Pandemic Surge: When Leaders Fail, Citizens Rise

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    IT has become almost a habit of mine to check WhatsApp group chats on the phone the first thing in the morning. Often, the messages are that of my dad providing his health summaries or sharing pictures of garden produce, mom’s updates on neighbours and religious infographic forwards, messages from a cousin informing of children’s medical school or college acceptance, or a niece getting engaged or a sibling buying a nice flat or an aunt sharing pictures of the latest party she hosted or an uncle sharing a homeopathy remedy for stress. Overall, a nice smooth start to a day with a reassuring feeling that everyone in the extended family and the circle of friends in India is well and safe.

    Lately, the harmless reassuring WhatsApp messages have transformed into an alarming portal of distress with many in the extended family longing for a breath of oxygen. Pictures, videos and messages seem nothing less than a horror movie based on a science fiction plot. It is a typical Sunday morning here in Houston, normally I would scroll through my phone, but toady I dread opening up the WhatsApp chats. I don’t want to see how my loved ones are suffering in a state of sheer desperation, subjected to extreme chaos and indignity at the hands of failed leadership. I avoid looking at the chats but cannot overlook pictures of flames rising from the mass funerals in India’s cremation grounds and long queues at the burial sites, making the front page of the New York Times or the CNN breaking news headlines.

    Only a few weeks ago India’s Prime Minister Mr. Narendra Modi was boasting of India’s premature victory over the virus and COVID-19 preparedness. Today, there are 392,488 new COVID positive cases, pushing total cases to 19.56 million, with 215,542 deaths. Official count is more than 300,000 daily cases for more than 10 days straight.

    Several countries have closed their borders, and cancelled flights. Granted that India is a difficult country to govern even without a pandemic but failure and/or absence of all forms of governance had never been this disastrous. One would think that considering the pandemic, its leadership would have put emphasis on bolstering its healthcare system, alas, the focus of its leadership was elsewhere.

    Stoking religious conflict and pushing right wing nationalist agenda is what that the current brand of Indian politics has become known for. What we witness today is a culmination of a series of historic failures of extraordinary proportions propelled by the megalomania attitude of the Indian leadership especially its Prime Minister, who thrives on his ultra-right fan base, his oratory and exaggeration which has dumped its people into the depths of despair. It is incredible how he promoted symbolism of pot banging, bell ringing and bugle blowing, and turned the country into a state of sheer stupor.

    What is shocking is that this idiotic charade was embraced by India’s top industrialists, movie stars and sports figures. The current Indian political brand has projected Mr. Modi as a God-like figure, a saviour, an invincible politician, who appears mask-less at campaign rallies with thousands of mask-less supporters. And here we are, with 215, 542 dead Indians.

    Left to fend for themselves, several of my own friends and family members have set up helplines and emergency responses, and are working round the clock scrambling for ambulances, arranging for online consulting, coordinating funerals and transporting dead bodies. The old saying that “when leaders fail, citizens rise”, has never been more appropriate than now. People are doing what they can with what they have and trying to save their lives and that of their neighbours.

    Today there is no colour-divide, there are no saffron coffins or green, the colour is white and that is of the departed souls. A Muslim family friend Kauser Shoeb who lives in Lucknow went to a Hindu cremation site for the first time in his life, as there weren’t enough people to carry the body of his Hindu neighbour. My Hindu friend Dr. Smriti Prasad who herself is recovering from COVID constantly checks on my elderly Muslim parents in Aligarh. It is gestures like these that give me hope. My friend in Aligarh Dr. Asma Saeed (who also is recovering from COVID) is exhausted not from the long hours or COVID, but from the feelings of helplessness to see her patients breathe their last without getting care. The carnage is enormous and it does not at this time convey the actual depth and the full range of the trauma this wave of the pandemic has brought.

    The high economic cost of this disaster is predictable but the mental toll and the emotional cost of the pandemic on the Indian health care workers, the community activists and the society will take years to heal. The overconfident Indian leadership with its multiple missteps, which relies on its oratory machine, social media gimmicks, focuses on winning elections, puts party loyalty over scientific expertise, has lot of answering to do.


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