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COVID19 Outreach Program in India by Trinity Care Foundation.

Vultures and Values: Reporting on COVID in India

India is a country that is not unfamiliar with disasters. Earthquakes, tsunami, political unrest, religious violence…they’ve hit this country with deadly force periodically. In fact, India is like that one unfortunate kid in daycare who gets every single illness that enters the room, and furthermore, gets it the worst.

This exaggerated disaster-prone nature of the country often receives bad press internationally. And each time one of these calamities strike, the world has a field day. The sheer color, contrast, and variety that India offers in every single aspect of life are then splashed across newspapers and television screens throughout the world…of course, through the prism of the disaster du jour.

This COVID pandemic is no less and no more than the usual scenario, providing striking pictures and stories – the mass rallies of the election, the colorful and fascinating pictures of the Kumbh Mela, the horrifying snapshots of oxygen being administered in front of hospitals, the macabre visuals of rows and rows of cremation pyres, and so on.

To me, this catastrophic situation has once again delivered a number of lessons. It has shown the best and the worst of people and their behavior. 

The COVID crisis in India has certainly exposed the country’s vulnerable areas, it is true. But to my mind, it has also exposed the hypocrites of the world. While watching the vultures with hindsight or political commentators and gurus feed on the living, a bleeding country that is in the throes of a disaster of epic proportion, I feel what I can only call a sense of disgust mixed with awe. While I do not seek to defend any political party or government, I want to ask some questions of all the people who were quiet before the disaster unfolded, but are now out baying for blood.

Yes, the government and authorities didn’t act fast enough. But can you imagine a disaster that wells up in days, out of practically nowhere, and turns into a tsunami?

India should have stockpiled vaccines, oxygen, drugs and revamped the entire medical infrastructure in the country. Agreed. Hell, they should have begun building more electric crematoria, instead of cutting down all the trees in the land for the cremation of the dead.

How long did they have before the disaster struck? Two weeks.

When you take into account the size and population in this great country, you will admit that it can’t be expected to turn on a dime. And it is not like this situation ever had a ‘yes or no’, straightforward, one-dimensional solution. The truth is many miscalculations were made that became magnified when the situation headed south, resulting in an unforeseen tragedy.

As for the government, they were truly stuck in the worst of ‘damned if you do, damned if you don’t’ scenario. They had immediately imposed a lockdown last year, and people have called it ‘draconian’. They enforced the total lockdown, and people called it authoritarian. They shut down mass gatherings and people called it a blow to basic rights. They shut down non-essential industries, and people howled that the economy was devastated. When the numbers began to come down, they began to open up which people are calling it disastrous handling of a terrible situation. 

It is not like any country has really shown the right way to handle the pandemic. There is no handbook, rule book, or manual that shows the perfect way out of this maze.

How remarkably short are the memories of these political pundits! The United States conducted its elections in the teeth of the pandemic and aside from a few aspersions thrown at Donald Trump, the whole world watched avidly. But India shouldn’t have conducted elections.

Many of the Republican party’s rallies were attended by maskless people, but awww, that’s okay. But, gasp, Indian rallies were maskless! By all means, let us forget the rallies in the US and European countries where people were protesting against masking. I do agree that it was stupid to have vast rallies with people without masks, but honestly, all laypeople thought the pandemic was over. Our numbers were way down. Many countries were loosening regulations too. What else were we to think? 

Recent experiences have embittered me and given me a hatred of journalists and commentators. All they seek is sensationalism and sound bites, headlines and graphic pictures, forums, and platforms to puff themselves off and justify their own existence. Articles and opinion pieces blasting the Prime Minister and his decisions…predictably all dating to the time when the situation had gone way out of control.

One wonders: where exactly were these people in the months of February and March? But for a few, whose genuine warnings were unfortunately ignored, the rest had crawled out of the woodwork to dance around the pyres of the burning disaster. 

Other scums of the earth have also emerged. People who reserve beds in the names of unknowing asymptomatic patients only to turn around and sell them to symptomatic patients for Rs. 50,000, people hoarding and selling vital drugs and oxygen, hospitals overcharging desperate patients…these ‘entrepreneurs’ are also flourishing to some extent.

On the other hand, this calamity has once again brought India into focus. Last year, when many countries including Italy and the US were in need of ventilators and other medical supplies, India stepped in to help out. Among other reasons, it is the goodwill that this country has built up that is now ensuring that the entire world is coming to help it in its hour of need. 

Meanwhile, within the country, age-old values are emerging again. Neighbors are helping out by providing food for those stricken by the disease. People are actively using social media to connect those in need of medical supplies and help those that can provide them. Volunteers are helping out the poor by supplying food and daily necessities. Religious and community groups are coming forward to establish medical and oxygen supply field hospitals.

There is fear and panic in every heart, but on the streets, there is still human decency and respect for each other. As always, we will ‘adjust’ and we will ‘manage’. The wonderland that is India will endure.


Lakshmi Palecanda moved from Montana, USA, to Mysore, India and inhabits a strange land somewhere in between the two. Having discovered sixteen years ago that writing was a good excuse to get out of doing chores, she still uses it.

Featured image license here.


 

The Never-Ending Ides of March

‘I’d give my right arm for a day off work,” I thought. 

It was the beginning of February, and I was beginning to seriously regret my latest avatar, that of a high school teacher. After being a scientist and writer in the US, to being a Soft Skills Trainer and writer in India, I had stumbled upon the chance to teach high school English. I normally enjoyed it thoroughly, but this was the beginning of the end of the school year and I was being swamped by massive notebook corrections and preparation. Another week went by, and things got worse. By mid-February, I was ready to kill for some time off – I was having to bring work home as well and answer paper corrections The stress was destroying my sleep, increasing my irritability, and turning me into a stranger who didn’t understand the word ‘chill’. 

Meanwhile, in early January, we had begun hearing the words ‘Coronavirus’ associated with China. At the time, it was just spectator sport and a chance to speculate idly, and I did both with relish – a classic case of schadenfreude, enjoying others’ misfortune. As the Koreas grappled with it, I watched, on and off – I had my own problems, right? 

Then March began. Schedules for final assessments were finalized and revisions were happening. And the epidemic transformed into a pandemic … and everything went nuts.

Every day brought new information, and new schedules. Final assessments are a very serious business in India. During the Feb-March period, train and air travel go waaaaay down, power consumption goes waaaaay up, and parental stress goes through the roof. We were poised to start ours when we went from exams to total shutdown in 3 days. Then the totally unbelievable happened.

Unprecedented in the history of Modern India, final exams of schools were canceled. I’m sure the Gurukula passing-out exams were canceled during the Kurukshetra war, but after the Dwapara Yuga, this was the first occurrence of this event. Children in this vast nation rejoiced like never before – no one could tell them to study now. All students except the Board Exam sufferers, sorry, Board Exam takers would eventually be given what is irreverently called ‘Gandhi Pass’ or ‘Dharma Pass’. In this case, it would be called ‘Corona Pass’ and all would be promoted to the next higher grade. Children didn’t know this at the time, but they were elated that exams would be canceled. Parents everywhere gnashed their teeth and tore their hair because one of the few perks of being a parent is to nag your child to study. Additionally, schools were closed, a punishment for parents everywhere.

Around mid-March, my town, Mysore, was in a state of ramp down. We were hearing the words ‘social distancing’ and ‘self-isolating’ used with a positive connotation for the first time – earlier, they meant ‘snobbery’ and ‘sulking’. At that point in time, I began to get the wind-up. The roads that we couldn’t cross for half an hour began resembling open fields with a stray vehicle here and there. Roadside eateries and vegetable/fruit outlets which usually swarmed with customers were shut, and there was an eerie emptiness everywhere.

“What if all the stores close for a couple of days? What if we run out of essentials?” I asked my husband anxiously. Private panic – what if I run out of snacks – but I couldn’t articulate that out loud, could I? My adipose tissue might hear! So we went shopping. 

Boy, did we ever go shopping! I am a born hoarder, and this called out to my every primitive instinct. I stocked up on every kind of soap, washing powder, lentil, edible oil, masala powder, mix and sauce I could think of. I even bought some stuff I thought I’d never try. And, I layered my snacks – no sense in letting the whole world see that I was stashing. I was Troy, and the Greeks could never besiege me long enough. 

To give you a better frame of reference – in comparison to the Costco shopping cart, the shopping cart I was trundling was definitely a fourth smaller in size. In fact, if you brought in Costco-sized carts to India, people would start using them as mini wagons for transporting kindergarteners to school. And the mood I was in, I’m fairly confident that I could have filled even a Costco shopping cart. Here, you may wonder why I didn’t just take another cart. Short answer – I didn’t want to face an ‘intervention’. Remember the story of the monkey that got caught because it couldn’t get its hand out of the peanut jar? 

At the end of my shopping expedition, the shelves did need to be restocked a little, but not by too much. It was the middle of the month, remember, and in India, people usually stock up at the beginning of the month. And we don’t have the first world problem of toilet paper. So no interesting skirmishes in the aisles.

One look at my dangerously overloaded cart and my husband’s eyebrows rose so high they disappeared into his receding hairline. 

“The government says ‘No hoarding’”, he remarked to no one in particular. I turned into the Lysol aisle, and effectively distracted him. As we loaded all our stuff into the car, I experienced a shopping-induced adrenaline rush like never before. That was when I realized that even pandemics had silver linings.

Then the Stay-at-Home-for-a-day, Janata Curfew, was announced for March 22. Once again, I went into a tizzy.

“Oh my God, oh my God, I don’t have enough stuff to see us through,” I wailed. At such times, OMG just doesn’t hit the spot. “We’re going to run out of essentials … like cooking oil … and we’ll … I don’t know … maybe starve,” I blubbered. Amid my sobs, I followed my husband as he led the way into the kitchen and began opening cupboards at random. An evil spirit must have possessed him because he hit pay dirt on the very second try. Opening a cupboard, he pointed at the bottles that were there, some unopened. “Canola oil, coconut oil, gingelly oil, olive oil … and mustard oil? I didn’t know you cooked with mustard oil!”

I didn’t. 

My survival instinct went into overdrive. “You idiot, you screwed up,” it screamed to me in blind panic. My hoarding instinct had overridden my habitual caution and now I’d been outed. But then I saw me another golden opportunity.

“Veggies?” I squeaked.

Another massive expedition was lunched … I mean, launched. I bought half a kilo of everything that was on the shelves – cucurbits, legumes, crucifers, and the solanaceous. This time around, the shelves holding the staples like tur dhal, rice and sooji were almost bare, which escalated my anxiety. I would have got one kilo of everything, but the Mister said that our fridge space was limited and no, I couldn’t buy another fridge.

As I squirreled stuff away, I felt the rush again, but this time it felt nasty around the edges. Did I have to buy so much just for a week? Did I have a serious Shopping-Unnecessarily-Just-for-Hoarding Syndrome? I decided to Google the 12-step program to de-addict myself.

And that’s when the nation went into total lockdown and nobody was allowed to leave their houses for three whole weeks. To my utter shock, I had done the best thing for the situation, for once in my lifetime. I was actually right to have stocked up!

Booyah!

Lakshmi Palecanda moved from Montana, USA, to Mysore, India, and inhabits a strange land somewhere in between the two. Having discovered sixteen years ago that writing was a good excuse to get out of doing chores, she still uses it.