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The Big Story: Virality

Coronavirus is here. Covid-19, the disease caused by the new virus that has been declared a pandemic, has killed two and infected more than a 100 in India so far. The effects of the contagion are being felt all over the world, as entire countries shut down and brace for the impact of a disease that we can neither vaccinate against nor cure right now.

For a while, it seemed as if India might somehow be immune to the virus. In January, as China started to come to terms with the effects of the disease, India – like many other countries – was mostly observing from afar. Even as the infection spread through Italy, which eventually had to shut down the whole country as a preventive measure, India still had only a handful of cases.

Over the past two weeks, however, it has become clear that the disease is in the country, despite WhatsApp forwards and Op-Eds celebrating the Indian immune system and the germ-less interaction that is “namaste”.

India had 107 cases as of Monday, and the numbers are likely to keep going up. Last week, India took some dramatic moves: after politicians cancelled their Holi celebrations, India announced that it was suspending visas for all travellers into the country (with some exceptions) and recommended that Indians avoid all non-essential travel abroad.

As some newspapers put it, India quarantined itself.

Though the World Health Organisation has said that such travel restrictions do not have a major impact on the spread of the disease, what they might do is allow India to actually find out if the virus has been spreading domestically.

Despite the country’s well-earned reputation for fighting certain kinds of disease, whether it is polio, SARS or Nipah, state capacity is limited. Until now, India’s testing focused entirely on the assumption that the disease is “imported”: only people with a travel history, or those who came in contact with people who traveled, were being tested.

This means India was not testing enough and did not know if there was community transmission, which refers to the spread of the virus in the population beyond people who have traveled abroad recently. From this week, the Indian Council of Medical Research will begin looking for signs of community spread.

If, as many suspect, the virus has already spread among the population, the fear is that the numbers will suddenly spike, just as they did in Italy, Spain, the United States and South Korea.

This is why, as I argued last week, India ought to over-react with social distancing measures rather than regret it later.

Many authorities are doing so. Kerala, Delhi, Karnataka and some cities in Maharashtra have banned large gatherings, canceled sports events and encourage people to stay away from crowded areas. Other states are expected to follow suit.

The virus presents a three-fold challenge to India:

  • Healthcare: India spends a woefully small amount on health annually and its healthcare system reflects this. The country doesn’t have nearly enough hospital beds, never mind critical care ones, to deal with a massive crisis. After years of an uneven growth in private and public healthcare, the country may find it difficult to even coordinate a response.
  • State capacity: Indians don’t trust the state to take care of them, which is why stories will continue to turn up of people fleeing quarantine and isolation wards, which are often filthy. The loss of trust in the government over the recent Citizenship Act amendments adds to this challenge. Even if the country does want to impose social distancing, banning large gatherings, it will have a hard time enforcing such rules, not least because of the vast numbers of poor who must leave their homes to earn their daily wages.
  • Economy: Even if the country somehow manages to side-step a massive spike in infections, the economy is going to take a massive hit. It’s not as if things were good to start off with – we have been documenting the Great Indian Slowdown. But the virus is both a supply and demand shock, one that will reverberate through the entire economy. If infections and deaths do go up in India, things will get even worse.

The next few weeks will undoubtedly be spent tracking how this plays out. If India is lucky, some combination of state intervention and fortunate weather conditions will limit the spread of the virus.

Stay tuned for more coverage on this subject, and write to rohan@scroll.in if you have suggestions for what we should be doing in our Coronavirus reportage.

Recommendation Corner

We’re taking a break from recommendations by readers and friends of the newsletter this week so that I can put in a word for other newsletters that you might find useful. This is not a comprehensive list, but each of these would be a useful addition to your inbox:

  • Pranay Kotasthane’s Anticipating the Unintended is an excellent weekly public policy catch-up, with solid analysis and useful reading material.
  • This trio of daily newsletters for India, The Times Top 10, the Newsbury and Broadsheet, all have slightly different approaches to giving you information everyday, but are all very useful.
  • Praveen Krishnan’s Nutgraf on the Ken is an excellent look-back at the intersection of business and technology in India every week.
  • These two offer something fascinating everyday: Quartz’s Obsession is a deep-dive into one thing daily and the very popular Now I Know gives you superb little daily stories.
  • Casey Newton’s The Interface looks at where tech intersects with democracy, an area of focus that is impossible to look away from right now.
  • Finally, Ben Thompson’s Stratechery and Monday Note are both required reading if you’re interested in the world of media, tech and business.

Have recommendations for an article, book, podcast or academic paper that deals with Indian politics or policy? Send it to rohan@scroll.in. Previous recommendations from the Political Fix are collected here.

Madhya Pradesh crisis

Will the Congress government in Madhya Pradesh fall? As many as 22 Members of the Legislative Assembly from the party have resigned, a move that should give the Bharatiya Janata Party the numbers to cross the halfway mark. The governor has ordered a floor test on Monday, yet the Speaker of the Assembly has been non-committal about this.

If it does indeed go ahead on Monday, and the numbers remain as expected, then the BJP should be back in charge of the large North Indian state that it lost in December 2018. As I explained, what better way for the BJP to end its streak of poor state results than by winning one back without an election?

The new shape of the BJP government will be interesting. Former Chief Minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan will be in pole position to take over yet again, though his relationship with Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Home Minister Amit Shah has never been particularly smooth. And there is also the matter of demands from Congress turncoat Jyotiraditya Scindia.

Royal affair

The “Maharaj” has switched from Congress to BJP. (Here’s a short history of the royal Scindia family, if you’re unfamiliar). Op-Ed columnists and the Twitterati spent the week debating what his not-unexpected move meant.

Was it proof of the Congress falling apart? Or that Scindia is an opportunist with no ideology? Is it a reflection of the Congress-isation of the BJP? Or further evidence that no non-Gandhis can progress in the Congress? Is it an indictment of former Congress president Rahul Gandhi’s attempt to make the party more ideological? Or is it proof that this effort is working, shoving out those in the party who are partial to Hindutva? Will the loss of Madhya Pradesh push the Congress to sort out its leadership questions?

We’ll examine some of these in the coming week, but read this piece by Suhas Palshikar:

“This is an overdue development — and it is not just about one leader quitting the party. A full-blown internal war needs to explode in the party. More than leadership crisis, it is an identity crisis and that can be solved only through a painful process of “in-fighting” and possible fragmentation.” 

J&K what? Rajini who?

How often does a new political party immediately get a “welcome” from the Bharatiya Janata Party? Jammu and Kashmir’s new Apni Party was launched this week by founder Altaf Bukhari, who soon after met with Prime Minister Narendra Modi to discuss the future of the former state. As Ipsita Chakravarty writes, the party will have a hard time being seen as anything other than a Delhi puppet.

Meanwhile, actor Rajinikanth finally announced vague political plans this week, without actually launching a party, yet claiming he would give tickets to “good people” and was not looking to be chief minister of Tamil Nadu, where elections are due next year.

CAA, three months later

Three months after the government passed the discriminatory Citizenship Act amendments, sparking off protests across the country that was answered with brutal police action, we take a look at three key aspects:

  • First, Shoaib Daniyal points out all the problems with the law that make it essentially unworkable for anything other than posturing.
  • Next, people keep asking: The BJP has promised that no Indian Muslim need worry about the Citizenship Act so why are they still protesting? Because Modi and Shah’s well-earned reputation for being unpredictable (see: Demonetisation, Article 370) means nobody takes them at their word.
  • Finally, Shoaib Daniyal also looks at how states that are opposed to the National Register for Citizens are falling back on the 2010 format of the National Population Register as a way out. It won’t be enough.

Poll toon

Scroll.in Ground Report

Anjali Mody takes you on a tour of riot-scarred North East Delhi through photos:

“During the three days of violence in North East Delhi starting on February 24, at least 14 mosques and a Sufi dargah were burnt by Hindutva vigilantes… 

Not one of the many Hindu temples, big and small, in the entire area was reported to have been attacked.” 

You should go read all of the stories our reporters have done on the violence in Delhi, and for background, refer to our explainer that puts together everything that we now know about the violence in Delhi.

It takes money to send reporters out into tricky territory to bring back the news that the mainstream ignores.You can help ensure Scroll.in is able to bring you more reportage by either contributing to the Scroll Reporting Fund or, if you’re outside the country, subscribing to Scroll+.

Linking out

Does the Indo-US relationship now rest more heavily on interests than on values? Alyssa Ayres, who oversaw South Asia under the Obama administration, writes in Foreign Affairs that the two countries continue to remain close, but on different terms than before.

YES Bank’s collapse makes public sector banks seem safer. They’re not. Vivek Kaul on Newslaundry explains the cost of relying on the State Bank of India to mop up all the messes of the sector, and how that means we are just kicking the can down the road.

Was an Indian rights activist’s computer hacked to frame him? Martand Kaushik and Anjaneya Sivan in the Caravan found malware on the hard drive of Rona Wilson – an activist who was jailed in a case that appears to be retribution for anti-government critics – that allowed for remote access.

How do I disinfect my home? My phone? What is quarantine like? This thread from the Newsminute is a great collection of links of their coverage of the Coronavirus.

India’s employment figures deteriorated significantly over 2019-20. Mahesh Vyas of the Centre for Monitoring the Indian Economy writes about how the numbers make it clear that investment prospects for the coming year are bleak.

Can’t make this up

You have probably been inducted into the world of Coronavirus songs. Vietnam’s health department put out an extremely popular one, which quickly turned into a TikTok dance challenge. Singapore arrived with its usual cheesiness, with a rap offering called “Wash Yo Hands.”

But let me direct you to two Indian creations.

First there’s Punjabi singer Yanboy who compared himself to the killer virus in a song called, “Yaar Tera Coronavirus.” There are also Odia and Bhojpuri songs that reference the disease.

A few days ago, Union Minister Ramdas Athawale stood along with the Chinese consul in Mumbai and led chants of “Go Corona, Corona go”, as a sort of performance. Or an appeal. Or a precaution. It isn’t quite clear.

So naturally, someone remixed that with rather catchy trance beats. Here is “Go Corona”, the trance mix.