• Spriha Mehrotra

Riding the Second Wave: Populism

In March 2020, when India started witnessing the initial stages of what would turn into a healthcare crisis and global pandemic, and when protocol and prevention methods to regulate occurrences of public gatherings that might lead to sporadic spurts in COVID-19 cases had not been strictly put into place, India saw its first “coronavirus super-spreader” event, the Tablighi Jamaat in New Delhi.

The event developed into a hotspot for coronavirus cases, with more than 4000 cases, 27 deaths and more than 40,000 nationwide contacts, tracing, and isolations connected to it. One month into the pandemic, by mid-April 2020, the Union Ministry of Health confirmed that one-third of all cases in India were linked to the Tablighi Jamaat. The event was highly criticized by all Indians, irrespective of their religious affiliations for contributing to the problem of the growing coronavirus crisis.

This has raised very pertinent questions amidst the pervasion of COVID -19: Is it ethically valid AND viable to conduct political and religious gatherings, melas, and rallies during a global pandemic? Are these events indispensable to the social, political, and religious infrastructure and working of a nation? How should the significance of such gatherings be assessed? And what should the reaction of the public and the government be?

The answers to these questions are not overtly based on society’s moral compass and beliefs, but rather can be understood through a government’s obligations to its citizens in times of irreparable and economically destructive crises. The problem, thus, not only lies in central incompetency and inabilities to deal with the problem at hand but rather also with developing a social priority in the minds of the people and creating an environment that is conducive to understanding what is the true need of the hour.

At present, there is no better example to demonstrate and assess the effects that such careless public attitude has on the death rates in the country than the Kumbh Mela in Haridwar, Uttarakhand. Over 3 lakh people have gathered to honour this religious tradition of India, casually flouting internationally recognized standards of COVID-19 mitigation including wearing masks, social distancing, and no unnecessary large crowds. The situation in India, thus, due to this grave violation of coronavirus prevention measures and government protocol has put us in the second spot for the most active cases in the world presently. Under this scenario, states like Uttar Pradesh, Maharashtra, and New Delhi were among the first ones to react and place curfews and travel restrictions on the public, along with stringent actions to ensure that the norms set in place officially are being followed duly. Amidst the second wave of the pandemic in India, when testing is also at a lull due to heavy election campaigning and partial paralysis of the healthcare infrastructure of the country, cases are seeing a new spike every day, something to be taken very seriously.

However, ensuring the same has been a consistent struggle for the Uttarakhand government, with over 1500 people testing positive around the time of the Shahi Snan on April 14. This comes after it was found that the authorities concerned with organizing the Kumbh Mela have also severely undermined the spread of the virus by relaxing centrally regulated rules regarding entry with negative RT-PCR tests only, thermal screening of pilgrims, devotees and attendees and fining for not wearing masks.

What is even more concerning amidst this chaotic situation is the response of the chief minister of Uttarakhand, Tirath Singh Rawat, who said, “Nobody will be stopped in the name of COVID-19 as we are sure the faith in God will overcome the fear of the virus”. This statement not only reflects the careless attitude of the people in authority but also a lack of acknowledgment of the damage the virus has already done, not only to the Indian economy but also to the lives of all the people of India.

The Kumbh has had a history of being linked with the outbreak of diseases in India, like Cholera in 1783, 1879, 1882, 1885 to 1921, which tripled the death rates here. At this stage, when even the second-largest ‘akhada’ (religious sadhu group), Haridwar’s Niranjani Akhada has quit the Kumbh because their chief tested positive, the chief of Mahanirvani Akhada died of coronavirus and 68 significant sadhus were tested positive, the most influential and powerful Juna Akhada said that the Kumbh will continue till May 26. In a statement that was made by their spokesperson, Mahanat Narayan Giri made several remarks downplaying the severity of the virus’ existence and how people inevitably die due to such pandemics every 100 years, but they will try to keep the measures of coronavirus prevention intact.

This also stands in stark contrast to the response that the Tablighi Jamaat incident got from the government and the people, which can also highlight the staunch communal and political bias of our leaders and the ruling party. The so-called Indian secularism faced a test in these staggering situations when the political leaders and citizens remained mum over the Kumbh Mela and the kind of devastation it brought upon the medical fraternity of our country. The difference in which the issue of the Tablighi Jamaat and the Kumbh were treated nationally, where the former was vilified and demonized to a great extent without any pandemic mitigating protocol in place, while the latter wasn’t even acknowledged, even in the anticipation of a more destructive second wave is a clear indicator of the position the government is willing to take, and the account on which it is in power today.

At last, on April 17, after the Prime Minister’s request to keep the Kumbh Mela “symbolic” given the pandemic situation, the Juna Akhara pulled out of the mega gathering and urged the other top akhadas to do the same and finally led to the Kumbh being disbanded overall on April 19, with the second wave of the pandemic looming over as a healthcare emergency for the country.

On the political front, India faces a serious dilemma too. With election canvassing, rallying, and campaigning going on in the states of West Bengal, Tamil Nadu, Assam and Kerala, COVID-19 norms are being flouted all across. Leaders of the BJP including Prime Minister, Narendra Modi and Home Minister, Amit Shah and their opposition leaders, be it TMC’s Mamata Banerjee or INC’s Rahul Gandhi, but all these names have given up the rules and violated social distancing norms and wearing of masks in the name of running election campaigns. This has largely contributed to the spurt of active coronavirus cases in the country in the name of ensuring political relevance and democracy. This brings us back to the question of the indispensability of these gatherings and processes in the political cohesion of our country.

The official Twitter handle of our Prime Minister made posts and boasted about speaking at massive rallies in places like Bardhaman and Krishnanagar, while the Home Minister tweeted about participating in huge, crowded gatherings too. This is inherently problematic, given the current situation, because our leaders hold a great deal of influence, not only over their respective vote banks but also over the general, illiterate population of India who doesn’t have adept knowledge over the virus or the health hazards it might pose. The timing of such gatherings in India also happens to coincide with the COVID-19 virus modifying and mutating into several different variants, which pose more risk to the vulnerable strata of the population.

Himanta Biswa Sarma, the Health Minister of Assam went to the extent of denying the presence of the virus in the state during the election time. This leads to creating problematic narratives that might endorse that the pandemic is not a problem to be taken too seriously, both by the authorities and the people themselves.

These events are obviously not exclusive to India but also manifest globally. The differences lie primarily in the way these events get handled and the religious-political climate of these places. Indian politics and religious inclinations have often taken precedence over various serious matters in retrospect. Certain times, there are vested political and ideological interests that get addressed before public grievances, and during a pandemic, what becomes paramount is that governments adopt utilitarian approaches, not consequentialist.

India is a hotbed of coronavirus right now, and the second wave has engulfed the little bit of normalcy we had attained after a year of battling the crisis. This progress has been washed away to prefer political gains and appease religious sentiments over the thousands getting infected and dying every single day. Cities are reporting shortages of plasma, blood, beds, equipment, testing paraphernalia all the while the people in power sit silently and watch the mess our country becomes, not only nationally, but also internationally. rearranging for survival necessities and medical equipment through social media, which is a clear indicator of the fact that those who need to work for the people aren’t really doing that. People are arranging for survival necessities and medical equipment through social media, which is a clear indicator of the fact that those who need to work for the people aren’t really doing that. The drive to universalise vaccination of citizens is useless if the people are not willing to still consider taking precautions and be socially responsible for their behaviour and actions during a global health emergency, let alone the vaccine shortages we face right now, let alone the government addressing the vaccine shortages we face right now and the inequities present in their plan of action. A message to the people needs to be delivered by the government, but when the latter itself is refusing to take accountability and introspect on the way they’re dealing with the situations at hand, we, as a nation, need to consider our losing morality and reprioritise the needs of the present to not compromise the needs of the future in uncertain times like these.

By Spriha Mehrotra

mehrotraspriha@gmail.com