We have been irresponsible and all of us are in the same immoral equilibrium.
The SARS-CoV-2 virus, which originated in China in 2019 to cause the Covid-19 pandemic across the world, is now on its second wave in India. In early March 2021, there were indications that the virus was under control, with the data for the week ending 1 March 2021 indicating that the total cases across the country had reduced to about 15,000 cases per day. This was a steep drop from the over 90,000 cases per day, witnessed in September 2020, and gave the government at the Centre as well as those in the states a false feeling that India had achieved herd immunity and the worst was behind us. While even 15,000 cases per day may seem to be very large, for a country the size of India, with a population of over 130 crore, it was, in percentage terms, far lower than the rates achieved by the advanced countries across the globe.
Consequently, in the first week of March, India was being hailed for its handling of the pandemic. But all that was set to change in a short span of time. The health ministries, manned by seasoned bureaucrats, both in the Centre and in the states, evidently threw caution to the winds, believing the worst to be over. They’re culpable. The farmers were continuing with their agitation, paying scant attention to protective measures. Cricket became a big draw for some of the matches with the visiting English team, elections were announced in the states that had to go to the polls, and the Kumbh festival, where millions of devotees congregate, was given the green signal. Across the length and breadth of the country, there was this immoral equilibrium displayed by all political parties, the Central and state administrations, the intelligentsia, the corporate sector and the public at large. We became careless, and now we are paying the price.
By mid-March, the average daily cases on a week-to-week basis had risen to 23,500 and rose further to average 65,000 cases per day by 1 April. The steep rise in figures was a wake-up call which should have been heeded. This was the time when the panic button should have been pressed. The elections in the states should have been postponed, the agitating farmers told to go home and all religious festivals curtailed. Yes, there would have been an outcry by all civil society groups, but tough measures were the need of the hour. By mid April, the average weekly cases had tripled to 175,000 cases per day, and current trends indicate that they will rise to over 4,00,000 cases per day by the end of the month. On 22 April itself, we had a record 314,835 cases, which necessitated the intervention of both the Apex Court as well as the Election Commission of India.
All of us, the Central and the state governments, the civil administration looking after the health sector, the media, the intelligentsia and the lay public, all are culpable, some more than others—but let us face the fact that it is our collective responsibility. We have been irresponsible and all of us are in the same immoral equilibrium.
But it is yet not too late to change. There is inherent strength in our people and we shall overcome. Henceforth, for the next 12 months at least, let all religious activity be restricted to less than 50 people in any one location. Let there be a ban on large election gatherings, restricting the same to under 100 people in open spaces, with appropriate social distancing. The same goes for sports, those on agitation, weddings, etc. This limit of 50 or 100 people should be sacrosanct, with mandatory safety protocols in place. The organisers of such events must be held liable for violating the laid down protocols and made to pay stiff financial penalties and face mandatory jail terms. This must be put under a stringent provision of law, enacted by the NDMA, for what we are facing is a disaster of the first magnitude. Alongside, let us ramp up the vaccination efforts, especially in the metros and improve our health infrastructure.
Let us all move from an immoral equilibrium to a saner society. Can we get to a moral equilibrium now? Yes, we can. We are after all Indians. We can achieve the impossible. The time to act is now.
Dhruv C. Katoch is a retired Major General of the Indian Army.