Trigger warning: Mentions of violence, discrimination, abuse, and a general tone of dystopia and hopelessness around the current Covid-19 pandemic.
Amidst ongoing Covid-19 pandemic, the whole world has shaken up. Countries have enforced lock-downs and every government’s top priority right now is the keeping people alive. There is a sudden change in people’s lifestyles, psychologies and priorities. Keeping the global scenario aside for a while, can I say the same for India? Can I say that Covid-19 pandemic is the biggest threat Indians are facing? Some people might say yes, but deep down we know that’s not true.
We’ve always been dealing with things far worse than this, but many of us would like to ignore it or many just don’t have any exposure to the harsh realities because of our respective privileges. Most of the offices have been closed and people are at home, causing a surge of various trends and posts on social media, seeping peak ignorance and bias against something or someone. And this time, we have no excuse to get away with it because of the highly contagious nature of the virus. Our behavior in the next few months is going to decide our future and that of the next generations.
When the state governments started implementing Section 144 to prevent community transmission, I was texting my old and new friends for their whereabouts and safety check. One of them, who stays in Govandi (Mumbai), said, “I have almost all the symptoms of Covid-19. Actually almost every person around me has the symptoms since years. Not a big deal...” And it puzzled me, I pressed further.
Then he said, “Have you ever been to Govandi? Govandi’s Shivaji Nagar has Mumbai’s oldest and largest dumping ground. Asia’s largest dumping ground is in Deonar, which is just a kilometer away from here. Average life expectancy is not even 40 years. Most people live in 1 RK houses, each family with 4, 7, 8, 9 members; all houses are closely packed with no ventilation. Do you think people are scared of Corona virus? People breathe poison here everyday, they don’t care if the rich survive or die. They don’t care if they spread it, and that’s the problem. They need to be educated.”
I was stunned. Not that I was surprised; but it made me realize that this is a product of years of exploitation and discrimination. It’s what we’ve achieved in the last 72 years of freedom. And in the times like Covid-19 pandemic, it might make us pay a huge price as a nation.
The areas above mentioned are mostly dominated by Muslims and Dalits. Other similar ghettos have no different condition. Poverty in India is so severe that it is severe than death itself. Taking nothing of this into account, our beloved Prime Minister suddenly announced a nation-wide lock-down and we saw panic and hoarding similar to that during demonetization.
The areas above mentioned are mostly dominated by Muslims and Dalits. Other similar ghettos have no different condition. Poverty in India is so severe that it is severe than death itself. Taking nothing of this into account, our beloved Prime Minister suddenly announced a nation-wide lock-down and we saw panic and hoarding similar to that during demonetization. Lives of millions of people from unorganized sectors became uncertain.
On the second day of lock-down for Covid-19, after international media’s backlash and people’s demands, Central government announced relief package for the underprivileged. Does this solve the problem? We’ll have to wait for the answer. But this course of events is an indicator of the fact that we, in general, have become a nation of the privileged, and our policies too, are shaped the same way.
But there have already been many debates and discussions by experts on that, and I won’t get into the details. What worries me more, is the social implications of the current health crisis. One of them is the spread of misinformation and pseudo-science though social media. Many of these were propaganda and indicators of cultural superiority. It started with the posts like, “The world embraces Indian culture of Namaste and vegetarianism to prevent infection,” and later it all took an ugly turn.
First of all, there are numerous ways other than Namaste across the globe to greet people (salaam, wave, bow, Lakota avoidance practices, a head nod, Cup and clap like in Zambia, put hand on chest or go fancy like the vulcans in Star-Trek). Secondly, there has been no evidence that this infection is a result of non-vegetarianism.
Important question: Do we even know for sure what the Chinese eat? We are so engulfed in ourselves, that we never really explore other cultures and traditions. This ignorance has resulted in all the hate-mongering and prejudiced opinions on social media. I saw so many videos that showed how Chinese eat anything that moves and many people cursing the Chinese for their ‘uncultured’ness (we are a country whose majority promotes drinking cow urine!).
We all must have received at least one conspiracy story regarding China on WhatsApp. Some men even joked that after all this is over, the Chinese should be taught how to cook simple dal and rice-most of the Indian men don’t even know the basic recipe of dal. Sure I shouldn’t criticize people’s way of coping with the stress of the whole thing; but most of it arises from years of anti-pakistan, anti-China prejudices. And the worst of it all is that, Indian’s first response to any news related to China results in harassment of North-Eastern Indians.
There have been several instances where people ‘purified’ his cabin with the ‘holy’ cow urine after his transfer or promotion (mind you, he was at an important position and these are the ‘educated’ people I’m talking about.) He said, now gau-mutra will be replaced by sanitizers and disinfectants, and they’ll discriminate against people from lower castes and ghettos, the virus would just provide them an excuse. In no words can I explain that it’s not an exaggeration.
The safety measures to prevent Covid-19 infection have made the upper caste Indians secretly happy that they’ve finally got one valid reason to re-establish (no matter how temporary) untouchability. My father, having had first hand experience, has been paranoid over the social implications of it, more than Covid-19 itself. There have been several instances where people ‘purified’ his cabin with the ‘holy’ cow urine after his transfer or promotion (mind you, he was at an important position and these are the ‘educated’ people I’m talking about.) He said, now gau-mutra will be replaced by sanitizers and disinfectants, and they’ll discriminate against people from lower castes and ghettos, the virus would just provide them an excuse. In no words can I explain that it’s not an exaggeration.
I’m seeing many posts on Facebook where upper caste people are celebrating that now they can follow untouchability with no bounds and ‘grateful’ to the virus that made the whole world follow the same. What must be happening in their family/community WhatsApp groups is unimaginable. Then I saw a ‘balancing’ post by someone who considers themselves as ‘woke’, which said that corona virus turned the tables-now the rich foreign-returned Indians are the new untouchables.
It was supposed to be a joke, but I cannot take it as one. How can we compare the centuries of exploitation of untouchables with the temporary precautionary measures to prevent a disease? The virus does not discriminate, but the people and policymakers do, and how much a person suffers because of it also depends on how low in the social hierarchy they are.
How can we compare the centuries of exploitation of untouchables with the temporary precautionary measures to prevent a disease? The virus does not discriminate, but the people and policymakers do, and how much a person suffers because of it also depends on how low in the social hierarchy they are.
The whole world has seen how those rich educated foreign returned Indians fled quarantine (in government’s isolation wards as well as houses) despite clear warnings. They had a variety of excuses, some said the conditions were horrible, some were just ignorant, IAS officer Anupam Mishra in Kerala and his wife have left home quarantine without notice and a senior government official in Bengal refused to get her UK returned son tested and he even went for partying! Such people have made it very complicated for the government to actually determine the spread of virus.
Now, where are all those who keep pushing their prejudiced anti-poor, anti-illiterate opinions whenever something wrong happens in the country? They say ‘these’ people are just like that; who are ‘these’ people now? Why were they so repulsed by the government’s quarantine facilities? Why, while enjoying the expensive 5 star private healthcare, did they never try to know where the majority of the population gets treated? Why did no one ask the government why we spend only 1.28% of the GDP on healthcare? Why does India perform so low in healthcare in global rankings?
But when it comes to facing consequences of actions, I don’t see any major news headlines or backlash or outrage over these people. It is evident that they mostly belong to elite, economically and socially privileged background. The poor and underprivileged do not get opportunities to settle down in or go for trips to foreign (except for those few who’ve earned scholarships and have gone for education). The way police has been handling the whole lock-down situation, by beating and humiliating people that even allegedly lead to death (terms and conditions apply) stepping out of their houses-no matter how urgent it is, is horrible.
There have been word-of-mouth accounts of domestic workers being fired from job for not turning up because of the curfew! And those few who were called for the job by their employers living in these societies, received beatings by police. Indian rich and/or upper castes feel so entitled to be served, that we can believe in these accounts without doubt.
It is highly casteist and classist. Police will never beat people from posh areas like South Bombay or Pune’s Sadashiv peth or Delhi’s Vasant Kunj. There have been word-of-mouth accounts of domestic workers being fired from job for not turning up because of the curfew! And those few who were called for the job by their employers living in these societies, received beatings by police. Indian rich and/or upper castes feel so entitled to be served, that we can believe in these accounts without doubt.
The ‘woke’ people who are comparing untouchability with physical distancing to prevent infection should understand one thing-Dalits defying the rules of inhumane untouchability were and still are being punished with extreme violence that no one can imagine; whereas the quarantined foreign-returned who fled, risking everyone’s health, were not even touched. Not that they deserve violence; nobody does-but police brutality gets a free pass when it comes to the uninformed underprivileged.
Just try to imagine, if that Kerala IAS was someone named Valmiki, Paswan or Kamble-an SC/ST-people would have unleashed every kind of hatred against him. Media bashing, the number of people saying, “Oh these SC/ST’s are manner-less, they have no ethics…they’re all corrupt“, “These people don’t deserve such positions“, Reservation-bashing, Anti-Reservation memes would have flooded enormously. But for a Mishra, all is forgiven.
More problematic is the way majority of people are making and laughing at TikTok videos of poor people getting beaten up. That gave the police unimaginable sense of power, and now they’ve started abusing everyone, including vegetable vendors, goods delivery persons and medical service providers too. The shear ignorance of people laughing at all this angers me. Yesterday, I saw a video on Facebook in which, a poor Muslim (probably) old man was held by a police officer and handing him sanitizer. The old man was scared and wanted to go as far as possible from the police, and the officer was laughing at him, saying, “Chacha, ye Tezaab nahin, sanitizer hai..!” (Uncle, this is a sanitizer, not acid).
Can we imagine the audacity of the officer to make an acid joke instead of explaining what a sanitizer was? Can we imagine the level of fear Muslims stay with in this country, so much so that anything given by police-the ‘protectors of law & order’-is considered as death? Forget about the Muslims and the underprivileged, we still remain a nation of hypocrites who took great pride in applauding the doctors while not even asking them once if they’re getting enough resources, instead, are stigmatizing them and forcing them out of their houses.
Did you watch the video (released 3 days before Janta Curfew) of Kartik Aryan ‘appealing’ (or bashing) all the people who were out of their houses? The number of people who appreciated his rant didn’t really surprise me, majority of the population is heavily ignorant of their privilege, and don’t have any regard for inclusivity. So they end up bashing and mocking everyone, disregarding other people’s daily struggles. Daily wage workers, migrant laborers are invisible to them. “Stay home, stay safe” is a big sadistic joke on the homeless, abandoned old and disabled people, sex-workers, socially excluded communities, people with mental illness, people having abusive families or partner or facing domestic violence.
What about the ~109 children who get abused everyday in India even without a pandemic around? Except for a few state governments like Maharashtra and Kerala, the Indian government has done a really bad job at planning and communicating with citizens regarding this crisis. When politicians themselves are playing it down, ICMR’s Covid-19 testing strategy was flawed despite having ample capacity and despite WHO’s clear instructions for testing, how can we expect the millions of uninformed, underprivileged, unorganized people to understand the gravity of the situation?
The Covid-19 pandemic is a very big issue in itself and needs to be solved as early as possible; but in India, that is not possible if we are not ready to finally acknowledge the flaws in our existing social system.
Featured Image Source: Gulf News