Even as India battles COVID-19 — superstition, misinformation, ignorance and communal divides threaten to bog down our already challenging fight against the deadly contagion
In order to prove his point that medicine is the most practised profession, Tenali Rama moved around faking a bandage on his forehead, when several people, including Krishna Devaraya, prescribed him medicines; some even suggested invoking the supernatural. As the cold grip of COVID-19 is strangulating humanity now and as no vaccine or medicine is still in sight, our social media is being filled with several suggestions of medicines and invocation of the supernatural; even the government's AYUSH department is not lagging behind. Similarly, as statistics of cases and deaths are galloping ahead, the government is not only enforcing social distancing but is also invoking the supernatural, albeit with different facades. And taking advantage of people's attention riveted to TV channels, some channels are propagating a religious divide for enhancing their TRP.
Thanks to Trump's negligence and delay, US, with over 4.6 lakh active cases and over 16,000 deaths, is in doldrums and along with UK, France, Italy and Spain, accounts for two-thirds of the over 1.6 million cases and 96,000 deaths worldwide. Clueless as to how to handle this catastrophe, he has even resorted to threats of retaliatory action against India if the useful malaria-medicine Hydroxychloroquine is not supplied. A great response for the grand 'Namaste Trump' event! However, as of today, we are better placed with figures of infected around 7,000 and deaths around 228. We are at stage 2 of the infection in general and stage 3 with limited community spread in some areas. But we could have been safer had the government responded much earlier, like Taiwan and South Korea.
It was only when WHO announced a pandemic on March 12 and a Saudi returnee died on the same day, that we realised the gravity, although the first case was reported on January 30. We heckled Rahul Gandhi when he foresaw on February 12 itself, a Coronavirus tsunami in the offing and then ignored the WHO alert for stockpiling of PPEs, etc., a few days later. Not that we were not concerned.
In the third week of January, we began reviewing our public health preparations and the core capacities for timely detection and management of the virus and started screening of unwell travellers from Wuhan at important airports. We also began planning the setting up of testing facilities at several places, besides the lone National Institute of Virology in Pune but it took considerable time to put them in place. Furthermore, stranded Indians from Wuhan were airlifted and quarantined. It was all China-specific.
At the same time, we complacently preoccupied ourselves till the first week of March with the visit of US President, the communal riots in Delhi and the ongoing nationwide anti-CAA agitations, and then the political drama in MP. Then it suddenly dawned on us that the virus was quietly entering India through other countries and that we did not even think of enforcing 'social distancing' or discouraging large public events and gatherings. Promptly, we cancelled Holi celebrations on March 9. And within two days, when WHO declared the outbreak as a pandemic, we also cancelled the mega literary event at Mumbai scheduled for March 14-15. Then there was a lapse that proved even more costly.
The Tablighi Jamaat congregation in Delhi scheduled between March 13-19 was not cancelled, although an array of central agencies, Delhi Police and the Centre were fully involved in it and the Delhi government that imposed restrictions on large gatherings could not prevent it. As a consequence, not only did our COVID-19 statistics spike up by about 30 per cent, with added apprehensions of community spread but the episode also served as fodder for pro-government media to give a communal colour at this crucial juncture to spike their TRP.
The apolitical and disciplined Tablighi Jamaat is a dominant Islamic religious reform movement in independent India. Often they hold large conclaves to discuss after-life matters. It all looks like an innocuous religious activity. However, it is their presumption that Allah created humans and thus, would take care of them and the intense power struggle between its chief, Maulana Saad Kandhlawi, a great-grandson of its founder Maulana Illyas and members of the 'Shoura' (executive council), that have emerged as the culprits in the context of this crisis.
Saad tried his one-upmanship by ignoring saner voices from within to defer the Delhi congregation and mobilised a large number of followers. Further, it is said that the regular hospitality of TJ headquarters clouded the vision of the local Nizamuddin PS in acting swiftly and decisively. At the same time, a share of the blame goes to the central agencies and the central government too. If the facts are so, the mischief of the media to embarrass every Muslim in the country with a communal colour for this outbreak is ridiculous.
The hate-campaign at this juncture is unpardonable and needs the government to come clean by taking legal action against errant journalists. Sound and light shows would not suffice to integrate people in the fight against the virus.
Although people at large complied with the fatwas, doubts arise whether the clapping at 5 pm for 5 minutes and telecasting the appeal for 'Diya jalao' at 9 am are all mere numerological coincidences or deeply guided superstitions. Superstition is resorted to in the facade of cheering up health workers and providing a platform for unity, through fatwas, without any collective thinking and planning. This was the point made out in the video conference, by the CMs who are rooted to the ground and can list out problems and solutions. It is in contrast to how the Singapore PM has imposed lockdown after careful planning and after extensive consultations and that too after taking people into confidence; it was not done abruptly with a four-hour notice.
The result in India is, compliant people confined themselves to homes; clapped and clanged. However, many of our doctors and others, who are fighting in helmets and raincoats, are being abused and assaulted, evicted from their houses, pelted with stones, spat on and chased away.
Furthermore, as proved by Tenali Rama in the past, everyone wants to show their wisdom. Social media is flooded with medical advice. Even AYUSH ministry has claimed that their medicines would prevent and cure COVID-19. It was only when doctors and experts protested, saying that there is no cure till now, that the Press Council of India has advised against such publicity by the AYUSH departments to avoid 'misleading information.'
Be that as it may, in spite our initial laxity, fortunately, the situation appears to be still under control, one primary reason being our endemic immunity, as per Dr Kamat, a Goa-based microbiologist. This is acquired by our living in an environment that is far from sanitary and consuming fermented food, in contrast to those in advanced countries. Our 'herd immunity' is evident during huge gatherings like Kumbh Mela, he says. He may be partly correct since one's body needs to develop new anti-bodies for fighting new viruses.
But it is too early to be complacent. There is still a possibility for lockdown extension unless the spike in the reported cases flattens dramatically. The exit plan for the lockdown should be carefully put in place, by taking into account the huge humanitarian issue of displaced migrant workers.
Fortunately, unlike during the imposition of demonetisation in the past and entry of the lockdown recently, the PM has begun consulting the CMs, experts, opposition leaders, former Presidents and PMs, among others. If he truly heeds the words of Mahua Moitra, 'Get Real,' people will not let him down, even if he resorts to superstition to free the country from the cold grip of COVID-19.
The writer is a retired IPS officer and a former Member of Public Grievances Commission, Delhi. Views expressed are strictly personal