What went by, seems so bizarre.
Like the snap of Thanos, it has picked out people randomly from everywhere. It’s hard to find someone who did not have the first-hand experience of someone dying with Covid. I live in an apartment in a city. A man in his late 30’s died two floors above mine. My in-law's, neighbor's wife died in another city. My sister's neighbor died in another city. And then there are many who have just escaped, whom I know, the security guard in our apartment whose O2 concentration went down to 85% and there were no beds available to admit; or another neighbor who could not get an ICU bed and was asking for help in WhatsApp group. That’s just my story, with not that many connections. If that’s my story I wonder what’s the real story. Hundreds of thousands had fallen victims. 349K is the official number, the actual may be orders of magnitude higher than this.
In the first wave, we had enough priming to be careful. Video clips from Spain and Italy in the news were enough. And then there was the lockdown and slowly it was lifted and then it was as if Covid19 was not that terrible as we have seen in other countries. There were very few deaths, and mostly in very old people who had other diseases. And then all of us got gripped by one theory or another. Somehow the countless vaccines that we take during childhood, have some role to play in giving us better immunity compared to other countries. Or our genes or something else.
I still wore a mask. But at home towards the end of the first wave, I remember inviting visitors and other technicians and interacting with them without a mask. For most Indians, it was as if Covid19 had passed. I booked a plane ticket after a year to visit my parents in another City. Things were going to normal. The flight was on 17th April 2021.
The second week of April, the news started slowly filtering in, but total deaths were comparatively low, as deaths always lag the new cases by weeks. The Kumbh-Mela was in full swing. It would end abruptly after April 16 when the head priest of one sect dies from Covid19.
The news was filtering in slowly. The bigger picture and fatality were still not clear. There was some tension in the air. I remember using a very good 3M respirator mask in the airport and plane and not taking it off. Also, I could book an empty seat adjacent to mine for social distancing. I would not have traveled if I knew what was going to hit next.
And in a few days, it hit alright. As the infections rose, there were suddenly no beds, and the horror — oxygen shortage and images of people running around to get oxygen cylinders. And then more horror, lack of ICU beds; news of infections rampant in young more than old; and people dying everywhere. I was in Kerala at this time and it was relatively calm during this time.
On 22 rd April the Chief Minister of the state I have to travel back announced that things are out of control. On 24th April was my flight back to Bangalore. I had to get a negative RTPCR test certificate to board my flight. It was the norm everywhere now.
I remember going for the test and waiting anxiously for the result. After 24 hours the results came and I was negative; at least a passport to get back to my home. And I reached home; in a state where the official line was that the situation was out of control. There was complete lockdown now everywhere. In the state I was coming from Kerla and to where I reached — Karnataka. had to show my boarding pass for the police to let me pass; there were innumerable police pickets and roads were barren and all shops shuttered.
For the first few days, I really was afraid if I had caught the infection myself due to my travel. And what that would mean for my family. A leap of faith, a bad decision, a stubbornness, foolhardiness. In different moments we give a different interpretation of our deeds. It’s not that I distrusted masks, but I never knew how life-saving it was till now.
I stopped watching the news. There were enough anecdotes flowing. The place I stay has some electric crematorium a few miles away. Every few minutes I was hounded by the sirens of Ambulances. Either to hospitals or to the crematoriums. I don’t know. I never knew about the different crematoriums in our city, but now these sirens were making a beeline to the one that was least crowded. Lines of Ambulances waiting for their turns. In each a tragic story. Mostly a story that could have been avoided if sufficient medical care was available or could have been provided. These sirens marked the toll better than any statistics. When it started to fade weeks later, I knew we had slowly crossed over to the descending slope.
Today is 7th June. I got my first vaccine of Covishield on 5th June. There are no more sirens now. The state is in full lockdowns still. Some essential shops are open from 6 AM to 10 AM. Personal vehicles and everyone is strictly prohibited after 10 AM. The positivity rate has decreased from 32% to around 8% now. It seems the lockdown will be lifted when the test positivity rate decreases to 5 percent.
And to think that we were ahead of the curve; chance had dealt India with a low first wave; two large vaccine manufactures and all the time in the world from Jan to April
But then we were caught napping, our false pride, our inevitability all crushed. Actually, the vaccination drive of people above 45 years was done by that time. They were supposed to be the most susceptible to Covid19 until the second wave hit. I believe leadership is this- to plan and do simple and basic things when all are going on a roll or panicking. Similar is a saying for geniuses. But President Biden was no genius; he took a simple decision that it was safer to vaccinate all, and it pulled the USA out of the horror of Covid19.
It is a sad matter that our national leaders and think tank were part of our national rhetoric; no better than the average Indian; in thinking that the worst was over. Maybe the lesson will be learned; that science saves more men and women and child and baby than anything else; and that what science stands for should be protected for the good of our country. It's good that many have the courage to stand for science in this country now; it’s good that many have also have started recognizing this in our country.
What is the Regret then.
Before my eyes I see the neighbor whom I used to pass in the lift; I see his children; an empty spot in the table; a void in the heart. Same the case of security staff in our apartment. His family in a much worse monetary state. I imaging that it could have been me; or for that matter anyone. This is the regret; that irrespective of the Origin of the virus, irrespective of the first wave; that we never learn even when black swans are raining on us; that this much sorrow never had to be reaped here; or anywhere.
And what is the silver lining
There is a silver lining in the darkest clouds; that our country has clearly been able to turn around; initially very fast from the first wave; and though a lot damaged, still from the second wave. Federalism helps, as the states know best when to lockdown when to re-open, and the Center cannot gauge this. Wherever federalism has weakened, like in Delhi the situation was much worse. We have seen this in the USA, the presidency of Donald Trump; where the Center takes and abdicates control cyclically; as it has no information to make the best decisions and is biased by political considerations to acknowledge so and yield to States. We have seen this playout here also to a lesser degree, but lessons are quickly learned and sometimes learned the hard way.
This apocalyptic running around for oxygen happened in many cities in many states, but not all states. States like Kerla somehow managed better, and it is shown in figures with the least mortality rate. At least we know the numbers are more accurate there than in other states, where the medical infrastructure is not there to accurately record. And this is a silver lining more or less. Though even here the assembly election caused a great increase in cases. But with more involved governance and public infrastructure, the worst pandemic could also be tackled, in this still developing country. And that’s a silver lining.
And this can be said also of the country as a whole; the fast recovery of oxygen availability, by converting industrial production to medical use; the planning and coordination for this and also arranging medical beds and so on. NGO’s also provided a key role here. For a moment the country was fazed, but it confronted the problem and tackled it. True, we are talking about a breath of air, a few minutes delay and it had proved costly for too many; still, in a few weeks, it was contained more or less.
And then there are silver streaks of companies like the Serum Institute - the largest producer of vaccines in the world; strange that before Covid very few of us knew about this; or about such other large pharmaceutical companies in our midst. And then it does not stop there. When death danced across the heart of India the stock markets were ever going up. Is it a bubble driven by retail investors; who have nowhere else to invest; and all the time in the world ? or found on more strong earnings ?; like from our IT and other companies earning from an opening Global market? Surely economy is one thing each Indian looks keenly than in any other country. It’s the only ticket out of the blackness of eternal want.
It's June; the rains have started in the South. There is calm now in the air; the heat and dust of the summer have settled. The Central government has come yesterday with a better plan of universal free vaccination. With vaccines and a good monsoon; like the virgin green shoot of this year’s rice plants; there are a million hopes slowly budding across these vast plains and hills. There is a strong possibility of a good harvest. Maybe I dramatize too much; maybe no dramatizing can ever be as real as the truth.