Ever since the Coronavirus started spreading in January, I have been living a life on pins and needles. Long before the suppliant WHO officially declared it a global epidemic, I was tracking the information pouring out of China. What bothered me not was the epidemiology of Covid-19, but rather the inexhaustible stupidity of the human species. While the behaviour of the crown-like virus was reasonably predictable; its spread, its mechanism of infection, the symptoms, etc. What was unpredictable was how people — infected and healthy — are going to behave in the wake of the epidemic. From disdain to outright panic, there was a complete spectrum on which human reaction could be plotted. And there was no rational model that could do it.
Personally, what got me more worried was my GPS coordinates on the world map. Needless, to say, I was more bothered as I happened to be a pretty-brown Indian. Knowing well, my fellow brothers and sisters, only made me more prone to worrying. Cognizant of how the Indian mind worked, mine being one of them, I would imagine the sheer spread of the virus, as it jumped from hundreds to hundred million. The geometric spread would not be driven by the scientific multiplication, but by human idiocy. Given the fact that we primarily tend to hold rules and regulations in low-esteem, compounded by a fatalism that stretches across many births, the spread of Covid-19 was inevitable.
As time passed, my worries were not unfounded. Time and again, there were reports of Covid-infected Indians escaping quarantine, bolting from hospitals, failing to declare travel history, going out to shop, partying, travelling. There were cases of patients being caught in trains travelling to their homes, a lady from Bangalore taking a flight to be with parents, a boy from an influential family in Kolkata roaming around with impunity. All these were instances of the sheer callousness that is not so uncommon in India. The icing on the cake, was when a Bollywood singer contracted the virus, and spread it in the upper-crest of the society, almost reaching the doorsteps of Rashtrapati Bhavan.
The number of cases rose sharply in India. From a dozen-odd, the numbers swiftly crossed, 100, 200, 300, 400 and beyond. In direct contrast, the administration too got into the act. Advisories were given, schools were shut, offices closed, borders sealed, and finally, a complete lockdown was imposed. In between, as for a dress-rehearsal, Prime Minister Narendra Modi had announced a “Janta-Curfew” or a voluntary quarantine. To make it more interesting, the PM, also introduced a “clapping for gratitude” bit to it, wherein, he asked people to clap and cheer for the essential-service workers. While the intention might have been noble, the result certainly wasn’t. At the designated time of 5 pm, crowds of enthusiastic Indians exploded on the roads making a loud ruckus. Instead of thanking the people who are risking their lives at the frontline, people were endangering their own lives, thereby defeating the very purpose of the lockdown in the first place. To add to this madness, there are those attention-seekers drinking cow’s piss, or proscribing Yoga poses to ward off Coronavirus. WhatsApp has become a platform where all these crazies congregate and share inane and often incendiary stuff on Coronavirus outbreak.
This has been the great undoing in India. People have been thronging to grocery shops and vegetable markets, increasing the risk of spread despite numerous notifications against the same.
At this juncture, one feels helpless, almost like banging the head to the wall. You try to find reasons for this sort of collective rash behaviour, could it be because of the literacy levels, could it be a cultural issue? Or is it related to the fact that there are too many of us around?
Ubiquity of Stupidity
And then, as you start reading stories from across the world, it suddenly dawns on you that this trait is not unique to this land, but is spread far and wide, across countries, across continents. People in Lombardy, Italy continue to carry out with their lives despite hundreds dying by the days, people thronging to beaches in Florida celebrating Springbreak, people visiting parks in London, or wining and dining in France. The shocking part was to catch a Youtube influencer posting a video of her licking the toilet seat in an aircraft to grab eye-balls. Some churches are holding prayer-meets despite warnings. Some teens in the US got together and hosted a Coronavirus party, and now a couple of them from the group have tested positive. Ever since, the outbreak, cruise ships have become a significant threat to the epidemic. Considering the thousands that are packed in a small confined space, these cruise ships are like a petri dish of virus floating on the sea. There over two dozen ships on the sea that are being refused a port. Yet, even as late as March, people in the US and Europe have been taking them despite the risks that are associated with them.
In short, stupidity is omnipresent and pervasive, just like the desire to excel or wanting to raise kids. Idiots are everywhere, period. There’s even a new term coined, Covidiot.
So, what is a solution, and what is the implication of this “idiotic” behaviour during such outbreaks?
First up, there’s no solution. As we have seen stupidity is as firmly ensconced in an advanced country, as it is in a poor one. Only the levels differ. We need to make peace with this genome that is part of our DNA.
Secondly, the implications are enormous. Realizing that a part of the population will behave in an irrational and detrimental manner would help to model the response better. Typically, our society is based on the premise that essentially, humans are rational. They are capable of being selfish, but would only succumb to it out of self-preservation. There’s an element of Jean-Jacques Rousseau romanticism in this viewpoint. Yet, we seemed to be more inclined towards Machiavelli than Rousseau. Once, stupidity is provisioned for in decision making; the policy can be more productive and real.
For instance, when PM Modi announced the 21-day lockdown, his advisors should have emphatically told him that this would set out a panic, as people will throng to markets to buy stuff. This little nugget could have shaped the speech, whereby more emphasis would have been given to reassure and placate the populace. The PM subsequently tweeted a clarification, but had he made peace with the idiots; he could have staved off the rush. On the other hand, we have the story of the UP Police embarrassing people on the street by taking their pics and posting it on Twitter.
Similarly, leaders in Italy, Spain, or France should have accounted for this erratic human behaviour, and created a mechanism to deal with it; things would be pretty different.
The only country that seems to have understood this bit is China. But instead of treating as a minority, the country deals with the entire population as though they are imbecile idiots. And just because they are China, they can get away with it.
As. the infection gathers pace across the world, we should prepare a larger display of insensitiveness, stupidity, selfishness, ignorance, around the globe. People follow the rules and moral codes out of convenience and fear; once they overcome these limitations, there is just no end to what depths of depravity a human soul could fall. At some point, leaders will have to bear that in mind. Not only for this pandemic but also for any more that is likely to occur in our society in the days to come.
We might have evolved from the monkeys, but deep we still are an ape. Reminds me of a quote by Albert Einstein, who had lamented that “only two things are infinite, the universe and human stupidity, and I’m not sure about the former.”
Well, it is time we started being sure about it. At least, in recognizing its infinite spread and vastness.