By Adhirath Sethi Apr. 13, 2020
While the developed world will no doubt manage to claw their way out of the Covid-19 crisis, India has always been the perpetual wild card. It is here that the world has most feared the hammer will hit hardest. And yet, if we look at the numbers, however academically brutal it may sound, the story isn’t playing out as badly as we expected. So far.
Let’s start with an understatement: this has been an interesting couple of months.
Millennials, who have struggled for years for a comeback to the “back in my day” rants of elders, finally have a leg to stand on. We, who grew up listening to stories about the freedom struggle and World War II, can now look around and realise that we’re in the middle of something just as era-defining. We’re living through maybe the only time in history when humanity has held its breath with such unquestioning solidarity. There is no doubt that many of us will bore our grandchildren silly with stories about how the world was once paralysed and all we could do was stay shuttered indoors and hope that streaming services didn’t run out of content. Others may not be so lucky; and many will remember this as the most wretched time of their lives.
It is without question that Covid-19 has been a biased virus. It has allowed the haves to stay indoors and summon groceries to their doorstep, while have-nots have stared into the abyss and wondered how they will survive. It has imbibed anyone with a laptop and a broadband connection to guiltlessly continue expecting their paycheck to arrive, while those without a work-from-home option are forced to contemplate whether there will be a job to go back to when and if the dust settles.
India was clearly slow off the blocks in terms of testing and even at the time of writing, we have only tested about 1,80,000 cases.
With more than 20 days into the lockdown, a lot of questions have sprung up around India’s situation, even as the rest of the world’s worst-hit nations start seeing the beginnings of a peak in cases. Still, while the developed world will no doubt manage to claw their way out of this, India has always been the perpetual wild card. It is here that the world has most feared the hammer will hit hardest.
And yet, if we look at the numbers – 9152 positive cases, 308 deaths – however academically brutal it may sound, the story isn’t playing out as badly as we expected. So far.
For starters, let’s get the usual gripes out of the way. India was clearly slow off the blocks in terms of testing and even at the time of writing, we have only tested about 1,80,000 cases. Compare this with the US, where the population is only a third of ours but where more than 1.5 million tests have already been done, and it is clear we’re well behind on this metric. While arguments have rained in both against and in support of our testing strategy, the fact remains that our percentages remain surprisingly low. With over 9,000 cases reported, India is seeing a paltry five per cent of cases test positive. To put this in perspective, the comparable numbers are 22 per cent for Italy, 18 per cent for the US and 20 per cent for the Diamond Princess cruise ship. Further, if we remove the Tablighi Jamaat cases – where the conversion levels were more pronounced – our numbers would reflect even lower.
While some have suggested that once community transmission starts, this conversion number will climb, there seems no mathematical or logical argument for this. If anything, with India only testing high-risk and symptomatic patients, our numbers should have been closer to that of Italy, meaning we should have had well over 20,000 cases by this time.
Others say that cases and deaths are being underreported. This too is a very real possibility in a country where data and facts are consistently tweaked to suit the whims of those in power. But considering the reach of social media, we should have had some anecdotal evidence contrasting with the official numbers. So far, no WhatsApp video or tweet has surfaced showing fields of bodies, or throngs of people waiting at hospitals to be tested. If Modi memes are still able to make it through the internet, I doubt the authorities have the power to suppress something damning from going viral.
So, let’s look at the why. Is it pure dumb luck on India’s part? Is it some innate resistance we have to Covid-19? Or is it a case of us sticking our heads in the sand and trusting the official numbers, when the reality is so much worse?
With more than 20 days into the lockdown, a lot of questions have sprung up around India’s situation.
Initial projections were prophesying thousands of deaths by now, so what gives?
First, let’s accept that even though our government has its faults, they have been the most paranoid of all administrations in this case. India was among the first countries to seal its borders and we implemented a lockdown unprecedented in human history. Yes, some have been irresponsible and put other’s lives at risk, but by and large, the nation has stayed indoors just when it looked likely that things would escalate. Considering the obsession our government has with GDP numbers, it took a bit of gumption to put all that aside and prioritise human life. Admittedly, the migrant worker crisis showed a certain lack of planning, but that should not take away from the truth that the lockdown was desperately needed and came just in time.
Secondly, a New York Times mapping of movements out of China in the earliest days of the crisis show that of a staggering 175,000 people that fled Wuhan, there existed a strong correlation between the places they went and the rise of cases in those areas. While the US, Italy, and Spain rank highly on the list of outbound Wuhan party destinations, the data shows nearly no people to have come to South Asia. We got lucky simply because Chinese tourists don’t care much for seeing the Taj Mahal.
Finally, there is a ray of hope over the BCG vaccine playing a part in our resistance to Covid-19. The scientific community has not dismissed this possibility, nor have they fully dismissed the idea that as summer progresses the virus may find it harder to survive outside the body. Basic studies have shown a strong correlation between nations administering the BCG vaccine and their number of reported cases. However, the truth is that by the time anyone can accurately assess these theories and provide hard evidence of their validity, all this will probably be over – one way or another.
While the BCG vaccine theory is as yet unproven, it is interesting to note that both Italy and New York – two areas where anti-vax movements have been most pronounced over the last decade – have seen the maximum number of cases.
There is no doubt that many of us will bore our grandchildren silly with stories about how the world was once paralysed.
Meanwhile, our journey is still long, now that the lockdown has been extended. We have read about the stories of the migrant worker walking hundreds of kilometres to reach home and die. We have all wondered whether his fate was in any way more glorious than if he had contracted an illness with a 3 per cent chance of death. We’re also seeing a spike in cases of domestic violence. Spare a thought for the abused, who would rather take their chances with a virus than with being cooped up at home with something much worse.
The rate of cases aside, our biggest fear has always been the mortality rate. Had we been told that all 1.3 billion of us would get Covid-19, but that the illness would be mild and that symptoms would go away in a few days, no one would have complained. The data is showing us that – for India at least – this may just be the case. It’s a hope flimsily resting on incomplete numbers, Hail Mary arguments, and unproven theories – a fool’s hope, perhaps, but we haven’t been given much more to hold on to at this point.
So, while it may be too early to let our guard down, perhaps we can take some comfort in the idea that we may have bought ourselves some time and rest somewhat easily in the cautious belief that this may not be the carnage we all expected initially.
Adhirath Sethi is a novelist based in Bangalore. When he is not writing satire, he dabbles in darkness. His latest book, Where the Hills Hide their Secrets, is a product of such dabbles..