by Will Smith
As I live here in Goa – an English expat with Indian roots – I find myself reading the reports of my homeland during the time of Covid with an increasing sense of disconnection.
I am British, the UK is my home and wherever I am that never leaves me. I follow the British news, the politics and I have opinions about what should be done in a way that I only distantly do with my actual home, India. So, it is with a hollowness and a sense of dislocation that I observe the Covid crisis in my homeland from afar.
In truth, it is as if I’m back in the 90s watching the war in the Balkans or something. It’s on the Nine O’Clock News and a pith-helmeted war reporter stands in front of snowy landscape intoning solemnly about the latest atrocity. The war in the Balkans is a clearly shit thing – yet, nevertheless, it is distant, unconnected with me.
I think it is because Covid and the associated fear never had a chance to take root here in India.
But before I go on, let me be clear. I’m a card carrying liberal (if only because it’s useful for racking up the next line! Ho ho…). I believe in active redistribution of wealth from richer people to poorer people. I’m not laissez faire. I say this because what I’m about to say next might be misinterpreted.
You see, India has almost no meaningful welfare state. It is true to say, your family is your welfare. In India, after a brief lockdown in March and April of last year, I believe the Modi government realised that such a strategy was untenable. People had to earn money to feed themselves. Putting it bluntly, people had to work in order not to starve. And therein lay the reality for India. However much you might want to signal to the people you were taking action and trying to protect them, the truth is you simply can’t lock down a nation like this for long without devastating consequences. In other words, India was trapped between crap and crapper in a way that richer nations weren’t. In such a situation, what is left but to not lock down? And if that is your only option, then you must deal with the fear of Covid in a different way. If you can’t persuade people you can keep them safe, better not to have them worrying too much that they’re not safe, right?
The result has been a lot of lip-service type rules. We all carry our raggedy old cloth masks in a back pocket, stick them on when we go in a shop where the owner is wearing one, don’t bother otherwise. Not too serious, right? But what about this one? If you get a cough or a fever, if you think you might have something, the reality is it’s best not to say anything. The default is to carry on and hope you get better. If you take the official government test and are positive, you’ll be moved to a quarantine hospital; 100 beds to a room, no medicine, no oxygen or any medical equipment really, a couple of floor standing fans if you’re lucky, and, well, fingers crossed. Meanwhile your family is placed in isolation. In India of course it’s not unusual for three or even four generations to be living in the same household. Think about it. That’s a lot of breadwinners out of action for a lot of dependents who rely on them. Rather than the official test, therefore, take the unofficial black-market test. If it’s positive they won’t inform anyone except you and then you can choose. In my experience most will be somewhat responsible and isolate at home. But everyone else in that household will go on as normal. And who are you to blame them? What would you do?
I laughed in the autumn when there was a slew of reports wondering if there was some special immunity in Indians, and speculation about what the cause might be. I don’t know, maybe there is a natural immunity? But to me it seems just as likely that cases are massively under-reported in India for all the reasons I’ve just given.
But what do you think? Have I described a reckless, irresponsible, unsafe life over here in Goa?
Probably! And yet… what happens when you’re not bombarded with the (bad) news every day? What happens when you don’t have ITN or BBC regularly interviewing the clearly in difficulty, 30-something Covid sufferer? What happens if you have no terms of reference for the disease except for your direct experience?
I’ll tell you what happens. The disease simply takes on more normal dimensions. The vast majority have not got Covid, but they wouldn’t have got it anyway, lockdown or no lockdown, and if they were to get it, almost no one will die or even get very sick from it. Pretty much, these facts hold true whatever sanitation precaution you take. But because of our actions, we’ve now created a situation in which many who are healthy, believe they are healthy because of the over-the-top precautions they’ve taken to avoid being sick.
Anyway, in India, or at least here in Goa, we’re all living almost without precautions. We love, laugh, hangout, share kisses, hugs, and, yes, joints (some stereotypes are true) and we are, mainly, well… well. Yes, we also ride scooters without a helmet on occasion, we dive off rocks, we sit in the open doorways of fast-moving trains, we do smoke, we drink, we don’t always eat the right food. In short, we take risks. And you are right, those risks will result in some deaths, probably quite a few. But we, personally, haven’t died yet, have we? And therefore, perhaps foolishly, we accept the optimistic trade-off. Wind in the hair, a drag of the joint when it’s passed to you, a good meal, a kiss… against which you can set the alternative, which is none of those things, but maybe you will feel a bit safer? Whatever you think of the dangers of Covid, which would you prefer? Blithe confidence, not much anxiety, some risk of death and injury, versus being a little safer, or, in reality, simply feeling a little safer? Goa? Or England?