‘Public health messaging is about reasoning, incentivising…Police lathis mean that compliance stopped the moment the lathis were gone’

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Janta curfew, lockdowns, advisories…a year after India declared it was under the grip of the Covid-19 pandemic journalist Abantika Ghosh brings us a ringside view of the nation’s battle against the disease in her book Billions Under Lockdown. Ghosh talks about how India’s Covid-19 story continues to be poorly understood. Excerpts,
Q: How was the experience of writing this book while reporting on the pandemic?
A: Writing about a pandemic, while reporting about it in my day job was both easy and difficult. It was easy because I wrote it almost real time so a lot of the work on the book was done as a part of my reporting job. It was difficult because it was very taxing — you can almost say I lived in a Covid bubble for the almost ten months that I worked on the book. It helped that some of it was spent in a lockdown and even after that nothing much was happening to distract me.
But it was also oddly fulfilling because as journalists we often end up skimming the surface of a story before the pressures of the news cycle force us to move on to other things. It is very rarely that a story and nothing, but that one story stays with you for this long.
Q: You write in the book that India chose to fight the pandemic with fear — in fact you draw upon Sholay’s Gabbar Singh to make that point. Why do you say that?
A: Several reasons actually. Firstly the choice of words — Corona Vaishwik Mahamari — it had a definitely ominous ring to it. Not to mention the fact that India has some very gruesome memories of mahamaris (pandemic) of the past. The suddenness of the lockdown — it perpetuated that impression of a government that is faced with a predicament that it is at a loss about. The way notifications were issued, revised, re-revised that again gave the impression of a government in confusion. The severely restrictive information sharing by the government about the pandemic that continues till date. We have still not been officially told how many people have died since the launch of the second phase of vaccinations. That too, breeds fear and I would say is responsible for at least some of the vaccine hesitancy.
On the ground the deployment of the police to enforce masking, is another example. I cannot think of a more inappropriate public health messenger. Public health messaging is about reasoning, incentivising, improvising to make healthy habits a part of people’s lives. Police lathis mean that compliance will stop the moment the lathis are gone. And that is exactly what we are seeing now.
Q: Can you explain how the government shifted goalposts during the pandemic?
A: That is with reference to the government’s pandemic communication. In March, the goal was to defeat Corona “in 21 days, just like it took 18 days to victory in the Kurukshetra war.” We were apparently trying to break the chain of transmission. Then suddenly somewhere around mid-April we were told the chain of transmission continues but we have made massive progress because our doubling time has increased. We were told that at a time, when cases were up from about 500 cases in three days to a lakh cases in 12 days, that it is a positive development.
Then the next month we were told that infectious diseases increase in geometric progression so there is nothing much to be achieved by counting numbers. In short, there is a compulsive need to give a “positive” message even when there was none really. This made our pandemic communications plumb new depths, at least till July. After that there was some effort to disclose a little bit of information but not all, of course.
Q:You talk about the Ram Mandir foundation stone laying in great detail. Why is that?
A: That is because it was a classical example of how the government, in the middle of a pandemic was supporting a programme, attended by the PM that was so clearly violative of its own SOPs. The SOPs for religious places needed people aged above 65 years to stay out. That was done only in rescinding the invitation to some older leaders but the event, when it happened, still had people above the age bar in attendance. And some of them also tested positive later if you recall.
Q: You argue that India was saved either by science or by God. Why?
A: I say this because the Covid-19 India story is so poorly understood. It is a fact that our healthcare infrastructure is severely wanting, it is a fact that we took quite a bit of time to open up testing. It is a fact that we have a high burden of non-communicable diseases that make the chances of an adverse Covid outcome that much higher. Yet our case fatality ratio is about half of the global average. We now know there were testing frauds happening in some states.
There can be only two reasons, either we learnt to clinically manage the disease better than others or we missed so many infections (that’s the theory given out by the experts that developed the India specific Covid supermodel) that willy nilly ended up acquiring herd immunity. Or it could be the BCG vaccine or our own innate immunity. Or, it was just a miracle.

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