A few days ago, Dr Ambrish Mithal, Chairman, Endocrinology and Diabetes, Max HealthCare, tweeted: “Almost all the Covid cases in Delhi I managed in January have either returned from Dubai or Goa. They were partying without masks or social distancing.” By all accounts coming in from Goa it’s like Covid no longer exists: masks appear to be purely a Delhi/Mumbai phenomenon. Restaurants and beaches were packed this winter season, the cold breeze and hot sun an irrepressible lure for travellers reeling from pandemic fatigue. Sure enough as Dr Mithal noted, New Year revelry created a fresh spurt of cases in the Capital, bringing to fore questions of responsibility and trade offs we need to continue making in 2021.
It was almost a year ago that the nation was spewing rage against singer Kanika Kapoor who allegedly had Covid when she boarded a flight to India and attended a party, putting hundreds of lives at risk. (Oh, the pleasurable indignation of pointing fingers and finding fault at others’ thoughtlessness.) Post New Year, judgment is rearing its ugly head again since everyone is behaving “like Kapoor” now. Vastly different pandemic attitudes between friends are creating fissures in formerly close relationships; suddenly, we are learning things about people we know well that we don’t really like. For example, someone I know took three flights with a full blown cold, contemptuously disregarding the havoc his behaviour may have caused, before landing up in a Covid hospital himself. I have to wonder if it’s a friendship worth keeping.
Of course, we are not in lockdown anymore. No one is committing a crime by travelling, even though parts of India continue to have sporadically large Covid numbers. It is worth noting that in daily living it’s not the law that dictates everyday decisions but our personally honed, internal moral compass. Essentially, all of life is contextual. Applied behavioural sciences have identified ‘situational awareness’ as an instinctive perception of the dangers around us, critical for the protection of human life. Inadequate situation awareness is linked to car accidents that happen due to human error. Correlate the same to a pandemic and it’s clear, nobody needs to go on a vacation. Sure, it would be lovely to have a change of scene. But perhaps the question to be asking is not, is it safe for me to travel, but is it even ethical to be travelling for leisure right now?
Taking a holiday that involves flights is certainly more socially acceptable now than it was in 2020, but it’s not entirely kosher, either. Tourism has always been entwined with privilege since it’s a luxury too few can afford. India, specifically, has two types of people. The vast majority, meek and law-abiding, who know the State has abandoned them and they need to watch it, as they can’t afford hospitalisation. The second, the 1 per cent, who believe it’s their birthright to do what suits them, never mind if that means wantonly endangering others. Indeed, the pandemic has brought these contrasts, and the (metaphorical) moral high ground into sharper focus. “I would not tell somebody who’s been holed up in a flat for a year with small children that it’s wrong for them to take a vacation,” says Mumbai-based clinical therapist Tanya Vasunia, who has noted a spurt in anxiety-ridden patients lately. “It might be a question of their sanity.” It’s possible to have two entirely different viewpoints that pull us in opposite directions.
History suggests there’s nothing so unprecedented about the coronavirus, especially the inexplicable choices people make after the monotony of quarantine. This comes across with terrible poignancy in the very readable novel The Weight of Ink that documents life during the Bubonic Plaque in London, 1655. A character rations risk but an impulsive meeting has grave consequences in the pre-antibiotic era. And then of course, it ends. A pandemic always passes. People survive. Perhaps in these tentative steps towards normalcy, as Albert Camus noted in The Plague, the experience will “Help men rise above themselves”.
This article first appeared in the print edition on February 7, 2021, under the title “Freedom to travel comes with riders”. The writer is director, Hutkay Films