What Covid-19 has unveiled
At 5 pm last Sunday, the prime minister of this country proved to us and the world that we are a nation of idiots. Or, rather, a country with a high proportion of very stupid people at the upper economic end of the population. Whatever he may be remembered and reviled for in the future, Narendra Modi will leave behind at least one remarkable record: within the short period of five and a half years he has brought into stark spotlight characteristics of our society, especially in the west and north, that other countries might normally want to keep hidden. In rapid succession he has shown us to be deeply bigoted, to be naïve and gullible, our wealthier sections to be totally uncaring of the less fortunate among us, and now, the so-called educated classes to be widely afflicted with the worst, self-destructive superstition. Mr Modi has done this not from any sense of reproach but rather the opposite — he has brought these traits and characteristics boiling to the surface by vigorously encouraging them, by turning up the fire under the cauldrons that contain our darkest and most amoral liquids. He has demonstrated, simultaneously, that not only are we hard-wired with these crippling faults but also that he and his close cohorts can manipulate them at will for their own nefarious purposes.
As Covid-19 has spread across the planet, the virus, too, has been responsible for bringing different things to the fore, its growing threat underlining some of the facts we already knew and bringing to the fore many we didn’t. To take just this business of leadership, look at the flip-flops of a deranged man like Donald Trump, he who earlier disables his country’s ability to anticipate and counter viruses in order to ‘save money’, who then insists across a precious, critical period that this Covid-19 is a Democratic hoax solely designed to undermine his presidency, and who then, once confronted with the wolf’s breath at his broken-down door, insists he had always seen the threat coming and has done ‘a great job’ of dealing with it.
Examine someone like Boris Johnson, described by one British writer as a “pantomime Prime Minister”, who wins an election with a cocktail of bluff, bluster, bombast and the electorate’s serious doubts about his opponent (sound familiar?) but who is then exposed as ridiculously incompetent to deal with the magnitude of the crisis which his country now confronts. Among his administration’s first responses is to suggest that the virus be allowed to rip through the population, killing who it will, in the hope that this would eventually build ‘herd immunity’. This obscene social Darwinism is on full display in what is still one of the wealthiest countries of the world. As Johnson dithers and sputters on his own self-serving words, the rest of the country, the institutions, the battered but still redoubtable National Health Service, the colleges and universities, all get on with doing what needs to be done without waiting for instructions from the government. This saves lives even as the Johnson government’s stupidities ensure increased mortality among Britons. Finally, some trace of ‘leadership’ is found in the new chancellor Rishi Sunak who, unlike Johnson and his pal Trump, can actually process what his bureaucrats are delivering, and in turn deliver some much-needed relief.
In sharp contrast to the leaders of these countries, do take time to access on the internet the speech of the German chancellor, Angela Merkel, to her nation; it is available with English sub-titles. The words Merkel uses are simple and direct. They convey a full understanding of the situation, empathy at the huge hardships and challenges this crisis has brought and a clear laying out of what she and her government are doing and what is expected of the people whom she is addressing. From beginning to end she conveys a strong sense of collective unity and a firm resolve. There are no verbal gymnastics and no spiritual or conceptual pyrotechnics, no fudging, no self-praise, subtle or open, no lies. “Our idea of normality, of public life, of social togetherness — is being put to the test as never before...” she says before being frank that she and the government share the doubts and fears, the many questions that arise in a crisis such as this. She makes no pretence of knowing it all, of having everything under control — if she had done so any sensible person would know she was lying. Instead, what she lays out are the principles guiding her government’s decisions because “this is part of what open democracy is about. That we make political decisions transparent and explain them... so that people can understand them”. She underlines the seriousness of the situation by saying something that no German contemporary leader can utter except at the gravest moment: “Since the German re-unification, no, since the Second World War, there has not been a challenge for our country in which action in a spirit of solidarity on our part was so important.” That small self-correction, from referring to Re-unification to invoking the epic tragedy of the war, would convey volumes to any German adult or teenager.
Across her 12-minute speech Merkel acknowledges the German health system as possibly the best in the world but quickly adds that even this system will be overwhelmed if it has to deal with a tsunami of people infected by the virus. Therefore her main message is that “we must limit the risk of one person infecting another as much we possibly can”.
At the other end of the scale, in India, we have one of the worst health systems in the world. In early 2014, NGOs working with public health were trying to get the abysmal 2.5 per cent of GDP dedicated to public health raised to at least 4 per cent. Since Mr Modi has taken charge, sabka saath, sabka vikaas has meant that this spending has now fallen below 2 per cent. When you also take into account the damage the BJP-RSS’s SSSV-missile has wreaked on the environment, the economy and to social cohesion, this is the worst possible moment in the last 20 years for our country to be hit by a lethal global pandemic — think of a Titanic badly holed by icebergs, but not yet quite sinking, being hit by a torpedo. And then imagine the captain hovering in a helicopter above, urging people to beat thaalis, ring bells and clap energetically to stop the ship from sinking.
At 5 pm on Sunday, following the prime minister’s exhortation on TV, thousands of Indians across the country began to beat thaalis, plates, drums; thousands began to clap rhythmically while others blew conch shells and made other noises, while waving the national flag; many took the lead from the BJP minister and began to chant ‘Go Corona go!’ taking it for granted that Covid-19 is an English-speaking creature. In Ahmedabad, the festivities on the streets resembled ras-garba celebrations during Navratra or kite-flying during Uttarayan. It felt as though we had won some World Cup, possibly we had — the World Championship for Stupidity.
The one thing Narendra Modi cannot be accused of being is a low-level cretin. He is the kind of cunning man who enjoys setting off stupidities in others, across the masses; and then he relishes watching the results. It didn’t matter that the risk of the infection spreading increased manifold because of his absurd call, Mr Modi had what he wanted: as a test run for whether people, under fear from this crisis, could be asked to dance to his tune, and the gambit was successful; as a distraction, of which he is a master deployer, again the call seems to have worked a treat. At the end of the day, with possibly thousands of asymptomatically infected people walking around the streets, few people were asking why our public health infrastructure is in such a dreadful state, few were asking why the countrywide lockdown with State support to the most vulnerable hadn’t been put into effect weeks ago. Before Iran began to feel the full brunt of the Covid-19 epidemic, a mullah in Qom had insisted that the application of lavender oil to the anus would protect people from infection. Now satellite images are revealing the acres of mass graves that have been dug around Qom to accommodate the victims of the virus. While cremation pyres may be harder to spot from satellites let us hope — and pray — that Sunday was not our lavender oil moment.