Context Matters, Perspective Matters

I live in the state of Georgia, population — eleven million.

As of today, the number of coronavirus cases in the state is 22,695 and the number of dead are 904.

Compare this to the cases of the infection in India as of the time I am writing this — 26,229 — and the number of dead — 815. The state of Georgia, with eleven million population, about the size of the city of Bengaluru (population 12.3 million), has about the same number of cases as in India, which has a population of 1.37 billion. If the Indian rate of infection and the number of deaths were to equal, comparative to the population of Georgia, then India would have 2,826,559 infected and 112,589 dead.

Or, if we were to compare the numbers of the United States as a whole to the numbers in India, the U.S., with a population of 330 million and with 902,5024 infections and 46,254 deaths as of today, India would have 3,747,082 cases and 192,024 dead.

In Georgia, schools and colleges were closed as of March 14, 2020, and a “shelter/stay in place” order was promulgated on April 02, 2020 whereas India announced a countrywide lockdown on March 24, 2020.

These are numbers that should give us all pause, and we should exercise both caution and get some perspective on what can be done, how quickly, to get us to some safety.

Five weeks into teaching online, and doing all work from home, I have begun to feel some of the “cabin fever” that people in the colder regions of the U.S. suffer in the long winter months. School children have begun to complain and run riot at home because after the first giddy week of being at home they are now tired and do not know how to spend all their time at home. Husbands and wives are quarreling, and people are on short fuses, ready to take out their anger and their distress on anyone or anything.

And then there is the complaining — nonstop — about who is responsible for what, and what could have been, might have been, if only the federal government or the state governments had responded to the news of the virus earlier — by a day, by a week, and so on based on which announcement by which official in which capital of the world. No one can offer definitive numbers about the containment of the numbers because, for example, the most affected states, New York and New Jersey, had passengers flying in to the United States from Europe till March 13, 2020, and it is now reported that it is those passengers from Europe who brought the virus with them. There was a bit of a furor in Europe when President Trump announced the flight cancellations. Italy, Spain, France, England, Germany are all now quiet about the March 13 directive and are busy dealing with their own coronavirus crises.

The United States and those European nations majorly affected by the virus and who are under different stringent levels of lockdown have announced major financial and economic sops to people and businesses as their economies teeter at the brink of collapse. Oil prices have crashed, and the price of the unleaded gas that I fill at the local Sam’s Club gas station is $1.50 a gallon, whereas the price was about a dollar more per gallon six weeks ago. I have not filled the gas tank for six weeks now because I have stopped driving — except once a week or ten days to go to the local grocery store for milk and vegetables.

As people worry about bills not being paid, about not earning any money, or about visiting a sick relative, or escape from the oppressive dynamic at home, the Governor of Georgia, and governors of some other states, have begun pondering reopening their states for some business. The very dyspeptic looking governor of Georgia, Brian Kemp, announced that gyms, hair salons, bowling alleys, tattoo parlors could open their doors this Friday, April 24, while restaurants and theaters, he said, can open for business Monday, April 27. Kemp said Georgia is on track to meet the criteria set by the federal government to begin Phase One of the plan to reopen states, which requires that the state has had a downward trend in cases lasting two weeks. The governor is slow-talking a fake number as Georgia’s numbers of cases peaked on April 14, with 816 new cases a day, and therefore we would have had to wait till April 28 to open the state for some business, and not count two weeks as two work weeks totaling ten days!

“He is an idiot,” some mocked on social media the very slow-talking governor, and the governor, whose approval rating had been pretty decent since he took office in 2019, seems to have popularity and his voter-base in mind as he considers which faction of his voters and supporters he needs to cater to first while also playing safe enough so that the pandemic genie doesn’t get out of the bottle again soon.

Courtesy: Flickr.com

The business of opening up businesses is a tricky one as modern nations, with their complex, large, interconnected and expensive structures, have not had to deal with something this big of a threat to their very survival and do so quickly lest a massive collapse could lead to a mad, apocalyptic struggle of the survival of the fittest. Given that there are more guns in this nation than there are people, and gun sales have ramped up during the past few weeks, versions of gunfights at the OK Corral is not what anyone wants or anyone is really prepared for. But then, there are enough crazies in these United States of America who seem to have been planning for the “end of the world”, and a little opening that they see, and smell could lead to much mayhem.

“Why can’t we wait for a few weeks more before opening these businesses?” some fret, and rightly so. No one is dying of hunger, and no one is trekking long distances on foot to reach their villages and homes as they did in India as soon as Prime Minister Modi announced the lockdown on March 24. There were several editorials, commentaries, and reports in the American media which were highly critical of India’s quick and drastic action to shut the country down. Of course, in India itself there were many who questioned whether such drastic action was necessary and whether it might not have been better to follow the model of Sweden where the government did not shut anything down but mandated a series of safety and health measures that people had to follow.

Sweden seems to have survived the pandemic onslaught but then we forget that Sweden’s population is about ten million, even less than the state of Georgia, and two million less than the city of Bengaluru! It is an advanced economy with many safety nets carefully built over a long period of time, and the people are highly educated. A country with a sparse, highly educated populace, spread over a vast area, poses much fewer challenges to those who govern it than India with its teeming millions in cramped cities, and whose people are easily misled by fake, provocative, and manipulative messages by the many forces that seek to destabilize the country. So, editors and commentators, who play “Monday morning quarterback” without a pause, would be quaking in their shoes if they were to be in charge of a nation or a state and make life and death decisions based on mostly speculative data that have veered dramatically over the course of the past six weeks.

Yes, of course, in these United States many of us would love to have a president who spoke less, who spoke measuredly, who did not tweet, who did not undermine his own team of cabinet members and health officials, and who was a decent human being. But we do not. It is in this context therefore that not only we in America but elsewhere want to watch commentator and comedian, Bill Maher, who tells us that yes, we are living through a major crisis, but no, it is not the end of the world, and that perspective matters.

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