India’s COVID-19 spread curve has not flattened after a month and a half of tough lockdown. At the time of writing, the confirmed infection number has touched 59,642 and the number of deceased stands at 1985. This translate to 3.44 percent death rate. While this may be seen as encouraging as compared to the death rates in many European countries and America, in the Asian context, this percentage is generally the average, so nothing very much to be complacent. The only consolation is, of all those who became ill of disease, 17,884 have already recovered. We do hope most, if not all, of those unfortunate to have contracted the contagion already will recover. The tough question however is, why has the curve not flattened in India at the end of nearly one and half months of lockdowns in three spells? Now that it is known that the incubation period of the virus before symptoms show up on infected people is 14 days, a lockdown of more than 14 days should have been enough to find out the location of the prevalence of the virus. This should mean, in the one and a half months of lockdown so far, not only all those who were infected should have become known, but even in the case of some who are asymptomatic carries, the people they infected would have shown symptoms by now. In fact, three generations of the chain of infection (even if the chain was able to extend to a third generation of recipients), should have become known definitively by now. This would also have meant, if all worked as planned, after the first 21-days lockdown beginning March 25 and ending April 15, the map of the spread of the virus should have become somewhat clear so that a calibrated lockdown and not a total nationwide lockdown was possible. If this were so, only some districts and cities of India could have been kept contained while the rest of this vast country is opened up in degrees, depending on the way the local curves of the spread of the virus flattened or dipped. Something of this is being done after the second phase lockdown, states and regions of the country are marked “Red”, “Orange” and “Green” zones, where “Red” signifies hotbed of the virus, “Orange” signifies flattened curve, and “Green” signifies clean of the virus, but an air of uncertainty still hangs over the accuracy of this zoning process.
What can be more unfortunate than those charting out the battleplan not able to trust their own judgement. The fear still seems to be that the virus could have spread beyond patients who have been recorded and monitored. Considering COVID testing has been far from extensive, this is not at all an impossibility. This realisation probably has led to a nagging suspicion that there could have been people in distant villages and districts, spread across the country, who fell ill or died of COVID without being recorded therefore the possibility the virus is still spreading beyond the radars of the official trackers. Let us consider this scenario. Every year on the average about 10 million, or one crore people die in India. This translates to nearly 28,000 people dying daily. Against this figure, the recorded COVID deaths of 1985 people during the 40 days of lockdown would mean a mere 50 people or so dying daily. As all of us are witnessing, even as the graph heads towards a peak, the COVID death rate in the country is only about 100-150 a day. What if some of the 28,000 other deaths were also COVID related but not recorded, and this is quite possible in a country where the modern state’s ritualistic responsibility of acquiring birth and death certificates are still very limited in practice.
Some unacknowledged truths should give a clue as to why this is happening. First, the COVID radars in the country were set up rather late in the day. Lockdown began on March 25, although the first three cases of COVID were recorded in India on January 30. In fact, if the alarm bell was not set off by the Tablighi Jamaat congregation, which indeed became one of the hotbeds of the virus on account of the presence of some infected foreigners, the country probably would have delayed its emergency response even more. But starting the COVID response late is not the only blunder. Identification method of hotbeds of the virus, many now are realising, could be as big, if not bigger, blunder. According to estimates, besides the Tablighi Jamaat incident, there were at least nine other hotbeds across India, most of them emanating out of religious congregations at Punjab, Andhra Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh etc. The most atrocious of these is however, they say, the Namaste Trump event on February 24 at a packed stadium in Ahmedabad in which many foreigners were also present. This was after a road rally of BJP supporters in the city on the same day. The Gujarat Congress has charged this is what brought the pandemic into the state but leaving political mudslinging aside, this event will remain as another virus hotbed suspect, as indeed, Gujarat and adjacent Madhya Pradesh and Maharashtra, from where the crowd in the stadium event would have been drawn, are today proving to be where COVID has struck the harshest. Even a cursory glance at the COVID timeline worldwide would also support this. The WHO had already on February 11 declared COVID a world health emergency calling for international travel restrictions, though it declared the disease a pandemic a month later on March 11. It is also now known that it was on January 13 that the first case of COVID outside of China was reported and by February it had begun spreading in Europe and America besides Asia.
The contention is, all these events, including Namaste Trump, should have been put on the country’s COVID radar, but this was not to be. Instead, India’s hyper religious nationalism promoted by the present regime took over, and all blames and focus were put on just one event – Tablighi Jamaat – resulting in a vengeful hounding of participants as if dealing with sworn enemies. If not for the hate and vindictiveness with which this tracking was conducted, there is no doubt this was a needed resort. Now, it can be said that all participants of the Tablighi Jamaat and their contacts have been traced. Many were found ill, some have even died, but at least further spread from them have been contained. Equally intensive scrutiny and tracking ought to have been done with the other likely hotspots so that all possible routes of spread of the virus were known and blocked at the very start. The best thing of course remains for the authorities to not have allowed any of these congregation at all, for all of them came after COVID had been declared a health emergency. The price for all these blunders is, we are now left in an unenviable situation of the COVID curve not flattening even as we come to the end of Phase 3 lockdown. The idea of “karma” that all oriental religions, in particular Buddhism, believe in seems to be at work here. In Manipuri, this idea of karma is expressed thus: “micha sisnu ninglaga, icha sibani” (wishing death for other people’s children, results in your own children dying).
Editor, Imphal Review of Arts and Politics and author