Crowds at the Kumbh Mela this year
Crowds at the Kumbh Mela this year

Since the middle of April, India has been in the grip of the second wave of the coronavirus. A variant that is more virulent, more infectious, and that is overwhelming the system. Mumbai was the first of the big cities to be brought to its knees by this wave. But, the second wave didn’t start in April, it started towards the end of March, and policymakers missed all the signs. In the third week of March, the complex where I live, in Pune, was impacted – six cases, as we went into a containment mode. Younger people were getting impacted – most asymptomatic. The news had not yet reached social media or mainstream media. The narrative on both was congratulatory – we had won the war on Covid – but it was there in our personal and professional groups.

As India went on to play Holi, hold political rallies and have thousands take the holy dip in the Kumbh – the narrative changed to how we were getting back to normal. Those of us who asked questions were accused of being doomsayers, and Hinduphobes – by those who failed to realise that the people being most exposed to coronavirus in these mass events were Hindus. But unlike the first wave, which was mainly in the lower income areas, the second wave till now has mostly impacted the well-heeled. The smartphone audience. Those with access to social and digital media. Those who could put out their appeals on twitter and get heard.

Cases in non-slums

In Mumbai, for example, 90 per cent of the infections were in non-slum areas. The slightly better off, the middle class, and the upper middle class were the most affected. And, unlike the last time, we all paid attention – because we got to hear about it through social media channels, WhatsApp groups and more. And, then the horror began. The health system was swamped. There were no beds available. And there was a shortage of oxygen and life-saving drugs. While cities like Mumbai and Pune began addressing this with local, state, and citizen initiatives – a city state like Delhi crumbled. The people of Delhi were caught between a rock and a hard place as their CM Arvind Kejriwal did nothing as the city began gasping for breath.

There is no one I know who hasn’t seen someone suffering in hospital. There is no one I know who hasn’t lost someone. And ultimately, as doctors, healthcare workers and frontline workers worked valiantly to save lives, they were not so much defeated by Covid -19, as much as the lack of political will to collaborate to solve problems – like how to supply oxygen to hospitals. And in this, Kejriwal must shoulder the fair share of the blame. How was the capital of India, one of the richest states in India, was gasping for oxygen – despite a year to prepare.

Laxity in lockdown

During the first lockdown, we were promised, give up your dreams for a year and we will use this time to build the infrastructure to defeat the enemy. And people complied. Affected were family incomes, students' hope for a brighter future, graduating students hoping for employment. India sacrificed to keep other Indians safe. The GDP took a battering, people slipped into poverty, SMEs and entrepreneurs struggled to hold their enterprises aloft. And for what? We are still unprepared. And much of it has been brought in by policy not translating into action. By pronouncements that were aimed at publicity, with little follow-through.

That year has gone. It has been 15 months since we locked down for the first time – and yet hospitals are struggling for the basics. People are gasping for oxygen. Many of us have heard stories of people dying at home, because they couldn’t find a cylinder of oxygen. The advice of scientists, expert committees, and parliamentary committees were ignored as governments – both state and Central - prioritised politics and power over security for its citizens.

Misplaced priorities

The vaccine producer for the world does not have enough vaccines for its people – because no one planned for the entire population to be vaccinated. We have managed to vaccinate less than 10 per cent of our population, and we can’t do more because not enough vaccines were ordered.

When it comes to the next time we are asked for our vote – our only method of evaluation must be – what did they do for us. How prepared was the political class for what happened? Did they plan for us, did they implement that well? Did they turn up in their constituencies to work for the people? Did they get hospitals and basics in place? Were they there for help and succour? If not, what were they doing?

This obsession with temples and monuments, statues and vanity projects needs to end and the focus needs to be on basics – education, infrastructure, health – and the only people who can redirect this focus are we, the people of India.

The writer works at the intersection of digital content, technology and audiences. She is a writer, columnist, visiting faculty,and filmmaker.

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