Yes, COVID Kills. But Do ‘We the People’ Have a Death Wish, Too?
Even a year later, nothing is stopping people driven by Thanatos who choose either the virus or the police’s baton.
(This article from The Quint’s archives has been republished in the wake of an alarming surge in COVID-19 cases in India. The author has updated the article in bold to highlight how certain things haven’t changed in the past one year.)
After I was first introduced to the concept of Eros-Thanatos binary, it remained a philosophical idea for the next two decades. Only now, in the middle of COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic, does it make as much sense to me as it did to Freud.
Yes, a visit to my hometown in Uttar Pradesh (in June 2020) has convinced me of the existence of self-destructive instincts that drive people towards death. What more, I can now make perfect sense of the various Delhi government decisions that had befuddled me earlier. It’s all about Thanatos—God of Death—the death drive. And it’s more potent than the virus.
Coronavirus Reaches Rural India
I got out of my building for the first time in three months for a non-essential purpose: to visit my parents to let them see their grandchild. My mother, in her sixties, seems to be convinced that she and my father would not survive this pandemic. (My entire family—husband, children, parents, siblings, sister-in-law—and me are now COVID-19 survivors, having battled the virus in Sep-Oct 2020.)
I admit, this is a tad dramatic. But that’s my mother for you and I’m used to such exaggerations and deal with them with a high degree of proficiency. Except this time, she’s not all wrong.
The virus has reached my hometown.
Before I descend into a full-blown bluster on how badly ‘India’ has handled this crisis, let me clarify that despite all that I have witnessed during this trip, all I have read in the past three months, and all that is unfolding right in front of us—many of us will survive. But that won’t happen because our systems would work, or our manners would change. Survival will happen despite our collective death drive—Thanatos needs to rest, too!
Sporadic Social Distancing, No Mandatory Masks
As soon as I got off the Yamuna Expressway, my NCR distress began to dissipate as I spotted men and women—of all ages—wearing masks as they went about daily business. This was heartwarming because in my rather upmarket apartment complex in Noida, neighbours are out on group morning/evening walks minus the mask. Close contact sports like football and basketball have resumed in the courts and so have the get-togethers. “At least my poor village compatriots are scared of the virus,” I thought. (I have now moved to my house in the heart of Delhi and the situation is not different.)
The next village gave me a rude shock. Scattered bunches of people with varying degrees of abandon. An old woman lying on a charpai with a group of younger women sitting next to her. Two young boys taking selfies, their faces dangerously close to each other. Four young girls dressed in western clothes—enough for a group of boys standing at an open barber shop to lose their minds—holding hands and laughing.
In a bigger village some kilometres away, somebody had died. A large group of about 80-90 men of all ages had spilled over to the main road. Some had their masks on, some did not. They were certainly not maintaining any physical distancing. My daughter looked at me in disbelief: she hasn’t seen any crowds in more than 100 days now.
There were rumours of a ‘covid death’ in my parents’ neighbourhood so she was a little scared anyway. (My daughter does not want to grow up, if “this is what growing up means”: she hasn’t seen her school in more than a year now.)
The Great Indian Fatalism: Right At My Home
My father has a Dr Jekyll, Mr Hyde personality—my mother has concluded—when it comes to coronavirus. Thanks to their age and minor health conditions, my parents are at a high risk of catching the infection. As are my eldest uncle and his wife, both nearing 70, both with serious health issues and both frontline doctors manning the oldest and only modern nursing home in my hometown. They know it, too.
Yet, my family’s activities will tell you otherwise. My father’s biggest concern at this time is rather existential: what has the world come to! My mother has to deal with his lies when he slips out to greet an equally bored septuagenarian. Or indulges himself with a stealthy drink of whiskey, despite medical advice. My mother has almost given up. She’s scared and so is my 94-year-old grandmother who can’t seem to get her sons’ recklessness. The eldest son, after all, is still sticking to his routine of seeing patients. Yes, all the precautions are being taken at their medical facility but his daredevilry is a bit unwarranted. (The elders in my family are now vaccinated.)
If you are thinking that men in my family are quite brave and stoic, here is a mild reality check. My father takes to bed whenever his body temperature reaches 100 degrees. The world seems to end for him. His voice gets weak and he shudders at the sight of an injection. When the rumours surrounding a covid death proved to be false, he offered prasad to our family temple, despite being largely agnostic.
Hence, Dr Jekyll, Mr Hyde, My Father.
Police To Be Feared, Not COVID-19
On Sunday, our fears came true when a suspected case tested positive for COVID-19. He was referred to a bigger hospital in Agra by my uncle. Since Delhi stopped any contact tracing and actively curbed testing (as a highly placed Delhi government source informed me), all of us were in a state of panic.
Will my uncle be tested? Will anyone even isolate the close contacts of the patient? Will my hometown, hitherto spared, fall prey to the virus? Could my aunt, who lost her mother a fortnight ago and didn’t even attend her last rites held in Delhi, bear to have a COVID-19 positive husband? Who is going to take care of these senior citizens? International travels are still out of question so how will my cousins and siblings come, should anything go wrong?
Only questions, no answers. And the chaos outside the house. The town was bustling as usual. “Masks and social distancing happened only till the police was baton-charging people,” mother answered at least that question. “Everyone was disciplined till the lockdown got lifted. Now everyone is behaving as if the virus has vanished,” she added. The police didn’t intervene anymore.
Fortunately, within two hours several teams arrived at our hometown, isolated the patient’s neighbourhood and took samples. Everyone at my uncle’s nursing home was also tested. At least Uttar Pradesh does not seem to be acting miserly on testing.
Though, what can stop people who are driven by Thanatos and choose either the virus or the police’s baton? And this drive is echoed even in the highest portals of power: don’t test, don’t get the numbers up, don’t let anyone criticise us. Hide the data, delay the policies, and issue confusing guidelines. Because in the long run we are all dead, and what does it matter if it’s sped up by the collective death drive.
PS Test results are awaited even after a week. My parents’ marriage is still surviving.
PPS One year on, people in my hometown are sure of their good karma. There have not been many cases of COVID-19 infection there so anyone wearing a mask is looked at with derision. Their sturdy peasant constitution has defeated the deadly virus; masks and physical distancing are for shehri softies only.
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