To ensure full compliance with the lockdown and overall government mandate, the Indian authorities must be prepared to use an iron hand during this crisis
Let's talk lockdown. And let's begin at 8 pm on Thursday, March 19, 2020. Prime Minister Narendra Modi addresses the nation and outlines the frightening contours of the COVID-19 crisis fast engulfing the country. The situation is unpredictable and unprecedented, with infection and death toll numbers rising at alarming rates day upon day. The Prime Minister cites the till recently unthinkable situation and loss of life to Coronavirus and ends up by calling for a 'Janata Curfew' on Sunday, March 22, 2020. India needs to unite and applaud its unsung frontline COVID-19 fighters.
The PM goes on to announce that the said lockdown would continue till 9 pm on Sunday and urges and requests people to celebrate at 5 pm, those who are protecting and preserving our lives and the nation, at great personal risk. He refers to our nurses, doctors, pathologists, the police and paramilitary forces, the media and others who are selflessly putting themselves on the line, risking becoming victims themselves. The PM urges people to come to their balconies and terraces at 5 pm with plates, spoons, bells, whistles, etc and ring in this celebration of a united fight against the unseen virus.
The PM's address concludes at 8.28 pm. The entire nation is stunned, yet enthralled.
First sign of real worry
Two minutes later, the spell is broken for a bit. A host of unbelievers decides it is time to stock up on essentials and they take to the streets and markets. Till late into the night, they flock together in their hundreds, ignoring the desperate need of the crisis.
Come Sunday, March 22, 2020, at 7 am, the 'Janata Curfew' begins. People stay indoors. There is complete silence on the streets and no vehicles on the roads. Indians cut down caste and demographic delineations to exhibit a spirit hitherto unseen, at least not by those born after the 1980s.
By 2 pm on that Sunday, every Indian is silently rejoicing inside their homes that the 'Janata Curfew' has worked and the nation is together. In recent history, the Indian populace has rarely come together and displayed this level of discipline, singularity and unity for a national cause — cutting across caste, creed, religion, political affiliations or financial status.
By 3 pm, India's average person — daily workers, the emerging middle and upper-middle-class, along with the celebrities, all congregate on terraces and balconies and a bonhomie unseen before engulfs the country.
Cause for more worry
At 5.10 pm, as a large part of India heads back inside their homes, some people from the terraces and the balconies get carried away, and clearly both emotionally and physically. Something transports them from the balconies to the streets — across the country. And Indians display their prowess at singing and dancing in all hues and forms possible. Bhangra. Break-dance. Garba. The twist. And the truly Indian naach shindig that only we know how to pull off.
While these motley crowds across the nation rejoice in this surgical victory over Coronavirus, more than a billion still inside their homes are stupefied and stumped. Foreheads begin to get crinkled with real concern. About what may unravel over the next few days and weeks, given this cavalier attitude and an abject lack of understanding of the pandemic threatening our very existence — as individuals, families and a nation-state.
Over the next couple of days, COVID-19 tells its own story. State governments begin the step up the play. Further lockdowns and restrictions are imposed. Train services are on the verge of closure, as are airline services. Inter-state bus services are headed the same way and personal vehicles are asked to stay off the roads. Work-from-home gets cemented further and India prepares for a near-total quarantine.
Some states though show 'true concern' for their own. One bordering the National Capital quietly ropes in its state police muscle and transport corporations to ply its people to their villages and home towns, even while a nationwide lockdown is in effect and the roads these buses travel on are legally closed. When the media arrives to report the hullaballoo, the police personnel herding these people into the waiting buses run away to avoid being filmed. The waiting thousands are packed into the buses like sardines and sent packing. At least the sardines are subsumed in oil and their fate, knowing they will be soon eaten. These people sing along.
Second intervention by the PM
The writing is on the wall. Certain Indians are just not understanding and refusing to listen. The PM steps in again. This time, he addresses the nation on Tuesday, March 24, 2020, again at 8 pm. He outlines the worsening COVID-19 numbers, both in India and overseas, where the medical system is more advanced and way better equipped than in India. He exhorts all Indians to stay inside their homes for the next 21 days, even folds his hands to beseech them to do so and warns of tough consequences and measures if there is further non-compliance. The new lockdown, a near-curfew, begins at midnight, he informs the country. He assures India that there will be no shortage of food items, groceries, medicines and medical assistance, etc., and banks and ATMs will stay open. "We have to break the COVID-19 chain, which even the WHO estimates will take 14 to 21 days. Please help India do so."
Chief Ministers across the country second what the Prime Minister has just announced, and assure people that all essential supplies will be available throughout these 21 days. For one, Yogi Adityanath of Haryana even makes a televised address and informs people that state authorities would home-deliver all products during these three weeks. He further goes on to announce the availability of 10,000 vehicles and riders for this delivery process.
Final cause for worry
Minutes after these announcements, a majority of Indian families huddle together over dinner to contemplate and discuss life over the next 21 days and begin planning for it.
But there is another section of Indians that decides to take to the markets, again. From 9 pm till well after midnight and way into the wee hours, Delhi's Shahadra, Kishangarh, Sangam Vihar, Ashok Vihar, Mayur Vihar, Tagore Garden and Dabri areas (to name but a few), are flooded with people stocking up on supplies. Similar scenes are witnessed in Mumbai's posh Bandra area, Mulund, Andheri, Worli and Vashi. Bhopal in Madhya Pradesh sees similar crowds in markets. In UP, it is Noida, Lucknow, Agra and Allahabad that see the same reaction. People at large are being careless, callous and selfish, a telling and frightening indicator of the average person's refusal to understand and accede to what the Coronavirus pandemic is all about.
Zero tolerance in this time of death
The approach, restraint and largesse displayed by the Prime Minister and the Government (both Central and states) in this time of acute crisis is commendable, especially when they have repeatedly explained the extent of the crisis with many recent and ongoing global examples of more developed nations being afflicted and brought to their knees. As mentioned, UP alone has offered to make home deliveries of essential supplies to 23 crore people — that is a huge, huge promise to make and commitment to undertake.
Clearly, what is needed in this life and nation-threatening times is to bring the iron hand into play. Zero tolerance. Instant karma and justice. Immediate crackdown and incarceration. No exceptions, except for serious medical exigencies and for funerals and cremations. If anyone can, it is this Government — it has the mandate and has shown its resolve in these dangerous times.
While the indiscreet sections still crowding the streets may cry foul and thrash around, being taken off the streets will keep them alive. More importantly, it will keep safe and alive the majority of Indians who are following the diktat and acting responsible and disciplined at a very scary time.
Personally, till a week back, I was planning to spend 15 days in my house in Manali, Himachal Pradesh, basking in the beauty and bounty of bucolic nature. Today, I don't know what I will be doing or eating after another week or so. But I am joined by over a billion people in this same boat, trying to stay afloat and keep our families alive. That's a good enough reason to behave.
Views expressed are strictly personal