That flight can wait

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That flight can wait

Sunday, 08 November 2020 | Miniya Chatterji

That flight can wait

We have a vicious circle, a game of ‘passing the virus’, across socio-economic groups. The break from this pattern depends to a large extent on those belonging to higher income groups by way of practicing restraint and caution

Six months ago India had 3,500 Covid-19 cases. At that time, India was under lockdown and one evening millions beat their plates congratulating Indians for successfully staying home. Six months ago it would have been unthinkable to step out of the safety at home, take a flight (wearing the PPE kit) to Mumbai which continues to be India’s Covid-19 hotspot, and supervise a construction site full of people, who too have ultimately chosen to step out to work. But this is precisely what a family member will do this week, at a time when we need to be more careful than ever in a country with over 8,267,623 cases such that one has greater chances to run into infected people now than one was six months ago.

Offices have opened even if hospital beds are full. Roads are packed with traffic even if greater number of people need to be quarantined indoors. Flights are on despite the high risk of giving the virus to a co-passenger. We are clearly living in a dystopian world.

Ask anyone in your circles who is out and about the reason, and it is likely that many of them will tell you about lockdown fatigue. The more people realise that Covid-19 is here to stay for a while more, the more they feel that life must go on with or without Covid-19.

“Covid-19 is not a fatal disease,” I have often been told. “Kids will go crazy and drive us crazy if kept with us indoors,” a parent once told me. “I need to step out to earn a living,” said a family member. This is not just in India. “Cases have risen again in Switzerland and we have another lockdown. But, thankfully, the day care for our baby is open this time round, so it is more manageable,” a friend told me. Some others these days also point to data that suggests that the Covid-19 curve in India has bent and daily new cases are declining since mid-September in the country, and so it is alright to step out. All of them belong to high income groups.

These are all very sound reasons to get on with life out of our homes, except that these are also great examples of our impressive capability to find reason for actions we desire rather than actions that will keep us safe. 

Increasingly more of my friends and acquaintances are out and about, and they are also increasingly being either infected or seem to know those in their immediate circles who are Covid-19 infected. Now this is a fairly logical correlation to make — Covid-19 is a fast spreading virus and more you get in contact with others the more you are bound to catch it. The lack of information as well as new mutations of the virus make it impossible for us to make assumptions that wearing a mask or keeping some distance from people while interacting, will protect us. Indeed all we need to do is stop meeting people for a few months of our life until there is a vaccine (or other such solution).

We do not know how long this will take — but is this unpredictability not the very characteristic of difficult times we all have certainly encountered in our lives? Times that are tough and difficult do seem that they will never end until we know better when difficult times finally recede. However, my point is that lack of caution leading to more cases is explicable.

What is less comprehensible is that how are the numbers of Covid-19 cases in India decreasing when around me — and perhaps around the readers of this piece — more numbers of people are getting infected? I hear more numbers of friends and their friends and family getting infected, than ever before. Yet the total number of Covid-19 cases in India are declining. Why are the national numbers in India not matching the news in my social circles?

This was an interesting question in a chat group (equivalent these days to a live conversation) that echoed my bafflement. The members of this chat group were people like me who are engaged in the fight against Covid-19 in India. They, like me, were also all members of high income groups. We and our family members are more likely to take flights, go to offices, and return to social entertainment.

In India, the high income groups are smaller in number compared to the larger proportion of India’s population which is the economically weaker sections and slums from where we have been told with great euphoria that the cases have stabilised to a large extent.

The latter perhaps explains why the overall national numbers have been recently declining. However, what we do know is that higher income groups have clearly had enough of social distancing and Covid-19 wariness, forgetting that it was precisely them who, by their travel and various socio-professional activities, are responsible for the unprecedented global spread of the virus. 

So if we indeed have a situation where Covid-19 cases have moved from the economically weaker groups where the majority of India’s population is, to the higher economic groups that have fewer numbers but possibly where the majority of our social circles are, how long will it take for the economically weaker group to be re-infected?

A plausible answer is that this mass infection will take three months which is approximately when the immunity will wear off.

Here we have a perfect vicious circle, a game of ‘passing the virus’ across socio-economic groups. The pandemic started with people who travelled internationally, so indeed it infected the high income groups first who then spread it to the large numbers of economically weaker groups. However each time these economically weaker groups gain immunity for two or three months the case load will decline, but then this will lead to the higher income groups lowering their caution as well as we are seeing in current times.

I do not wish to add more worrying news to the daily Covid-19 stress. Yet at this time the break from this vicious circular pattern once again depends to a large extent on those belonging to higher income groups. We need to focus only on essential physical meetings with people for some time longer. For now dump that flight, work meeting, family trip out.

The writer is CEO of Sustain Labs and Adjunct Professor at SciencesPo Paris. She is also a columnist and author of the 2019 bestseller Indian Instincts — essays on freedom and equality in India

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