The prime minister orders and a country of 1.3 billion people obeys. That is the extraordinary spectacle we are witnessing after the televised announcement by Narendra Modi that all of India would go into complete lockdown for 21 days from midnight on March 24 in order to contain the spread of COVID-19.
Fortunately, even as people are obeying, they are also questioning him. Not just on social media but also on some digital news platforms. I say “fortunately” because blind obedience without questioning is the hallmark of authoritarian regimes.
The leading newspapers, however, have been generally supportive of this decision without pointing out some rather obvious misses in the prime minister’s address. For instance, while few question the inevitably of such a step given the speed with which the disease is spreading, practically none of the papers raised questions about the content of Modi’s speech which appealed to emotions but failed to assuage panic.
Indeed, within minutes of the speech ending, people were seen in many cities rushing to stock up on rations. He had given no assurance that essential services would not be affected, including the supply of food and perishables. Nor did he offer a concrete financial package for those most severely affected, the poor and indigent and people on daily wages. As points out in a hard-hitting comment, the government appears to have cut India’s poor adrift.
The government has announced a package today. Why this was not done earlier is inexplicable.
It is interesting to note how careful mainstream media is these days in asking difficult and, I might add, even obvious, questions just because we are facing genuinely challenging times with the spread of COVID-19.
When a new disease spreads rapidly around the world, everyone is challenged – from governments to health establishments to ordinary citizens. A responsible media is also stretched – to ensure that it covers all aspects of the pandemic accurately, without being alarmist.
On the whole, Indian print and digital news platforms have tried to do just that (I am leaving out television). Newspapers like the Indian Express, Hindu and Hindustan Times, apart from reporting on the story as it broke with the first cases of COVID-19 in India, have also been explaining the nature of the virus, how it spreads, whether a cure is available yet, what section of the population is most vulnerable, and what different countries around the world have done to contain its spread. Together, these form a useful compendium of facts so necessary when there is so much rumour and misinformation. The Hindu, in fact, has put together a free COVID-19 ebook, The Pandemic Notebook.
But the tough questions about whether India was testing enough to get an accurate estimate of the extent of the spread, why this was so, and how difficult it was to enhance the rate of testing came mostly from digital platforms like . These questions needed to be asked. There is a tendency in India to trust official statements when it comes to more complex issues like a pandemic.
Although the questions about testing might have been more technical, what is becoming clear is that the government, and perhaps to some extent the media too, have failed to provide clear information on COVID-19. Most people don’t read long, informative pieces on the disease. Increasingly, ordinary people are getting their information via social media and word of mouth. As a result, there is a great deal of false and inaccurate information floating around that makes the task of containing the spread of the virus even more difficult.
For instance, the confusion about how COVID-19 spreads persists despite posters and advertisements by municipal authorities, state governments, and the health ministry. Experts on television channels are still asked whether it is airborne. Most people are unclear whether they should wear masks, when they should wear them, and of what kind. In Mumbai, it is now common to see people wearing cloth masks, either made at home or available on the street. They serve no purpose given that COVID-19, as has been repeatedly explained, spreads through touching anything that could have been exposed to droplets from the mouth of an infected person. Somehow, this vital piece of information has not got through to the ordinary person.
The major fallout of the lockdowns and the spread of this virus has been disproportionately on the poor in India, especially migrant workers in cities who are left with no work and are literally on the verge of starvation. They have been desperately trying to leave cities and get back to their villages. While the rush at railway stations and interstate bus terminals was reported widely in most newspapers, mostly because the tens of thousands who tried to leave the city within a couple of days was a story that just could not be missed, the quieter and less visible process of migrants from within states going back to the villages was not as closely monitored.
This by Parth MN, for instance, shows that migrant workers from several districts in Maharashtra had been steadily moving back to their villages. His alarming story suggests that there was practically no monitoring of this population, whether they had been exposed, whether they knew the symptoms, and even if they did whether district health facilities were ready to receive possible cases of people infected with the virus.
Another story is the virtual time bomb waiting to explode in a city like Mumbai when the virus spreads in its densely packed slums. Here, the did well by following up on the first known instance of a domestic help getting infected because she worked in the home of someone who had recently returned from abroad and tested positive with the virus. The story is particularly relevant in the context of the current lockdown and the prime minister’s plea for “social distancing” and not violating the “Lakshman Rekha”. (Incidentally, that is another question that should have been asked. Can one presume that everyone will understand this term even if India is a Hindu majority nation? According to , that term was googled many times within minutes of Modi’s speech in Mizoram and some of the southern states.)
The Indian Express story not only painted the reality of the urban poor and how they live, but also the challenge of tracing all the people with whom this woman had been in contact. When you live in such congested localities with common toilets and bathrooms, and where even with the best of intentions “social distancing” is literally an impossible dream, how can you know how many people cross your path every day?
Another story in the Indian Express about illustrated how impractical the advice about frequently washing hands is when water is so scarce. Together, these stories raise important questions about strategies that need rethinking in the context of these urban realities, something that is currently not being discussed.
One of the more unsavoury and shocking fallouts of this pandemic is the blatant racism that has surfaced in many parts of India, with people from the Northeast being mocked as “coronavirus”, being and even locked up, as from Ahmedabad shows. More recently, at a shopping mall in , a woman was seen yelling at another woman, clearly from the Northeast, suggesting that she must be infected with COVID-19 because she had mongoloid features. A crisis often brings out the worst in people. And we are witnessing the beginning of that.
In India, whatever the story, of one thing you can be sure: there is a scam somewhere. And so, even as we stagger from the impact of the pandemic, there are important questions to be asked about why protective gear for those at the frontlines of tending to patients has not been procured or whether there is favouritism in awarding private sector contracts for COVID-19 test kits. Again, credit goes to digital platforms for pursuing the story, including this incisive investigation in . No doubt, other such scams will surface in the months ahead.
The COVID-19 story is far from over. It has overwhelmed all news for the last two weeks. As the virus spreads – it seems certain it will – the media will have to play its part by being informative and accurate, but also making sure that it continues to ask the hard questions. It must also focus more closely on the most vulnerable in our society who will suffer the most, whether they get the disease or not.