On the 22nd of March, India observed a Janata Curfew. People commended Modi’s move to restrain the spread of COVID-19, which has been declared a pandemic. The Prime Minister had also requested people to clap for healthcare workers and service providers at 5 PM. So on the day of the Janata Curfew, Indians gathered in balconies to applaud their unconditional work. Meanwhile, doctors and nurses continue to press for better equipment. They lack proper gear for self-protection; they want testing to be increased manifold and as soon as possible; they demand better quarantine facilities. Meanwhile, Air India has been busy rescuing Indians from different parts of the world.
It is of no surprise that Modi can sway a crowd. However, even as people took to their balconies in larger numbers, news of discrimination surfaced. In a statement released by Air India, officials and employees described how they are being ostracised by neighbours and vigilante Resident Welfare Association groups. On some occasions, these vigilantes have even called the police. The crew emphasised how these societies have worked as an obstruction, shunning them because they have been ‘abroad’. Since the outbreak, however, Air India has rescued Indians stranded in Rome, Milan and Japan, among others. They continue to do so, trying to bring people back to the safety of their loved ones.
Stereotyping, xenophobia and discrimination has been rampant especially as COVID-19 continues to spread. Trump has called it a ‘Chinese’ virus. All over social media, positive stories from Europe, specifically from Italy and Spain, are being circulated. It is interesting to observe that narratives from hard hit countries like China and Iran have not made the same impact. This perhaps could also be to restricted social media access in these countries. Yet, there is little coverage about how Iran is suffering even more due to the sanctions imposed by the US. Closer home, people from the North-East have been facing acute instances of racism, being referred to as ‘corona’ right on their faces. In many cases, they have also been heckled and attacked.
As of now Air India is still India’s national airline. This means that it functions under the government. And it is under the government’s mandate that Air India has been flying to other countries to help stranded Indians return. Why then did Modi not commend their work in his speech, and only celebrated their work after the statement was released? So while Air India continues its rescue mission, it is worth questioning why their work isn’t being applauded as those of doctors or of other health workers.
The Dismal Plight Of Air India
Even before the pandemic seized the world, Air India had been suffering. The cost of maintenance of flights is high, with strict safety and legal regulations in place. The debt on the airlines has mounted to such a degree that the government has planned to sell 100% of its stakes. This means that the decisions regarding Air India would no longer be made by the government, and would be made by the private business which acquires it.
Pilots, and on grounds crew are often male, whereas women mostly find work as flight attendants. This distinction perhaps has to do with the fact that women are usually associated with ‘serving’ jobs. Even the words ‘attendant’ and ‘hostess’ make their work seem passive.
While job security for Air India employees was ensured under the government, private ownership would mean that the employees would be in danger of losing their jobs. It would also mean that the airlines would begin catering to commercial interests, rather than government needs. It is worth questioning what such a move could mean at a time when Indians are in need of rescuing from COVID 19 hit countries.
Because of the rapid decrease in the number of passengers, airlines do not have a way of generating revenue. As a result, the salaries of employees will have to be deducted, since there would be no way of paying them. Even in the case of Air India, as pilots and attendants risk their lives by travelling, their salaries will be deducted by 10% for three months. It is worth wondering why our middle classes cannot stand up and support those who do not have a choice of staying back home.
The Stereotypes About Flight Crews
The job of a flight attendant has often been understood as glamorous. Even in this industry, there is a great gender disparity. Pilots, and on grounds crew are often male, whereas women mostly find work as flight attendants. This distinction perhaps has to do with the fact that women are usually associated with serving jobs. Even the words attendant and hostess make their work seem passive. However, their jobs are much more complicated that simply serving food to passengers. In fact, flight attendants go through intense periods of training to deal with all kinds of emergencies that can happen on board. They ensure that passengers’ health, welfare, medical needs, and safety are taken care of during emergencies.
There is also a lot of emphasis on how flight attendants look. Women of certain age, height and weight are preferred (in some cases specific numbers are mentioned as a prerequisite). They also have to dress in a certain manner, and a heavy emphasis is laid on their hair and makeup. In commercial airlines, they often have to wear shorter dresses/ skirts. Air hostesses are made up to be beautiful and pretty, a tactic businesses use to market their airlines.
Since flight attendants look a certain way, various stereotypes are imposed on them. Some think of them as waitresses in the air, while others think that they’re flirty and sexually active. Often times, male attendants are perceived to be gay. Added to this is the fact of what society expects out of women who work as flight attendants. By not only stepping out of their houses, but by flying to different cities/countries, these women cross boundaries that the society put on them. They are thus destined to be sexually ‘promiscuous’, something frowned upon.
By not only stepping out of their houses, but by flying to different cities/countries, these women cross boundaries that the society put on them. They are thus destined to be sexually ‘promiscuous’, something frowned upon.
Because of such moral policing, female flight attendants have often faced harassment from passengers. Indians, especially, have a notorious reputation for harassing air hostesses, from making sexually explicit remarks to molesting them. It is not surprising then that even as Air India’s crew helps stranded Indians return, they are being targeted by self-proclaimed vigilantes. The statement released says, “These vigilantes have conveniently forgotten that many a spouse, parent, sibling, child, near and dear one have been brought home safe and secure from affected countries, thanks to the heroic efforts of these Air India crew.”
Hypocrisy Of The Indian Middle Class
On the 22nd, people came out in large numbers, not only to their balconies, but on to the streets. While Modi’s call was to take a moment to ‘appreciate’ medical and health care workers, people even came out on the streets in large numbers. Some even burst crackers. This completely defeated the purpose of the curfew, which was actually supposed to be a nationwide attempt of social distancing. While some cities and districts have been put under lock down, people are still not willing to take the virus seriously. The number of positive cases in India has now crossed the 400 mark.
Yet it is these very people who are busy blaming the Air India crew for doing their jobs. They have imposed a distinction between the ‘glamorous’ flight attendants, who are still flying ‘abroad’, and the ‘nurturing’ health workers, who are busy trying to save life. Going ‘abroad’ is the biggest status symbol for the middle classes. At the same time, it is the middle classes who maintain strict stereotypical norms of the society. In the face of such danger, it is unbelievable to them that flight attendants are still flying abroad, to the worst affected countries. While the Air India crew are maintain strict safety protocols by wearing full protective gears, people in India are not even taking social distancing seriously.
In a statement released by Air India, officials and employees described how they are being ostracised by neighbours and vigilante Welfare Association groups. On some occasions, these vigilantes have even called the police.
Through his speech, what Modi really did was shift the onus from the government’s side to tackle the pandemic. India continues to struggle with increasing testing, and providing better quarantine facilities. Instead, Modi has now put healthcare providers under more pressure. The Prime Minister successfully raised them on a pedestal, without addressing their demands for a security of pay and life. And without questioning what the government is actually doing to control the spread of the pandemic, people are busy vilifying air hostesses, when they are actually saving lives.
As the number of cases keep rising, it is important for the government to take more active and stringent measures. Social distancing is the only one of the precautionary measures that has to be increased. Not only that, it is even more important for them to increase testing both in public and private labs, and ensure better facilities, equipment and pay to health providers working round the clock.
Featured Image Source: ANI