TOOTHLESS IN MMMMBAI DURING COVID

In 2019, 151,000 people died in India due to road accidents. Anyone suggesting that no one should step outside anymore to save those lives would get pronounced insane, right? But have we been witnessing a similar kind of madness in Mumbai for a while now, officially ratified, which our Covid-conditioning cannot identify anymore?

The Covid deaths tally in Mumbai went back to February 2021 levels about six weeks ago. As it is, a false narrative had been spread about Mumbai doing a great job during the Second Wave for not having its health services overwhelmed for too long. But two facts suggest that Mumbai witnessed a spike, not a wave (directly connected to Maha Kumbh returnees, as further queries appear to have revealed). One, at no stage during this period (April-June 2021) did Mumbai’s death toll cross more than 90 a day (Delhi and Bangalore, for example, crossed 300 a day; Ahmedabad and Lucknow seemed to too, even if not officially). Two, even these fewer numbers did not recede as sharply as they did in Delhi and Bangalore. That is a well-documented characteristic of any wave in the history of pandemics — the more alarming the rise, the steeper it falls as well. This has happened all around the world this time as well. (Also, if Mumbai had indeed “done well”, isn’t it worth asking why Maharashtra has done so poorly? Isn’t the same state government running the whole thing?)

But more than Mumbai’s Covid performance, this is about why there has been no sense of balance in Mumbai. Why, when the need of the hour is to prevent overcrowding, have so many policies wilfully encouraged it? Why have all parks been shut, thus forcing people to walk on the streets? Especially when it is well documented that the chances of infection in open areas where people don’t crowd (in a super spreader way) is exponentially less. How does utter irrational idiocy like not allowing people to walk on Marine Drive but encouraging them to walk on the other side of the road, clear official sanction? Why aren’t local trains opened up more (perhaps for vaccinated people, thus motivating more people to get vaccinated as well), reducing the extra traffic on the roads? Why have shops and banks had limited hours of functioning, thus causing overactivity during crunched timings?

Unfortunately, ill-informed, unscientific and uncouth heavy-handedness that fines people aggressively in open spaces walking alone, or in closed spaces alone (like in a car with windows rolled up) suggests nothing more than a feverish opportunism to make hay while the sun shines. Shouldn’t it bother the BMC that all of this feeds the robustly popular notion of large-scale corruption they have been associated with for such a long time now?

Why have restaurants been forced to shut after 4 pm, and entirely during the weekend? When a limited capacity rule is enforced, why is there any need for further restrictions? Is there no sense of balance about protecting businesses and jobs? Is Mumbai a first-world city that can afford to over-react absurdly while protecting its weaker sections and businesses to some extent (as Australia is, currently)? But even there, no one shuts open-air parks or hounds people aggressively for fines, in the spirit of palpable salivation. Especially when this is so emphatically a downward Covid trajectory. And they financially protect their economically weaker sections, unlike here.

This catalogue of crazily heavy-handed policy decisions, many days AFTER numbers have retreated to February levels, has large sections of the population here seething with the kind of rage that the ruling party here (Shiv Sena) will experience in the next elections (perhaps that is why they’ve been cozying up to the BJP again publicly, the integrity of which is another story of course). Bangalore and Delhi, for example, which were hit far, far worse in recent times, have gone back to much more normal timings — these kinds of crazy restrictions are simply not there. In Delhi, even the Metro is operating at full capacity (and there has been no large spike). These have not been unnoticed by people.

Recently, a waiter in a restaurant I go to, committed suicide because of the stress of losing his job. Thousands more are facing this every day, many even worse. In another restaurant, all I had to do was ask the manager about timing restrictions, and a dam burst. It’s like he was waiting to express his angst, and that of every one of his colleagues who work with him. The horror is bubbling over, which is very hard for them to take when they see irrational normalities around; why are gyms operative behind closed doors, he asked me, when open air parks are shut. Lockdowns were only to ensure health services are not overwhelmed, is it not, he asked, how is it justified when Covid cases are so low and hospitals are not overwhelmed at all? These are very valid questions that the government should have been forced to answer. In fact, here’s another one — if such restrictions are going to be in place for 6–8 months (as is the trajectory now), won’t those vaccinated at the beginning of the lockdown cycle find their immunity pointless at the end of the cycle — is that a smart way to use collective population immunity?

I saw this same utterly irrational fear in someone I have known for a long time, an intelligent and cultured man in his mid-forties, now sitting double-masked in his office paranoid about any “risk-taking”, despite being double vaccinated, despite not having children at home or older relatives he is exposed to. He not only welcomes lockdowns but wants them to be even stricter, even in a climate of receding numbers. Insularly overlooking his privileges, obstinately ill-informed and very selective in processing even the little he has bothered to find out (unfortunately he is helped in that by shockingly skewed media coverage as well, not just in India but elsewhere too — it actually takes a little effort to know the larger picture better; ridiculous at a time when all information is literally at our fingertips). Is this a case of premature senility or an alarmingly contagious loss of perspective? He’s clearly part of a larger trend, and more scarily, not something that will get reversed very quickly or anytime soon, regardless of the actual circumstances. The mental health epidemic that is already upon us is only accentuated with absurdly needless heavy-handed behaviour from the authorities.

Of course Covid is not over yet. It is not going to get over anytime soon, certainly not this year. This was clear a long time ago. It has become fashionable to say that no one knows anything when it comes to Covid, and so one should not apparently say anything with conviction, but it doesn’t stop policy makers from acting on the worst-case scenarios again and again, inflicting enormous damage on the very people who elected them. Supposedly scientific models that project those abject scenarios are not seen as spewing out testable hypotheses as they actually are but for generating “expert predictions”, even though they often seem to make utterly wild, even laughable, assumptions often. Even when those predictions are repeatedly and emphatically proved wrong, again and again and again, they’re still looked at as the last, and only, word. Other conversations are simply not factored in, or even allowed to feature in a mainstream space.

Who is an “expert” in this context anyway? This is a public policy matter that necessarily requires a balancing of the medical emergency with the social and economic calamities. So, specialists, who invariably would skew policy toward their field (like doctors or epidemiologists) are absolutely the wrong people to expect coherent policies from. Most of them don’t even seem to have time to know what is really going on in the rest of the country, let alone the world. Academics should have contributed far, far more than they have in this situation and journalists — the less said the better (such a shame, given how easy it is to find verifiable information and form coherent perspectives). There seems to be more politics in these fields than in parliament, so what chance do those looking for a truer picture have?

However, some things have been clear for a long time. Previous pandemics and coronavirus studies from the past told us that herd immunity and seasonality play the main role in the trajectory of any epidemic/pandemic, that administering oxygen at the right time in this context saves lives, that lockdowns are about staggering infections not preventing them (and therefore there is little point to them if it is not about protecting healthcare systems), that spikes always happen during post-lockdown opening-up — all of this was clear from the absolute beginning. The unexpected positive here, in fact, has been the apparent efficacy of vaccines (which, despite not having gone through the usual cycles of testing, are proving to be largely efficacious so far). In fact, we seem fine with erring on the side of caution every time, which makes sense with say, masks (as a first-world wag said — we cover our faces so that some can cover their arses) where the verdict is very divided about its efficacy but it is sensible to use it even for the smaller percentages as they don’t cause notable collateral damage. But lockdowns do cause enormous damage, so how can they be given the benefit of doubt so easily when so much is at stake, especially in third-world countries like India?

It is odd how the mainstream media around the world has spread alarmism, almost in one voice, ignoring the more moderate voices, despite those voices being more accurate with their projections, again and again. The tendency is to dismiss such concern as rightwing nutcase conspiracy theory is ironic for its complete lack of thought and basic observation. As is the manner in which anyone who asks for scrutiny on PCR testing is deflected (the net result is thousands of people faking their RT-PCR reports, especially when they travel — it’s a public secret in India), attention to adverse vaccine reactions (a very small minority, but they exist) or criticism of containment-based Covid policies — all of these are ignored or people attempting to talk about these aggressive criticised, with flimsy arguments.

The manner in which Sweden is consistently attacked for its no-lockdown policy is a notable example. These people compare Sweden with its Scandinavian neighbours and castigate them for having the highest Covid deaths among them. They do not bother to point out that Sweden has almost double the population that any of those other countries have, or that 3 of the 5 most populated Scandinavian cities are in Sweden. Nor do they compare the Covid situation in Sweden with the nine other countries in Europe that have an equivalent population as theirs — namely Belgium, Czechia, Greece, Belarus, Hungary, Serbia, Portugal, Austria and Switzerland. Four of these have more deaths/million than Sweden, and three have very similar counts as Sweden — but Sweden is the only one among them that did not enforce a national lockdown or enforce stringent restrictions. The massive point people miss in this conversation is NOT that Sweden did better in terms of Covid deaths compared to those countries but that it did not do WORSE despite not enforcing strict restrictions (like lockdown), which also led to their economy not getting as devastated as the others.

Among the remaining two countries, Serbia has a lower death/million ratio by virtue of being by far the best vaccine provider to its citizens in that region. But another country did even better, that no one is talking about — Belarus, which has fewer deaths/million Covid deaths in this same population band; it has done better than all those countries by a large difference (its favourable hospital beds-patient ratio is a story that deserves to be more in the limelight). It is the only country besides Sweden that did not enforce a national lockdown in Europe or impose stringent restrictions (unlike voluntary masking, which is what Sweden also did, for the most part). Curiously, every one of Belarus’ neighbours — Russia, Ukraine, Poland, Lithuania and Latvia have far more deaths/million, and each of them enforced strict national lockdowns at some point or the other. Of course, the “liberal” press would have difficulty giving credit even if it is due here because of the authoritarian nature of the Belarus government led by President Lukashenko (often referred to as “Europe’s last dictator”) who has been in charge since 1994. If this was a democracy, especially led by a female head of state, Belarus would be the toast of that same media (and just this utterance means I’m an illiberal misogynist to some people, no doubt).

Then there is this recent obsession in certain quarters (like New York Times and NDTV, for example) to “estimate” actual Covid deaths in India — using that same kind of bizarre modelling that predicted millions of deaths without lockdown. For these people to conclude that millions of deaths have occurred is not the surprise (as this is not the first time they have indulged in speculative stories that contribute to the dread) but the manner in which people actually take this nonsense seriously. For starters, what is the point of such speculation — does it contribute constructively to anything, especially public policy? As people everywhere in the world are doing, why can’t they wait for the excess deaths figures (comparing this year’s mortality toll with say, 2019’s) which is the best way to calculate these things? Meanwhile, people are copiously speculating about the Third Wave in India — an IIT Kanpur study has that wave peak around September/October, it seems. If you just do a cursory read (as reported in media outlets with a strange kind of morbid glee), the assumptions made in it (like this one, mentioned as fine-print — not accounting for vaccination or the numbers of those infected already) make you wonder who gives these people funding.

In India, Maharashtra is the state that enforced the most rigid and heavy handed lockdown by far, from the beginning; is it a coincidence that it is by a huge distance the worst-performing Covid state in India? In our region, the only country that very wilfully opposed lockdowns (stating from the beginning that it would destroy its economically weaker sections), and in the end, only enforcing localised lockdowns in hotspots for very limited periods — Pakistan, is by a huge distance, the best performing Covid state in our region (as acknowledged by WHO as well). Why were conversations about these not taking place in any media? Is there nothing to be learnt from their handling?

In Maharashtra, and especially Mumbai, Shiv Sena has got away from the criticism due to it by virtue of the large “liberal class” in the media because of its rabid anti-BJP stance. No doubt that is welcome on many counts but why has there been such a blindspot to its heavy-handed Covid handling and the utterly irrational restrictions? Is the seemingly casual media focus on how this ruling party has prioritised trans groups, sex workers kids, stray dogs activism, Aarey activists and LGBT communities designed to keep the “liberal class” sated while it cosies up to the BJP again before the next elections? While benefits to weaker sections of society is always a welcome act, does this party’s DNA and fundamentally authoritarian mindset that manifests so emphatically in its clueless heavy-handedness when it comes to Covid policies, get hidden so well in this cynical brand of checklist politics?

There is no city in the world, not one, that within the context of such a downward Covid trajectory for so long (a very significant qualifier) has continued imposing such restrictions on its citizens. To severely restrict public spaces (like parks, in a city where its denizens desperately need breathing space, where social distancing is a joke for a vast majority; even now parks are shut in the evening altogether) and premier public transport (local trains, the cliche of it being the city’s lifeline still very apt) during a downward trend for so long defies any kind of reason. Worse, without a thought to people losing livelihoods on a daily basis and businesses in the country’s rent capital. This is uncouth, uncaring illiteracy. Thing is, whenever Mumbai opens up further, there will be spikes (that is what observing worldwide trends tells you). That will be wrongly called a “wave” and by the same crazy logic that is in play now, restrictions will be imposed again. It is super-spreader events that cause waves, as the Maha Kumbh did in March/April — election rallies, cricket matches etc would not have caused that on their own. It is absolutely wrong to keep on blaming people for getting back to relatively normal lives when restrictions are lifted. Especially when there is no other way to move forward. And when inevitable spikes occur, the authorities have to be prepared for it medically to whatever extent possible (like oxygen and ICU beds) and not hyperventilate. For example, Kerala health authorities on TV have been turning blue in the face explaining that, despite the spike in Covid cases in their quarters, their hospitals are nowhere near overwhelmed, but, for some reason, our media glosses over that.

Again, there is no example of a genuine wave (as opposed to spike) anywhere in the world without superspreader events or massive seasonal spikes (like it happened during winter or “flu season”, around the world). Is it this irrational and fundamentally unscientific fear that is leading to such randomly illogical and damaging policies? Lockdowns were meant to be the last resort. We have now normalised them to such an extent that they have become the default choice. “Living with Covid” is perhaps the slogan that needs to replace “break the chain”. Or perhaps, “break the chains” is more like it.

As things stand now, the chances of dying in a road accident in India are roughly the same as dying of Covid (between 400 to 500 people dying every day). By normalising such restrictions, are we tempting fate here? The most shocking thing in all of this is how easily so many of us seem to have accepted this.