Naveen (Nijam) Gara
India’s tryst with COVID-19 Pandemic began with a Nationwide lockdown on March 25, 2020. The shock and awe specialist Prime Minister Narendra Modi approached the issue with the same theatrics that he displayed during demonetization. Events that unfolded ever since have shown the utter disregard and rather disdain for the poor that political leaders across India possess. It is almost as if these individuals are non-existent in the mainstream discourse.
Even as the horrific scenes of stranded daily wage laborers trying to exit Delhi in the immediate aftermath of this draconian lockdown remain freshly etched in our collective memory, equally horrendous images have emerged from Mumbai. The sudden, blanket shutdown of public transport is unthinkable in any country worthy of being called a democracy. The level of insensitivity on display smacks of sheer arrogance and dictatorial attitudes of the rulers. While the Prime Minister should bear moral responsibility, most Chief Ministers have also proven to be products of the same cloth with an utter lack of remorse.
Human rights are non-existent in this atmosphere and it seems utopian to expect these governments to be humane. If saving lives is their paramount aim, does it matter if deaths are due to the virus versus lockdown-induced starvation and misery? It probably does because the lives that they really care about are not those of the masses of daily-wage laborers but of those in sheltered, gated communities guarded with the blood and sweat of those same laborers.
Individuals walking hundreds of kilometers to reach their homes, begging on the roads for meager meals, eating stale left-overs and dying of exhaustion are flagrant testimonies of a failed state. Is this cause for congratulatory banging of pots and pans? Is this reason for the celebratory lighting of candles and lamps? While scores of celebrities came out with videos to lecture people about lockdown rules, they were all conspicuously absent and comfortably asleep when the poor were harassed with frivolous criminal cases and baton assaults for the mere expectation of getting safely home amid a repressive lockdown.
While migrant workers’ sordid stories came out in to open with the New Delhi and Mumbai episodes, every city and town in the country has similar stories to tell. Be it Surat’s diamond and textile workers or Guntur’s chilli farm-laborers, the saga of daily-wage laborers across India is of despair, desolation and despondency. Neighboring states and even neighboring districts and villages have become alien to one another all of a sudden. The virus does not respect these boundaries however much our petty leaders want to cling to them.
In this cacophony of waging a ‘war’ against this microscopic pathogen, duly elected governments are ravaging the lives of the very people that granted them power. Some leaders talk of charity, collect donations to run community kitchens and boast of non-existent boarding facilities while ignoring the fact that this human tragedy can be averted by letting people live their lives so they can fend for themselves. It is fanciful to claim that the country is free of open defecation but the reality remains that millions of Indians still lack access to a toilet and this crisis has created new problems for slum dwellers such that they have to field lathi blows and insults when they venture out for nature’s call.
What is astounding is the total lack of opposition in the country in spite of visible signs of anger and frustration among the poor. This suggests that the downtrodden remain unrepresented in the corridors of power and both the ruling and opposition political parties only care about being in the good books of the self-declared mainstream population that wants to shield itself from the virus at the expense of the hapless. Even more worrisome is the fact that the lakhs of people stranded in Delhi or the thousands that gathered at Mumbai Railway station meekly asked for public transportation but did not even dare to question the brutality of a lockdown that made them homeless, rudderless and penniless overnight. They are frankly scared to death and are wilting under the pressure of a police regime. If this is not a sign of totalitarianism, then what is?
By unwittingly entering into this lockdown conundrum, the country is pushed further deep into an economic crisis that will persist well beyond the virus crisis. Jobs are lost across all sectors including the ever-essential health and news media fields. Many of these jobs will not get reinstated perhaps forever. This begs the question: Was this lockdown ever a realistic solution for a country like India that already faces astronomical poverty rates? Wouldn’t the deathblow to the economy only worsen this poverty and thereby cause more death?
While even countries like the USA can ill-afford the economic upheaval and people are starting to protest the lockdown in spite of trillions of dollars of relief measures announced, where is the debate and dissent in India? The original doomsday scenario modeling figures of millions of deaths from this virus have been significantly scaled down by the same experts but a lot of damage is already done due to knee-jerk lockdown measures taken by copycat politicians that only skim the facts without a deeper understanding of each country’s ground realities.
While safety measures should certainly be taken and the vulnerable immunocompromised individuals be protected, a blanket lockdown was never the solution. The only way out is an immediate restoration of life to an extent where the working class can start to earn a living while continuing reasonable, practicable and humane restrictions on activities such as mass gatherings. There is talk of expanding testing as a tool to help re-open the economy. But this also stems from a lack of thorough understanding of the problem.
Since it is now widely accepted that there is asymptomatic spread and carriage of this virus, testing is likely to detect more positive cases as time goes by. Some public health experts have warned early on itself that 55% of the population could have been infected. New data from reputed epidemiologists is also hinting at a much lower case fatality rate than originally advertised. Thus, it is high time that the lives of poor people also be respected and any more detriment to the voiceless majority of this country be immediately averted by lifting this lockdown.
Naveen (Nijam) Gara, a Telugu from Hyderabad, is a physician currently practicing in the USA. His articles are devoted towards voicing the concerns of downtrodden and marginalized communities..