It is fashionable these days to say: “We must learn to live with Corona”, portraying Covid-19 like a difficult spouse or boss. One senior minister went a step further by borrowing the brand name of a spiritual entrepreneur and calling it “The Art of Living with Corona.” Another woke writer penned a passionate piece suggesting that we should not “fight with Corona” but learn to “make peace with it” instead.
Romanticising Covid-19 seems to be fast becoming the flavour of the season. But, the intended audience for such pious advice is not clear. Is it for those developing Webinar-fatigue and Zoom-phobia? Or the urban-elite missing their evening cocktails at the club? The yuppy middle-class afflicted by withdrawal symptoms at not being able to binge in the malls? Or the industrialists desperate to reopen factories, or the builders anxious about unfinished projects? Or, is the pious advice meant for the benefit of the lakhs of migrant workers trudging their way back to their homes, stuffed like sardines in Shramik Expresses, ignoring all norms of social distancing? Is it for the thousands who would die in any case to tuberculosis, dengue, malaria, swine flu and, if everything else fails, in road accidents?
I first read about “living with” a deadly disease in an interview of Siddhartha Mukherjee, the Indian-American oncologist and author of the Pulitzer-winning The Emperor of All Maladies. In a conversation, Mukherjee talks about how the detection of cancer is no longer like a death warrant. Although science is yet to find a “cure” for cancer, it can be treated and controlled. Not just to extend life expectancy, but also improve the quality of life. So, we see many cancer patients in remission around us leading perfectly ‘normal’ lives for years.
It took me a little time to digest this somewhat abstruse concept, until another doctor-friend explained it in layman’s language. He gave the example of diabetes which – coming to think of it – is also a life-limiting condition. People do not drop dead on its diagnosis, but learn to live with it. Being a patient of hyper-glycaemia myself, I did not quite like the analogy but got what he was driving at.
Not only are cures or vaccines a long way off, but the understanding of how Covid-19 is contracted and spreads is also still a grey zone. (Photo: Reuters)
The question, however, arises – can Covid-19 be compared to any of these life-threatening diseases? It may be argued that there are no vaccines or any proven cure for cancer and diabetes either. And there is very little one can do to avert those ailments. Further, statistics that are cited often are of the low mortality rate of Covid-19 compared to the number of deaths caused by dengue, malaria or even road accidents. This ‘Trumpian’ logic, if one may call it so, is at best fallacious. We shall come to the reasons in a bit.
Unless a risk can be considered reasonable, it is akin to gambling. Not only are cures or vaccines a long way off, but the understanding of how Covid-19 is contracted and spreads is also still a grey zone. This was evident in the flip-flop on the usage of masks. Testing and diagnosis remain another problematic area. Apart from the challenge of cost and the number of test kits available, often tests are inconclusive and many infected persons are asymptomatic. Thus, the entire management of the pandemic is like battling an invisible enemy, that too in the dark.
Now coming to the treatment, it is undeniable that governments at the national and state levels have done an incredible job of ramping up quarantine facilities and mobilising healthcare staff. To be fair to the public health authorities, it would be unrealistic to expect such makeshift, emergency arrangements to be of five-star standards. Critics and cynics notwithstanding, the lockdown definitely helped contain the transmission and bought the much-needed time for the government to get its act together on the medical infrastructure. At the same time, the graph continues to rise. However, the rise has not been as exponentially as many had predicted.
As migrants return home, a spike in their home states cannot be ruled out, even discounting the possibility of a second surge. But a bigger cause of worry is the attrition among the healthcare workers, some of whom are contracting the infection, apart from ‘burnout’ due to stress. Non-Covid-19 hospitals cannot be diverted indefinitely for Covid-19 treatment as that will have major implications on the general healthcare system of the country. As it is, the pandemic is seriously impacting the viability of private hospitals that are not able to pay their staff.
The upshot here is that there is little to suggest the “risk quotient” of acquiring infection and chances of survival (which, in turn, is a function of medical support) will fall dramatically. With such an outlook, to expect people to come out in hordes can only be based on the innate fatalistic spirit of the Indian people. To believe that the lifting of lockdown will automatically take us back to the pre-Covid-19 times would be naïve. Underestimating the changes in outlook and behaviour that Covid-19 will bring about can be a gross error in judgement. The return of the migrants is an indicator that even the poor are no longer willing to stay back Bhagwan Bharose for the sake of earning a little extra money.
Covid-19 has taught us that natural calamities do not discriminate by demographics or economic status. So, the concerns of a businessman or white-collar worker will not be very different from that of a construction labourer when going back to work.
Man cannot live by statistics alone. Without a fair prospect of survival, few would be willing to play a game of chance like Russian Roulette. To be able to “live with Covid” or other challenges that will surely come our way, we have to reimagine a society that will not be driven by economic forces alone. The ‘New India’ has to be more caring and place an equal premium on the lives of all people. That will be the foundation of a true Aatmanirbhar Bharat.