Unity in separation the new challenge for India
March is usually the month when the residents of New Delhi put away their face masks. The smog and murk of the winter months diffuses, the onset of spring brings blue skies and an incredible profusion of flowers, the air turns breathable again and even fragrant, and people flood the streets and parks.
This year, things are different. The coronavirus pandemic has presented the residents of the Indian capital with a challenge they have never faced before. As I write, Delhi is unnaturally silent. For once, the chirping of birds outside my window is more prominent than the sounds of human voices and the blare of car horns. But it is a reluctant silence, straining to be let off the leash. Much of life in India is lived outdoors and with the next person never more than a few feet away.
But all that will have to change. For several weeks, Indians, like people in most parts of the world, did not take the threat of the virus very seriously. Now, the rising number of cases in the country — more than 500, although mortalities have barely reached double figures — suggest that India, too, will soon be dragged into the list of countries where the virus stands to do the most damage, especially if one factors in the very real possibility that the small number of confirmed cases is a consequence of a poor testing rate.
As with the US and the UK, the Indian government has probably reacted a couple of weeks too late. Only in the last few days have central and state governments begun to take extreme measures to crack down on human mingling. The first step — a necessarily sharp shift in mood to demonstrate the gravity of the situation — was the 14-hour countrywide shutdown ordered by Prime Minister Narendra Modi on Sunday. This was generally successful. Meanwhile, Indian Railways, which carries the largest volume of passenger traffic of any rail network in the world, has canceled all trains until March 31.
It was followed by Tuesday's announcement that the entire country would be locked down for the next 21 days. For the fight against the spread of the virus to be successful, very big things are going to be required of both state and society.
For the state, the health care and social challenges are: Testing people for the virus on a much bigger scale than at present so that positive cases can be quarantined; organizing enough capacity in the medical system to deal with a spike in patients; and directing public policy toward areas such as food supply and information in such a way as to contain both the pandemic and panic.
For society, the huge challenge for Indians of all ages and classes — some more so than others — will be to observe the discipline of unity in separation for weeks or months. Social isolation is a very unfamiliar concept to most Indians; something for hermits and hospital wards. And no one who has visited India has come away thinking civic discipline is one of its great qualities.
For the fight against the spread of the virus to be successful, very big things are going to be required of both state and society
Of course, we are seeing great difficulties with enforcing social isolation all over the world. Most great social crises, after all, require people to come together, not shrink back. It is very hard to make the mental leap to treating any person one comes into contact with as a source of disease. And, given the precarity and congestion of so much of the population of urban India living in informal housing, it is not just social isolation but hand hygiene that becomes difficult. Last summer, the talk in India was all about the forthcoming water wars — as this summer looms, the whole country will need water just to stay free of infection.
India has reached a critical stage in its coronavirus story: The point where the virus moves from stage two, or local transmission from contact with infected persons, to stage three —community transmission. Worst-case scenarios modeled by epidemiologists suggest that more than 300 million people could catch the virus if it is not contained. It has already caused an economic crisis. Should it get out of hand, the millions of economically vulnerable people in India, living on their earnings from day to day, will be devastated. It would be impossible for the government to enforce discipline in a situation where hunger and panic rule.
So the next fortnight is critical. One might say it is not an untimely challenge. Over the last year, both the state and society in India have fallen into very bad habits. Modi’s Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party, re-elected with a landslide last summer, has delivered an economic slowdown, divisive legislation, cynical and bigoted rhetoric, and the idea that there is no idea of India other than its own hard-line ideology. In turn, many sections of the public and the media have reveled in jingoism, encouraged or condoned violence, allowed the minorities to become imperiled, and refused to hold the leadership to account.
For decades, Indians took pride in the slogan of “unity in diversity.” Children learned it in schoolbooks, artists and intellectuals gave expression to it in their words and thoughts, and political and social institutions did their best to promulgate it. A few weeks or months of unity in separation may, alongside staving off the coronavirus, help remind the people of India of another shared project that we have allowed to lapse.
• Chandrahas Choudhury is a writer based in New Delhi. His work also appears in Bloomberg View and Foreign Policy. Twitter: @Hashestweets