Imphal Review of Arts and Politics


Surgical Strikes and not Complete Lockdowns will Have to be the Resort in Further COVID fight

While dreams of grand theories which offer complete explanations to any particular human crisis is welcome, the fact is nothing can be perfect or constant, not even grand theories. As so many have suggested in their own ways, we all have to admit, sooner the better too, that the only thing constant in life is change. We must not be fickle, but we must be amenable to change. Austria born British philosopher Karl Popper put this idea across beautifully in an essay “All Life is Problem Solving” occurring in a collection of essays by the same title, (Routledge Classic). His assertion is based on the truism that all life forms want to live and guarantee the survival of their species. Looking at this proposition from the opposite end of the prism, problems solving strategies adopted by different life forms can be seen as the index of the evolutionary sophistication each has acquired. For an amoeba, the strategy is instinctive and linear, predetermined solely by genetic coding. They will follow a known trajectory like water finding the path of least resistance, and when a new hurdle is put up along this path, they will continue to run into the hurdle and be blocked or else perish, until like water, another path opens up for them to flow.
No points for guessing COVID-19 predictably is demonstrating this. We now know the path it follows and also how the hurdle of effective social distancing can rob them of their virulence. The virus will not have the intelligence to devise a way to overcome this hurdle and hence it is only if we let our guards down that the virus can spread further. As we move up the evolutionary ladder, problem solving capabilities quite obviously become more sophisticated and non-linear. Humans are at the apex of this ladder. Not only can they experiment different strategies to solve the same problem, they also have the unique ability to distance themselves from the experiments they conduct to devise ways to solve their problems. Trial and error methods can have costly consequences, and sometimes prove disastrous, but humans by their gift of abstract mathematical thinking can extrapolate from known data and conduct experiments without becoming part of the experiments, for in the latter scenario, if an experiment fails, those in the experiment will perish with the experiment. This is in a way an acknowledgment of humans that no theory is infallible, and Popper even says the best thinkers – he uses Einstein as an example – are the first to question their own theories, leaving room for their perpetual improvement. On this metric, the thinking in the Manipur administration in matters of the COVID battle does not seem to have gone beyond the trial and error strategy. Extrapolative thinking and abstract experimentations with an aim to continually innovate strategies seem missing so far.
A few examples unfolding before our eyes should serve as evidence of this lacuna. First example is the lockdown, now nearly six months old. Even when it first began in March, there was something superfluous about it. It was quite obvious at the time that the only way the virus could reach the state was through people returning home as the virus did not originate here. Since this was so, strictly monitoring and quarantining returnees until the virus exhausted its gestation cycle should have been the resort, instead of locking down the whole state thereby causing unnecessary exhaustion of energy and resources of the population and the state. While the quarantine of returnees was in place, the rest of the population should have been allowed to go about their normal lives but with strictly mandated precautionary measures such as social distancing and facemasks while in public spaces. This way, if and when the fight got tougher, the population would still have adequate reserve of energy to fight on. Now, when it does seem the virus has slipped into the population at certain pockets – probably because of indiscipline amongst some exposed to the virus, combined with the inadequacy of the official COVID screening process – the population are fatigued and their will to fight on considerably diminished.
Even now, in the face of some evidence of community transmission, the non-linear way of looking at a solution should be in the nature of surgical strikes aimed at containing the pockets where the virus seemingly has entered community spaces. This should be followed up by a regime of aggressive testing and tracing out of those who may have come in contact with anybody found positive, and then treating them. During these surgical strikes, though the lockdowns are localised geography, disciplined precautionary measures outside of the containment zones must remain mandatory for all. This is with the aim to ensure life does not come to a grinding halt everywhere, leading to extreme consequences. The latest guidelines issued by the WHO also very much says this, calling complete lockdowns blunt weapons, prone to injure and traumatise more than necessary. We hope the state authorities will take heed of this advice and are ready to rectify accordingly. COVID must be defeated but to the extent possible without letting the economy suffer irreparable damages.
Another area where response rigidity can be broken was indicated by protests at the JNIMS isolation ward by COVID positive patients. Although it was always known most of the COVID positive cases in Manipur are asymptomatic, nowhere did this become more apparent than at this protest over poor facilities and care. None of those who came out to make their resentment known can be described as ill although they tested positive. This being so, they could very well have remained in special quarantine centres with constant monitoring so that if any of them developed symptoms and became ill, they could be immediately transferred to a designated hospitals. This should ease pressures on the hospitals considerably, leaving them with more energy to look after not just COVID cases, but also all other patients.
The other disturbing development is the recurrent news of some sections of health workers in the state refusing to do their assigned duties especially when dealing with COVID positive patients even when provided full Personal Protection Equipment. Social media is rife with these stories with picture and video evidences. Then came the shocking news of the death of a pregnant young lady from Noney District after being refused admission in five different hospitals in Imphal, government and private. This is demoralising for everyone in this fight, and the government must invoke the disaster management act 2005 to ensure these shameful episodes do not repeat. There no doubt have also been stories of bravery and heroism of health workers going out of their ways to help others in distress, the most recent of these is a doctor in PPE fainting out of fatigue at JNIMS Hospital. However, the balance sheet at the moment seems to favour the cowardly class, not just amongst health workers, but the public at large as well. Everybody seems more interested in their individual welfare even at the cost of the larger common good, and this is unfortunate, for what is abandoned is the sense that we are all in this fight together.
It is difficult not to be reminded of the 1997 Hollywood blockbuster, “Titanic”, based on a real life tragedy in which a luxury liner Titanic, once considered unsinkable, hit an iceberg on its maiden journey and sank with its passengers in the cold Atlantic in 1912. Critics were quick to notice that the attraction of the movie was not just its story or screenplay, but a curiosity of the audience to see the depiction of responses of ordinary people like themselves when faced with the distinct possibility of death. At such singular moments, the outer masks all humans wear drop and their true inner personalities show up – cowardly, heroic, treacherous, helpful, selfish, generous, cruel, compassionate etc. In this sense the movie encouraged the audience to have a peep into their own souls, and imagine how they would themselves have responded in such a situation, and this was what gave the movie its fatal attraction. Amidst the present COVID crisis, Manipur is witnessing a similar drama, starting right from the time the first patient showed up. The cowardly and heroic traits in us are all showing up unmistakably. While human nature cannot change overnight, we do wish better senses prevail, and even the meanest will be able to realise that there is a distinction between selfishness and what is referred to as “enlightened self-interest” and that selfishness goes against the latter. The latter says that the sacrifices that each of us are called upon to make towards the greater common good, is ultimately meant to serve each of our self-interest. The traffic example best illustrates this. If each driver observes rules by sacrificing their instinct to drive as they please in order to be one ahead, the road will be available for everybody to drive smoothly. If on the other hand each decides to break these codes and begin driving as they please, traffic anarchy will be the result.

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