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Business News/ Opinion / Columns/  The impact of a second wave on Indian self-confidence

I lost my younger brother to covid last week. Thousands of others, too, have lost a dear one to the pandemic over the past few weeks. Many of us would have received at least one email or message from a colleague or friend desperately requesting help in getting admission to a hospital, or in procuring some medicine. In the first wave of the covid pandemic, while millions of daily- wage earners lost the means to their livelihood and thousands of them walked hundreds of kilometres to reach their homes, the Indian middle-class, the opinion makers of the country, were not very badly affected by the outbreak. The pandemic was seen as a problem happening far away from us. It was seen as ‘someone else’s problem’. But in the second wave of covid infections, many Indians in the middle and upper middle- class have been impacted by the rampant onslaught of the coronavirus disease. For most of the middle-class, the pandemic has now clearly become ‘our’ problem.

Within the next few weeks, the government will probably manage to get the pandemic under control. But will it be business as usual after that? Will horrific memories of it have a long-term impact on the psyche of this nation?

If one’s tragic experiences are on account of a natural calamity, like a tsunami, it would be easier to digest its consequences. Such disasters are assumed to be beyond human control. If this crisis had happened during the first wave of the pandemic, it would have been accepted a bit more easily. This is partly because the rest of the world, including the most developed countries, had faltered in handling the problem. But the fact that these cataclysmic experiences have come more than a year after the first wave is exasperating.

India has seen many catastrophic events. Think of the Bhopal gas tragedy of 1984, or the terror attack in Mumbai of 2008. These occurred within the span of a few hours. But the covid pandemic, more so its second wave, is different. Its onslaught has been continuing for weeks now—which means images of burning pyres, ambulances queuing outside crematoriums and patients in oxygen masks waiting outside hospitals for beds have been imprinted on people’s minds for weeks on end. The longevity of a problem tends to amplify it.

The generation of people who were born in the 1970s and before are used to shortages in India. This generation encountered ‘out of stock’ signboards at ration shops and ‘houseful’ boards at film theatres very often. The generation born in the 1990s and later would rarely have faced many shortages in their life. But over the last few weeks, the country has witnessed a scarcity of oxygen, of all the things! Reports of people gasping for breath because of the unavailability of oxygen, the most elementary necessity of life, have been received with greater emotional intensity than any other shortage that India has suffered so far.

Over the past few decades, as the national economy progressed at a fast pace, the purchasing power of the Indian middle-class went up sharply. In a growing consumerist society, it would seem that many people, especially the younger lot, came to believe that with enough money, they could afford anything. But the realization has now apparently dawned on them that all the money in their bank cannot secure a bed in a hospital in times like this, nor procure much-needed medicines and cylinders of oxygen to save a dear one’s life. This sense of utter helplessness that has prevailed across large parts of India in the past few weeks has shaken public confidence in the whole system.

Forgetting is one of the natural processes of the human brain. Most of the information we come across and experiences we have on a daily basis are forgotten almost immediately. But there are some memories which undergo a process called ‘long term potentiation’. Emotional intensity and repetition are key contributors to the long-term potentiation of memories.

The memories that undergo this process tend to get embedded in our brains for a long time. Many of these memories, called emotional memories, get imprinted in the brain at a non-conscious level. So, in one’s conscious life, one might not even be aware of these memories, but at the non-conscious level, they do affect our behaviour. A sense of scarcity embedded in the non-conscious mind of Indian society, for example, would influence our behavioural patterns in ways we may not even recognize. Most of us do bumber-to-bumber driving, for instance, because we do not want another vehicle to take away a scarce resource—our space on the road.

In the decades since India’s economy opened up, the country has emphatically shown the world that we are a global power on the rise. But the second wave of this pandemic have left an indelible mark on our national self-image. The confidence of the nation is badly shaken. This is a slippery slope. Truths cannot be ignored. But the manufacturing of another emotionally-intense issue to divert attention from the disturbing memories of covid’s ravages will be an even worse strategy.

Some of the biggest achievements of Independent India, such as the green and white revolutions, emerged from some of the country’s biggest problems (of nutrition). Can we expect a health revolution to come out of the recent experiences of our country? That would be the best way to try erasing traumatic memories of the pandemic from the national psyche.

Biju Dominic is chief evangelist, Fractal Analytics, and chairman, FinalMile Consulting.

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Updated: 06 May 2021, 06:20 AM IST
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