of the country that were seemingly untouched by the virus, but devastated by the lockdown. People are now uncertain about how they should countenance the vaccine. Here is my ground report.
DURING THE LONG period of lockdown and subsequent restrictions imposed by the authorities on the movement of people due to the pandemic, I have taken a few informed risks. After following pandemic-related protocols like wearing a mask, maintaining social distance and staying away from crowded places, I have traveled by road to different parts of the country. My belief has been that as this virus travels through human contact, one could visit certain places by road, especially those places that have shown no or low incidence of infection all these pandemic-scarred months. My early forays out of Coronavirus driven confinement were curated to ensure maximum protection.
My first halt was closer home – three hours away from Delhi. Cognizant that there were no dacoits and no police to chase them, I roved the labyrinthine and meandering ravines of the Chambal river that provided refuge to fugitives from justice once upon a time. I saw birds, crocodiles and dolphins and some human beings — with no masks and no care for the Covid19 virus that was rapidly rolling in the not-so-distant metro.
The journalist in me could not restrain from asking questions everywhere — in the ravines, in village markets and in temples. “How bad is the virus here? Anyone infected in your village?”
Invariably, the reply was: “We have had no outsiders here, so no one has been infected.”
Though authorities had shut down places of worship in this small town, but, for a consideration, the temple’s backdoors were always open for the faithful. The temple priest, a bit hassled, but retaining his poise, said: “There is no Covid here, but the administration decided to shut down our temple. Since then, we do not get any devotees and there is nothing to support us.”
Next halt was the famous bird sanctuary of Bharatpur. Now starkly empty of humans. As migratory birds merrily converged from different parts of the country and from across distant landscapes around the globe, the tourists were strikingly missing. The bedlam that the birds were creating was joyous and elevating, but the mood of those who make a living from taking the tourists for birding was somber.
I had a guide who had followed in the footsteps of his father and done well by taking international groups of birders to different parts of the country. He has his own house with his children going to an ‘English medium school’.
Life looked good till March 2020, when the government shut down everything. Now, there were birds, but no birders to follow them from their expensive binoculars.
“I had a serious problem in giving school fees for my children. I don’t want them to become guides. There is no protection,” he seemed deeply disturbed.
He continues to be puzzled as to why Bharatpur was shut down! “There were no infections in the town and still they chose to shut down the bird sanctuary and our daily lives and livelihood,” he said, with sadness.
Some domestic tourists have begun to return, but the guides stare at the sky not just to track migratory birds, but, also, the flights from foreign lands!
The same story played out during my latest road journey when I traveled by road to Gwalior, Khajuraho and Orccha — about 1,500 kilometers. After months of lockdown, these cities were gingerly waking up to the new reality of low footfalls and low revenues.
Hotel rooms were going at throw-away prices and the promoters and marketing managers were looking at new customers in neighbouring towns, rather than people from big cities who would only travel by air. There was a big correction taking place in businesses and expectations.
In Gwalior, that has been under-sold as a tourist destination over the years, the fear of the virus was still tangibly visible. The city had seen a spike in infection in September. Markets, though open, were missing the crush of people. Gwalior’s legendary fort and other destinations alliterated Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s slogan of ‘local becoming vocal’.
The villages around Gwalior displayed their usual lethargy. “No Corona, no,” a young man responded to my obsessive query.
In Khajuraho, famous for beautiful and precious heritage temples with exquisite, erotic sculptures, built by the Chandelas, tourism has been decisively squelched by the brutality of the pandemic. The few that trickle in are those from neighbouring districts who had earlier shied away from this temple town believing this was only meant for the ‘gora’ tourists.
A veteran employee of Hotel Clarks, Khajuraho, while giving me a head massage after a close haircut, said: “Not just Khajuraho, even Chattarpur did not have a single Coronavirus infection. We are all clean.”
I believed him and happily enjoyed a good head massage, like in the old days.
THIS LONG TRIP to the heart of our country made it amply clear that there could be no uniform Coronavirus strategy for the entire land. Modi committed a grave folly without any understanding of the complex ground reality in a diverse and vast country like India, that of imposing a claustrophobic lockdown on a bewildered 1.3 billion people who didn’t know what hit them.
Millions of migrant workers were not allowed to return to their villages when Coronavirus was limited to Kerala and a few big cities, and, there, too, the numbers were low. When the migrants were finally allowed to return home, they expectedly carried with them the virus and the pandemic, mass despair and hunger, disease and death.
The New York Times article on virus trains (https://www.nytimes.com/2020/12/15/world/asia/india-coronavirus-shramik-specials.html) highlights the tragedy certain mindless decisions imposed on the people. Hopefully, the government will be wiser now and will not choose to have a draconian vaccine policy — that also inoculates those people who basically do not need the vaccine.
Indeed, will people have a choice?
The manner in which the vaccine has been tested on the unsuspecting people of Bhopal does not augur well. That is why, one desperately hopes that good sense will prevail.