As Covid-19 Spreads We Are One Nation, One Big Mess

Empathy hurriedly exited India on a one-way ticket before we shut down airports, writes Priya Ramani.

These days Bangalore artist Baadal Nanjundaswamy’s public artworks focus on creating awareness about the importance of wearing masks. (Photograph courtesy: Baadal Nanjundaswamy)
These days Bangalore artist Baadal Nanjundaswamy’s public artworks focus on creating awareness about the importance of wearing masks. (Photograph courtesy: Baadal Nanjundaswamy)

A fortnight before India set the world record for the highest single-day rise in Covid-19 cases at 78,761, scuba diving instructor Siddharth Ratan Brave was attacked in New Delhi by anti-maskers.

It was one of the few times that Brave, 38, who had isolated himself since a national lockdown was imposed on March 25, was out on the road. He stopped at a paan shop to ask its owner for tips on where to buy a kite.

“While I was talking to him, two guys came and stood very close to me. They were wearing their masks—on their neck,” he recounts. Brave requested them to pull up their masks, explaining that he lived with his 11-month-old baby and interacted regularly with two senior citizens. They promptly complied.

As Covid-19 Spreads We Are One Nation, One Big Mess

Then one of the men walked away and returned with four more men who began discussing him. “I didn't think anything of this. It wasn’t even an argument.” From there, things escalated rapidly, with one of them telling the others, “maar saale ko chaku se.”

The office of the Assistant Commissioner of Police was across the road, Brave says, and he began walking rapidly towards it. “I jumped across the road divider. One of the men had a beer bottle and he came from behind and hit me on my head with the bottle,” he says. “The bottle broke, I kept walking fast and then ran into the ACP’s office dripping with beer. When I looked back, they had all disappeared.”

As India’s Coronavirus cases rise steadily with one study predicting that, in the absence of a vaccine, India could log 2.87 lakh Covid-19 cases every day by the winter of 2021, few are discussing the unfolding health crisis or following measures required to control the spread of the virus.

Forget doomscrolling, my friends proudly tell me they’ve muted all news about Covid-19.

By now we know that the exodus of migrant workers from cities to their home villages—courtesy a cruel and thoughtless lockdown—ensured the spread of the virus to the country’s remotest villages. Even the vulnerable Great Andamanese tribe haven’t been spared. Gross Domestic Product shrank by a mind-boggling 23.9% during April-June, against the year-ago quarter. Cheerleaders, please note India was among the worst performers in the world’s major economies.

(Image Courtesy: Sandeep Yadav - Karwan e Mohabbat)
(Image Courtesy: Sandeep Yadav - Karwan e Mohabbat)
India Paid the Price of Lockdown for Little Reward

The Finance Minister recently blamed what is likely to be India’s biggest economic slowdown since 1980 on an “Act of God”. The health minister said the outbreak would be under control by Diwali. The latter is likely to go down in the wishful thinking hall of fame alongside the Press Information Bureau’s April tweet, “…curve has begun to flatten” and Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s “Mahabharata won in 18 days, battle against Covid-19 will last 21 days”.

Another hint of the thought process of our ruling party comes from worst-hit Maharashtra where the local unit of the Bharatiya Janata Party organised a bell-ringing protest, demanding the reopening of temples. Some parent groups on WhatsApp are still debating whether schools should reopen or not though ours has gone eerily silent – likely the effect of the longest summer holiday ever.

In two business-as-usual rulings, the Supreme Court flicked away petitions to postpone a key examination and delay the Bihar state elections. According to new guidelines, states can no longer mandate lockdowns without the centre’s permission.

We are officially one nation, one big mess.

And yes, as the mask becomes more important than ever, the country’s anti-maskers are getting bolder. “Damn just got first hand experience of Indian Karens,” Instagram account Andheriwestshitpost said recently. Read more about the crazy world of Indian Covid denialists here.

Step out and you can see that most people aren’t wearing masks even though Modi did what he does best – popularised a new slogan: ‘Do Gaj Ki Doori, Mask Zaroori’.

But either his audience is weary of meaningless one-liners or its import was lost because he also urged them to “Team Up For Toys” in the same Mann Ki Baat radio address.

“It was really strange,” says Brave of his brush with anti-maskers. “I've seen a lot of fights, been in some myself, I’d never imagine that you telling somebody something as small as ‘put on a mask’ can trigger that sort of anger.”

It’s the anger of joblessness, of failed businesses, of paused dreams and frayed tempers trapped in overcrowded houses in a country that already has no concept of privacy. Our surviving India motto of Dekha Jayega has never been more prominently on display. So groups of young people continue to shoot the breeze around their two-wheelers, laughing into each others’ faces, unmasked of course.

For those who buy into the sales pitch that India’s “low” crude mortality rate is due to amazing governance, former economic advisor Kaushik Basu points out that you can't equate apples with oranges. A truer picture emerges if you compare India’s numbers to its neighbours and we fare worse than all of them, he writes in Mint.

The mortality rate is just one aspect of the impact of Covid-19. Nobody’s discussing post-Covid complications; how badly we treat our frontline Accredited Social Health Activist or ASHA health workers; how it's affecting our immunisation drive or the health of our mothers and children.

Accredited  ASHAs  protest in New Delhi, on Aug. 9, 2020. (Photographer: T. Narayan/Bloomberg)
Accredited ASHAs  protest in New Delhi, on Aug. 9, 2020. (Photographer: T. Narayan/Bloomberg)

Covid-19 is virulent enough to confine the population of an entire world, but it hasn’t managed to lock down hate speech. Empathy hurriedly exited on a one-way ticket before we shut down airports. And nobody’s discussing how we are going to be mentally strong to piece together a gravely-ill country again.

Priya Ramani is a Bengaluru-based journalist and is on the editorial board of

The views expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of BloombergQuint or its editorial team.