According to an ANI report this Saturday (September 12) morning, the past 24 hours saw 97,570 new cases of people infected with Covid-19, with the national tally now crossing the 46 lakh mark. Although the gap between the percentage of recovered cases and percentage of active cases is getting wider, with nearly 36 lakh recovered and discharged, it is undeniable that the situation is grim.
Anecdotal evidence tells us that there is no pattern to how the pandemic has affected individuals infected by the fearful virus. Some have experienced nothing more debilitating than a serious bout of flu while others — who were otherwise healthy and had age on their side — have succumbed to the pandemic. There is just no telling how Covid-19 will treat an individual. To me, as a layman, it seems like a game of Russian roulette, a matter of pure chance.
There also seems absolutely no clear indication how long the pandemic will persist. UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson is very contrite that a fresh outbreak has meant that the Government has outlawed gatherings of more than six people. This effectively means that this year’s Christmas celebrations will be subdued and depressing, especially for older people who wait a full year for this family reunion. Fines are being threatened on those who choose to violate official guidelines. There are also suggestions that the pandemic will persist until April-May of 2021, by which time the long-awaited vaccine may have been discovered and marketed for global use. President Donald Trump, of course, hopes that the vaccine will be ready before Americans choose their next President in November.
The universal suggestion to all people is to be “sensible”, maintain social distancing, wear a mask, wash hands frequently and, if possible, bolster immunity. Unfortunately, the definition of being sensible varies enormously. In the US and, to some extent, Germany, there are people who feel that wearing masks is a symbol of political capitulation. That seems idiotic but it is nevertheless true. There are others who have abandoned all pretence of social distancing and want to persist with normal lives. Some of this may be a function of economic necessity but
Take the curious case of next month’s Durga Puja —the pre-eminent festival of Bengali Hindus. While some organisations have chosen to curtail the festivities, even to the extent of organising virtual pujas, for others it is life as usual. In West Bengal, from all accounts, the Durga Puja celebrations may be marginally less grand but the street celebrations and the overcrowding of puja venues are likely to be the same. The West Bengal Government has been persisting with a series of lockdowns — the dates appear to be chosen quixotically and often with a political purpose — but the implementation of the lockdowns is uneven. In particular, the State Government appears to have failed in persuading people to go slow with their daily morning trips to the bazars.
This, however, isn’t an Indian problem. In large parts of Europe, the obsession with the summer holidays has definitely led to a second outbreak. In the US, to cite another example, there are very divergent approaches to the presidential election in November. The Republicans — which also include people who see the mandatory use of masks as an assault of individual freedom — are going about political rallies, as if the pandemic really didn’t exist, while the Democrats are a little more restrained and careful. However, supporters of the Democratic Party show remarkably less inhibition in staging violent street protests.
A larger question centres on the role of Governments in fighting the pandemic. When the pandemic first hit the ground, there were conflicting prescriptions offered by public health experts. There were some that preferred the “Swedish model” of minimum disruption and normal social life whereas others preferred the more drastic option of lockdowns — first witnessed in China’s Wuhan and Northern Italy. While neither of these two approaches managed to secure their professed objectives, they were both based on advice by “experts”. Governments have inevitably bowed to so-called scientific advice in taking measures to fight the pandemic.
The grim truth, alas, is that there is no conclusive scientific advice. Like us laymen, the scientists too appear to be whistling in the dark. There are just too many conflicting scientific advice for Governments to know which one to pick. Consequently, what seems a political blunder is actually an inadequacy of science. The pandemic has exposed the shortcomings of scientific certitudes.
Does this mean that recklessness is the best policy. There are, for instance, those who believe that strutting around without a mask, denying the reality of a pandemic and falling back on unorthodox remedies such as cow’s urine are signs of wisdom. This is so reminiscent of people during the Black Death of the 13th century when some people reposed faith in a blend of prayer and acquired immunity from an hour or so of inhaling the vile air of stinking toilets. Presumably, some of these innovators survived the plague while others succumbed to it. It is probably going to be the same with Covid-19.
In the end the world is praying that the wonder drug arrives before the world goes into a tailspin.