These qualities are essential to ensure that we emerge with a smile from the  period when the virus has made us a prisoner.

On 23 January, Chinese Communist Party (CCP) General Secretary Xi Jinping ordered the quarantining of Wuhan, a city of 11 million, as well as several other locations in Hubei province. It was only when news of that decision broke that this columnist understood the grave nature of the virus that had first entered into the human population from bats that had been consumed as a delicacy by some of Wuhan’s inhabitants. Not simply this columnist, but each of the individuals he met and talked to in Taipei (where he was then visiting) wore anxious expressions, with pairs of eyes scouring the air around them in a search for the invisible enemy that was so terrifying. The next day, at the transit stop (Bangkok’s Suvarnabhumi airport) between Taipei and Delhi, it was possible to pick out a few individuals nervously moving away from any stranger who was walking too close to him or her. In my case, such a desire manifested itself through choosing an almost empty portion of the airport to take a brisk walk before the Thai Airways Boeing 747 took off for home. There seemed little evidence of worry on the faces of the passengers from India returning home from holiday, or the Thais visiting India, most because of religious reasons, our country being the home of Lord Buddha. Early February saw very few efforts at quarantine, partly because the WHO issued a Covid-19 alert only on 30 January, specifically adding that the agency did not see any need to suspend travel from and to China, including from and to Wuhan. In London, Prime Minister Boris Johnson took the WHO’s advice, and flights to and from the UK from Wuhan continued well past the Xi lockdown. As he wonders what his novel coronavirus visitor has in store for him during the next few days, this decision must be haunting Johnson. In India, by contrast, Prime Minister Narendra Modi went along with the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) and suspended e-visas for Chinese nationals on 2 February, followed by Oman a day later. Afghanistan had already done so on 30 January, while Sri Lanka did the same on 28 January. Chinese travellers were followed by nationals of the EU and later the entire outside world in being barred from entry into India, a series of decisions Modi made that hopefully will prevent a sharp spike in the spread of the virus during the weeks ahead. Singapore, a country that has access to sources of information from within China that rival the information given to the CCP Standing Committee, blocked Chinese visitors on 27 January. DPRK Supreme Commander Kim Jong Un acted faster than other leaders, shutting off his country as early as 25 January. Most countries did so only after India had acted.

In ancient times, both the Japanese as well as the Chinese emperors had sought to shut their respective countries off from the rest of the world, and now Modi was doing the same. Critics of the PM’s move were quickly silenced once the reality of a world under attack by Covid-19 got beamed every hour by television channels across the globe. The media showed scary images of patients struggling for breath despite being attached to ventilators, and who were surrounded by ghost-like figures clad in protective white suits the way astronauts are when in their space capsules. On 19 March, the immediate future of the 1.29 billion citizens of this country was mapped out by Prime Minister Modi’s polite but firm call for a “Janta Curfew”. Socialites, who did not consider themselves part of what Robert Vadra terms the “Mango People” (the Aam Aadmi), ignored the call.This included some who had dry coughs and fever, signs that the virus may have entered their bodies. Our media has been verbally torn apart in India by several who should know better, but even critics had to admit that both newspapers as well as television channels disseminated vast swathes of information helpful to the public in cooperating with the ICMR and the Health Ministry to try and contain the disease in a way that first China and later Iran, Italy and now the UK and the US failed to do. If only almost the entire telecom sector in India had not fallen so terminally foul of the law not once but twice. The first time around, only three players rather than the earlier three dozen were left in the field, and the next legal tangle sent two of the three into the ICU. As PM Modi reminded us soon after assuming office, the future is digital. But for that to arrive, India needs a healthy telecom sector, an ask which seems far away from fulfilment in these times of slow broadband speed and indifferent cellphone connections. In a lockdown, access to the internet and to electricity is almost as vital as food and water, and the supply of both are less than reliable in most parts of the country.
Given that the Prime Minister subsequently shut down rail and air services, it was fortunate that Lakshmi and I were in the same city at the same time, as neither believes in spending more than a limited number of days in any single location at a time. The lockdown has shown the importance of having a partner around who is as close to you as your own self, and it is this fact that created a cushion and a shock absorber capable of bearing the strain of what in effect is house arrest. If those who are heaping calumny on Aung San Suu Kyi reflected on the additional pain she underwent during her House Arrest in Rangoon because of the absence of her husband Michael Aris, and almost always suffered separation from her children, they may perhaps be more charitable to a lady who deserves the Nobel Peace Prize to a far greater degree than many who have been similarly awarded that prize. Vinoba Bhave spoke of the 1976-77 Emergency as “Anushashan Parva”, a time for discipline. The all-India lockdown correctly put in place by Prime Minister Modi is a period that teaches us not only discipline but patience, both qualities that are essential to ensure that we emerge with a smile from the indefinite period when the virus has made each of us a prisoner.
After listening to the Jim O’Neills of the world wax sarcastic about their view of the way the people of India respond to crisis, opinions which contain whiffs of Winston Churchill’s view that the people of India deserved only slavery and not freedom, my prayer is that India escape with only a mild phase of community spread. Next month will show whether this prayer has been answered. In the meantime, what is needed from each citizen is discipline and patience.

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