(Bimari se darr nahi lagta saaab, Bhook se lagta hai…..)
-by Vivek Sakpal
Since the COVID-19 lockdown, Indian news media has focused on the patients, efforts of the medical fraternity, police and government departments. There is no doubt that these frontline fighters deserve a big salute for all they did and are doing to save lives.
A careful scrutiny of news content on the web, especially the social media one could draw a fact that people are not scared of Corona but fearful of hunger, employment, salary, EMI, job loss, loss in business, etc. Few are actually scared of corona and most of the ones, who are scared, are the ones sitting in their posh villas and posting videos on their newly learnt skills in cooking, experimental cuisines, time spent with their loved ones, playing games, zoom family meetings etc. They have their rights to enjoy the moments of togetherness too.
Betrayal by mainstream media
What has been ignored by the mainstream media is the government’s blindness, along with lack of empathy, towards the brewing social unrest among the lower middle class, lower class, landless labourers, the homeless, poor and migrant labour. These people together shall be the biggest victims of the corona lockdown.
These sections of the society earned their dignified livelihood with a sense of pride and self esteem, although on a hand to mouth existence basis. Yet they were happy and led a meaningful life. Savings if any were very meagre. Most of these people do not fall in the Below Poverty Line (official) category. What these people are not used to is to stand everyday for two to three times in a queue for food . They find it undignified to be fed by some unknown person, an organisation or the government at large.
Lack of plans to face the crisis
While during the lockdown the government has made arrangements for essential supplies, the irony is that the notion of ‘essentials’ are defined by someone sitting in an AC cabin unaware of the ground realities. Just by supplying survival food doesn’t mean that those are the essentials that the working class labourers need, particularly those who work in unhygienic and inhumane conditions.The rich are getting their supplies at a premium, while government officials are busy posting selfies with a stock of liquor. There have been deaths when people have had ‘sanitiser instead of alcohol’ to quench their addictive needs.
The daily wage workers, the slum dwellers, the lower class are not beggars. They have been treated worse than a detained illegal immigrant or a jailed convict. There are terrifying scenes from a MCD school in Delhi’s Jahangirpuri where food has been distributed since the lockdown. There was a stampede in which young girls, kids, women were seen falling down. A rumour about food getting over caused this, said the local SDM.
Videos of people standing in queues for food, or to withdraw money with Modi’s ‘social distancing’ formula extends upto two kms. How much will the long queued ₹ 500 help and for how long? Some have travelled miles to get this ₹ 500, is it worth it? There have been violent instances near banks, where police had to intervene and some even held up by police for not practising social distancing.
While some have cycled 1700 km from Maharashtra to reach home in Odisha, some are trying other means to get back to home. Some attempted a 1000-km journey from Haryana to Bihar on a truck only to be stopped by police midway and stuck in no mans land. While the stories of the migrants who walked and walked are still fresh.
Undignified approach and social unrest
The poorest of the poor who earn with self-dignity, don’t cherish begging or standing in a queue for food. The method of distribution is one pack per head, hence if there are 4 or 5 members in a family, the man may not want his wife and kids to stand in the queue, but they would only get it based on the number of people who stand in the queue. Hence half the family goes hungry, some are eating one meal a day. Don’t be surprised to read that the poor kids are now eating frogs in Bihar.
According to Akash Banerjee two kinds of people raise their hand on the police in public. 1. Someone so powerful that he/she doesn’t bother about the system getting back at him/her 2. A person so desperate that he/she doesn’t care about the system getting back at him/her. This was when a poor vendor selling groceries (classified as essentials by government) was hit by the police and then in anger and frustration, the lady hit back the police. This is exactly that shall follow. There are multiple cases of violence against the police. This is social unrest brewing in the nation.
Another Social Unrest is the Islamophobia in Indians even in such difficult times. Thanks to fakenews and videos being circulated on social media, many have stopped buying, interacting with Muslims, even for their daily needs like groceries. In states like Uttar Pradesh and Delhi the police have been selectively brutal to them too. A teenaged boy, Mohammad Rizwan, whom policemen allegedly beat up while he was trying to buy food, died on Saturday, becoming the first fatality from purported police high-handedness in enforcing the lockdown in Uttar Pradesh.
The reports of violence on Doctors and Paramedics by Muslims have a deeper root and need a wide understanding, which many ‘Thali Bajaoing’ Indians would lack. There have been rumours going around that the doctors would identify them as COVID patients and then they would be Quarantined, which would be a ‘Detention Centre’ for them and there would be no coming back to their home. This comes in the backdrop of NRC/NPR and CAA. And this fear is justified when we read the news that government hospital in Ahmedabad had separated Hindu and Muslim coronavirus patients, although it was later denied by the Gujarat government. Another instance is that of the Meerut cancer hospital wanting Muslims to come only after getting Covid-19 negative test report.
Although the medical fraternity is equated to soldiers on the border, they are not above criticism. Why else would Payal Tadvi need to commit suicide? They like other Indians also can be a proponent of Islamaphobia and Caste discrimination.
The class of the State
The worst crisis is yet to unfold. The news from Kota in Rajasthan where students from Madhya Pradesh, Bengal, Gujarat, Chhattisgarh and Assam are stuck is extremely disturbing. While the respective states are yet to make arrangements to bring them back, 1800 Gujarati people stranded in Uttarakhand returned in 28 buses.
The Indian Government arranged special flights to get back ‘stranded passengers’ from other countries, while people in India walked, cycled, and did all other possible means to get back to home. This indicates a clear class discrimination when the migrants are willing to pay and has even paid for their travel, a certain section of society is getting VIP treatment. The labour is left out in this crisis to stand in queues as a beggar for his two square meals, waiting for relief material to reach. Even when these labourers walk hundreds of miles they are intercepted by police to spray ‘disinfectant and sanitiser’ in the middle of street, while some privileged landing at airport to get all amenities including free medical examination.
All this has shown the class bias of the nation and the governance. What is waiting to unfold after the lockdown seems to be more scary.
A crisis in the making
During this lockdown, the Government of India invoked the Disaster Management Act rightly needed in a view, but curtailing the power of peoples representative and giving nearly unlimited unchecked powers to the executive. So far at district levels, nearly 10000s of beds have been made ready, colleges/schools are taken over, big public place venues are converted to hold quarantined people, hotels and lodges are converted to medical care centres, new hospitals are being set up at war footing basis. Currently admitted not very serious patients are discharged to make room for COVID patients in future, alcohol factories getting ready with sanitiser production, setting up new health care infrastructure that would be needed. New staff is being trained, ventilators are set up at various places to handle a tsunami of patients.
While all this is being done, this is not highlighted or the masses remain uninformed. The government has only been telling us to keep safe distance, wear mask and wash hands. People are clueless what the government is doing in the lockdown period.
What shall happen when the lockdown is lifted? The migrants are going to rush back home, many would be carriers of COVID, infections are going to spread. Why has the government not made people aware of this at a larger scale? Why are the elected representatives spreading anti-Muslim messages when they should be sharing what the government is doing to handle the crisis? Who should tell them, teach them, their duty?
With an increase in the number of patience, many would get treatment, medicines are ready, ventilators, staff all is in place. What is missing, is the class sensitivity in the governance system and the people involved.
The police have been brutal to the migrants and poor but fine with the rich people in cars crossing district limits who call up ‘someone’. The rich get their things done, while the poor suffer. The rich kid is driven to his home, but the poor boy cycles with all the police batters. This class insensitivity reflects in the medical environment.
The medical fraternity feared of COVID reaching the slums, and it has in fact reached. Now the slum dwellers are at high risk to migrate home with infection. How about their immunity? They are dependent on what is donated or given by the state. Do they get a balanced diet to comply with the necessary vitamins, minerals in their diet to boost their immunity?
Quite likely one would require a medical certificate to travel interstate within this country. The industries which were based on footfall, shall be collapsing like a brick wall. Industries like malls, shops, theatres, events shall see a change in pattern and have to readjust to new crowd behaviour.
In the private sector some could work from home but not all have the luxury. Many workplaces need people to be physically present.
The migrant workforce from UP and Bihar are going to be the worst hit. Once the lockdown is lifted, they would go back to their respective homes, without any proper medical backing or scope for livelihood, life would be in tatters. Perhaps a social unrest has already been conceived.
We may also see the next academic year being totally scrapped with the future of the students in complete peril. The ones who can afford ‘digital education’ will be educated, while the rest will be left out. Schools and colleges may be under medical emergency needs for patients and quarantined people.
One year down the line, we may have medicine and vaccines to contain the Corona pandemic. However the cost for this is going to be huge to the exchequer. The economic cost, the medical cost will pile up. But what is more worrying is the number of deaths due to COVID and the number of deaths due to the collateral damage done by the virus, like hunger, stampede, suicides, travelling etc.
For the poor the fear is not the virus, but the hunger and employment that will kill them even without the Corona.
Vivek Sakpal is a publishing-and-IT consultant for NGO’s and Managing Director at Peoples Literature Publication OPC Pvt Ltd. https://twitter.com/viveksakpal