The year 2020 was a tough year for all of us. A global pandemic, the deaths of lakhs of people, a stringent lockdown that wreaked havoc on the economy and precipitated a migrant crisis never seen since Independence, hunger, loss of millions of jobs, protests over the Citizenship Amendment Act and farm laws, riots, floods, thunderstorms and a sense of economic deprivation wrought by a tiny virus that took over the world. It is difficult to recall another nemesis of humanity that India and the world have seen in this generation.
No wonder, Time magazine dubbed 2020 ‘The Worst Year Ever’. It was associated with a tragedy that caused global health emergency and was characterised by qualities that certainly cannot be associated with optimism. Therefore, despite all the talk about how bad this year has been, life will not return to normal at the stroke of midnight on December 31. Most of the underlying problems and challenges that made 2020 feel like a horror story will roll along with us into the New Year.
January 1, 2020, marked the beginning of a new decade that the world looked at with optimism. But as the months went by, many were left wondering if the year could get any worse, following strings of wildfires, airplanes crashes, social unrest, locust swarms and various natural disasters – all under the cloud of the coronavirus pandemic.
The year began with the eruption of the Taal Volcano in the Philippines, which temporarily forced more than 1,35,000 people into shelters. Then came the worst-ever outbreak of the desert locust in 70 years in Kenya. To cap off the month of January, the World Health Organisation declared the outbreak of coronavirus a global health emergency. Since then, 80.8 million cases of coronavirus have been recorded globally and the number is still rising. More than 1.76 million people have died globally because of the virus, which is still quite active. The US is the pity of the world, recording new cases by the hundreds of thousands and most deaths in the world, while Europe is fighting against a new Covid-19 variant.
In comparison, India seems better off. New infections have come down substantially, from the highs of more than 90,000 cases a day in September, to around 20,000 in December. Deaths due to the virus have also been on the decline. Recently, India’s case count crossed the one crore (10 million) mark; it took 323 days after the first case was detected in January. Though India is the second country after the US to log one crore Covid cases, the pandemic is gradually receding here, while in the US, it is still raging and is a cause of huge concern. This is a result of America’s disregard for basic precautions against the transmission of the virus and President Donald Trump’s failure to lead the fight against the pandemic. As a result, according to a projection from the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation, the US could have around 0.5 million Covid-19 deaths by April 2021. The death count in India due to Covid-19 stands at 1.48 lakh.
One lakh cases in May
When lockdown was announced on March 24, there were only 500 reported cases of coronavirus and 10 deaths. Despite a strict lockdown, the rate at which new infections were reported didn’t show a significant decline, as reported cases reached the one-lakh mark on May 19. It took 168 days or nearly five-and-a-half months for the cumulative cases to reach the one million mark. Thereafter, new infections started rising at a rapid rate: the next one million cases were added in 21 days, followed by 16 days for the next one million and 23 days for the subsequent two million cases.
The journey from one million to eight million infections took only 104 days. Data suggests India reached the Covid-19 peak sometime in the second half of September, as new infections started declining after hitting a high of 98,795 on September 17 in a single day. Since then, the overall trend has declined, over the last three months. Significantly, India’s recovery rate of 95 per cent has been one of the best in the world and deaths per million at 104 -- the second lowest among the world’s 20 worst-hit countries.
While the question of whether the Covid situation warranted a European-style total shutdown was contested by independent experts, the most pronounced impact of the lockdown was seen on the lives of the urban poor, particularly daily wage workers. The migrant crisis was a manifestation of the huge disruption caused by the lockdown; so was the massive fall in the GDP growth.
Whether an ‘act of God’, as finance minister Nirmala Sitharaman claimed, or a ‘man-made economic disaster’, as former finance minister P Chidambaram said, the 24 per cent contraction in India’s GDP in the April to June quarter was the sharpest economic contraction among the G20 economies, and the worst contraction recorded by the Indian economy in four decades. The second quarter GDP recorded a slowdown in GDP contraction, but two consecutive quarters of negative growth pushed Indian economy in a technical recession. Economists expect India to end the 2020-21 fiscal with negative GDP growth, between 7 to 9 per cent.
Series of disasters
Whether it is the human development index, health and nutrition or latest data showing worrying rise in child malnourishment, there was little room for comfort for the government. That hunger continues to haunt India despite a healthy rate of growth is a troubling sign of prevailing poverty and growing inequality in India. Loss of economic growth, rising unemployment, growing impoverishment, a massive shutdown shock for small and medium businesses, decline in GST collections, loss of business for corporate India were part of 2020 that saw many things go wrong on several fronts: public health, the handling of the pandemic, the well-being of the people, the economy, national security and communal harmony. The government painted a positive picture of the Covid crisis but its impact on the health and economic aspects of people’s lives was obvious.
The Chinese troop incursions in Ladakh in May, which the Prime Minister publicly denied, and the subsequent stand-off with China was indeed a serious breach of national security. While politically the BJP continued to dominate, winning elections and expanding its footprint, the Opposition continues to fall short of expectations in spinning a countering narrative.
The UP government’s ‘love jihad’ or anti-conversion legislation, followed by the MP government’s similar legislation last week, is a tale-tell sign that India under the BJP is gradually moving towards hard Hindutva, as other BJP ruled states are expected to emulate UP. If the migrant crisis was the defining image of the pandemic in India, the stand-off with farmers on farm laws with the middle ground over the contentious laws continuing to be elusive, the agitation on Delhi’s borders is another defining image of India in 2020. A lot was lost in 2020, but not the hope to think that 2021 will be better. Let’s resolve to be patient and persistent to repair all that was lost in 2020. Let’s hope that India will fight back for dissent, democracy, facts and compassion.
The author is an independent senior journalist