Threats, even if real, can overstay their dread, long enough to be seen as tiring rather than deadly. As the year ends with the spread of the Omicron variant of Covid-19, the feeling of a “” is inescapable.
It shouldn’t come as a surprise that most Indians, despite having not-so-distant memories of a massive and rampaging second wave earlier this year, are more likely to respond with fatigue rather than fear.
The year-long cycle of “slow down, pause, go” has brought a crippling sense of intermittence to how Indians worked, earned, studied and even socialised in 2021. Following up as the second successive in the country is an ignoble feat as much as it leaves notes of a detached exhaustion. If the last year began with the jittery optimism about vaccines or the force of time restoring normalcy, this year ends by saying the wait could be longer. A lot got done, half-done or caught in between.
In the midst of these false and uncertain halts was the looming question of state capacity – sometimes fairly, sometimes unfairly. Even if “third world” countries have been marked for their “overdeveloped state” as a colonial relic, it has been a reflection of their spread and sway, rather than deliverable resources. Most Indians weren’t surprised that the state healthcare creaked under the pressure of the deadly surge of the second wave. For reasons ranging from flawed assessment to a fight against an unknown quantity, the spells of uncertainty ended the smug exceptionalism of being relatively unscathed by the first wave of 2020.
It was, however, the unsure “public sphere” of the following months that made exhaustion take over anxiety.
The questions about state intervention, vaccines and their efficacy and, of course, the revival of long-forgotten “vaccine hesitancy” spawned their own cycles of information, misinformation, and hallowed societies of “source credibility”. If technology-driven knowledge bubbles are the order of this age, their capacity to tire with the unnecessary bits were never as clear as in this period.
It was, however, after the fizzling out of the second wave that we saw the mismatch between a large section wanting to race back to normalcy and a section, mostly institutional, refusing to even limp back to routine. Even if daily wage earners and businesses were quick to shake off any remnant of curbs, government institutions dragged their feet. Preferring to err on the side of caution, many government undertakings became a cover for extending an inert phase of functioning, if not inaction. That ran against the need to regain momentum. For a government keen on pushing rapid recovery, this was out of sync with its objectives. If the world over, and possibly a road to recovery are any indication, institutions weren’t that keen on taking the hint.
This was evident in the indecisiveness about reopening institutions of higher learning until the Omicron surge made it irrelevant at the end of the year. The quiet exasperation over the reluctances of universities to restore classroom teaching also turned into spells of protest. In the national capital, for instance, “DU kholo”, or “open DU”, became the slogan of a section of students and teachers of the Delhi University campus. Interestingly, student wings of rival political affiliations were voicing the demand for reopening.
In school education, the dual pattern of online-offline modes outlived its welcome, if not confusion. While questions of digital divide, discipline and learning outcomes were obvious, the constant shifts in pedagogical and evaluation patterns had a ring of ad-hocism. This, moreover, has raised questions about how the retrospective gaze of the future “pandemic grades” once the crisis is over.
The pandemic curbs also saw governments – at the centre and in the states – grappling with marking the thin line between interruptive and disruptive measures. From an administrative prism, that’s a complex and challenging call to take. Clarity could be the first potential casualty of the exercise. And it has been so, in more ways than one. One of the recurrent ironies of modern state interventions has been that the state edifice has grown too big for small problems, and still is too small for big problems. Some shades of this paradox were seen worldwide.
As the year ends by giving another lease of life to the “slow down, pause, go” cycle, the quiet mutiny of bored intermittence isn’t out of sight. By no means would this be the loud show of the defiant, but a long yawn of the exhausted. Such catastrophe fatigue, however, would be a harmless denouement only if the virus is really planning a benign exit next year.
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