As I was writing this column on Sunday night, the “janata curfew” (people’s curfew) and the beating of plates and applause had ended. The world’s largest democracy has set a standard that other countries can learn from. Sunday will be remembered as the day of awakening of Indians, but it remains to be seen whether we can vanquish the coronavirus disease (Covid-19).
The country is in a lockdown mode. The railways have suspended operations and the highways are deserted. As of now, 19 states and two Union Territories have declared a lockdown. On Sunday, the Union government recommended the lockdown of 75 districts where the virus has been detected, and this number is increasing. Some have formalised it while others have informally decided to extend the period of the janata curfew. Uttar Pradesh chief minister, Yogi Adityanath, has asked people to prepare for a prolonged curfew. Political leadership is tested times of crisis like this. It is heartening that our central and state governments have acquitted themselves well so far.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi has emerged as a jannayaka (strong mass leader). But there are tough times ahead, at the very least for the next month. His popularity will be determined by how he deals with this crisis. The call for a people’s curfew was an initiative to steer citizens towards the path of self-regulation without creating unnecessary fears. It was a success. It is also encouraging to learn that the government had started preparing to deal with the outbreak from the last week of December. As the danger increased, these preparations were constantly finessed.
India has faced many hardships and disasters from floods to droughts. But these did not affect the whole country in the same way. Natural disasters are generally confined to one or the other part of the country. While the rest of the country would be concerned, it did not affect daily life across the nation. Wars may have affected the whole country, but they did not last long. The virus is a hidden threat, and often when it makes its presence felt, it is too late. The world has rarely, if ever, faced such a lethal threat. Till now, the developed countries and superpowers were largely unaffected by such epidemics. But this time, the crisis has hit them hard.
Public awareness is a major tool in the fight to contain this outbreak. In the initial phase, India has been successful in this.
However, it would be foolish to imagine that the danger has been averted. Right now, the third phase, which is community transmission, has not begun in India, according to the government. If we can halt it in time, this would constitute a spectacular success, not just for India but the world. Some sceptics are raising the question how India will deal with the pandemic when it does not even have the basic health care parameters in place.
These people forget that even when we were ruled by the British, we had robust social traditions to fight infectious diseases. Village households did not have running water, and soap was an alien concept to people. But in the courtyard of every household, fresh soil from the farm was stored on one side.
Those who came from outside had to wash their hands thrice with this soil and had to wash their feet as well. There were certain traditional methods of preparing food which many might term orthodox but which served the purpose of ensuring cleanliness and hygiene. I remember a time when in wealthy homes, the men ate wearing just one piece of clothing and women did not enter the kitchen without bathing.
Similarly, if a person suffered from cholera, smallpox or tuberculosis, he would be kept away from home in a separate dwelling.
Only a very limited number of family members were allowed contact with the sick person. Before entering and exiting the patient’s room, bathing was mandatory. The comforts we enjoy today have undoubtedly made us safer than in the past, but we have also forgotten some of our best practices. Such disasters serve to not just remind us of these traditions, and but could hopefully lead us to adopt some of them again.
The blow from the coronavirus disease will hurt us long after it has been contained. The pandemic will distort all social and economic equations. But that is a discussion for a later day. At the moment, we need to focus our energies on dealing with this problem so that the disease does not move into a more aggressive phase.