Rabindranath Tagore had written these lines over a 100 years ago:
Where the mind is without fear and the head is held high
Where knowledge is free…
My mind has been going to those lines often in the past couple of weeks as people everywhere grapple with lockdowns announced by Governments. Once the external lockdown restrictions are relaxed, we seem to be imprisoned by the lockdown in our minds. Fear seems to be taking over as the overarching emotion as people prefer to stay at home and not venture out even for a breath of fresh air or a change in scenery. There is a fine line between fear and precaution and it appears that we are leaning into fear and letting go of logic or data about the pandemic.
Here is what we know: India is registering a growth rate of around 3500 cases per day after more than 45 days of lockdown. The death rate of the COVID-19 patients, they say, is among the lowest of countries that have more than 50000 cases. Compare this with, for example, deaths due to road accidents in India. As per this source, there are approximately 150,000 people who die on the road in India every year. In the month of April, for example, with no lockdown, there would have been 12,500 deaths due to road accidents (taking the mean). We have definitely saved those many lives that would have otherwise been victims of the road. Take any statistic – mortality due to dengue, Tuberculosis, or unknown causes and worse, unreported deaths – I am reasonably sure that we have saved some of those lives thanks to the lockdown. If people don’t move around, they carry less chances of being infected by any disease, leave alone the SARS-COV-2. So, what exactly are we saving ourselves from? The coronavirus or other threats to the life?
Take the flip side of the lockdown – hospitals in cities across India are not accepting any patients without a COVID-19 negative report. How many people are losing their lives because they are unable to receive treatment at the right time? There are no stats to keep track of this. Just like there are no metrics that track deaths due to alcoholism. Citizens are losing their livelihood as fear and panic grips everyone, everywhere. Conflicting and often contradicting Government regulations and diktats add to the confusion. Trains ferry migrant workers one day and are stopped the next. Only to restart service again the following day. It is a sad and sorry state of affairs as everyone wants to return to the safety of their homes. In a particularly heart wrenching incident, 16 workers lost their lives as they were making the long trek home, mowed down by a train while they rested. The loss of these lives must be counted against COVID-19. As must hundreds and thousands of others who are quietly slipping away, unable to receive the treatment that could save them.
Another behavior that is increasing is authoritarianism. Fear of the unknown has many backing extreme steps taken by local authorities. In fact, local authorities has taken on a new meaning of late. Resident Welfare Associations (RWA) impose their own unique set of restrictions as they deem fit. One news article reported how barricades had been setup barring any incoming traffic into a residential colony by the RWA! No wonder then, that many residents feel like they are in a hostel, although I think it is more like a jail. Restrictions are imposed on walking within a closeted society – only between 7 a.m and 7 p.m. Everyone who wants to step out for a walk or a jog prefers to do it when the summer sun has set or is just rising. That leaves only one hour in the morning (between 6 and 7 a.m) and one hour in the evening (6 p.m to 7 p.m). Social distancing norms are difficult to follow as there are so many people on the narrow road at the same time. The timing restriction within a gated society with its own independent security, defies logic. There is no data that shows that the virus can only transmit between 7 p.m and 7 a.m. Why, then, these restrictions? It is obvious that logic and data is not driving decision making, but emotions and opinions are.
I am clueless about how and if the behavior can change. Fear psychosis is real and when it affects a large population, the result is in front of all of us to see. As an aside – I can see a lot of research happening in this area after a vaccine has been found and administered to a large cross-section of the population. Speaking of which, one thing that I can predict:
The vaccine and a comprehensive study of the virus is the only way that the world can return to some degree of “normalcy”. The new normal is a few years away.
What are your thoughts? Which side of the fence are you on?