Has politics taken precedence over science in India’s fight against Covid-19?
My first brush with an epidemic was through Albert Camus’ Plague, just before I took the plunge into the world of literature for my B.A. (Honours) in English in 1995. “Once plague had shut the gates of the town, they had settled down to a life of separation, debarred from the living warmth that gives forgetfulness of all,” reads an excerpt.
I was spellbound reading Camus’ existentialist take on the disease and its impact on the French Algerian city of Oran in the 1940s. Metaphorically, the novel captures the sense of “powerlessness” of its individual characters against the “fascist” plague, as Ed Vulliamy, a literary critic with The Guardian, put it.
Twenty-five years later, I am having a sense of deja-vu.
Trapped in a Covid-19 quarantine centre in my home state of Assam in northeast India, I could see history repeating itself through my memory of Camus, and by living a life under constant surveillance, bereft of freedom to walk the streets, meet my friends and speak my mind. I just wonder which of the two is responsible for what we are today: the disease that has taken on pandemic proportions or the state.
We seem to be numb to all the pain and misery caused by what industrialist Rajiv Bajaj called a “draconian lockdown.” We tend to be submissive to a mighty state emboldened by a tiny virus. For us, massive job losses caused by economic downturns, exodus of migrant workers to their home states and the plight of farmers have become a new normal. We don’t resist, and we don’t question whether the state policy to fight the pandemic is practical or scientific enough. Nor do we refuse when told to stand in our balconies and clap in the honour of frontline warriors of the Covid-19 battle – we just obey.
Taste of Tyranny in Nation’s Capital
On the morning of June 1, I was to fly from Delhi to my home state, Assam. The first hurdle came from the security guards posted at my apartment complex in Noida in the National Capital Region. I had to go through a bizarre “verification” process before they would let me leave the compound. A volley of queries was thrown at me. “Where are you headed? Are you an owner or a tenant? Show your ownership papers. You need to inform the society management before leaving the premises,” among others. Like a criminal in police custody, I was interrogated for 15-20 minutes. I answered every query, trying to look nonchalant. I knew they were just following orders from the top of the power pyramid.
I reached the Delhi Airport on time thanks to a friend and former colleague who had offered to drop me off, as app-based cab services were out of bounds in Noida. It’s nothing but a Tughlaqian policy (which refers to a 14th century sultan of Delhi, Muhammad bin Tughlaq) to keep cab services suspended in Noida when the Central government has allowed domestic flight operations to resume. Adding to the policy faux pas is the ban on entry of people from Delhi to Noida to prevent the spread of the coronavirus in the satellite city. As always, distraught citizens have moved the Supreme Court seeking succour from this tyranny.
A Tale of Two Cities
One of the lessons I learnt during the lockdown was to expect the unexpected.
It came in handy when I landed at Gopinath Bordoloi International Airport in Guwahati. I stood in a queue meant for those arriving from outside Assam, answered a series of queries, filled a form declaring myself as asymptomatic, among others. There were no physical barriers between the passengers and the officials doing the paper work; social distancing was not enforced properly. Nobody checked my “Green” status on the much-hyped Aarogya Setu app, which was supposed to be mandatory for all flyers.
Adding to the information overload was the Assam government’s decision to make 14-day quarantine compulsory for all domestic passengers. This, despite the fact that the civil aviation minister had rejected such an idea on the grounds that those with the slightest symptoms were not allowed to enter the airport, let alone board a plane. There is in no way to find out who is right and who is wrong.
What I began to realise was that politics has taken precedence over science in India’s fight against Covid-19. The assembly polls are due in Assam in 2021, and the governing Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and its leaders seem to be hellbent on showcasing their efforts to contain the spread of the virus, even if this means overriding federal guidelines.
Life in Quarantine
On the evening of June 1, I checked in to a small hotel/lodge in Bongaigaon town, which had been turned into a quarantine centre for those flying in. Barring one or two, most hotels in Bongaigaon, a commercial town 200 km west of Guwahati, are low-budget ones. The fact that hotels had reopened after two months of lockdown meant they were operating with limited staff and bare minimum facilities. Still, I felt privileged compared to hundreds of others who were dumped into different government schools in the district.
The following day, I was taken to the Bongaigaon Civil Hospital by the district authorities for swab test, a protocol laid down by the Indian Council of Medical Research. There were more surprises waiting to unfold as I was ushered into the swab sample collection centre.
I saw scores of migrant workers standing haphazardly outside the premises. Some of them even spat in the open. More shocking was the fact that neither the health workers nor security personnel present there were willing to enforce social distancing and safety protocols. When I intervened, the hospital staff expressed helplessness, saying nobody would listen to them.
Back in my hotel room, I tried to keep myself busy doing the usual stuff – reading and writing. Out of the 14 days of quarantine, I was supposed to spend seven days in institutional quarantine and seven days at home, according to the Assam government’s guidelines. But there was no sign of my test report until June 9 even as Assam’s Health Minister Himanta Biswa Sarma announced that test results could be delivered in four days. In my mind, I allowed science to take over political rhetoric as I waited for my release from this virtual prison.
Abnormal is New Normal
On the evening of June 9, I received a missive from the district authorities, saying I had been released from the institutional quarantine. When I asked about my test report, I was told that the release order itself was a proof that I had tested negative for Covid-19.
What’s more shocking is the content of the report when I finally got it. It was signed by a senior district health official. It said I was required to be in home quarantine until June 22. This meant I would end up spending a total of 22 days in quarantine, which is against the required 14 days. This is the height of insanity.
First, the state government has refused to abide by the federal norms, and now the district administration is laying down its own health protocols.
Caught in this maze of rules and regulations, I am left wondering whether the people today feel really powerless against a tyrannical system or there’s a way to escape what Camus called “philosophical suicide,” a phrase he used to reject the negativity and nihilism of French writers such as Andre Breton.
Perhaps, I am thinking too much!
Jayanta Kalita is a Delhi-based journalist and author. Views are personal