Nearly every English-language newspaper this Saturday morning has at least one sombre piece warning readers to not go overboardwith their reactions. That is always good advice, whether dealing with anger, sadness or happiness. Controlling emotions — the proverbial stiff upper lip — was something that was drilled into those of us who went to schools that modelled themselves on the English public schools. We were never meant to cry — at least not in public; even happiness had to be regulated in its expression; and despondency was invariably greeted with the advice to cheer up and get on with whatever we were doing.
Why, in an age when political correctness has banished the notion of self-restraint from our value system, are we suddenly being advised to get a grip on our feelings? The answer is obvious. For the past 10 days or even more,most law-abiding citizens of Indiahave physically withdrawn from the outside world both for self-preservation and as an act of social responsibility. Those who are experts in the field of public health all over the world have advised us that the only effective way to contain the coronavirus pandemic is social distancing. Each one of us have adjusted our lives drastically, cancelling long-standing plans and disrupting our social and professional lives. Owners of small businesses and the self-employed are living nervously, not knowing whether their lives will ever be the same again.Those inemployment are dreading pay cuts or, worse, redundancy. As for casual workers living a marginal existence away from home, their troubles and sadness have been so vividly documented in the media.
Why is everyone going through such an enormous amount of personal inconvenience? Why is the world order being turned upside down? It is because we are confronted with a dreaded disease with no cure in sight. The young are known to be able to cope with COVID-19 better, particularly if they have no other complications. But for the over-60s, the vulnerability is particularly high.In Italy, the average age of the 14,600 or so who have died from coronavirus is 79.5 years. Worse,no one is very sure how long this international crisis will last.The uncertainty is killing.
People have so far responded with good sense and cheer. India is teeming with people and urban overcrowding makes social distancing difficult, if not impossible.It is,for example,not possible to avoid human contactin the vegetable markets or in the queues outside grocery shops. Yet, people are trying their best, protecting themselves with masks, washing their hands with soap and carrying small bottles of hand sanitisers. Yes, precaution and faith in God is what is keeping India going.
It is at such a time that the Tablighi Jamaat has entered the scene. Asof last Friday night, the convention hosted by this so-called religious organisation has resulted in 647 coronavirus cases in 14 states from Kashmir to the Andaman Islands. This is probably an underestimate because many of those attended haven’t been traced. Then there are states such as West Bengal that has not been forthcoming with any details.
What can be said with certainty is that the best plans by the government to flatten the curve and reverse the process of coronavirus spread has suffered a setback because of the Tablighi Jamaat. I can understand if people had quite accidentally strayed into a gathering and,in the process, got themselves infected. This has happened with health workers, doctors and policemen who have been infected as a result of their official duties.
The ones who came from far and wide to Delhi’s West Nizamuddin, a congested Muslim ghetto, to imbibe religious scholarship went there fully aware that the gathering was against all the guidelines issued by the Delhi government to protect citizens. Most important, the gathering a people who had flown in from overseas and are known to be high risk. By every yardstick, the gathering in Nizamuddin was criminally irresponsible.
People are angry not merely because government guidelines were violated in a premeditated manner but that the organisers were brazen in their defiance, choosing to put out the message that they somehow had divine protection against coronavirus. Now they have gone and spread the disease all over India and continue to be defiant. Those who have been sent to quarantine centres have misbehaved with nurses and doctors. Others who have been traced by the authorities have engineered attacks on doctors and health workers by mobs. Still others are absconding and doing their bit to spread coronavirus across India.
People are angry because what is clearly a public health issue has been projected as an issue of religious identity. There are reports from all over India that Muslim localities are defiantly not observing social distancing and continuing life as usual. In the border districts of West Bengal, it would seem that the writ of the Government of India does not run.
People have a right to be not merely angry, but furious at the sheer irresponsibility of it all. The behaviour of those who choose to pretend that coronavirus is not their concern are, in effect, helping the enemy in a war. They deserve to be treated as hostile elements.
But instead of getting livid over these rotten apples in the basket of India, our great secular intellectuals are saying we should be restrained in our reactions.Turning the other cheek and showering forgiveness to people who know not what they are doing is good stuff for elevated souls. Unfortunately, it will take some persuasion for people who have a patriotic aversion to saboteurs. This isn’t communalism; it is common sense.
The writer is a senior journalist and MP, being a presidential nominee to the Rajya Sabha.