Tragedy is thy name!

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There are long and dark days ahead. There is no point sugar-coating it. Hundreds of us will be affected by the coronavirus. Many will die. Some in utter loneliness without even the dignity of a funeral. It could be you, it could be me, it could be our loved ones. This is not the time for sycophants to ask us to be positive, shut up and wait for this scenario to unfold. While a tragedy is inevitable, our silence and obsequiousness will make it worse.  

Admittedly, no government has been able to shelter its citizens from the suffering and death wreaked by the pandemic. However, governments throughout the world with a strong leadership and a vision have been able to mitigate the consequences of the tragedy. 

We had one huge advantage very few of the countries hit so far had: time. We also had well tried and tested strategies: closing borders, sensitising people, quarantining travellers, contact tracing, clear and transparent communication and using time to build capacity. Underlying this plan is what doctors summed up as “test, test, test”. 

What we did was primarily wait, wait, wait. We saw the Chinese people dying in overloaded hospitals while other countries were closing their borders to them. Our luminaries here declared with all the bravado they could summon that they would keep flying to China, only to reverse this decision 48 hours later. And we later had the ludicrous measures of the minister of finance to attract tourists from some countries already hit by the virus: cheap tickets and an additional duty-free allowance for alcohol. This come-drink-and-infect measure will enter our history books as a unique stroke of genius.  

We watched harrowing images from Italy of crematoriums overrun with dead bodies. We watched army convoys transporting hundreds of coffins out of devastated towns to be buried with no one in sight to mourn. And we heard poignant anecdotes of doctors having to play God and decide who should live and who can be left to die. Did we close our borders in time? Did we systematically quarantine everyone coming from overseas? Did we draw up a readiness plan to avoid this? Did we mobilise and prepare additional hospitals? There are about 300 doctors not registered at the Medical Council. Shouldn’t they have been called upon for intensive training to be able to support the health carers currently working? There are excellent nurses and head nurses retired from the British National Health Service. Has anyone thought of using their expertise? We have been priding ourselves on having privileged relationships with some countries. How many of these countries have been asked to help us with capacity building, test kits, ventilators, medical supplies, trained and battle-hardened healthcare personnel, etc.? 

What were we doing when we could have been readying ourselves for the inevitable winter and with it a very probable spike in infections? We were sitting in parliament singing the praises of the prime minister. The latter came out every now and then to announce in a very proud tone that we had been spared. Worse, threats of arrest were made against anyone who dared as much as suggest that the virus might have reached our shores. So Covid-19 was allowed to spread like wildfire, contaminating family members, medical staff and – we will soon find out – whole communities! We wasted nearly three months of precious time. By acting quickly, Taiwan, on the other hand, has shielded its people from the crisis with – hold your breath – two deaths out of a population of nearly 24 million. 

“What is the plan now? People are not going to be locked up forever. The idea is to have fewer sick people at any one time to give the government time to build extra capacity in the health system to deal with them. My question is simple: how is it going about doing that?”

Leaders of opposition parties had been calling for border closure for weeks. When that came, it was too late and was done in such haste and unpreparedness that more than a thousand of our compatriots were heartlessly left stranded in airports and no man’s land for days! Some of them still are. Thank God the prime minister’s wife and daughter and another minister’s son made it home in time. 

Then the “national confinement” was decreed in the most confused way possible. Journalists were made to wait for hours in the middle of the night for a press conference that never took place, and then we had the shortest declaration of a prime minister in the history of this country before he ran for his funk hole. No explanation, no clear instructions, no nothing. Predictably, the first two days of the confinement turned into a much-appreciated holiday with all the trappings. Then, there was a ministerial statement, followed by a contradictory statement and yet another, culminating in closing all food outlets with no prior warning and leaving parents facing the possibility of watching their children starve! It was only the next day, after unrest started threatening, that some makeshift plan was announced, leaving out a large chunk of the population. No country can be run with such amateurism! 

So, after wasting so much precious time, what is the plan now? People are not going to be locked up forever. The idea is to have fewer sick people at any one time to give the government time to build extra capacity in the health system to deal with them. My question is simple: how is it going about doing that? 

The government can’t be blamed for the coronavirus, I agree. However, it will have to answer to history for the hide, wait, wait and wait attitude: Hide and wait before closing borders, quarantining people and testing them; wait for people to get sick, wait for the carnage! This is followed by firefighting, trial and error and knee-jerk reactions. Please pray for a miracle!

For more views and in-depth analysis of current issues, Weekly magazine (Price: Rs 25) or subscribe to Weekly for Rs110 a month. (Free delivery to your doorstep). Email us on: [email protected]

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