Special: India is learning to accept the record Covid cases
Lockdowns have set off debates about inequality, class privilege and how policy-makers fail to find a balanced approach to manage the crisis.
Last week, I was at this grocery store in the southern part of my city, Bengaluru, for a packet of milk. This is where I usually get all the neighbourhood gossip as men sit around sipping tea from paper cups and discuss everything that's wrong, and sometimes right, with the world. The rope barrier between the counter and the customer, in place since the initial round of social distancing guidelines in connection with the Covid-19 outbreak, was not a barrier any more.
A wiry, bearded man removes the piece of cloth he has on as a face-mask, to ask the shopkeeper for a mobile phone data plan. It's a lot more than what he usually tops up for, the shopkeeper tells him. The man replies that it's for his daughter who's now attending her school online. I had been reading extensively on how the pandemic was preparing us for the New Normal but I'm not sure if all that writing could give me a greater understanding of this new, evolving normal.
With its number of Covid-19 infections crossing 4.2 million on Sunday, India has gone past Brazil and it now stands second among the worst-affected countries, behind the United States which has reported over six million cases. India reported its first million cases 169 days after its first case; its fourth million took just 13 days.
The Sunday spike - the country clocked over 90,000 cases in 24 hours, a record high in daily numbers - came three days after the WHO confirmed that none of the candidate vaccines that are in advanced clinical trials had shown "a clear signal of efficacy".
As on Tuesday, the country has recorded over 71,000 Covid-19 deaths. The case curve is showing no signs of a downward bend, reinfection cases are being reported and most of the states continue to hit new daily highs. Experts have been recommending a substantially higher number of tests but there are questions regarding the scope of ramped-up testing in a country of 1.3 billion people. President Ram Nath Kovind, in his televised Independence Day address in August, had talked about the country's "superhuman effort" in addressing the crisis.
Even as a polarised political narrative continues to play out around the alleged under-reporting of cases and the Bharatiya Janata Party-led union government's preparedness in addressing the social and economic impact of the still-unfolding crisis, India is grappling with the possibility of a long-drawn engagement with this pandemic.
There's a sense of grim inevitability that's now pushing the country to, finally, reconcile with what some of its campaign-mode administrators had said during the initial stages of the outbreak - don't panic, but be alert.
Some of the media reports on the Sunday numbers came with headlines that also accommodated the partial, socially-distanced resumption of Metro services across the country. Competitive college examinations are back on schedule. The wedding industry is seeking an amendment of guidelines to allow more attendees at the events. Last week, police arrested 54 people in Ludhiana in the state of Punjab for organizing a pool party.
Conversations around the pandemic are now less about a possible launch date for the vaccine and are drifting to healthier lifestyles and the need for more mental health helplines, as we give in to the cold certainty of living with the virus.
Studies have shown a spike in mental health disorders. Metropolitan cities have also reported post-recovery exhaustion and stress but there are also new, more optimistic spins to what could be this life in a bubble, constantly switched on alert. There's renewed interest in the idea of herd immunity, people talk more about Moving On and even with all the mounting fears - there has been a reported rise in purchase of security apps for gated communities - and vulnerability, there are also signs of new-found balance.
Development economist Jean Dreze says recorded Covid-19 cases in India are likely to be a "small fraction" of all infections. In an article in Scientific American, in August, Dreze also writes that the poorer states in India with fragile health services face the threat of a rise in overall mortality since the pandemic has severely affected routine health services in these states.
Economists have been critical of the government's handling of the crisis, most of it drawn from its announcement of an extended lockdown that they point out has failed to check the case count. Lockdowns implemented by state governments, in phases, till August have set off debates about inequality, class privilege and how policy-makers fail to find a balanced approach to manage the crisis.
The big headlines of the week are not exclusively COVID. The death of actor Sushant Singh Rajput continues to fuel divisive mainstream and social media debates. India's first 'lockdown film' - the Malayalam language thriller C U Soon - is winning the raves. There's cricket coming up, with the Indian Premier League set to open in the UAE.
The lockdown experiment, coupled with a generous dose of tokenism and pseudo-science, now looks like a thing of the past. India is learning to accept the numbers as they are and the possibility of an extended phase of transition. This is not the sort of fatalism inspired by assurance or hope; it's more a choice necessitated by a dearth of choices.
The writer is a senior journalist based in India.
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