India in Crisis

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Photo by Swarnavo Chakrabarti
How do our attitudes about the pandemic today influence our power to transform into a more sustainable future that centres around planetary health? From her experiences of living in India and championing ethical consumerism to the psychology of denial, Jen Marsden reflects.

I’m standing in the neighbourhood I know so well. It’s a ghost town. Shops are all closed and boarded up, the usual humming neon lights are silent and dark and the odd soul that does appear skitters away. I only have 30 rupees in my purse, I’ve lost my Indian mobile sim card and the dread sets in. Without it, in a city that relies on its fast 5G connection to move, I can’t order an auto or check the map. None of the streets make sense anymore, enveloping me in a labyrinth. ‘I’m just trying to reach my best friend,’ I utter to the quiet streets.

I wake up from the nightmare, shaking, and immediately text D, my best friend who lives in Bangalore.

“Are you okay?” I quickly receive a reply “Okay, same as usual, I can’t stop coughing and my chest hurts.” I breathe a sigh of relief.

Until recently I lived and worked in Bangalore. Like so many others who have had their home in India, I feel helpless. I worry that the Bangalore I return to will never be the same.

The doctors couldn’t diagnose D with COVID-19 at first as the test results didn’t appear to be showing the variant strains, but they are now 99% sure she has long Covid, and has developed pneumonia.

I check on my other friends. S tells me that every other person she knows has Covid. The news conservatively reports that it’s one in five people. The situation is far worse in Bangalore than Delhi, yet it is the capital that receives the media spotlight, rather than India’s own Silicon Valley.

Both S and D have heard news of at least one person who has died overnight. S tells me that the lungs of her friend’s daughter, aged just 20, simply collapsed. Her other friend, having just lost her father to Covid and now positive herself, is struggling to do her job by day while keeping her dad’s business afloat by night.

When Covid first hit India, there was denial.

My friends tell me that Covid-19 positive people were being treated similarly to the prejudice and stigma seen in leprosy and AIDs victims. A white collar neighbour of one friend, knowing he had the coronavirus, died alone in his apartment, too ashamed to seek help. I believe it’s this denial that helped fuel the government rhetoric that all was well.

The first national lockdown brought its own killer disease: poverty, D told me that her friend who has an organisation caring for stray dogs was brought to tears when the food she laid on the dirt pavement was snatched up by hungry children. This was the image of India I thought we were moving away from.

I wonder if the mounds of stinky rubbish and rats have returned to the street that I’d helped clean up one Saturday morning, when I was playing my part in the Ugly Indian movement.

These past few months, I was telling my Indian friends to stay home. Most did, staying safe and smart while still believing the news that the country had reached a state of herd immunity. At the same time I saw videos of a monthly social event I used to frequent, taking place as usual. No masks, no social distancing and plenty of families mixing in among the food tents, crafts stalls, and live music stages.

Friends who only left to walk their dogs or get groceries still got infected. Unlike our individualistic society, community is beautifully ingrained in the culture. Maids and cooks enter into the apartments of my middle-class friends on a daily basis, joint families mingle between floors, and neighbours continue to share and check in on each other.

There’s a mantra in my head: This too shall pass, this too shall pass.

My own mantra is also driven by denial. It’s my unconscious defense mechanism kicking in, to thwart any stressful experiences. We all experience it, but then eventually, we do need to face up to reality. Denial can only ever be a short-term coping strategy.

We know the pandemic was a ticking time bomb, and yet we also know, deep down, that it’s not going to be an isolated incident. It’s time for us to wake up our political leaders. The international media machine and politicians for the most part have successfully averted attention away from discussing the cause of this outbreak.

While the latest reports suggest the virus was leaked from a lab in Wuhan, the rise of zoonotic viruses – when infectious diseases are transmitted between species from animals to humans – is likely.

Pandemics will happen more frequently as existing diseases are forced to shift into new geographic locations. Just ask the experts at Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment.

It was allegedly the draining of India’s Sunderbans by the British colonists to make space for paddy fields that unleashed cholera on India in the 17th century.

Having myself had a year of recovering from chronic Lyme Disease, I wouldn’t wish a tick-borne infection on anyone. Sadly, we can expect more infections and pandemics like these in the future if we don’t deal with the underlying crisis at hand: our climate.

Encroaching on habitats not made for humans, burning CO2, and treating our world like a garbage can is the cause of today’s problems.

Until we realise the clear relationship between human health and planetary health (aka onehealth), and get a handle on the UN’s SDGs, then this is going to become our new normal.

Forum of the Future were quick to produce their Time to Transform: Future of Sustainability in 2020, which presented four possible scenarios when transitioning out of a post-pandemic world.

The first trajectory is Compete and Retreat, the idea that we retreat and protect our own kind.

It’s the kind of rhetoric I see reading my own social media feed, with those in support of the March for Freedom, or who think shining a light on the crisis in India is the media becoming addicted to coronavirus horror coverage or ‘poverty porn’. As the UK eases restrictions, conveniently dismissing the larger world’s challenges is a popular attitude.

The second trajectory is Discipline, in which we give greater control to our governments, allowing surveillance technology, automation and data-driven supply chain management to keep us safe. Again, this in no way curbs our growth or addresses the issue of a sustainable, and therefore safe, future.

Transform is a positive third trajectory, in which planetary health and human wellbeing come first. We accelerate our zero-carbon transition through immediate and radical action, from adopting doughnut economics, to regenerative agriculture. We innovate and adapt.

Society is decentralised and therefore more resilient. This is the world I wish to live in.

The fourth trajectory is certainly where we are today: Unsettled. There is no new normal, the world feels strange and volatile, and it’s what fuels my dreams of dystopia.

Those of us who talk about the underlying smorgasbord of causes for the COVID-19 pandemic have been observing the bigger crisis for years.

It was the prophetic author of Silent Spring, Rachel Carson, who stated that, “The road we have long been traveling is deceptively easy, a smooth superhighway on which we progress with great speed, but at its end lies disaster. The other fork of the road — the one less traveled by — offers our last, our only chance to reach a destination that assures the preservation of the earth.”

Denial always bites us in the proverbial bottom. While it is important to vote on the world we need with our wallets, believing that solving the problem through ethical and sustainable consumerism alone is long gone.

Individuals can only do so much – we need our governments to be responsible and stricter in enforcing the radical changes that are needed throughout our industries, and by overhauling how our financial systems tick.

It’s why I’m hopeful to see young people taking their countries to court over climate action, and oil giants now being legally forced to take responsibility for their inaction in carbon reduction.

Without it, how will we ever move on? How will this, too, ever pass?


Read more of Jen Marsden’s articles in Sublime Magazine

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