When the smoke clears: India's COVID-19 crisis is a moment for reckoning with our pathological apathy, denial

Purnima Rao
·5 min read

Very early into COVID-19's second wave and before the images of funeral pyres began to make international headlines, like so many of us, I too tried to arrange oxygen for someone I'd never met. The patient was alone at home with a nurse, in the middle of a lockdown, with an SPO2 level of 30 (later, we would learn all about SPO2 values as we performed our own triages). No assistance was reaching them. I was 15 km away, yet confident I could help. Having been cushioned by a lifetime of privilege, it never occurred to me that this was unfixable, until many enquiries later, I had to inform them that there was no oxygen to be had. Could she wait till the morning? The daughter, who was on the other side of the globe, sent a message to stop searching. I put the phone away and wept for a stranger who was about to lose her mother.

Weeks on, anyone deemed non-essential to our city is locked in at home. Everyone except those who are running from pillar to post looking for beds, for air. Then the funereal photographs start coming in. A city engulfed in smoke and dust from mass cremations and burials. Pyres burn non-stop for weeks. We've never seen anything like it. People living near cremation grounds report that everything is covered in a grey film, an unholy scattering of ashes across a city stuck in an unending nightmare. The state refuses to count the dead but the smoke is everywhere. It's getting harder and harder to breathe.

Or maybe, it is history wrapping her hands around our throats. You've been here before, she screams as her grip tightens. This isn't the first time you've witnessed institutional murder.

But those of us who won big in the sweepstakes of caste and class have mastered the art of denial. We have anointed intellectuals and 'thought leaders' to construct dangerous mythologies. Headlines, full page advertisements, op-eds in The Washington Post and TIME magazine, the Dutts, Dhumes and Mehtas. We have enabled not just one or two, but an army of sociopaths. We have made a business out of dismissing history's smoke signals. The marketing of fake messiahs, the vice-like grip over police, media and the courts, the buying of bureaucrats, candidates and votes and the willful abdication of Constitutional duty as minorities are brutally culled. Go further back, history urges us, follow the trail of your pathological apathy. We watch vacantly as our farmlands get looted and workers betrayed. We look away as the brightest minds of our generation are locked away behind bars. We cheer as private profiteers hollow out public education and healthcare. But we always preserve our fragility. God forbid someone stored beef in their fridge.

The thing with a million pyres is, when the smoke rises, no one can tell where exactly it came from. Was it the pregnant 25-year-old who breathed her last at the threshold of a hospital that had nothing left to give? Or a young Dalit girl, full of promise, burnt like trash in the middle of the night by thugs in uniform? Was it our father, mother, son or daughter? Or was it the young man 'disappeared' into the Kashmir night?.

This is our moment of reckoning. We must ask why we turned away from self-evident truths. And why we rendered a million voices, unheard. In our deafness, we lost the ability to discern between right and wrong, the cruel and humane. Like religion and culture, we allowed the virus to be weaponised.

Now the pyres burn as history engulfs us in unforgiving fury. She rages like a forest fire that consumes everything in its path. Let us hope it annihilates the hate that courses through our veins, rendering us criminally useless when we need each other the most. May the hatred in our belly, as poet Joopaka Subhadra called it, be extinguished so that we may breathe. What will it take to start afresh?

The defeat of one political party won't be enough, nor will the toppling of the current regime. We will have to remove the rot from the system, from ourselves. These recent years of darkness have also put a spotlight on our greatest resource, the Indian Constitution. It offers hope in spirit and word and a roadmap out of this hell we have built on communal and caste hatred. It is remarkably compassionate in its essence and committed to equity at its core. And although it has been singed badly in the last few years, it hasn't burned out yet.

No, history isn't the fumes that clog our lungs. It is the fire that burns in our hearts, urging us not to betray this moment in time. Those who merely wring their hands and despair will be pushed out of the way, making space for the children of Ambedkar to create new history. The Umars and Azads, the Nodeeps and Devanganas, the Sudhas and Sharjeels, the farmers, workers and nurses will claim this country. It is theirs to inherit. But make no mistake, the debris to clean up is ours.

When the smoke clears, let us hope to hear history's whisper again, those words we long to hear: Don't be afraid. There is still time.

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Purnima Rao is a Delhi-based library activist with The Community Library Project and The Community Library Network working to build a Free Library Movement in India. She has also been a documentary filmmaker with over two decades of experience writing and creating content for broadcasters like the National Geographic Channel, Discovery, the BBC, Al Jazeera, Doordarshan among others.

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Endless funerals, people pleading for oxygen; India must etch horrors of COVID-19 in its memory, writes TM Krishna

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