COVID 19 and the ‘Inconvenient Truth’

Smarajit Jana

Rubina, a five years old girl, the only daughter of my domestic help used to come with her mom to my house once in weekends. She finds me someone with whom she could share one or two of her issues which are either linked to her khichri school or something which she observed on her way to school and back. I find her very quiet and reserved. She never initiated any dialogue of her own till I open my mouth and ask about her well being. It was 29th March five days after the lock down, she on entering my house came straight to me shrugging off her usual compose put me a straight question ‘by any chance whether her dad could be able to come home by 14th April’. I knew it is her birth day. She is very proud of her Dad who left home five months back to work in some places in Rajasthan. Dad promised to give her a beautiful Ghagra on her birthday, but it is more than the dress she loves, her anxiety and eagerness was quite visible in her face. She was keen to know whether she would be able to meet her dad after a gap of so many months.

On 25th March when our Prime minister declared country wide lock down many of us finds it timely and appropriate. It was quite reassuring to many. We can’t blame the prime minister squarely for not taking due consideration of interstate migrant workers while declaring the lock down. The fact remains that none around us had any inkling till and until migrants hit the streets? The question is why it didn’t occur to us, neither to those Govt officials who are at the helm of the affairs? Why all those leaders of different political parties and their ideologues could not fathom the situation of migrant workers and what is going to happen to them during the lockdown and there after? Not only that, even after seeing millions of migrants on the streets why none of the progressive and left leaning leaders dared to ask the prime minister to arrange transport to take them back home? What kinds of fear and apprehension stopped them to voice? Was it a personal, social or a political one?

However, after seeing the plights of migrant workers the opposition party and some media houses put their spotlight on them and criticised the Govt for declaring lock down so hastily without giving time to return migrants to their home states; which nonetheless was the afterthought.

On 12th April Rubina came to my house, but I found her depressed. By this time, she came to know that her dad won’t be able to join her on 14th. She requested me very politely to prey for her father’s safe return as early as possible. Perhaps she believes that God would listen to me because I am better educated [?] or have more resources. Truly speaking I also had a slightest hope that even if our prime minister extends lock down [which was written on the wall] shall provide a gap of few days to help migrants to travel back. I also thought number matters to politicians and sixty to seventy million migrant workers is not a joke which is more than the population size of UK or Italy. However not even a faint voice could be heard from any political leaders either from the ruling or from the opposition parties. Media [both big and social media] including intelligentsia remained silent on the transportation of migrant workers.

Only after the completion of phase two; the Ministry of Home issued a circular allowing movements of interstate migrants which opens up lot of issues and challenges. The tug of war was between the Central and the state Govt regarding who will take the responsibility of migrants' movements; whether they would travel by train or bus and so on so forth. Rubina is unlikely to grasp all those intricacies but she was happy getting her Dad’s phone call the night before and expected to meet her Dad soon. She enquired about many issues regarding her Dads’ travel plan which I responded half-heartedly as I was unsure about her dad's plan.

One important issue which glossed over by the tsunami of COVID related statistics, modelling data etc regarding the applicability of Lockdown in a country like ours. Adoption of any strategy is context specific. What is applicable in cities like Europe or America may not be appropriate for India in view of its high population density, poor housing, working environment, compromised infrastructure etc where space is a privilege. Indian Modellers made it clear that under these circumstances we could expect impact of lockdown by 26% only. Lock down ensure physical distancing and nothing more. However, there were hardly any takers of this important message and no discussion was held to look into the efficacy, merits and demerits of lock down. What we observed is that almost all TV channels brought one or other renowned medical specialist who came and shouted along with their anchors professing lock down and its inevitability. No issue was raised to devise alternative strategies to ensure physical distancing and to promote behaviour change among the citizens. During phases of lock down and thereafter number of infections increased steadily but there was no attempt to assess and evaluate the efficacy of implementation and outcome of Lock down and surprisingly no one raise fingers too. To develop an appropriate country specific intervention strategy requires collective wisdom and active engagement of different communities and not just medical specialists. Sadly enough, not a single discourse could be heard on COVID intervention strategy beyond the lock down. Is it an expression of 'professional brotherhood' or there are some unwritten 'social contract' among all these experts, media housecoat official and social elites?

Lock down was further extended to third and fourth phases which completed by 31st May. In between Rubina falls sick and couldn’t visit my house in between but appeared on 24th of May. She looked very pale and morose. Her mom was equally worried as Rubina’s Dad failed to reach home even though he promised number of times. Her mom was worried as she did not receive any call from her husband since yesterday. She also shared with me that Rubina is not taking food properly and often crying pressing her Dads’ photo close to her chest. I tried to console her even though I sound very hollow.

I find a bureaucrat shared her pain and agony in a whatsapp group depicting the kinds of challenges she had to face to get her COVID infected husband admitted in a Govt hospital in mid June. In her communication strangely enough, she lamented for not continuing the lock down longer. The primary objective of Lock down is to buy time to enable the Dept of health to bolster existing health care delivery system to accommodate additional cases of COVID. Being herself a bureaucrat she could have questioned the level of inefficiency of the Health ministry, lack of appropriate strategies and systems to take care of COVID positive cases. Instead she lamented for not continuing the lock down longer. Many of our friends believe the same and majority of them considered that imposition of lock down is inevitable as there are no other alternative to stem the spread of COVID.

Rubina met me last on 24th June when her mom brought her to get her examined by me as she falls sick again. By this time her mother knew the fate of her husband who is one of those two hundred migrants who lost their life in the streets while coming home. Rubina is yet to know that her dad will never come to embrace her once again. Every morning after getting from the bed she stands in front of the door with an expectation to see her dad appearing with a smiling face. Rubina’s mom consulted me in confidence whether she should disclose the truth to her daughter. It was a tough call. I was ambivalent to her query.

Well, two hundred is too small to be considered but 450 Million is certainly a big number. This is the size of informal labour sector in our country which constitute one third of India’s population [excluding most of their family members]. As stated by the Finance Minister, there are 6 crores of interstate migrants but this is one seventh of total unorganised labour in our country. 'Fortunately,’ interstate migrants were made visible due to sudden declaration of the lockdown and as they hit the streets with a hope to return. However, there were no trains or any other surface transport to help join them with their families. Some of them were forced to live in camps others took all possible means to travel hundreds of miles even on foot. But this is just the tip of the iceberg, nobody cares to know what happened to rest 39 crores of them and their families which is more than the combined population of six major European countries namely UK, France, Italy, Spain, Germany and Switzerland. They still remained invisible and till date and no media and hardly any academia find interest in them. They do not enjoy any kind of social security, for them no work means no food, no medicine and whose life are already devastated and sooner they will be pushed further to the margins, thanks to the imposition of prolonged lock down. It does speak volumes of our level of insensitivity and societal attitude.

A day after I met Rubina last, a black youth named Groge Flyod was killed mercilessly by a white police officer at Minneapolis, USA .The said officer pressed his knee deep into the Gorge's neck for a period of eight minutes while George repeatedly requested the officer that he is unable to breath, but the adamant police officer didn’t care but chocked him to death, the Video of which became viral with in no time. It shook the world by surprise which exposed the ground reality in USA and the level of racial hatred manifested through inhuman torture and killing of colour people on flimsy ground. The incident angered millions of people and hundred thousands marched in streets in protests against such atrocities in many cities across the Globe including in USA. The anti-racist movement championed a slogan 'Black life's matter' and is still continuing.

Killing of Gorge Floyd is a water shade line in the history of black movement. The inhuman face of the civil society and the regime which indirectly promote this kind of racism and killing became apparent through this incident. However, the Dad of Regina and millions other informal labourers in our country still remains in the dark. This is not at all an issue, no discussion or debate, forget about any social or political outrage. As in India ‘labour’s life does not matter’. They remained obscured and get lost in our hind sight.

The police officer who thrust his knee on George’s neck represents a community, who draws his power from within the society so he dares to do that. Here victims belong to informal labour sector. The invisible power blocks from within the society thrust their knees on their bellies slowly but decisively. Lock down could be perceived as a brute force powered by the jargons of epidemic control. It’s going to unveils a long story of killing which is a slow process unlike in case of George's killing which completed within a very short span of time. Lock down has ranged the bell to herald a new era of hunger and death. As per OXFAM's projection before the beginning of the new year number of deaths due to hunger shall stretch over 12000 death/day, and they would be primarily from Asia and Africa. Death out of hunger and under nutrition is a slow and sinuous process. It’s like a slow movie [of Nordic countries] having no storyline, barely any action; no music, hardly any dialogue, but it moves on and on.

On 30th May, our Prime minister declared Unlock down phase one giving few concessions like opening of shops and restaurant and allowing local transport to operate. However, chief ministers heading numbers of States didn’t welcome this move. The move was also not cherished by many specifically whose life is more secured than others. It is more likely that there was stiff resistance from the health professionals and officers in the administration which prevented Govt to change their decisions more than thrice whether to begin Railway services or not, the lifeline of poorer communities.

No wonder persons in power would love to deploy police and administration for any kinds of issues be it health or development as it comes in handy but more than that it subscribes the rules of power and the power dynamics which is the forte of politicians. Lock down suits them well. Whereas, I find great difficulties in comprehending reasons why educated people, professionals, bureaucrats in addition to media and academia voiced in the same or similar languages, what is the common thread which binds them together?

Someone whispered in my ears ‘It‘s class interest, stupid’. I turned my face and saw an image of Rubina whisked away in a moment. But I know she can’t be. Rubina couldn’t recovered from her illness and she breathed her last holding her dad's photograph. Her mom stops coming to my house since last Sunday. She left this city for good.

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Aug 6, 2020

Dr. Smarajit Jana

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