Despair and despondency as India faces second wave

Since moving into my new flat in 2018, I have paid scant attention to the facility management’s app that has been used mostly to communicate with residents on housekeeping issues. But I cannot ignore it any longer.

For the past fortnight, its disconcerting, daily alerts on Covid-19 cases in our complex in Noida, a Delhi suburb, have commanded my attention as a barometer of just how dangerously close my family and I are to the outbreak.

The complex, housing some 1,110 families, has reported 104 cases since March 28 this year. The total for 2020 was just 64, with the last case reported on Nov 30. That I have not heard ambulance sirens yet in the complex is a small mercy.

This has made our restricted life even more so. We wear double masks while we are out and we do not share lifts. Social visits, severely curtailed since last year, have again ended entirely. Grocery shopping has moved back online and our domestic help has gone on paid leave until things improve.

It has been especially hard on my 10-year-old son, who began online classes in March last year and has not seen his classmates since then. He begged us to let him go to the playground a few weeks ago for the first time in more than a year to meet a classmate. I do not know when he can go again.

The situation here is a reflection of just how distressing the pandemic is in India, which reported 314,835 fresh cases yesterday, the world’s highest single-day figure for new coronavirus infections. The country also registered 2,104 deaths, its highest daily toll as well.

Keeping pace with this macabre tally are the increasing number of newspaper pages given to obituaries. “Om Shanti”, a phrase used by many Hindus to wish eternal peace for a dead person’s soul, even trended on Twitter yesterday as Indians consoled those bereaved.

Yet, earlier on, the mood among many Indians was ebullient. We thought the worst was behind them. How wrong we were. It is infuriating to now look back and see how quickly people dropped their guard. Friends and acquaintances went on holidays to Goa and Kashmir in March despite early signs of a second wave.

And I watched with dread from my balcony as neighbours played Holi, a Hindu spring festival, on March 29, smearing coloured powder on one another. These covidiots were emboldened by lax Covid-19 behaviour from our political leaders and contradictory messaging from the authorities.

State governments encouraged domestic tourism, while large religious gatherings such as the Kumbh Mela went ahead for days despite flaring virus cases and Prime Minister Narendra Modi and leaders from other political parties addressed large election rallies where physical distancing was a mirage.

Confident of having won the battle, Mr Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party even hailed its leadership “for introducing India to the world as a proud and victorious nation in the fight against Covid” in a Feb 21 resolution. A mere few months later, it is despairing to see things come full circle and the government scramble yet again.

But staying at home is not an option for journalists, who must risk reporting from the ground even amid this disturbing outbreak.

We had reported on the lockdown, a migrant exodus and overwhelmed hospitals in the first wave. This summer, we are out in the field reporting on these same issues all over again, still bruised from the misery we witnessed last year. Only, this time it is worse.

And yet, journalists have not been recognised in India as frontline workers, despite calls from the Editors Guild of India and other organisations requesting the government to do so and give them priority access to vaccines.

India, which has been hailed as a vaccine-producing powerhouse and praised for donating Covid-19 shots to other countries, continues to limit public vaccination to those aged above 45. Only from next month will citizens above 18 be eligible for vaccination.

Several of my journalist colleagues have died reporting from the front lines of this pandemic. By the time journalists in India get both their doses, it will be near the end of June. How many more will we lose to Covid-19 before then?

The positivity rate in Delhi has gone up from less than 4 per cent at the start of April to nearly 33 per cent. The flare-up has overburdened not just the hospitals but also labs. Friends I know have struggled to get themselves tested and then spend an agonising 48 hours or more to get their results.

I also worry about the safety of my parents. They voted on April 17 in Kolkata in an excruciatingly long, eight-phase election in West Bengal that has seen daily cases soar from fewer than 200 in March to more than 10,000. “Wear two masks,” I told them. “Come back if there’s a crowd or a long queue,” I pleaded on the phone. There is little else one can do seated more than a thousand kilometres away.

How does one cope with all this sadness and despair? How do you hold back those tears? One cannot. After finishing this piece, I will don an N95 mask and a cloth one, plus a face shield when I visit crematoriums to report on how overwhelmed they are. The protective equipment will likely stonewall a coronavirus infection. What it will not protect me from though is the despondency that has been gnawing away at us from within, more of which awaits us.

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