SOMEONE LIKE ME, who has an obsessive interest in history, is invariably inclined to detect past parallels. The underlying belief—perhaps quite unconscious—is that few human experiences are unique.
For the past 16 months, ever since Covid-19 forced a rejig of our lives, the past has often seemed another country. First, there was the prolonged lockdown and the adjustments that it necessitated. I must confess that there was an initial charm of isolation—a sentiment unlikely to be shared by the young—and the belief that the weeks of enforced inactivity would be a self-improving exercise. Of course, I blessed the fact that the internet allowed a fair degree of virtual contact with everyone, even if it constricted physical movement. I thought of those in the pre-internet, pre-telephone age who had to isolate themselves from an epidemic. It would have been hellish.
The lifting of the lockdown has come as a breather. Despite the devastating ‘second wave’ that caught the international health administrators somewhat unprepared and whose main beneficiaries were journalists who revel in documenting, manufacturing and even exaggerating suffering, we have all come to have absolute faith in the miracle of the vaccine. As someone who got infected by the virus within days of taking the second jab, I was reassured that Covid-19 seemed like an unfortunate flu. I tested negative in 10 days or so and the only long-term effect—so far—is that my stamina has been adversely affected. But then, who knows? If I had lived during World War I, I would presumably have been complaining of enhanced stress and even trauma. In our part of the world, we are inclined to shrug these off as non-issues—which can be cruel for those who truly need post-Covid care.
At the time of writing, the lockdown regime seems to be winding down. Apart from big political rallies, of which I had my fair share during the West Bengal Assembly election between March and April, life is slowly limping back to normal. Of course, that isn’t entirely true. Incomes have dropped, everyone appears to have cut back on non-essential purchases, international travel has stopped and many of us haven’t met friends and relatives for very long.
I am inclined to think of the experiences of those who had to endure the two World Wars, one lasting for four years and the other for six, and the dislocation that involved—even if they weren’t in the actual battlefields. In 1914, when the Great War of 1914-18 started, the street wisdom was that it would be over in four months. Few were as prescient as British Foreign Secretary Sir Edward Grey who foresaw the lights going out all over Europe, never to reappear. They didn’t. The world was turned upside down by the war.
I guess many of us—and too guided by “scientific advice”—presumed that a draconian lockdown would “flatten the curve” and see us back to near-normal in a few months. That didn’t quite happen and what really triggered alarm was the deadly effect the initial round of Covid-19 had on the aged. We became familiar with a new term—co-morbidity.
Now, with the vaccination programme running on full steam and more people aware of basic precautions, such as wearing masks, maintaining a modicum of social distancing and using hand sanitisers generously, there is once again a creeping mood of complacency. If fighting Covid-19 is akin to a war, I would compare the present situation to the ‘phoney war’ in 1939-40. It was the time between the fall of Poland in September 1939 and the German attack on the Low Countries and France in June 1940. We know that there is a danger from the Delta variant of the virus and news of an Omega variant. Yet, the feeling is that vaccinations—like the legendary Maginot Line—will somehow be the great deterrent. I hope they are right, and my pessimism is unfounded. But I am fearful of what history has shown us of wars.
What has particularly depressed me is the state of the debate in the so-called First World. The leaders of France and Britain are quite rightly insisting on vaccination passports—in addition to just being sensible. However, when so-called libertarians say that Brits don’t carry paper—as if they didn’t carry their identity papers during the two big wars—and shunning masks is their democratic right, I seem to recall that decline and fall of a civilisation is invariably preceded by decadence.