India’s very important people have been late to realise that there are no exclusive passes out of the coronavirus pandemic. The virus has raged across the globe, claiming actors, athletes, ministers, vice presidents and the wives of two prime ministers. There was no reason it should have changed when it arrived in India. In fact, the well-heeled and well-travelled were its passport into the country.
So many well-heeled and well-travelled fell back on the best practices of VIP culture: use a bit of “pull” to do some “setting” to skirt the rules.
Take the Indian Railways bureaucrat in Bangalore who tried to check in her son at an officers’ rest house, hiding his travel history. He had returned from Germany through Spain, both severely affected countries, and tested positive for the virus five days after he landed in Bangalore. Or the top police officer in Kashmir who let a relative slip out of a VIP exit at the Srinagar airport and evade quarantine. The 67-year-old woman became the first person in the Valley to test positive for coronavirus, a couple of days after having returned to her home in crowded downtown Srinagar.
If bureaucrats are under the fond impression that the virus will not touch their loved ones, what explains doctors? The 19-year-old student who flew in from England to become West Bengal’s first coronavirus case shrugged off repeated appeals to check into a hospital and socialised freely. He was indulged not only by his bureaucrat mother, who then went into meetings with senior government officials, but also by his doctor father, who went on to examine 37 children at his chamber in Nadia.
The medical superintendent of the All India Institute of Medical Sciences in Bhubaneswar went quiet about his son’s travel history, and possibly the fact that he was in close contact with him, as he went about his work and attended official meetings. His son, admitted to the AIIMS isolation ward after spending days at his parents’ apartment, became Odisha’s second case.
Singer Kanika Kapoor, who tested positive for coronavirus after returning to Lucknow from London, seemed to have an insouciant conviction that she would not be infected. She reportedly hid her travel history from the authorities – it is to be assumed that the authorities were so star-struck they did not notice she was stepping out of a plane fresh out of London. On her return, Kapoor happily partied at five-star hotels, rubbing shoulders with politicians, felling members of the government and Opposition alike.
In India, there is a breezy belief that pandemics and other public misfortunes are the province of the poor. It is the poor who are the first to bear the brunt of social unrest or economic turbulence. It is the poor who get infected, living in cramped quarters and lacking nutrition. The rich and the upper-middle class – those with enough money to inhabit fragrant, air-conditioned rooms or enough friends in high places – are inoculated against these disasters.
In some ways, the coronavirus has been a great leveller in India, which has largely reported imported cases so far. Suddenly, the boast of being a “foreign-return” has turned into a vaguely sinister secret. If public gatherings are cancelled, so are parties and conferences. And even if you can afford it, few private hospitals will treat you for the coronavirus.
There is a fear that India has already entered the next stage of the epidemic, where there is community transmission. That is, the virus has been untethered from people with travel histories in foreign countries, and those who came in contact with them, and circulates freely in the community. It raises the terrifying spectre of contagion spreading like wildfire across India’s densely populated, low-income localities.
Even if that happens, India’s VIPs cannot wash their hands off certain civic responsibilities – refrain from that vacation, let domestic workers stay home, report for quarantine if there are symptoms of the virus. The only way to protect yourself and your family from the disease is to play a part in containing it. That is the curious nature of pandemics: taking care of the community means taking care of yourself. There is no VIP exit.