A timely book that records India’s encounter with COVID-19 and its fallout

The book could not have been better timed and the message could not have been more sensitive.

Published : Apr 15, 2021 14:50 IST

The book could not have been better timed and the message could not have been more sensitive. Abantika Ghosh’s Billions Under Lockdown: The Inside Story of India’s Fight Against Covid-19 , which hit the bookstores last week, is not only throbbing with immediacy but also manages to relate the COVID-19 story without taking recourse to the hyperbole of sentimentalism.

Abantika Ghosh, a veteran journalist, followed the Covid story for months. As she says, “I lived in a Covid bubble. I was writing about it, reading about it, and whatever little time I had left, I was answering questions from friends and family. So this book was perhaps destined to happen.”

According to her, everything happened at a frenetic pace. “The fact that it happened almost in real time meant that there was no benefit of hindsight in its structuring. Events were unfolding and the story was changing so fast that, as I was going through the edited chapters a few months later, I often found myself struggling to remember the sentiments behind some of the things that I had written.”

Not that she had left out much. Starting from the Government of India’s first COVID-19 meeting on January 8, 2020 to the approval for the two vaccines on January 3, 2021, the book attempts to cover most major aspects of the pandemic in India. It was not easy, considering the picture changed sharply from the time the Health Ministry claimed there was no Covid emergency on March 13, 2020 to the time when crematoria and cemeteries ran out of space for the dead. Of course, the swagger had dimmed by May, 2020 as the economy slowed down appreciably, the migrant worker crisis was there for the world to see, the middle class looked at salary cuts and insurmountable EMIs and the Covid numbers piled up relentlessly.

Abantika Ghosh does not pull any punches. Through painstaking research, she shows how ill-equipped we were to tackle the COVID-19 menace. For instance, using economist Shamika Ravi’s data, she points out: “Using data from National Health Profile (2019), we observed that there are 7,13,986 total government hospital beds available in India. This amounts to 0.55 beds per 1,000 population. The elderly population is especially vulnerable, given more complications are reported for patients in this age group. The availability of beds for elderly population in India is 5.18 beds per 1,000 population. Many States lie below the national level figure (0.55).”

Incidentally, we were so woefully short of equipment that more than five weeks after the lockdown began on the midnight of March 24, India had tested only a little more than eight lakh samples.

There is a timely lesson in this well-researched book, published by Bloomsbury. On May 1, 2020, the total Covid cases in the country stood at 35,365. A little under a year later, the State of Maharashtra alone recorded 57,979 cases on April 13 and India registered 1,99,286 new cases on the same day. The battle has just got more grim, the enemy more deadly.

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