In this picture taken on May 5, 2021, health workers wearing personal protective equipment (PPE) suits attend to a COVID-19 coronavirus patient inside the Intensive Care Unit (ICU) of the Teerthanker Mahaveer University (TMU) hospital in Moradabad. Image Credit: AFP

India is arguably going through its biggest national crisis since independence when a bloody exchange of population with the newly-born Pakistan had impacted life and land on a massive scale.

The country is witnessing a disaster of Biblical proportions (a cliché but apt here), causing widespread disruption of life, sickness and death on a scale that even efficient governments of the West could not handle last year when United States, France, Italy, Spain, Germany and other powerful nations were brought to their knees. Most of these countries seem to be recovering or limping to normality now.

The virus humbled the mighty and the powerful in ways few could have imagined. What the western nations went through last year (paralysed health care, mass burials and pulverised economies), India is witnessing right now. The country’s hospitals and mortuaries are overflowing, doctors are tired, infected and dying. Denial of health care and shortages of oxygen appear to be killing more people than the disease caused by Coronavirus.

The scale of disaster

The scale of the disaster is so big, pain and misery so widely spread that fear of death is lurking in every household in this nation of 1.35 billion people. The fear of death and disease is omnipresent, cutting across socioeconomic classes and geographies, from peasants to the privileged class, from thatched hutments and urban slums to posh gated villa communities of Mumbai, Bengaluru and New Delhi.

The disturbing visuals of mass cremations and struggling ICUs in Indian cities may look dramatic but are not vastly different from mass burials in New York or overflowing funeral homes and hospitals in Italy and Spain last year. It is also true that some of the most efficiently governed cities of the West could not cope up with the speed, intensity and ferociousness of this pandemic.

These cities were stunned, they fumbled, buckled and limped in their battle against the virus before managing to gather senses and martial resources. Today, India is going through a similar tumultuous period, a painful process that is so slow that it is hard to imagine a victory soon.

The pandemic has tested resolve of powerful governments worldwide but they have begun to recover and India will also eventually overcome this crisis. But there is one feature that sets India apart in preparedness and response to the pandemic — collective hubris. Today, India is paying a price for hubris that trickled down from the top to the bottom layer of governance structure and into the society.

A country stunned

The intensity and speed of the second wave stunned India at a time when the country was least prepared to face it, thanks to pomposity and overconfidence of the leadership. The country ignored disastrous experiences of Western capitals and refused to learn from the pomposity of leaders like Donald Trump whose contempt for masks is legendary. His chest thumping bravado persuaded Americans to disregard safety precautions and led them into the Covid abyss where over half a million perished.

Healthcare machinery had to be oiled, people needed to be warned and lessons had to be learnt from the experiences of the Western countries that faced multiple waves, each deadlier than the previous one. But India did little because new infections were tapering down in September and October and officials had actually begun to dismantle field hospitals.

The country’s government, and the various levers that form the eco system of the ruling dispensation instead nudged Indians towards a mirage of mythical immunity, a narrative that led Indians to start believing that their bodies were stronger than others. This false narrative was built on absurd logic that Indians have a superior immune response because they are exposed to pathogens in their daily lives and because of their spiritually superior existence.

While international experts and scientists wondered why the infection rate was dwindling in India last year, the leadership bragged — without any scientific basis — about India’s ability to tame the virus, a messaging that eventually proved disastrous. This messaging led people to abandon the mask, celebrate festivals and attend weddings.

By early March, hubris had seeped into every layer of governance and the society but the virus was lurking in the shadows, quietly entering densely populated communities. Deafened by the chest thumping and dazzled by the leadership’s boisterous swagger, few in India bothered to take note of the gradual rise of infections until the cases exploded in April.

The deadly concoction of faulty messaging and misplaced sense of superior immunity led to widespread hubris, resulting in a massive disaster. Since April, millions have been sickened and tens of thousands have died. For days, India has maintained a daily count of over 400,000 new cases and around 4,000 deaths, the numbers many say are grossly under reported. The virus continues to claim lives and India’s health care system is about to collapse.

Those who have lost loved ones or who have caught the infection now understand the deadly power of the virus. This lesson has come at a terrible price and the fear of death and disease has forced people to stay indoors.

The country’s ruling class, however, continues to be afflicted by hubris that is hampering their ability to help the citizenry. The reluctance to openly ask for international assistance is also driven by the same hubris, a disease that must be tackled first.