COVID-19: Politics of not leading by example

The numbers are stark and scary. The magnitude of the wave is expounded by the data. India is topping the infection charts again. On Friday, the country recorded over 1.4 lakh new COVID-19 cases and over 700 deaths — that is roughly a 100 cases every minute and a death every two minutes. The force of the surge, some epidemiologists estimate, may see daily case count triple and the death toll can top 2,000 by mid-May. 

The spectre unfolding across India represents failures at multiple levels — policy, politics and personal behaviour. Most importantly, it represents contextual amnesia — the collapse of collective accountability, the quarantine of reason and lockdown of pro-active public policy response across states even as the pandemic was alive and kicking. The tragedy of commons is exacerbated by the failure of those in positions of power and influence to deploy the ‘power of example’.

On Saturday, the Election Commission asked “political parties to observe COVID-19 guidelines issued by it last year in all seriousness”. That the EC should issue a reminder six weeks into the campaign and polling, of guidelines issued in 2020, illustrates the state of affairs. Could the latter day avatars of T N Seshan done better? Arguably, it could have — insisted on caps on number of rallies, limited crowds at rallies, insisted on masking et al.  

The pictures and videos of the bulging unmasked crowds exemplify super spreader characteristics and spell what may follow. Every political party is on board the troll wagon — in the Centre and in the States — on how the pandemic is being managed or mismanaged. The question is how many of their rallies were Covid appropriate. Indeed, a senior minister in an election-bound state even argued against wearing of masks! 

Tragically, even those in positions of power and influence chose not to deploy the power of example — imagine the power of the message, if people were reminded to mask up and adopt appropriate behaviour at the beginning of every rally. For sure, the ‘pragmatists’ and spinmeisters could argue to the contrary on messaging and limits but the question is why not. What makes a political rally special or immune to the virus! And if there can be limits for marriages and funerals, why not for rallies?  It is tempting to place all the blame on political parties and governments.

And indeed, the politicos and their regimes have much to answer for. Equally, it is important to ask if it is only governments which are to blame. The causality of case count and casualties is located in the casual, nay reckless behaviour of the public at large. There is some truth to the thesis of ‘Covid fatigue’ — being unable to do the normal things can weigh on the mind.  But, it cannot become an alibi for putting lives at risk.

A WhatsApp forward summed up the psychosis: People believe in the one-in-million chance of winning a lottery but not in the chance of getting infected. Many invested in a sense of exceptionalism, a sense of immortality amidst visible evidence of human mortality, brought out eloquently in the Yaksha Prashna in the epic Mahabharata.

Sometime in January, India and Indians entered what can only be characterised as the karmic phase of the pandemic. Social distancing was always going to be a challenge in India given the density of poverty and population. But what explains the feckless attitude towards masking for safety? Masks are not worn and when worn were everywhere but where they should be — often the trend is to deploy it as a fashion accessory, around the wrist, arm on the chin like a French goatee. 

The trade-off between lives and livelihood is inherently a tough call in a pandemic. Yes, the governments opened up markets but economic engagement does not translate into disengagement from individual and collective responsibilities. Did those with the wherewithal to inform the disadvantaged deploy the power of example — insist on masks inside shops at bazaars, in elevators in buildings, on public transport? While there were many who called out, the general tendency has been to let them be.

And this abdication has worsened both loss of lives and livelihoods. William Foster Lloyd and Garett Hardin put forth the idea of how individuals tend to act in self-interest and contrary to common good. They characterised it as the tragedy of commons. In the Indian version of the construct, individual behaviour defies both self and public interest. 

The landscape of this pandemic is littered with knowns, unknowns and unknown unknowns. It is natural to hope for normalcy every time a wave subsides but it would be a blunder to let the guard down. As Daniel Kahneman observed ‘we think of the future in terms of anticipated memories’. What the future may eventually turn out, what normalcy may look like, is a mystery yet unfolding. The pandemic demands eternal vigilance and it is an uneven contest of chance — the virus needs just one lucky break!

Shankkar Aiyar
Author of The Gated Republic, Aadhaar: A Biometric History of India’s 12 Digit Revolution, and Accidental India
shankkar.aiyar@gmail.com