I, We and the Pandemic

Pandemic COVID19 Gangtok

It’s Sunday. Doesn’t feel like one though. Being a late riser I rose to hymns and choir of the St.Pauls Church in 5th Mile. The church is Silent. No hymns no bells. Easters too passed the same way. Well, must be same for everyone living beside Temples, Gurudwaras and mosques. It’s not the same world anymore. But it’s good too. I now wake up to calls of the Magpie Robin and sparrow chirps. The sweet bird calls were overpowered by the unpleasant noise of the trucks and vehicles.

Manita (name changed) ran a small tea and canteen shed near a garage. Enough to sustain a family of three. Her husband had deserted her for another woman. A few days back she was standing in line to get her share of free ration. Ramesh( name changed) called me up the other day if I had some errand that he could do. He is my electrician who did small repair works. He is out of work now. He waits and moves around calling people if there was some work to sustain in this costly Gangtok town. A group of fifteen labourers are stranded in one of the shanties. Out of work and out of ration. I pulled some strings. Friends helped me out. The district administration was very helpful and they received some food to eat. These are just a few stories of what a lockdown has done to some people I know. But thank God we are still a COVID19 negative state. Pray we remain one.

I was quite unaware of this virus till updates started trickling into my cell phone News Feed. It was the last week of January when I was basking in the winter sun. News of an unknown virus infecting in an equally unknown place (at least for me) in Wuhan. The news agencies called it n-COV then. The virus looked pretty. Almost like a puffy ball. All they said was that the virus was transmitted through human to human contact. Much later people called it COVID19.

When the death tolls started rising people shared videos of the ghastly eating habits of the Chinese as the virus seemed to have come from a meat market in Wuhan. People cursed the Chinese for eating all that stuff. With that came a sweeping comment as to how even the people of the NE region had similar food habits like the Chinese. A few started calling the NE people Corona. Oh yes! NE people also looked like Chinese they said. Bats and Pangolins were the target animals … It is now that we know that even  Penguins are a reservoir of the coronavirus (but not COVID19). More doctored videos or even fake videos got circulated in WhatsApp and social media platforms. Common masses lapped it up. China was in a frenzy. The news started travelling faster than the virus itself.

With the death toll rising. The Chinese government called for a complete lockdown and isolation of the Hubei province. Interesting to note here that global trade with China and people moving in and out of China did not stop. The WHO looked like a lame duck. The number of actual deaths in China still remains clouded in shades of mystery. By now, the virus had gained ground and was quickly travelling across the globe. It took some time till mid-march when the WHO finally called it a global #Pandemic. A health red alert was sounded across countries. But the damage had been done. South Korea to Japan to Iran to Italy to Spain to France to Germany and America. Today it is almost in 210 countries and territories (WHO does not recognize Taiwan or the likes of it as a country…for obvious reasons of course). It has been a devastating eight weeks for all of us. Human lives fell like an array of dominos. The danger was real and looming large.

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Bodybags, bodybags and more bodybags. The sick and the dead suddenly became untouchables. Health workers deputed in the line of fire were being attacked or socially isolated. This pandemic was threatening the human race across the globe.

#LockDown was the only option than to stop community transmission. Global politics of naming and shaming had started by now to hide their own inefficiency.  Skeletons of geopolitics tumbled out of the graves and the drama unfolded. Who was to blame OR was anyone to blame for this human devastation? We still have to wait and watch. The Wuhan Institute of Virology has been under suspicion for this pandemic. There is an uneasy silence form China. Who knows…it just might be!

The count started mounting and once again WhatsApp videos of deaths and trauma started circulating. Some were real, some were fake. People were petrified of this flue. People saw the film Contagion play out in real life.

Pandemic Ravongla, South Sikkim
Ravangla, South Sikkim

Understanding the population density of India, the meager health care resources and the devastation that it could cause, the Government took a wise decision of a complete Lock-Down. Our PM came on air and called for this lockdown within four hours of his declaration. Health emergency was enforced in India calling out everyone to stay at home.  #StayAtHome , #SocialDistancing,#Namaste was the new mantra. In India, No one knew what a 21-day lockdown looked like or would look like. The Lockdown happened. Tens and thousands of migrants wanted to go home. Were we prepared for this mass exodus? … I really do not know. Were we prepared for this suddenLockdown ?…the answer is obvious! It was a necessary step as the government says. We have no reasons to disbelieve. But somewhere deep down I feel that we had got a two-month window before the lockdown. But again no one could foresee that this virus would have been uncontrollable.

People scrambled for hand sanitizers knowing well that hand wash was better. N95 masks became a coveted acquisition even when a two-layered cloth could work well especially in non-hospots zones. A war had been declared against the unknown unseen enemy. Some leaders took it literally. For some“Go Corona Go” became the battle cry. Amidst all this our Maharaja, the Air India brought back stranded people and students from China, Iran, Italy and some other countries (Thank god we had not sold Air India till now). Government hospitals and health workers were at the forefront (Thank god we had not privatized everything). The Tata’s opened up their TajMahal for health care workers, people and industry poured in money to support this crisis. And yet what remains exposed is the dwindling government-run health care facilities in India. The migrant’s labourers had to walk back home as they were not provided for by some of the states. They did not keep their promise. Sikkim was an exception. Efforts were made to provide for all and are still being provided by the Sikkim Government.

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Our PM asked people to come out in the balcony to clap or ring bells in appreciation of the frontline workers. Our overzealous people went all out and banged anything that made noise. The noise of course! He once again appealed the people to light candles and diyas in their balconies or main doors. They took out torch rallies. Some even burst firecrackers. The knowledgeable mass made fun of all this. But Do we also realize that with one stroke the PM was able to drill the message home to our not so educated masses about this unknown, unseen puny virus which was threatening our existence and that we now had to fight it? Once again the social media was on the roll …yet the mass awareness was done in a historic way. We will be happy to read some articles someday by the marketing gurus of the Management institutes.

The Government of India swung into action. The research labs swung into action. The industry too swung into action. Testing centres had to be opened to start a mass scale testing. Designated isolation and quarantine areas were made. NIV, ICMR suddenly became buzzwords. RTPCR and sanitized testing centres was the priority.  People started getting tested(Though the test ratio as per global standards is abysmally low). The industry came up with prototypes of cheap ventilator machines. My labs and Feluda made it to the newsrooms as indigenously Made in India testing kits and strips. We as hapless souls applauded these efforts. Suddenly Pakistan, army and minority bashing had taken a back seat in our so-called mainstream media. We were suddenly Indians and had to fight it together.

Sikkim Border

A new epicentre was found in Delhi. Suddenly this disease was linked to a community. It suddenly had a religion.  Everyone cursed them. A new social enemy emerged for the masses. The newsroom got a Bakra once again. We conveniently forgot that the same overzealous people were blatantly violating the lockdown by attending weddings of politician’s children, a politician’s birthday celebration or celebrating some religious festivity. The outrage here was low. We should have cried hoarsely. A new politics also started with some governments trying to hide and fudge figures whereas there were also some government who went out of the way in calculated moves to stop the virus transmission. Sikkim and Kerala became role models. In fact, the entire North East should be applauded for this together with smaller states like with Goa, Pondicherry. For some it was politics but for many, it has been a battle against the odds. Let’s applaud all who have kept politics at bay to fight this menace.

The economy has been hit and badly hit. The oil prices have dwindled to a never before low… but nature was healing as fishes and dolphins could be seen near beaches and otters took up to the streets. Well, of course, there is also a sad stray Bear incident in Gangtok. City skies cleared up as pollution crashed. Many in cities saw the sunrise after eons.

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Students stayed home doing classes in digital platforms as teachers started pushing themselves beyond their limits to try new apps and websites. The connectivity in rural areas for continuous streaming became a hurdle yet everyone did their best. Just worried for students across India who do not have access to smartphones or do not have resources to buy data packs. We will have to re-assess the efficacy of this much-hyped digital platform in realtime  … someday!

Most of the families reconnected with the lost times. Spent time with their family. Met friends on Facebook or WhatsApp. Challenged each other on the books they had read and the films that they had seen or the sarees that they wore…not to forget the moustaches they once had or have. Some showed their culinary and baking skills, some uploaded videos of strumming the guitar or singing a song to liven up the mood. Many have been putting up memes and jokes to keep the rodent life upbeat. We wonder what would happen if the internet was not there in these harrowing times.

As the number keeps surging worldwide, perhaps we have to be proud of Sikkim which has been able to guard itself and once again prove to be a leader in best practices. We have to be proud of our citizens who have abided by the advisories and orders diligently (just a few stray cases…as we know some morons will be there). Food has been provided to the migrant labour. Some also lined up to get their free share of ration pretending to be poor, even though they knew that we all watched with dismay when some of them shamelessly lined up in front of the booze shops when it opened.  Of course, there were some good samaritans who have distributed food and grocery and some who took pains to feed the street dogs too.

But we can say that Sikkim has done excellently well till now. The government machinery right from the administration and police, health, Safai karmacharis,  Food and civil supplies division, Simfed, Sikkim Milk and the various cooperatives and FPOs have done an excellent job. I am said that within a few days the rapid testing and the full-scale testing will also begin in the state. Let’s carry on the message of being leaders on the national platform.

For the rest who are really pasted against the wall …we endure…hope a medicine or vaccine arrives soon. This would be the new normal. Let us get into this habit of Physical distancing with social bonding in our minds and hearts. #Prayers. #Patience. #Prevent. #Protect.

The article was previously published in Sikkim Express.

Writes: Satyadeep Chettri. The author works at NBB degree College and opinions expressed is his personal view

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