Exactly two years ago — March 22, 2020 — a city that is perpetually in the celebratory mode plunged into an unprecedented silence. From planes flying overhead to hawkers calling out on the street, all familiar sources of noise suddenly stood subtracted that morning in Kolkata.
On the brighter side, this uneasy silence, brought upon by a precautionary lockdown announced by West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee, was meant to last only till the end of that month. It was expected that by then, the only two cases of COVID-19 reported in Kolkata would have been dealt with and the city would be free of the deadly infection.
Little did one imagine — not even the city where imagination plays a key role in its cultural landscape. Two years on — while the planes are flying as normal and the hawkers are back, calling out with more desperation — Kolkata stood as scarred by the pandemic as any other metropolis in India. During these 24 months, West Bengal saw over 20 lakh people getting infected by COVID-19 and over 21,000 dying because of it, with Kolkata accounting for the bulk of these official figures.
Today, the city is reflecting on the losses and the lessons.
“Never in my life was I so busy as during the span of the pandemic. There came an unprecedented phase when I had to attend to above 50 in-patients in a day’s time, including the ones doing poorly in the ICU,” said Dr. Saborni Paul, who served as a resident at the Belle Vue Clinic during the first wave.
“The pandemic taught me to look at my job — with its share of stresses and strains — anew. Most remarkable was the geometric progression in the death count I stood witness to. It left me shaken, but somehow not shattered. The pleas of the patients as they unwillingly approached the final phase of their lives will remain etched on my mind for a long time to come. The pandemic taught me how precious time is while we are still alive,” said Dr. Paul, who was on duty in that hospital when legendary actor Soumitra Chatterjee passed away there due to COVID-19.
Deaths — not just of icons — and the devastation caused by Cyclone Amphan altered the way Kolkata felt and looked. Not many could see the fallen trees at iconic locations, such as the Maidan, because almost everybody was home, either working or suddenly out of work.
Surajit Rout was among those whose business shut down. Only in 2019, he felt so encouraged by the success of his newly-opened boutique restaurant on Ekdalia Road that he opened two more franchisee outlets. But, thanks to the successive lockdowns, he had to shut all three.
“Then, during the peak of the pandemic in 2020, we started a home-cooked meal programme for COVID-19 patients and for people, particularly the elderly, who were stranded in their homes. Soon we designed a menu suitable for home delivery, for house parties. This turned out to be a huge success,” said Mr. Rout, who was among the first in the city to open a cloud kitchen and whose restaurant, Ekdalia RD, is now back in business.
“The challenges and the losses during the past 24 months helped us learn how to tide over crisis and to think out of the box. The way forward looks promising because — thanks to the crisis — our thought process now revolves around innovation,” he said.
Many now think differently. Rumpa Das, principal of Maheshtala College, said she was now “more pragmatic, more compassionate and more alert to life than ever before.”
“The pandemic has reiterated the lessons of mutability and mortality to me — the comfort of life may drastically change to the coldness of death and death is closer than we can even imagine. So many friends and acquaintances, alive in one moment, gone in another — this has shaken me more than the stoicism offered by philosophy and literature,” Dr. Das said.
“As the principal of a college and a teacher-mother, I perceived that the young adults are more resilient and more adaptive than our expectations, and many of my students who have lost their near ones or lost means of livelihood have bounced back, taking care of family and academic commitments,” she said.
Dr. Koushik Chaki, a founding member of the vocal West Bengal Doctors’ Forum (WBDF), which was critical of the State government’s initial handling of the pandemic and which later partnered it in dealing with the crisis, said there was “good in every evil” and the idea was to learn from COVID-19.
“The pandemic has sent out a message, loud and clear: equality! We are all the same, regardless of our religious, culture, customs — the virus doesn’t choose. It connects us in a way and showed us that we need to stick together. We humans are fragile by ourselves, our strength lies in being part of a community, and that’s exactly why we, the WBDF, from the very beginning rejected the phrase ‘social distancing’ and instead called for ‘physical distancing’,” Dr. Chaki said.
“Our takeaway from the last two years can be summarised as an appeal to the government: healthcare should be the universal right of every citizen and it should be made available, affordable and accessible,” the doctor said, adding: “Life is a lesson, we learn and relearn every day. But sadly, war mongers continue to ravage humanity, hate mongers continue to use caste, colour and religion to divide people. But I firmly believe that there is no rainbow without rain.”