At a time when India faces the global economy going into recession, perhaps even a depression, I find myself unhelpfully distracted by a Danish woman with blue eyes and dark skin. Nature magazine this week reports that a piece of birch wood she chewed on 5,700 years ago offers evidence of the strep throat she was trying to alleviate. The Alice in Netherworld of Covid-19 leaves one gasping in surprise at the exponential rise in infection rates in New York and California and the stupidity of Londoners ignoring social distancing mandates. But it is also an antidote to the echo chambers many of us have lived in for the past few years and has created a collaborative, global open university.
The gem about the Danish woman was from a professor at the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine. On Wednesday, another research paper carried important news for South Asia and Africa, the best news all week actually. Younger populations — India’s median age is in the mid-20s versus 45 for Spain — could mean the peak in critical infections will be much lower as a per cent of the population than in Europe. This intuitively credible theory is the thin reed of hope for developing countries in South Asia and Africa. Otherwise, with inadequate safety nets and a majority living in crowded conditions, we must brace both for what Moody’s has called a “tsunami” of bankruptcies and business failures and a huge rise in infections and death rates.
In much more fortunate circumstances, I had been in self-isolation in Bengaluru for almost a week before India’s lockdown, a consequence of being single rather than sick. What I had anticipated would be a vipassana of reflection and silence has proved anything but. The prime minister’s announcement of a nationwide shutdown was eloquent, but should have been more clearly phrased to avoid police overreach. Migrant labour should have been allowed adequate notice and transport options to get home. It is illogical to argue that there have been no cases of transmission in the community and then shut down all trains because of the risk of infections, which remains in slums and tenements in India’s packed cities. Alternatively, the government could suspend rents, as a New York senate bill proposes to do for three months — and provide the poor in cities cooked food as Kerala’s exceptional government has done. We need a GST-styled national council for Covid-19 with Kerala’s Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan and Health Minister K K Shailaja given leading roles.
New Delhi’s abrupt if sensible lockdown jangled enough alarm bells that my phone rang constantly, starting with a panicked childhood friend calling from New York minutes after the prime minister’s speech was over. I was sitting down to a dinner of avocado with gondhoraj lebu and olive oil alongside a truffle brie followed by a Coorg pandi curry sent over by an aunt. The call made me feel akin to an Indian Marie Antoinette.
It remains a truth universally acknowledged in India that a single man must be in need of sustenance. My saintly part-time helper in Delhi found working for a gay man who cooked on occasion such a novelty that four years on, she recounts that recipes my mother gave me and those from my Ottolenghi cookbook are still favourites with her kids. Perhaps I need a referral letter from her, as neighbours have called daily, wanting to send food.
Ruchir Sharma, the Morgan Stanley economist, aptly used a sociologist’s definition of India as “a high-context” society: a place where systems don’t work but friends and family band together to help. Strong social networks got India through the calamity of demonetisation. By not giving migrant workers enough time to get home, the government has likely deprived them of this. The risk was that infections would rise, but this global crisis has been apparent since early February. We will all have to provide income support for the extended community who help us but are stranded in our cities.
I was moved by the speech of Irish Prime Minister
Leo Varadkar where he asked younger people to call the elderly. My attempts to try and rally the spirits of my older friends and relatives have been a flop, however. Their good humour and energy has been awe-inspiring, with one 85-year-old saying social distancing was at least helping her complete a number of academic papers in time, while my aunt has run her building society almost single-handedly.
I have been less productive. To borrow from the poet
Brian Bilston: I “prioritise new tasks to shirk, resolve myself to do some work, look at Twitter, spin on chair, make a brew; loiter; stare”. Listening to Romeo and Juliet again while I cleaned the house, I discovered that the crucial letter sent by the friar to Romeo in Mantua never reached because his emissary was caught in a lockdown prompted by a medieval epidemic. For now, India feels like the calm before the storm. Karnataka is warning of 100,000 infections in a few months. When the surge in infections hits our hospitals, as Varadkar starkly warned, “never will so many ask so much of so few”.