What would it take for the governments to make a decisive shift in pandemic time to avoid the looming environmental catastrophe?
Journalism is the first rough draft of history. This oft-quoted definition of newscaptures the ever-evolving character of the popular discourse on the COVID-19 pandemic—its origins, nature, scope, prevention, and resolution, not to mention the oracles warning us about what’s wrong with the way we live now and how we might live in the future.
The novelty of the new coronavirus and the consequent confusion among scientists over how to flatten the curve, the ordinary public’s scientific illiteracy coupled with growing disillusionment with medical expertise, and last but not the least, a lack of gumption, imagination, and empathy among the political class has resulted in a pandemic response that, barring a few exceptions like New Zealand and South Korea,is not just ad hoc, draconian, and slipshod, but also grossly unjust to the poor both in terms of the economic impact of the lockdowns and access to healthcare and vaccines. Till last count, the virus had officially claimed over four million lives (by some accounts, the actual death count could be well over the seven million mark) and robbed many times more that figure of their livelihoods.
That said, as the fight against the virus is being waged within national boundaries, each country’s pandemic narrative is uniquely scripted by its socio-economic, political and cultural peculiarities. The Indian pandemic narrative could be divided into the following rough chapters: First, a knee-jerk draconian lockdown amid a nationalistic fervour of bravado and hyped-up irrational optimism; second, the refreshingly salutary impact of the lockdown on the environment, which prompted a introspective mood that urged everyone to seize this deus ex machina moment to ask tough questions about modern life and then try to reimagine and build a just and green world over the COVID-19 ruins. Environmentalists pointed to the pandemic itself and its ruinous impact on people’s lives as a wake-up call for radical change; third, the death and suffering of thousands of COVID-19 patients as hospitals struggled for beds, drugs, and other medical paraphernalia; fourth, lockdown’s crippling impact on the economy as millions lost their jobs; fifth, the triumphalist grandstanding of the government as the cases began to taper off; sixth, a period of smug complacency and bravado—massive election rallies and religious gatherings in defiance of all COVID-19 norms; seventh, the catastrophe of the second wave that not only showed the emperor was without clothes but also exposed the country’s shambolic healthcare apparatus. A second extended lockdown in the most affected states also derailed an already hobbled economy yet again, wreaking more ruin on thousands of poor folk; and finally, the desperate scrambling for vaccines when there were none left to buy.
First draft: Fear, distrust, apathy, and despair
It all began on the evening of 24 March 2020, when Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi appeared on national TV and decreed one of the most stringent nationwide lockdowns in the world starting midnight that night. Four hours is all people, predominantlypoor migrants, had to move to safer and secure grounds. In other words, most migrants were transfixed wherever they were overnight. Their only consolation: The lockdown would end in three weeks after which they could go back to their respective villages. But, as they discovered to their horror, the lockdown was extended ad hocseveral times by another seven weeks.
While a lockdown was arguably called for to arrest the virus in its tracks, as also to bolster medical infrastructure in order to deal with future outbreaks, many observers argued it could have been done in a more humane and rational manner. What ensued over the course of the draconian lockdown, which was enforced with an iron hand, exposed not just the deep inequities between classes and castes but also the scandalous ineptitude and immorality of the state machinery in handling a crisis of such mammoth proportions.
As the wheels of the economy came to a grinding halt, legions of poor, hapless migrant labour, of whose real numbers the government was apparently clueless, were the hardest hit. Caught between a lurking deadly virus and the proverbial prowling wolf, thousands of these benighted souls chose to defy the lockdown and trudge hundreds of kilometres back to their respective villages. Many perished en route out of sheer exhaustion or hunger, while some others died in road accidents.
The impact on jobs, both in the formal as well as the informal sector, was crushing. According to the Mumbai-based Centre for Monitoring of Indian Economy (CMIE) data for July of 2020, even though the overall impact of the lockdown had waned four months later, it had rendered 11 million people jobless. While the immediate impact was very severe on daily small traders, hawkers and daily wage earners, a more lasting impact has been on the salaried employees. By August 2020, CMIE reckons about 21 millon salaried jobs had gone up in smoke.
Second draft: Silver lining in dark clouds
Ironically, indeed almost perversely so, in the light the unfolding colossal human tragedy, the lockdown had a salutary effect on the environment. It almost sounds trite to suggest that shutting down factories and transport would improve air and water quality. But, for those who have always lived in shadow of polluted water and skies, it came as a pleasant (almost divine) revelation.
People from different parts of the country posted images and videos of sights that appeared magically surreal. For instance, people marvelled in disbelief at sighting the snow-clad Himalayan range of Dhauladhars from the plains of Jalandhar in Punjab after a long gap of three decades. Likewise, people could see the Everest from parts of north Bihar.
With the sudden absence of people and vehicles on the streets, and the resulting better and quieter air, many animals reclaimed spaces that had been wrested from them in the first place. Gangetic dolphins, which have become an increasingly rare sight, were spotted gambolling in hitherto polluted stretches of the river. In Delhi, whose extremely polluted skies suddenly turned a refreshing azure (the before-and-after lockdown photo of India Gate has acquired a meme status), people reported spotting many bird species that had all but disappeared.
Third draft: Science and serendipity
While ordinary folks marvelled at the magical return of edenesque air (amidst, one must reiterate, the virulent air of death, disease, destitution, and derangement), the worldwide lockdowns offered scientists probably the finest window, both in scope and duration, into the complex relationship between economy and environment.
For the first time since the advent of Industrial Revolution, scientists could study, in real time, what was hitherto only possible as a thought experiment or an elaborate guesswork. Seizing on this rare opportuity, researchers across the world have been trying to record the impact of COVID-19 lockdowns on different realms of the planet—oceans, rivers, lakes, forest, flora and fauna, and the atmosphere.
For cityfolks plagued by decades of miasmic air, limpid blue skies, lucid air, and luminous light were probably the most dramatic impact of COVID-19 lockdowns. With vehicles off the roads and factories and power plants inactive, the air was palpably less toxic. An analysis done by IQAir, a Swiss air quality tech company, in nine out of 10 major global cities PM2.5 went down by 25-60 per cent compared to the same period last year.
Indian cities, six of which figure in the top ten most polluted cities in the world, also showed a significant drop in air pollutants. An Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) Roorkee analysis of air quality in Delhi, Mumbai, and Singrauli in UP revealed that post-lockdown the concentration of PM10, PM2.5, PM2.5, NO2, and SO2 went down by 55, 49, 60 and 19, and 44, 37, 78 and 39 per cent respectively for Delhi and Mumbai. Singrauli’s air, on the other hand, remained sooty as the thermal power plant there was kept running.
Steep reductions in NO2 are significant as it is responsible for an estimated 350,000 new cases of child asthma and 16,000 premature deaths per year in India. Besides, it is a key precursor to PM2.5.
For Sarath Guttikunda, who directs the India-based air quality research group urbanemissions.info, this was a unique opportunity to understand the nuances of air pollution in a country where emissions are all mixed up in a thick stew. With vehicles and factories idling but power plants and cookstoves still smoking, Guttikunda told the New York Times that he and his team were able to create a more precise profile of air pollutants for Indian cities and regions. Interestingly, Guttikunda found that as levels of NO2 plummetted, the levels of ozone soared. Ozone, like NO2, is a key provocateur of asthma, heart disease, and premature deaths.
In yet another interesting finding published in November 2020 that bolsters the case for making air pollution regulations more stringent, especially in India, which has some of world’s most polluted air and where the virus is still raging, researcher Rajan Chakrabarty of Washington University, Missouri, found that the most polluted places had the highest number of COVID-19 cases with severe illness.
Fourth draft: Oracles and dreams of a better future
The enormity of the COVID-19 deaths on the one hand, not to speak of the unspeakable agony and anguish that poor people suffered during the lockdown, prompted many observers and writers to urge governments and citizens alike to rethink the assumptions of current political and economic models so that catastrophes like pandemics and climate could be avoided in the future. In the middle of the lockdown, Ashish Kothari, who works with the Pune-based environmental non-profit Kalpavriksh, asserted in a piece for thewire.in that “we have let the forces of capitalism, state-domination and patriarchy run amok…with fatal consequences for the livelihoods of billions of people, for humanity as a whole, and for countless other species…” However, he argued, “we have the means to refashion the economy and polity, local to global, to be ecologically respectful and socially just. But this requires not simply some cosmetic managerial fixes, like bank bailouts after the 2008 economic collapse, nor technological fixes such as giant screens that will supposedly reduce global warming…No, it means systemic transformations that replace these structures with more equal political, economic, and social relations. We need a dramatic transformation towards genuine democracy, a swaraj that encompasses all of life.”
Fifth draft: Of ostriches and silly geese
Oracles like Ashish are a cry in the wilderness. If anything, it would appear the pandemic and its devastating impact on the economy has had little or no lessons for the Indian government. Prime Minister Modi’s slogan of Atmanirbhar Bharat (self-reliant India), which he floated in May 2020 as part of the first stimulus package to revive the stalled Indian economy, had almost no green in it. Nor did it offer any succour to the millions of poor Indians who had lost their jobs during the lockdown.
In fact, no sooner had nationwide daily new cases dropped below 10,000 in January 2021 than Modi had effectively declared victory over the virus, and was busy kickstarting a V-shaped economic rebound. It was business as usual in most sectors of the economy, and people, already wearied from body- and soul-sapping lockdowns, were nowpartying, shopping and travelling with a vengeance.
At this point, the government had veered the discourse from devastating impact of the lockdown and following first wave of COVID-19 to how the Indian nation had defeated the virus, and that Indians had a special innate protection against the virus – the head of Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR) attributed it to the Hygiene Hypothesis, according which societies in which children are reared in unsanitised environs develop better immunity as adults. It seems the government seriously believed the worst was over and that Indians don’t even need to be vaccinated urgently. Else, why would it indulge in vaccine diplomacy by supplying vaccines to other nations without vaccinating its citizens first?
The actions of the government, which were at best duplicitous and at worst complicit, added to the confusion and hence complacency in the public. On the one hand, the Prime Minister was urging people to remain alert and cautious (discipline as well as medicine, as the slogan went), on the other the Election Commission went ahead with state assembly elections in five states between October of 2020 and April of 2021. The flagrant flouting of every rule in the COVID-19 book was there for everyone to see. Shockingly, both the massive election extravaganza and the religious extravaganza called the Kumbh Mela at Haridwar, which many experts described as a super-spreader event, were allowed to happen despite advance alerts by scientists that a dangerous second wave was around the corner.
Sixth draft: Tragedy and farce at once
What ensued was a catastrophic second COVID-19 wave in April and May 2021 that not only snuffed out patients in hundreds of thousands but also exposed the cocky triumphalism of the central government. As mutant strains of the original virus ripped through a large swathe of the population, the health system collapsed like a house of cards with people dying for lack of beds, drugs or medical oxygen. Patients gasping for their last breath as hospitals ran out of oxygen, or cemeteries and cremation grounds running out of space as corpses wheeled in, or hundreds of corpses floating in the Ganga river are some of the horrific scenes that would endure in popular memory for a long time.
As the second wave began to ebb, the focus of the pandemic discourse had shifted to vaccinating the entire population as quickly as possible. For the central government, that’s probably the only takeaway from the disaster of the second wave, as the virus not only shook it out of its cavalier smugness and laid bare the ugly truth about the country’s healthcare system that people have known for a long time, but it also demonstrated that the economy (it seems the only thing the government was interested in reviving) cannot recover unless the virus is tamed and healthcare shored up. Unfortunately, the government has missed the vaccine bus, for neither are vaccines available nor does the government has the capacity to ramp up production in quick time. As of now, going by current rate of vaccination, it may well take at least a year to vaccinate all Indians.
The pandemic discourse needle is likely stay pointed at vaccines in the short term. Meanwhile, as the second wave wanes, talk about a green recovery is back on the table. It’s curious how talk about building back better, at least as reflected in the media, always shifts to the front burner in the wake of a major public health or environmental crisis.
But, as dark clouds disperse, things are back to business as usual. According to Oxford University’s Economic Recovery Project’s report Are We Building Back Better?, only 18 per cent of recovery stimulus package announced by 50 largest economies in 2020 was eco-friendly. Spain, Germany, UK, South Korea, and France were notable exceptions. India figured way down the list.
To make matters worse, most nations are falling miserably short of their carbon reduction targets pledged under the Paris climate agreement. According to an International Energy Agency (IEA) assessment done in November 2020, the total pledged emission cuts amount to only 15 per cent of the total needed to fulfil the Paris agreement. Six months later, the projections have gotten even worse as the IEA now reckons that this year the surge in emissions is expected to be the second highest in history, second only to the rebound from the financial crisis.
India’s case is no different. According to the Global Energy Review, push for new coal means India’s economic recovery will result in 200 million tonnes (MT) more emissions than in 2020.
It should not surprise anyone that governments, which are elected for short terms, neither have the foresight nor the stomach for far-reaching environmental reform. They prefer to resort to technological fixes to brandish their concern for the environment. So, on the one hand, the Indian government promotes renewable energy and electric vehicles, on the other hand, it doesn’t mind clearing pristine forests to extract coal, as is happening in the Hasdeo Arand forests of Chhattisgarh. If anything, the incumbent government used the pandemic lockdown to water down several environmental protections, like exempting some industries from furnishing environmental impact assessments.
Those who forget history are condemned…
The year before COVID-19 took the world literally by its throat there were enough warning signs that we were pushing the planet into an environmental abyss. In 2019 alone, the UN released two UN reports that warned that if we don’t turn back now or follow a different path, the world is headed for a climate calamity. The pandemic has merely placed all that we know is wrong with the way we live now under a sharp magnifying glass, thereby quickening the urgency to do something about it.
If we were to look at the pandemic recovery response of the world as a whole, and juxtapose it with environmental disasters of just the last couple of years—devastating wildfires in California and Australia in 2019, freakish cyclones on India’s western and eastern coasts, and the ongoing record-breaking heat wavesin western USA and Canada (one Canadian village recorded 49.5 degrees Celsius!), to name a few—it appears history is repeating itself both as tragedy and farce at once.
What would it take for the governments to make a decisive shift so that we could avoid the looming environmental catastrophe? That’s the question that frustrates anyone concerned about the future of Earthlings. For the French philosopher Bruno Latour, it is moment of truth that we must seize and ask ourselves uncomfortable yet unavoidable questions about how we got here and where do we want to go from here. As he said in an interview to The Guardian in June of 2020, “the pandemic has reopened the debate about what is necessary and what is possible. It has put us in a position where we can decide what is useful and what is not…The pandemic has shown us the economy is a very narrow and limited way of organising life and deciding who is important and who is not important.” He believes the pandemic is “a global catastrophe that has come not from the outside like a war or an earthquake, but from within. Viruses are completely inside us. We cannot completely eject them. We must learn to live with them”.
One hates to say it, but it is almost certain world might squander this make-or-break moment in privileging what is over what might be. As Latour put it in The Guardian interview, “the bad guys are better organised and clearer in knowing what they want. The war we are engaged in is a difficult one. It is not that we are powerless; it is that many of us don’t know how to react.”
Meanwhile, we can keep writing, reading and interpreting the never-ending first rough drafts of history, hoping that someday, preferably sooner than later, these rough drafts will add up to something good for us and other species.
This article was prepared with the support of the Heinrich Böll Stiftung. The views and analysis contained in the publication are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of the foundation. Heinrich Böll Stiftung will be excluded from any liability claims against copyright breaches, graphics, photographs/images, sound document and texts used in this publication. The author is solely responsible for the correctness, completeness and for the quality of information provided.