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The year of the mask

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'Safe Dream' by Alex Falcó Chang

Illustration by Alex Falcó Chang, courtesy Cartoon Movement https://www.cartoonmovement.com/p/7130

Psychologically, the face mask is a powerful prop. Flimsy and cheap, when it is worn, it tells the wearer that he or she is separated from all others whoever they are, family or strangers or colleagues. The mask wearer is reminded, every day and as many times a day as the television is switched on, that the mask is one’s protection against the deadly virus.

The face mask does more than this. It covers completely the mouth and chin and most of the wearer’s cheeks. These are what we use to signal to each other, through a great variety of smiles and grimaces, how we feel and how we empathise and how we laugh. The face mask has blocked these, just as surely as it is claimed to block a virus.

The masked society, fearful, with visible emotions trussed up, shuffling around to maintain, in obedience to unseen and unknown experts, the invisible boundaries called social distancing, has in the short space of 60 days, replaced the society that came before it.

This is called ‘new normal’. It is new, yes, but it cannot be anything except extremely abnormal. Not for a moment, 60 days ago, did I think India’s unruly and complex myriad of societies would obey and comply. But they did and they have.

How did this happen?

Around the end of January, a case of coronavirus infection was reported by the press. Between then and the middle of March, India barrelled along happily, perhaps in search of the tryst with the five trillion dollar economy. Elsewhere, the condition we would come to know as ‘lock down’ was being enforced.

On the evening of 24 March, ‘lock down’ came to India. The corona had landed.

By the second week of April, the face mask had become the equivalent of the identity pass. Policemen at road corners wore them, black ones. So did the Central Reserve Police Force who had been brought in to enforce the lock down. The few pharmacies that were open had no more to sell. I used a large handkerchief for severals days, like many others.

In our housing block, I spotted other residents, at times in their balconies, sometimes at a window, with masks. Why had they tied masks inside their homes, I wondered, where did they think the coronavirus was going to attack them from? Most of Goa, where I live, is a rural landscape. Rice fields, coconut and arecanut orchards, low coastal hills with light mixed forest, village settlements whose residential density is very low. With road borders between states shut, where do these people think the virus is going to travel from?

Televisions in most homes were switched on (are still switched on) all day. We don’t have one at home, haven’t had one for many years. From what I saw and heard, glimpses and short audio snatches of news bulletins caught from loud TVs on lower floors, there was nothing but coronavirus on every channel, every language. The children who would every evening gather in the building compound to play, were absent. The elderly folk, who took their morning and evening walks along the narrow green strips by the boundary walls, were absent. There was silence and stillness. You could sense the fear.

But outside, everything that normally ran, trotted, flew and crawled and wasn’t human was busy. Even more so, with every single open space traversed by humans now entirely free of them. The coastal skies that are usually clear and lucent, so unlike the soupy brown miasma of the cities, were now even more so. The winds blew in fresh from the sea. It was the perfect tonic for health. Yet it was the opposite that had been ordained, through two central acts. Remain indoors, shun the life-giving sunlight. Remain masked, repel the vital force that is clean air.

We had survived the first eight days of lockdown on the meagre stores at home. I say survived because the worry for those first eight days was not a virus, however malignant, but the shortage of food all over the state of Goa. Why was there no food to be had? Because the state government had issued orders that all shops, large or small, which sold any food staples must not open. Looking back at those anxiety-ridden days, I see that as having been the first sign of the hallucinations that had gripped administrations, whether in a state or in the central government. Nothing was allowed to open, not even the humblest kirana shop selling biscuits and wafers. We ate two spare meals a day.

The mask is worn by some as if it is a badge, to mean that you are fully conversant and up-to-date with the latest guidelines broadcast by your state government on saving yourself, that you are responsible about your family’s health, that you are a participant in how ‘India fights corona’. By others, it is tied perfunctorily, yet another demand by the authorities for which a minimal fulfilment threshold is calculated so that one may carry on – as far as it is possible to carry on – with a business, a trade, a profession, a wage earning activity, a family duty.

Policemen applied choke-holds to road junctions. They swung their lathis indiscriminately at youth who still thought they could contract theselves out for a day of labour and earn a wage, they swung their lathis at ragpickers. They swung their lathis at sons taking a parent to a clinic or a hospital, not knowing whether it was open or whether there would be a doctor in attendance, for every kind of complaint other than those said to be caused by the corona virus.

Illustration by Marco de Angelis, courtesy Cartoon movement

Illustration by Marco de Angelis, courtesy Cartoon movement https://www.cartoonmovement.com/cartoon/64747

They swung once at me, and I avoided the blow by accelerating my scooter out of reach. That is when I learnt that what the state had enforced was not a ‘lock down’, it was the mandatory incarceration of the healthy, it was the criminalisation of all movement by the citizen, with full and final interpretation of the extraordinary powers given left to the masked visage and twitching lathi-hand of the sub-inspector you were unlucky enough to have run into.

Pharmacies had no more masks. If you could get to one, and if it was open, they told you there were no masks, while wearing one themselves. Perhaps they needed to wear such masks, I had reasoned to myself, since if they come face to face with people who come looking for medication, they they should protect themselves from someone who just may be carrying the virus.

Looking back at that first week of April, I find that was the only time – two days when I set off on scooter-borne reconnaisance for pharmacies with shutters open, my face below my spectacles wrapped in a handkerchief tied behind my head – that I was sympathetic to the notion that an epidemic was sweeping through India.

It was the new atmosphere, one never before experienced by us, that made us believe the very currents of air could be hijacked by a malevolent virus. And this was north Goa, whose villages are sparsely populated, whose landscapes are those of fallow fields awaiting the rain so that rice can be grown in them, of coconut orchards, of hillsides covered with jambul, mango, silk cotton, moringa, tamarind and jackfruit trees.

Until then, we would rise at dawn and would set off looking for vegetables, milk, bread and whatever else we could purchase from villagers – from our own and in neighbouring villages – who had something to sell. I worried constantly about petrol for the scooter, for the little more than half a tank of fuel would not run the engine for more than a week. When raw foodstuffs became less scarce, I was able to consider again the messages about the epidemic, our environment, and what more than half a lifetime of experience seemed to point to.

Even until mid-March, mornings were cool till about 9 am, and evenings were pleasant as soon as the sun dipped behind the low coastal hills directly to the west. But seven or eight days into April, the mid-day sun had pushed the temperature above 30 celsius, humidity was rising and the winds from the sea began to blow with the gentle insistence that, by early June, would become the tile-rattling, whistling-through-window-cracks force that was the harbinger of monsoon.

One of those mornings, a peacock (for there are many which roost in the nearby hill) alit at the end of its long shallow flight from a perch on a tree and into the grass of the fallow rice field. The heavy bird touched down in the somewhat ungainly run and as it did so, a few puffs of dust rose up in its trail.

That is the sight which led directly to form the question which had shimmered, like a wraith, above the daily roll-call of news about the ‘global pandemic’ and ‘India’s epidemic’. How could any virus that they say can be airborne, and can be infectious after travelling along air currents, survive in our conditions? Doesn’t sunlight, direct and now unfiltered by smog and industrial emissions, end its career? Doesn’t its exposure to the open sky and breezes, which carry a myriad organisms, become a risk to its own survival? Does not the daily rise in the average temperature, fraction by fraction of a degree celsius, shorten its infectious life?

The home page of the Press Information Bureau, Ministry of Information and Broadcasting, has created several special sections only on covid19. India’s existing disease burden has not been treated in anything like the same way ever since the PIB went online.

The emails I sent with these and other questions to the Indian Council of Medical Research have remained unanswered since the middle of April. A month later, I could see why. The ICMR was doing nothing other than covid19. It had replaced its website home page with a covid-only page that was crammed full of test data, cases data, testing protocols and instructions to testing laboratories.

It looked very convincingly like a specialised health agency’s war room against the great menacing power of the global pandemic. That is exactly what it is meant to look like, for the central government’s own information and public broadcasting units were blaring out, with social media-ready hash tags ‘India fights corona’.

I could see what was occupying the ICMR scientists and administrators full time. They were producing guidelines and protocols at the rate of two and three a week: ‘Specimen Referral Form (SRF) ID information for COVID-19 (SARS-CoV2), in RT-PCR app’, ‘Standard guidelines for Medico-legal autopsy in COVID-19 deaths in India 2020’, ‘Revised Strategy for COVID19 testing in India (Version 5)’, ‘Advisory for use of Cartridge Based Nucleic Acid Amplification Test (CBNAAT) using Cepheid Xpert Xpress SARS-CoV2’, ‘Performance evaluation of commercial kits for real time PCR for COVID-19 by ICMR identified validation centres’, ‘List of IgG ELISA kits for COVID-19 validated by ICMR identified validation centres’, ‘ICMR Specimen Referral Form for COVID-19 (SARS-CoV2)’, ‘ICMR-DCGI Guidelines for Validation and Batch Testing of COVID-19 Diagnostic Kits’, ‘Establishing of a network of Biorepositories in India’.

All very impressive, all unquestionably showing the country’s premier medical research agency in the best light possible for being technically on the ball, all showing that India’s handling of the virological and epidemiological aspects of the dreaded pandemic is at par internationally with the best.

By the first week of May the effects of the around-the-clock barrage of fear-mongering by the media, television and print, with both making heavy use of their social media channels, started becoming noticeable. In my home state of Goa, I began seeing residents of our village attaching masks to their ears or tied behind their heads even while walking on interior roads or, more commonly, while on scooters and motorcycles. Our village roads aren’t city throughfares. If one isn’t driving past a house and garden every now and then, or a small apartment block, one is usually skirting a hill slope thick with vegetation or a cocnut orchard or a rice field. It was peak summer, the afternoon winds were strong, the swiftly moving air was full of all manner of microscopic objects swept up from the fields and blasted out from the orchards.

Every single time I was out, either on my scooter looking for provisions or taking an evening walk, I looked at fellow village residents (with a few honourable exceptions) their faces masked and harassed. Did they really think the coronavirus was lying in wait above them on the mango tree waiting to strike? Did they really think it was riding a fragment of dried leaf and would launch itself at them as soon as it flew past?

A few of the conversations I pursued told me that their fear had invented a life of its own. “Better to be safe no? Who can say?” “Don’t go out of the house mama, my daughter in the Gulf told me, you can catch it anywhere.” “Yesterday on TV they showed so many new cases in Mumbai. Better nobody comes from Mumbai here to Goa, then we’ll be safe.” This was new to me. Village folk are amongst the most practical of people, stubborn about what they hold to be true and stubborn about what they’re sure is untrue. They’ll give you an ear but not their agreement. They make up their own minds in their own time, preferring to be guided by the signs and symbols they find in the natural world around them.

The Mumbai municipal corporation got into the act, two acts, one the Epidemic Disease Act 1897 and Disaster Management Act 2005, to threaten doctors with the cancellation of their license to practice. Ergo, medical martial law

But this too had changed. Had I underestimated greatly the power of 24-hour television, and the social media rumour mill that reaches everyone with a smartphone? Yes I had. Nor were the Goans of my village exceptional. For by that first week of May, the national news media had begun to run news reports about what I recognised as a new behaviour, a phenomenon given the name ‘covid vigilantism’ in the west and in USA.

It wasn’t long before I saw it wielded here too. “Kindly place your mask properly” I was told curtly by a supermarket orderly one day. “No mask no service” I was told while waiting in a queue of scooter to fill petrol in mine. But it’s hot and we’re outdoors and there’s a breeze blowing, I argued. It was no use. “Put on mask or no petrol”. And one morning while waiting outside a groceries store one morning to buy milk, with no more than two other people nearby, a priggish young man smug in his fashionable mask barked “Please practice social distancing”. Practice social distancing? Whatever did that mean and what sort of language is that anyway?

The two organisations that are assumed to be advising the central government’s cabinet ministers and the prime minister’s office on coronavirus are the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare and the Indian Council of Medical Research.

The Ministry has a union minister (Harsh Vardhan, with five staff), a minister of state (Ashwini Kumar Choubey, with four staff), a secretary of health and family welfare (Preeti Sudan, with three staff), a special secretary (Arun Singhal), three additional secretaries (Dharmendra Singh Gangwar, Arti Ahuja, Vandana Gurnani), thirteen joint secretaries (Vandana Jain, Preeti Pant, Sudhir Kumar, Rekha Shukla, Vikash Sheel, Nipun Vinayak, Sunil Sharma, Lav Agarwal, Alok Saxena, Manohar Agnani, Mandeep Kumar Bhandari, Gayatri Mishra, Padmaja Singh), an officer on special duty (Sudhansh Pant), two economic advisers (Preeti Nath, Nilambuj Sharan), and five senior official posts (chief controller of accounts, director, two deputy directors general, chief director).

The ICMR has 28 institutes all over India with a headquarters in Delhi. It has on its rolls a total of 153 Council scientists (separately, each institute and the centre has its own complement of scientific staff). Their domains of work include allergies, immunology, antimicrobial diseases, bio-statistics, biochemistry and molecular biology, bioinformatics, malaria and dengue, cardiovascular diseases, epidemiology, clinical medicine, communicable diseases, non-communicable diseases, vector borne diseases, zoonotic diseases, epigenetics and endocrinology, genomics and molecular medicine, cellular and molecular biology, kala-azar, leprosy and tuberculosis, maternal and child health, oncology, pharmacology, parasitology, vector biology and control, virology.

What did they understand about this thing called covid19, what advice were they giving the central and state governments, what were they communicating to the 1.3 billion Indians whose lives had been turned utterly upside down?

Written by makanaka

May 23, 2020 at 23:35

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