A spectacular view of the Taj Mahal, which has been at the center of a political row. Photo: Wikimedia Commons
The Taj Mahal has been enjoying a rare respite after thousands of Indian and foreign tourists canceled plans to visit. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

The 21-day lockdown across India could be extended beyond April 14, Prime Minister Narendra Modi said in a videoconference with political leaders on Wednesday. A prolonged lockdown seems inevitable in worst-affected regions such as financial capital Mumbai.

Through such a deluge of bad news, Covid-19 also delivers legacy good news, more so as the world’s first micro-reported pandemic. Call it the virus version of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde.

Skeptics continue to scoff at the mass spread of “coronavirus panic” by the “media virus.” But “panic” was inevitable: This was the first pandemic to be born in the bed of a telecommunications revolution.

For this, thank goodness, our guardian angels, or the fool’s luck of a unique species.

No previous pandemic could be monitored in real time for 5.28 billion people with mobile phones, 3.5 billion smartphone users, 67.95% of the world’s population with a mobile device.

Unlike even the SARS generation circa 2003 reading the morning newspaper and seeing the evening news, the Covid-19 generation devours news updated minute-by-minute, 24/7. The news tsunami multiplies through information (and misinformation) spreading via 3.8 billion social-media users, with the average user having an account on eight platforms.

The key question is not whether we accursed media misfits are spreading panic. Instead, wonder how many more lives might have been saved if those earlier pandemics had popped up in such times of mass-media weaponry?

Covid-19 appeared at a time of traditional newspapers, television, media sites converging online into a hyper-synergy of billions of news consumers on Facebook, WhatsApp, WeChat, Instagram, Twitter – on hand-held devices.

Therefore, unlike bubonic plague, Spanish flu, Ebola and other pandemic predecessors, Covid-19 had zero chance of escaping global household attention – more so as it was able directly or indirectly to affect every household.

The core question, then, is not whether we are making too much fuss over a pandemic that has killed fewer people so far than the seasonal flu, malaria, or tuberculosis do each year.

Instead, Covid-19 for the first time pushes this sobering question into focus: Why were we so negligent and oblivious, year after year, with commonly known killers of millions? TB alone causes 1.2 million deaths a year.

Avoid shaking hands, frequently wash your hands with soap and water, avoid touching your face and wear a mask if you are sick” – that is the common advisory for a range of communicable diseases, from TB to common flu. It took the Covid-19 mass-media pandemic to push that advice into practice among billions of us, which we may hope is a lasting legacy of life-saving hygiene.

Crucial Covid-19 fringe benefits

Air quality in 90 Indian cities has improved thanks to the nationwide lockdown, according to a US National Aeronautics and Space Administration study, including in New Delhi, which hit global headlines in recent months for its toxic air.

A NASA-run System of Air Quality and Weather Forecasting and Research (SAFAR) report said the impact of measures taken to deal with the Covid-19 pandemic caused a drop in PM2.5 (fine particulate pollutant) by 30% in Delhi, and by 15% in Ahmedabad and Pune.

“It is the lockdown impact,” said Gufran Beig, a scientist at SAFAR. “Local factors like shutting down industries and construction and traffic have contributed to improving the air quality.” And this was just four days into the 21-day lockdown, with air possibly much purer 10 days later.

Neighboring Nepal reported similar news, including Mount Everest getting a much-needed rest, with the Nepalese government suspending expeditions this year.

Mount Everest has been spared this remarkable sight so far in 2020, with ‘social distancing’ not possible near the world’s highest peak. The numbers attempting the climb in 2019 led to bottlenecks in the ‘death zone,’ where very low oxygen levels put lives at risk. Photo: AFP / Handout

“The sunny spring sky in Kathmandu was brilliantly clear on Tuesday, the first day of a week-long nationwide lockdown,” Nepali Times happily reported on March 24. “With no traffic, and flights all grounded, there is no noise pollution in the street or the sky.”

Delhi Police reported an 80% drop in crime last month, with crooks also forced to take a Covid-19 break.

Road accidents, which normally account for 400 deaths a day in India, have also dipped: no traffic, except for essential needs and services.

Wait for a health report announcing a record low in gastroenteritis and diabetic cases, owing to folks forcibly kept away from street food and on a diet of home-cooked meals.

As with Mumbai citizens experiencing incredible sights of a locked-down city, Delhi denizens rubbed their eyes with disbelief seeing an unpolluted River Yamuna for the first time in a lifetime.

A Twitter user in Delhi, enraptured with the new vision of River Yamuna, was moved to recommend a compulsory two-week national lockdown each year.

These are strange coronavirus times.

Raja Murthy has contributed to Asia Times since 2003, The Statesman since 1990 and earlier for the Times of India, Economic Times, Elle, Wisden, The Hindu and others.