Kerala is a coastal state in southern India. A few months ago, when the coronavirus pandemic began to devour the land of my birth, the Marxist-ruled state was an example of what was possible even in poor countries when political will, an educated population and a pinch of foresight came together.
Kerala has long been a supplier of workers to other economies in the Persian Gulf and elsewhere – workers who flooded back as the coronavirus pandemic began to shut down economies around the world. Many of them carried the virus with them. The first confirmed case in India was reported in Kerala. With national numbers peaking in the summer, Kerala's own indicators stubbornly stayed good. The positive rate was lower than the national percentage; Test-and-trace systems actually worked; Restorations led the nation.
In the past few weeks, however, cases have risen, hospitals have filled up, and the proportion of people who test positive has risen.
This is a pattern that is repeated around the world. Places that appeared to have popped up early in the year before the virus began to increase in numbers, in most cases exponentially.
A typical example is Germany, where I now live with my family. The Early Spring Panic – Buy Toilet Paper! – led to a quiet acceptance of what the government recommended. The country came together to fight the spread of the virus by following the experts' recommendations. The results were obvious. Germany opened up to most of its neighbors; In warm weather, guests flocked to the nation's beer gardens. Our children went back to school safely.
But dubious records are now falling like dominoes. Sometimes it seems like humans are too. Last week a fellow student in my German class almost collapsed. The fears of the moment crystallized immediately after his dizzy spell; in those few seconds when we were discussing whether to come to his aid or to give him a wide berth. If he could walk, school let him go. He came back the next day with a clear diagnosis from his doctor. He was dehydrated. Nothing more.
For six months, the pandemic passed through other people. The fear we had when we checked our phones in the morning was for others. It's gotten very, very real in the past few weeks.
It's not just Germany, of course. Or Kerala. The Czech Republic and Poland, two of Germany's immediate neighbors, were routinely commended for their responses to the late spring and summer pandemic. Now cases are on the rise in both cases, and the Czech government is aiming for a full national lockdown.
Germany's western neighbors, all of whom were beaten in the spring, flare up again. All of this is made difficult by the freedom of movement within the European Economic Area. The nations have made an effort to keep abreast of who is allowed to enter and what to do with those who return home. In areas like the German-Swiss border or the Dutch-Belgian border, the headaches are even greater, as citizens of one country routinely spend their entire lives in another country.
The appearance of local virus hotspots within Germany has led to discrimination and finger pointing. In early October, Schleswig-Holstein (northern German state) was told that they would be quarantined for two weeks if they arrived without two negative tests in the last five days.
This measure sparked charges of discrimination and enforceability issues, among other things. Who will show up at the local health department in such a conforming culture as the German one and demand the quarantine? There's a dark whisper to invasive mobile usage monitoring and profiling based on license plates. People in less infected areas are demanding greater restrictions. those in the hot spots rub against it, of course.
The word "foreigner" has a completely different meaning in this context.
To make matters worse, no one knows exactly what is driving the surge in places where the coronavirus was once well contained. Was the virus resurgence in Kerala due to the easing of restrictions around Onam (a major regional festival) in late August and early September? Is it just because of the superior rate and quality of testing in a state that prides itself on the efficiency of its healthcare system? Or were the figures artificially low at first – some critics claim that the Marxist state government falsified the figures – and the true picture is only now really showing?
It depends who you ask. It is clear that skepticism is growing and that an Indian community that is already broken has new fault lines to deal with.
This also happens to some extent in Germany. Various commentators have speculated that the surge in numbers in Europe was virtually inevitable. As in Germany also in the European neighbors.
Large numbers of people returned from their summer vacations in places where compliance may not have been as strict as at home. The children went back to school and dumped the combined germs of their family units in the petri dishes of their classrooms. The weather in October so far has been unusually cold and has driven more people indoors.
The idea of “pandemic fatigue”, a combined listlessness in the face of seemingly endless restrictions, is also gaining in importance. This is despite – or perhaps because of – its untouchability. Who doesn't long for the old normal again?
Linked to this, and perhaps more insidious, is a recognizable departure from factuality. Skeptics of all descriptions point to the lack of verifiable conclusions. "They told us to wash our hands," is one argument. "Now it's masks! Will they still be relevant next month?" From there to a justification for not wearing masks at all is just a small step. This collapse in consensus on COVID-19, if indeed it does, when the QAnon -Conspiracy theory is gaining traction in Germany is deeply worrying.
Back in India, an anti-mask protester recently described his position as a lack of “political evidence”. In other words, the facts are not enough. The fact that policy makers, like us all, deal with it in real time makes no difference.
The policy must be demonstrated to be working before it is followed. That this puts the cart in front of the horse is irrelevant to people who think that way.
There are countries that have so far kept their records of how they dealt with the various ridges of the COVID-19 pandemic. New Zealand has taken advantage of the privilege of geographic isolation and solid communication from trusted leadership. Certain Asian countries – South Korea, China, and Taiwan – have made both their previous experience of SARS and a robust stance towards digital surveillance a virtue that nations in the West are resisting. (Personally, I can give up data protection in return for knowing that the guy next to me on the train doesn't belong in quarantine.)
But these success stories are few and far between. My experience in Germany shows me that yesterday's shared triumph can all too easily turn into readiness if a man you have known for six months collapses next to you.
At home in India the restrictions are easing as they must. The economy demands it. Diwali is around the corner. Winter is also wedding season. Couples across the country won't wait until the pandemic is over to get married, and Indian marriages are famous for their noisy sociability.
We will wear masks and distance, the groom's family could say. But what if the bride's crew is skeptical and instead hugs and dances and sits 10 at a table? Will you cancel the wedding if they arrive with bare faces?
In Germany, it's about canceled Christmas markets and holidays without large families. The relentlessness of mid-March, the unwavering determination to get on with things – to "manage" them, as Chancellor Angela Merkel memorably put it in a different context – seems to be disappearing. The minister-presidents of the German state governments point their fingers at each other, the numbers keep increasing and parents are once again worried about sending their children to school.
Hunker down, wisdom goes. Prepare for the restrictions to come because they are inevitable now. And keep an eye on the toilet paper aisle of the local supermarket.