CORRELATION IS NOT always causation, but often it can be. Take the spurt in Covid cases in Mumbai. This comes right on the back of local trains being opened for the general public. The spurt began about a week after it, almost perfectly in tune with the time the virus signals its diffusion from a super-spreader event, which is what every crowded suburban train in Mumbai is. But government officials list the trains reopening as just one of the probable causes. And there is always one other cause that never seems to go out of fashion, and that is to blame the public itself for not taking the necessary precautions like wearing masks and maintaining social distancing, something that Chief Minister Uddhav Thackeray too echoed. As the Times of India reported this week: ‘If Covid-related norms are not followed, the state government will be forced to reimpose a lockdown, warned chief minister Uddhav Thackeray on Tuesday…“People have become carefree. It is for the people to decide if they want a lockdown or want to continue living with the small restrictions like now,” said Thackeray, while directing local administrations to crack down on citizens and establishments that are found violating Covid-19 norms and standard operating procedures (SOPs).’
If that is true, then why did cases drop in the first place by 90 per cent from the September peak? Public behaviour, good or bad, has been more or less a constant. There is a pleasure that governments derive by thrusting responsibility for adverse events on the people themselves because they, after all, spelled out the rules in black-and-white. These rules were, however, never possible to implement in a country like India. Mumbai’s success in curtailing the virus was probably because a large percentage had already become infected, and had therefore become natural breakpoints in the chain of transmission.
Politicians in power and bureaucrats think they need to account for why they could not prevent the rise. But that is self-delusion. Take a casual look at any of the services that the government provides and they are almost all overwhelmingly inefficient and without empathy. But everyone is inured to it and it gets passed off as the Indian condition. When something new like Covid makes its appearance, why should it be any different? That cities like Mumbai and Delhi have developed a certain level of herd immunity is actually a testament to how little the government has been able to do against the virus. We were just lucky that unknown factors led to the pandemic being relatively benign in India.
When the Maharashtra government hints at the possibility of another lockdown because the public can’t be trusted to protect themselves, all they do is repeat a process that really did nothing the first time. It once again deals a blow to the livelihoods of people, often the maximum brunt being borne by the poorest. There are times when doing nothing drastic is the wisest course of all.