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COVID19 response: the immorality of it all

COVID19 response: the immorality of it all

sruthi wfh covid


Sruthi Herbert 

(SAVARI and Round Table India are doing a series to put together the Bahujan perspective on the Coronavirus pandemic)

sruthi wfh covidAnu: The pandemic has thrown up so many conflicting discourses, tell us about the most troubling ones for you?

Sruthi: I want to start talking about the immorality of our times that this pandemic exposes. Decades of prioritising the economy over the society – as if the economy is separate and above the society instead of it being a part of society and has no existence without it –  has led to policymakers weighing the cost of letting the pandemic run its course as against a lockdown. The argument being, the virus disproportionately affects the elderly and the vulnerable, and therefore, healthy adults can be at work and keep the economy running. This is implied when Trump (and others) openly wonder whether the cure might be worse than the disease. The underlying tones of eugenics suggested that the workforce that does not contribute to the economy is dispensable. On the other hand is the apparently benevolent argument that the toll on the economy would be worse if there is no lockdown and therefore, the lockdown is the wise option. Here too, we do not go past the primacy given to the economy over people’s lives. It is depressing that we haven’t seen any leader call this out as an immoral choice. This is the immorality of the times we live in, what decades of pursuit of economic growth as an indicator of a country’s development has done to our thinking.

India is no exception to these calculations. Why else did we have a lockdown imposed in literally four hours, between 8 pm at night and 12 am in the morning? Clearly, those taking these decisions had not given a thought to the migrant labourers who keep the cities running, the dalitbahujan whose plans depend on getting their daily wages. These are all informal workers, and in India, they are the majority, forming anywhere from 80 to 95% of the population (depending on your classifications and categorisations). So the fact of the matter is that the leaders elected to run our country did not have these people in mind when they introduced the lockdown.

Anu: Work-from-home is being projected as a modern-day, white-collar job innovation/adaptation to the crisis. For the Bahujan, work-from-home is actually the stark reality of the perpetual economic crisis, please elaborate on this.

Sruthi: Much of the western world has had to shift to work from home and to a large extent that is possible. However, for the bahujans in India, work-from-home cannot be used in that sense. There are several economic activities undertaken at home and a huge amount of value is produced at home. A lot of people who work from home are now unable to do it. Because they were running tea shops adjoining their homes, or they were making pickles at home, or they were running a printing/photocopier service at home, a creche, or sewing, or making beedis, or rearing cattle and selling milk… now, most of these home-based work would have had to grind to a halt. (One aspect of work from home that we have got going is women’s unaccounted and unpaid work at home that is so critical to running the economy but is not valued.) Certainly, work from home is practical for less than 10% of the workforce that is in some kind of organized sector.

Anu: Please share some thoughts about the lockdown experience in the diaspora as a young Bahujan.

Sruthi: As you can imagine, many of us here in the diaspora feel stuck because it is no longer possible to undertake international travel. You tell your parents back home that they need to take care of themselves because you cannot be around, whatever the situation. That is a new kind of anxiety that you haven’t ever prepared for. Ideally, when you are in such an unprecedented situation, you want to be in a place where you are most comfortable in terms of having social support. Migrants usually leave behind their friends and family networks, built over their lifetime, that they have had. When you are here as a Bahujan person, it is more likely that you will not have any extended family here. So even the comfort of the diaspora networks may be inaccessible adding to the isolation. If you are lucky, you have a couple of friends and families here that you can call up and ask for help. Not having family close by means that you need to be better prepared and plan for any eventuality in case you happen to fall sick.

Anu: Morbid thoughts are difficult to keep at bay, given the information load we are exposed to.

Sruthi: Yes, there are these morbid thoughts, as you rightly mention. The other day, I was adding some of my precious curry leaves while cooking something and found myself thinking, ‘better use it than never be able to.’ Some of your everyday choices have changed because at the back of your mind there are these morbid thoughts, there is this situation that you cannot do anything about. I am also thinking about several individuals and families that live in house-sharing arrangements who are more exposed because there are too many people whose behaviour they cannot control.

And many people in the diaspora must be having it very stressful, being frontline workers. For instance, there are several nurses from India, specifically Kerala, here in the UK. They are frontline workers in this pandemic and all their families must be under enormous stress. There was a report a few days ago saying that all the doctors who had died due to Covid-19 in the UK are from Black, Asian and Minority-Ethnic backgrounds. This must certainly be distressing. People of the diaspora in other countries, for instance, the middle east, are having it even tougher. For those who are here as students, it is somewhat more comfortable because your institution has your back and you don’t have to deal with the precarity.

The truth is that this pandemic is yet another illustration of inequalities across the world that expose some more (to risk) and others less.

Anu: Being in the diaspora while also being part of the Bahujan media we are constantly processing information from different societies as they deal with the pandemic.

Sruthi: I suppose living here has offered another view to look at the response of the Indian government. Here, the lockdown was implemented in a phased manner with people being asked to avoid non-essential travel, the non-essential services closing first, work from home being encouraged and finally moving to the lockdown where people are allowed to step out of home in a restricted manner and practicing ‘social distancing’ everywhere. There was enough time to stock up on essentials (despite the panic buying) and for people to plan on how new working conditions would look like. At the very outset, the government announced billions of pounds of packages to allow people to cope. When you compare that with India, the abruptness of the lockdown is shocking. The government seems to have had no plan except imposing a lockdown imitating the other countries.

Anu: The common reaction from Bahujan working in the diaspora is that they are uniformly aghast at the suspending of public transport in India while it is running in the US and UK, even in the hotspots, because of humanitarian considerations  – despite it being known that this is one way in which the disease quickly spreads.

Sruthi: Yes, that is a big difference. We have the public transport running here (UK), although in a much-reduced capacity. In India, everything has shut down and people without personal vehicles are completely stuck at home. I remember seeing a news item and photo of a man carrying his old father on his shoulders because the police implemented the travel ban quite literally and wouldn’t let them get home. Quarantine experience as a curfew.

Another question is how this is going to affect children’s (and the youth’s) education. Are they going to lose an academic year? How will classes, exams, grading, and new admissions happen? In the UK, much of education has shifted home, with parents asked to home school but also, schools holding online classes. Teachers can also work from home and several academic activities are continuing in new ways – of course, people have been forced to adjust too soon, and those with caring responsibilities are particularly struggling to work from home. The government is supporting the move to online learning in many ways, including by making sure that tablets/learning devices are given to children that do not have them. The main broadcaster here, BBC, has made available an education package that can be accessed by children. Internet data schemes have made accessing educational material free so lack of money does not prevent students from learning. On this score too, we cannot say the same about India. Very few teachers can work from home – not all students can access educational material online, there is no structured way in which the same material can be uniformly accessed by students and so on and so forth.

The concern of the ruling class, as usual, seems to be geared for their own life situations, so there was very little announced in the early days that would have helped the dalitbahujan workers and their dependents. So we see that the moment the lockdown came into effect, the dalitbahujan workers were in distress. Basic questions of where people were to find food, where the migrant workers were to live, how to access healthcare, and how they can have income were simply not thought through. Instead, you saw caste-based discrimination come to the fore once again – migrant labourers being sprayed by bleach, being beaten up by the police for trying to go home, being beaten up for buying flour, etc.

Anu: The lockdown is seen as a ‘curfew’ because the police are not used to politely telling us to stay at home for civil reasons.

Sruthi: Yes, since the purpose and the nature of the lockdown has not been clearly communicated, many people are waiting for the lockdown to end so that normal life can resume. That it is necessary to protect everyone’s lives has not reached many people at all. Many people perceive it as the police restricting their movements. Nothing has been put into place from a long-term perspective. In the UK and the US, the capitalist havens, there is a volt- face in public policy where a large number of people are getting money directly transferred into their accounts to help them tide through this period. In India, there is a focus on supplying food to the people but no talk of transferring some basic income, etc. In fact, because the government is doing so little, several people are raising money – in what has become once more a chance to showcase their own charity work. This is one of the ugliest sides of the epidemic. The charitable dispensation of sanitisers to the poor without even trying to give them better housing facilities, building more hospitals, and ensuring some form of unconditional cash transfer. This is not a time for charity at all. Now is when the government that is responsible to its taxpayers needs to function and fulfill its responsibility to the citizens. Also, the scope of this pandemic is simply not something that a few committed individuals and organizations can handle. At this time, we need to demand a responsive government.

So this has been a time where the lack of infrastructure, particularly the disparity between the urban and the rural and the upper castes and the lower castes will be amplified and once again, starkly contrasted. The apathy of the ruling class is at its best display. Making heroes out of doctors and healthcare workers isn’t enough.



Sruthi Herbert is a Teaching Fellow at SOAS University of London

Images courtesy: Internet

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