Kanika Kapoor is only a symptom of the elite’s irresponsibility.
Kanika Kapoor is only a symptom of the elite’s irresponsibility.

The Taste With Vir: Kanika Kapoor is only a symptom of the elite’s irresponsibility

In this week’s column, Vir Sanghvi discusses the rapid spread of COVID-19, the controversy around singer Kanika Kapoor testing positive for Coronavirus and how it will be our rich and our mindless, ‘nationalists’ who will have defeated India and the damaged the health of our people if the right measures aren’t taken in good time.
Hindustan Times, Delhi | By Vir Sanghvi
UPDATED ON MAR 21, 2020 06:01 PM IST

I am not going to be part of the lynch mob that is targeting the singer Kanika Kapoor. From the information that is in the public domain, it seems that she flew back from London, was screened at the airport, was declared healthy enough to enter India and at that time, had no visible symptoms.

So far, at least, despite the public anger, it does not seem that she deliberately avoided screening, recognised that she had the infection and knowingly infected others.

She is not blameless, of course, even if all this is accurate. She should have realised that the Coronavirus has been rapidly spreading in the UK and voluntarily quarantined herself for two weeks. Instead, she travelled to Lucknow, attended parties and, in the process, became a greater risk to others.

But the reason I will not be part of any public lynching is that Kapoor is not the only one to have behaved badly. Over the last ten days or so it has rapidly become clear that all of us should isolate ourselves from people as much as possible.

The company I work with decided, a week ago, that people would work from home. We were aware that this would cause disruption to the progress of our work. But like many other responsible companies, we took the line that public health was far more important than work disruptions. (This column, for instance, is being edited from home by the staff of HindustanTimes.com.)

And yet, India’s so-called elite (i.e. the rich and powerful) went off partying, socialising and pretending that nothing was wrong. Kapoor did not throw the party in Lucknow where she may (or may not) have infected others. She travelled to Lucknow to be at the party as did many other invitees. These people were all aware of the danger of Covid. Yet they acted as though the risks would not apply to them.

Why did they do this?

Simple: it is the mindset of India’s rich.

For years and years, they have been brought up to believe that epidemic-type diseases only affect the poor. It is people who live in slums, who they regard as dirty, who are really at risk. Whether it is cholera, the plague, or any other dangerous disease, the rich always believe that they are immune to it because of their affluent lifestyles. It is the poor who, they believe, wallow in unsanitary conditions, that will be hit.

Fortunately or unfortunately, they have been largely right till now. Even when dengue or malaria hit our cities, the victims are usually the poor. Relatively few rich people get affected.

But Corona is different. At this stage, it may well affect the rich more than it hurts the poor.

Most of the cases that we have seen reported in India are of people who got the infection abroad or of those who got it from someone who had recently been abroad. (Like Kanika Kapoor.)

So, contrary, to what the rich and privileged think, their servants (over whose hygiene they agonise so much on Facebook these days) are less likely to give it to them than a friend or a colleague who has been abroad --- and it doesn’t matter whether it is the US, the Middle East, Europe or East Asia; the virus seems to be everywhere.

Even after the Kanika Kapoor case, I am not sure the rich still get it. For example, I have been advising people on Twitter to order takeaway dishes from their favourite restaurants (which are now closed because of Covid) and I still get responses like “won’t I be in danger of getting infected because of the delivery boy?”

Given the carelessness with which the powerful and the privileged have treated this disease (escaping from quarantine, hiding their travel history etc.), it is not surprising that we are now either on the edge of Stage Three or have already got there. (Stage Three is when the transmission does not come from abroad but from the community itself.)

Once it truly gets to stage three, the effects can be horrendous. All of the rich’s worst fears will finally be realised. There are two ways of avoiding being infected. One is not to be in close proximity with others so that you do not get infected by the virus-filled droplets that emerge from their respiratory tracts. That’s not always going to be possible for poor people who live in small rooms in overcrowded housing. The other means of avoiding infection is to wash your hands with soap obsessively. But this only works for people who have access to water all day – and in India, many of our countrymen do not.

I am hoping that as the elite realises how much danger we are all in, we will finally take the steps that should have been taken at least a week ago. It is dangerous for Parliament to have continued with its session. And I’m glad that Rashtrapati Bhawan has finally cancelled the President’s meetings. He should never have been made to meet MPs and ministers while the epidemic was spreading.

There is a second factor that may possibly impede our ability to cope with this serious threat: a medieval sense of national pride.

Any Indian doctor you meet will tell you that he or she believes that the numbers released by the government seriously underestimate the extent to which the disease has spread. There has not been enough testing and because only some government hospitals have been allowed to conduct tests, it is often difficult for worried citizens to get themselves tested.

I understand some of the reasons for the government’s policy on testing so I am not ascribing blame. But let’s accept that as of today, we have no real idea of how many Indians have been infected by the virus.

Whenever foreign publications write that the official Indian figures may be underestimates, a large section of Indians react with anger and outrage. The New York Times is committed to attacking India, we are told. The Washington Post is full of lies. The British press is jealous of our success as a nation. Let’s throw out foreign correspondents and teach them a lesson. And so on.

The trouble with all this nonsense is not just that it is based on ignorance. I have yet to meet a single Indian doctor who disagrees with the foreign press’ claim that we are underestimating the real numbers. It is the geniuses of Twitter and WhatsApp who make the most noise. The tragedy is that this kind of misplaced national pride has a certain ideological sanction in India.

A couple of days ago, the Minister of State for Health, an advocate of gau mutra, played down the dangers posed by the epidemic. All we needed, he said, was to get 15 minutes of sunlight and that would kill viruses.

Obviously, this man should never have been put in the Health Ministry. I suspect that the original reasoning was that the Cabinet Minister (Dr Harsh Vardhan) is a sensible chap so they thought they could park this guy as his junior in the Health Ministry where he could do no real harm.

At that time, nobody had expected this crisis or imagined that the minister’s foolish beliefs would attract attention. But when the crisis exploded, they should have quickly shut him up. Instead, pro-BJP figures took to social media to defend him and troll farms were instructed to abuse his critics. All that the minister had said, we were told, was that the body needs Vitamin D for immunity and that sunlight is a good source of Vitamin D.

That was not what he had said, of course. But the worrying thing is the ruling party felt obliged to use its resources to defend him and his medieval views.

Even more worrying was that many of those who defended him actually thought he was right and that his critics were anti-Hindu and pro-West and therefore looked down on the wisdom of the sages over the centuries, etc.

You can’t be fighting a pandemic with this level of ignorance, lying and plain old mumbo jumbo. You need a well-informed health minister, not a witch doctor.

Fortunately, the rest of the Cabinet has been more responsible. The Prime Minister‘s Janata Curfew this Sunday is probably one way of testing how India would react to a full-scale shut-down. And as private labs will be involved in testing and in the battle against Covid, things may get better.

This weekend will tell us if all this is enough to slow down the spread of the virus. Because if it is not, then it won’t just be the Coronavirus that has triumphed.

It will be our rich and our mindless, ‘nationalists’ who will have defeated India and the damaged the health of our people.

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