We haven’t overcome yet. We are still in the midst of a pandemic that has, apart from making us poorer and fearful, changed the many comforting certainties of life. It’s been a little more than four months now, and we are still learning how to be reborn in a world we can no longer afford to take for granted. We have come a long way, as if we have already crossed eternities, from the first curious days when the coronavirus was so distant from us, when it was someone else’s hell. Then the Chinese city of Wuhan was an isolated horror, and we thought geography would save us, and that was before the city became a story of information blockage and totalitarian temptations, for behind the much-touted Chinese containment of the virus lay the simulated reality of a regime that feared facts, and feared the citizen who dared to speak the truth. The unsolicited martyrdom of Li Wenliang, the Wuhan doctor who was harassed by the state for spreading rumours—Chinesespeak for unpleasant news—and eventually killed by the virus he had warned about, would continue to remind us what we could have done, and what we should not have done, while faced with the first signs of a pandemic (‘A Requiem for Li Wenliang’, Open, April 20th). The original story in Chinese was about suppression and evasion, and it would soon be followed elsewhere by denials, dismissals and cynicism—and even libertarian machismo. The virus would prove to be more determined than the politician, and it would take collapsing healthcare systems and a mounting death count to make the politician receptive to science and expertise, to discard the false morality of life versus livelihood, and to realise that there was only one choice: acknowledge and act. Everyone didn’t do that.
India did respond with a greater sense of urgency, and an early lockdown of the country brought out the enormity of the crisis, and clarified how much, for how long, we need to give up larger portions of our liberty to survive. In disruption and isolation, we accepted the inevitability of suffering and the humility of being alive. Courtesy the extended lockdown, we were in the right mindset of fear and responsibility as the virus multiplied, breached barriers and waited. Unlike some of his counterparts in some other democracies, Prime Minister Narendra Modi didn’t downplay the threat; he didn’t promise anything he was not sure about fulfilling. His lockdown addresses were more motivational talk than matter-of-factness, and they were intended to introduce India to the coming phases of austerity and hardship. The experts would do the talking separately, dealing with data and details, and that would only mean more bad news. India is now the world’s third most infected country, and it once again tells a story we have been avoiding for so long: the nature of our political inheritance and how we manage it.
It takes a human crisis of this magnitude to reveal the inequalities of a country aspiring to be at the higher tables of global power. So many salvation theories—all variations of socialism—were played out by the previous redeemers, but, glitz apart, we remained more Pather Panchali than Crazy Rich Asians. If there is one constant in Indian political life, it’s the socialist model by any other name. When we are instinctively indebted to a bad past, we are increasingly incapable of escaping its worst legacies. At the peak of the pandemic, our healthcare system could not cope.
We could not mask the systemic failure.
That said, it was not social distancing and self-isolation alone that made the pandemic bearable. Individual empathy and enterprise made a big difference. If there were any number of politicians out there decrying information, there were individuals—experts, scientists, researchers, policy analysts, community leaders, and ordinary citizens—who insisted that knowledge was the best resistance till a vaccine came along. When fear clouded perceptions and conditioned our social relationship, there was someone with the authority to clarify and emphasise, to reassure without exaggeration. The expert, usually a hate figure for populists and demagogues, reclaimed his space as the virus spawned a series of crazy remedies and comforting lies. And for researchers and vaccine developers, a pandemic was a once-in-a-lifetime challenge to explore the farthest frontiers of science. When most of us stayed at home, and when thousands of the uprooted labourers could not afford that luxury, and most horrifyingly, when the infected became the stigmatised, there were a small number of Indians who displayed kindness and courage in abundance. Social decencies of a few restored the dignities of many.
This is our sixth edition of Open Minds, which began as a listing of India’s thought leaders, an assessment of arguments that make the national conversation, to mark our anniversary. This year we have deviated: The magazine you are reading now is a celebration of these exceptional men and women—and a few organisations—whose actions, ideas and examples have made life during a pandemic less painful for the infected, the economically affected, and the most vulnerable. Maybe it’s not a departure from the tradition at all; it is a renewal necessitated by history. After all, ideas are the ultimate catalysts, for better or worse. The following pages are populated by discreet heroes of a difficult time, armed with both ideas and idealism. We call them Open Minds because they refuse to abandon hope—or an informed argument. This magazine shares the sentiment.