American General William Westmoreland famously said, “War is fear cloaked in courage.” A veteran commander of US forces during the long and bloody Vietnam War in the 1960s, Westmoreland had also seen action in World War II and the Korean War. Presumably he knew a thing or two about the front lines – and about the profound senselessness of bureaucratic death. Westmoreland is best known for his role in a conflict that dragged on for 20 years, one that triggered mass protests from all sections of American society and today is widely acknowledged to have been a grave political mistake.
The COVID-19 pandemic has not gone on for 20 years, although 14 months into it with no end in sight, it feels like it might as well have. In our own way, each of us has battled this invisible enemy whose guerrilla tactics are unfamiliar, who lurks outside the walls of our home – or worse, stealthily makes way inside, attacking us and our families. The first wave of the virus caught us unawares, hopeful that this global nightmare would soon end so we can return to our regular lives. Much has been said about finding a “new normal”: how to work and shop and socialise online; how to exercise outside with a mask, how to keep our immunity up with kadhas; how to search for peace in a dalgona coffee or a potted plant; how to thrive within a bubble of isolation and anxiety.
And yet, even a year of this “new normal” failed to prepare us for the deadly second wave, the tsunami that is smacking into our country. There is no normal here, and no answer to the biggest how-to we are collectively facing: How to deal with a pandemic’s worth of anxieties coming home to roost?
Last March, the battle against COVID-19 was fought mostly by healthcare and essential workers, treating the elderly and infirm, migrant labourers and slum residents who could not afford such luxuries as social distancing or staying at home. In India as the rest of the world, the most vulnerable people bore the brunt of the plague, while those with office jobs and cars could, for the most part, watch and wait. Today, the waiting is over.
Today, there is no one I know who hasn’t been hit by the pandemic, who has not seen a member of their household or someone from their circle of friends fall sick. I live in Mumbai, a city which has been a disease epicentre, but I also know people in other metros and towns, from accountants to actors and NGO workers, from Patna to Coimbatore, who say the same. All of us have shared in the common terror of watching our loved ones burn with fever and gasp for breath. Some have seen the worst – hunting and pleading for medicines and oxygen cylinders, waiting for hours at crematoriums and burial grounds.
This is a war and we are soldiers whose fear is cloaked in courage, using our desperation as fuel in combat.
Like many who have family abroad, I hadn’t seen my sister in over two years, until restrictions lifted and she finally came to visit. April was meant to be for quality time together, celebrating both our birthdays, eating her favourite home foods and catching up with relatives. Instead, she has spent the past two weeks in bed, more often than not with an oxygen tube in her nose to aid a pair of lungs that are trying valiantly to sustain her, but falling short. She has had no appetite for maa ke haath ka khana and no strength to walk around her sickroom. Our late-night conversations will have to wait – as long as she is quarantined, she is only visible to me from three-feet away over the top of a mask.
For most of us, it is not the first time we’ve had to see a beloved family member go through biomedical hell. Sickness and death come to everyone, and those on the other side have little say in the matter. But the sheer, undiluted fear of the coronavirus was new to me. I had never experienced the helplessness of looking for hospital beds that didn’t exist; of spending hours making calls – calmly, with only an edge of frantic hysteria – to procure the laughably simple yet elusive, life-giving canister of oxygen. I was prepared to beg, borrow, or steal medicines — not even knowing if they would work but unable to let go of any shred of succour in an apocalyptic world where none was going spare.
This is a war and we are soldiers whose fear is cloaked in courage, using our desperation as fuel in combat. Each time I struggled to find some fresh mana for my sister to turn her condition around, I wondered: if privileged urbanites like me can’t access the basics, what must be happening in the trenches, to those who don’t have Twitter accounts to appeal for help or funds for expensive private care? The answer that has come from ground reports is horribly clear. They wait, and they watch. And then, too often, they grieve.
After all, even in the face of senseless, preventable deaths, in a rampant plague that suffocates our loved ones, we can’t give up.
This is a war, and it can feel like we’ve been drafted in without backup. We are simultaneously together and on our own, all of us waiting and watching, praying because it’s all we have. We have become amateur doctors, pharmacists, and epidemiologists, clutching onto the straws of an article touting the benefits of eating beets or a yogi who gives us breathing exercises for weakened lungs. When one system fails us, we fall back on whichever one is available. After all, even in the face of senseless, preventable deaths, in a rampant plague that suffocates our loved ones, we can’t give up. Too many of us are survivors, not of COVID-19, but the trauma of racing against a body’s ability to survive without drawing breath. Godspeed.