Joining the Dots is a weekly column by author and journalist Samrat in which he connects events to ideas, often through analysis, but occasionally through satire.
The images are a mad study in contrasts. On the one hand, there are photos of massive crowds, tens of thousands strong, by the Ganga at Haridwar where the Kumbh Mela is in progress, or attending election rallies being addressed by the prime minister or state chief ministers. On the other hand, there are photos and videos of overflowing hospitals and morgues, and reports of crematoriums struggling to cope with the number of dead. India is in the grip of a vicious second wave of COVID-19, which is already bigger than the first, and it is still rising sharply. With vaccination having taken off slowly, and now running into shortages, it is going to be a while before enough people are vaccinated. Before this second wave is over, a lot of people are going to die.
I received news recently of a batchmate of mine from a college in Gujarat passing away. I was not in touch with him, and struggled to remember him, but the message in Gujarati that brought news of his death was disturbing nonetheless. "Parsottam was found corona positive four days ago (sic)", it said. "Yesterday night suddenly his condition worsened and his son called an ambulance and took him from hospital to hospital, but there was no room anywhere. He died on the road. He had numbers of many powerful people in his mobile but he was unconscious".
The reality of overcrowded hospitals can be hidden from view by a government covering up its mistakes, and the figures for Covid deaths can be fudged, but doing so will not save anyone's life " including, possibly, even the very people fudging the numbers, or covering up the mess. The virus doesn't distinguish between Hindus and Muslims, Gujaratis and Bengalis, Left and Right or rich and poor. At most, hiding news of repeated governance and policy failures may help a few incompetent and corrupt bureaucrats and politicians escape censure for a bit longer, and keep a few sold-out journalists doing sarkari PR in business until the day people turn against them. Is that more important than ensuring the right thing is done, as soon as possible, to prevent disaster?
The positive effect of public and media pressure is there for all to see. After being held up for months, suddenly in two days the Sputnik vaccine, which has a very high efficacy of over 91 percent, has been approved for manufacture and use in India. The path to approval for use of other vaccines, such as the ones made by Pfizer and Moderna, have been fast-tracked.
The Pfizer vaccine was the first to be approved by the World Health Organisation, as early as December 2020. The US, UK and Europe all cleared the Moderna vaccine for use by January. The phase three test results of the Sputnik vaccine were published in medical journal The Lancet on 2 February. It is now mid-April. In other words, what has been done now, which is to say that vaccines authorised by WHO, USA, UK, EU and Japan can be fast-tracked for use here, could have been done two-three months ago. At that time, bureaucratic roadblocks were placed in their path. Meanwhile, Covaxin, which lakhs of us have got, was given approval for use in a matter of days, after phase two trials. It is yet to complete its phase three trials. It has only published interim phase three test results until the time of writing. It may eventually prove to be the best of all the vaccines, or the worst " we don't know yet, and will find out by and by, after already being administered the shots.
Large sections of the Indian public seem quite happy with this. The sentiments of religious identity and nation are probably more important for them than anything else. These sentiments are in many cases directed squarely against science and the scientific method. They don't want to hear anything that is contrary to their cherished beliefs. It feels like a return to the bad old days. Indian societies, including Hindu societies, struggled long and hard through the 19th Century to get out of the morass of widow burning, human sacrifice, untouchability and other such evils. Great reformers, from Iswar Chandra Vidyasagar in Bengal to Jyotiba Phule in Maharashtra and others elsewhere, fought long and hard against the most regressive elements of society. Even now such reform is a work in progress. We are still a long way from overcoming bigotries of caste and discriminations, harassments and crimes of gender. And yet, already, we see the very same kind of ideas and forces that Vidyasagar and Phule battled against making a comeback, often with the enthusiastic support of the very sections that would suffer the most from such regression " lower castes and women.
Our society and country is going backwards, to great cheering and flag-waving.
Education and rational, scientific ways of thinking have made only a superficial impression on the masses in India. There are deep reservoirs of unreason in this land. I constantly find people who are ostensibly well-educated display a strange weakness for the illogical and the unscientific. The irrational has its place. It is a part of the human psyche, and it cannot and should not be done away with. Shouting "go corona, corona go" while banging a plate, for instance, may help someone work off some mental stress or psychological steam, and they are welcome to it. But doing away with reason and the scientific method when it comes to combating the virus, or approving vaccines, whether it is out of desire to make a lot of "cut money", or out of plain foolishness, can get a lot of people killed. The valorisation of the unscientific at leadership and policy levels, which is then celebrated in the name of nationalism by a supine media, and unquestioningly swallowed by a brainwashed public, is taking the country down a very dangerous path.
Without the guiding lights of reason and science, the chaos of unreason that is inherent to India will assert itself again. It is a deep-rooted part of our culture. It has a beauty to it, but left unrestrained, it can destroy us. Right now, as millions of faithful take their holy dips at the Kumbh Mela blissfully unconcerned by the burgeoning pandemic, there's also an economic crisis, growing political anger and unrest all around, and an increasingly unstable near-abroad in Myanmar and Afghanistan. We should all buckle up. I anticipate turbulence ahead.