COVID-19: Headline management will not work

If the poor are hit today, the rich — who started this transmission in the first place in most cases — will be hit tomorrow

By Sunita Narain
Last Updated: Tuesday 04 August 2020
Headline management. Illustration: Ritika Bohra / CSE

The novel coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic has ebbed, but only in our mind’s attention space, and this is extremely unfortunate. The virus is ravaging now and has spread across India. It has gone beyond cities to more remote states and villages, where there is not even a semblance of healthcare, forget ventilators.

Now is when the impact is worse — people who have the infection are doubly, no, triply hit and hurt, devastated. They have no option but to go back to work. They cannot afford a lockdown. They are not only hit by the disease and the lack of healthcare facilities, they also have to fight crippling poverty and now extreme weather-related disasters. 

Today, our worst nightmare — the worst-case scenario — is playing out. And somehow the commentary on the daily counts seems like a replayed cricket match. It’s been too many months and now it seems like old news.

Let’s do a quick recap of this tumultuous year. We slipped into 2020 without any indication of the horrors that awaited the world. Something was happening in Wuhan in China, but not many of us noted it (except for your magazine — we started covering the China outbreak in mid-January and in the February 16, 2020 edition we carried a cover story on how this virus would lead to a pandemic, and this column on February 14 reminded “this health crisis will disrupt business all across the world”). 

By February and till later in March, nothing was amiss, not really. People could travel in and out of India including the US President who attended a massive rally in Gujarat. The usual was going on; including Parliament was in session and Madhya Pradesh government was being felled. Then came the first shock — on March 24, the lockdown was announced dramatically and without notice. Life came to an abrupt halt. 

Attention was on the daily count — how many cases of COVID-19; where; what was the source of the infection; and, every day’s death rate was noted. The first phase of the lockdown ended in mid-April and it seemed when it was extended till May 3, 2020 and then till the end of the month that the end of the disease was within reach.

But since June, things went downhill, and fast. In the beginning of May, India was adding roughly 2,500 cases each day. Today, at the end of July, we are adding over 55,000 new cases each day. 

In May, there was another humanitarian crisis that needed our attention. Hundreds and hundreds of hungry, helpless people fled their place of work — as the economy collapsed and they ran out of money — to go to their villages. We saw how the invisibles of our city — people who provided labour; produced goods and services so crucial for our well-being — became outcasts.

They were literally thrown under the bus; lost their lives because they slept on railway tracks and a train went over them or a truck mowed them down. I write this, because we must not forget — we must not allow these images to be erased from our hearts and minds. All this happened in our world. 

On June 1, when the first lifting of the lockdown was announced, the rush was to open up. Rightly so, as the economy was on its knees, the worst-hit was the daily workers who had no jobs to pay for food or anything. Government’s relief packages, however welcome, were hardly sufficient to manage the distress.

But this was not easy — as we opened, we had to shut again and again as the case load increased. Different cities and different state boundaries were under lockdown — some for weekends; some for a few days; and, some opened and then shut. 

Numbers are mounting every day; our death count is the fifth-highest in the world — India’s death toll on July 30th stood at 35,800. We are now part of the world’s most infamous trinities of macho men — the United States and Brazil. And what is worse is that the cases of the virus are no longer restricted to cities — where there is media attention and some kind of healthcare infrastructure — but are widespread and hitting where it hurts the most. 

So, as we enter August, let’s remind ourselves of this reality. COVID-19 has not gone away; it is raging across the country. We know that. We also know that we can deny as much that there is no community transmission, but governments neither do not have any idea of the source of the infection nor do they have a grip on the disease.

Now, our best bet is that the disease fades away — it doesn’t remain the headline news but an obscure item in some inside pages. We need new distractions. 

But this news will not go away. Let’s be clear. If the disease exists in any part of the country, it will spread. If the poor are hit today, the rich — who started this transmission in the first place in most cases — will be hit tomorrow. The economy cannot be dictated into action, it will be derailed if there are frequent and unplanned lockdowns.

So, this time, we can’t just turn the page. Headline management will not work, not in this case.

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