By Shahid Jamal
The ongoing threat from coronavirus has brought change to the entire socio-economic and political narrative of India. It has unmasked all the social institutions and their stakeholders. Whether it is the political class, media, bureaucracy, police, and doctors and for that matter an ordinary individual, this pandemic has brought out the best and the worst of humanity. It has unveiled both the beautiful and ugly sides of the human character and we have witnessed both the kind and corrupt sides of human beings.
On the one hand, there is an environment of fear, prejudice, paranoia, humiliation and political bigotry. On the other hand, there is an unprecedented outpouring of love, support, kindness, empathy and charity that has reaffirmed faith in humanity.
I believe that the sense of fear, prejudice, paranoia, humiliation is the byproduct of political bigotry. Though it is true that these symptoms of political bigotry existed much before the outbreak of this pandemic, we have seen and encountered an unprecedented level of these symptoms during this pandemic.
At a time when a collective response was required from us to contain Covid-19, the political establishment with the help of media and the PR agencies divided us in the name of religion and region by spreading hatred and creating fake narratives. Here I don’t want to discuss the Tablighi Jamaat episode as the reader already knows how the members of the Jamaat became an easy target for media and administration as if this pandemic was brought to India by them. Terms like Corona Jihaad have been coined and hatred towards the Muslim community has been amplified. While there were nationwide hullabaloo and media trials over the stranded Tablighi Jamaat members for breaking the norms of social distancing, a crazy crowd has been seen openly flouting the social distancing norms in front of liquor shops during this crisis. People are now silent and enjoying the clash between the crowd and the police near the liquor shops. Memes are flooding the social media.
While this pandemic has exposed the communal faces of many, it has also shown our seriousness towards dealing with the same. Several people from northeast India have faced racial attacks. In the month of March, a woman from Manipur was spat on by a man in Delhi and called ‘corona’. It is shameful that doctors and police personnel have been attacked by the mob. It is equally shameful that in some parts of the country the doctors have refused to treat patients belonging to a particular religious community. The police have arrested civil rights activists on the sedition charges. The real character of the stakeholders belonging to different institutions has been coming out during this pandemic.
During this health crisis, most of us have developed hatred towards each other, instead of developing a sense of empathy and togetherness. This hatred is more catastrophic than the Covid-19. It is indeed a sorry state that during this difficult time, religious biases and prejudices have reached a peak. The gulf among different communities is widening day by day. News anchors from their studios are adding more fuel to the communal fire. Responsible journalism has been overshadowed by the yellow journalism. The situation is alarming and I am afraid to say that we are behaving as ethically deaf and morally blind.
Prime Minister Modi has seen the pandemic almost entirely in personal and political terms. On Feb 12, during the initial phase of the pandemic, Rahul Gandhi had alerted the government about the threat of Covid-19 but the government had dismissed him. Mr. Modi was busy in welcoming Trump and the top leadership of the BJP was busy in the horse-trading of MLAs in Madhya Pradesh. The careless response to the Covid-19 by the Health Ministry in India should not be considered less than a criminal offence because on March 13, while addressing reporters, the Joint Secretary of the Health Ministry, Lav Agarwal, said that coronavirus is not a health emergency and that there was no need to panic. Within just ten days, the Prime Minister and his cabinet realised the threat of Covid-19. Finally, on March 24, Modi announced a complete nationwide lockdown. While this lockdown has managed to pause the spread of the virus, a lack of planning has led to hunger, uncertainty and panic across the country.
The unplanned lockdown has pushed thousands of migrant workers to destitution. They are stranded far from their homes in cities with no food and money. As per the report of a survey published in The Hindu, “More than 90% of stranded migrant workers did not receive rations from the government. Close to 90% of those surveyed did not get paid by their employers. From March 27 to April 13, 70% of the surveyed workers had only less than Rs. 200 left with them.” Who is responsible for the distress among these workers? Is it not the failure of the government? It was expected from the Prime Minister that he would help the nation during this difficult time; instead of helping the countrymen, the PM himself started begging before the people for help.
This pandemic has also unveiled the hypocrisy and ugliness of the big business tycoons, corporates and owners of companies. While they have donated hundreds of crores to the PM Cares Fund, many of them have also fired employees and reduced their salaries. The PM Cares Fund has been receiving small donations too and we all know who have offered these donations. On the instruction of their bosses, the government employees willingly or unwillingly agreed to donate one day’s salary to the PM Cares Fund. Ordinary people have been donating their hard-earned money with the belief that it is only the government that can co-ordinate and effectively manage relief work. They have completely ignored the fact that these funds are being controlled by the same government that ignored the initial warning of the pandemic and left them in complete confusion by imposing an unplanned lockdown.
Due to this unplanned lockdown, India’s unemployment rate has skyrocketed. It’s estimated that over 14 crore people, especially in the unorganised sector, may have already lost their jobs. The uncertainty of livelihood is causing more harm to the common people than the pandemic. Unfortunately, Modi considers the lockdown as a cure for Covid-19. He has no plan to deal with the economic repercussion of the pandemic. In this difficult time, the less we talk about the government aid the better because the government aid has not reached the needy. Even if the aid reaches the needy, it is like a drop in the ocean and doesn’t cater to the basic need of food and medicines.
It is good to see that Modi is boosting the morale of the Covid-19 warriors in this difficult time by urging people to appreciate and applaud them. However, besides appreciation and “Mann ki baat”, there has been no real efforts to meet the demands of the doctors, who are running out of protective gears. If the PM can’t even make sure of the safety of the health workers, how can he ensure the safety of the common masses? Shortages of protective health gears are forcing some doctors to use raincoats and motorbike helmets while fighting the coronavirus, exposing the weak state of the public health system in India. The earlier deflections of taali, thaali, diya and mombatti, in addition to the army jamboree of showering rose petals, are not going to help us to combat Covid-19. Who will make the PM understand that totka is not the solution? Providing the doctors and health care workers with the essential protective gears and the logistical support are the only way out.
I am flabbergasted that the terms like ‘curfew’ and ‘social distancing’ have become normal during this pandemic. The excessive use of the term ‘lockdown’ makes me feel that we are living in a strict military zone and the common use of the term ‘social distancing’ makes me realise the abusive and exploitative social division of the varna system. Instead of using the term ‘social distancing’, I would rather prefer to use the term physical distancing and that too when it is needed.
I have learnt from history that pandemics like Covid-19 have caused less disaster on earth than the unforgivable blunders committed by people. While the deadly Spanish Flu of 1918 killed 20 to 50 million people, the total number of military and civilian casualties in World War I (1914-1918) was about 40 million. Estimates range from 15 to 19 million deaths and about 23 million wounded military personnel, ranking it among the deadliest conflicts in human history. In 1942, Hitler killed 1.7 million Jews during the Holocaust. Almost 85 million people perished during World War II, which was even more brutal than the World War I. We know very well that these killings were not caused by any pandemic or natural calamity.
For a few moments, ignore the World War I and the World War II and the casualties resulting from these wars. Let us take a look at examples of communal clashes and attendant bloodbath. In January, 2020, while replying to an RTI query, the Home Ministry said that India witnessed 10,399 incidents of communal violence from 2004 to 2017 wherein 1,605 people were killed and 30,723 were injured. Almost three months ago, the communal violence that engulfed the North-East Delhi for four days – mobs killed innocent people and destroyed property – left 53 dead. As per a report, “Apart from those killed, over 200 have sustained serious injuries due to gunshots, sharp-edged weapons, stone-pelting and even falls sustained from buildings during the violence.” Now look at the Covid-19 graph and see the number of deaths in Delhi caused by the virus. You will find that only around 66 people have lost their lives due to the Covid-19 till date. Covid-19 has caused less disaster on earth than the unforgivable brutality committed by people during the course of history.
I don’t want to convey the sense that all human beings are bad or convoluted. Indeed, this pandemic has shown us the most beautiful traits of humanity too which is worth mentioning. When the government failed on all fronts, many individuals and NGOs came together and provided the essentials to the needy. People associated with different organisations are tirelessly serving those who are in need. It is also worth appreciating that the NGOs are feeding more people than the government during this lockdown. I have witnessed two sides of the human character: while some people are busy in petty hoarding of supplies, many others have selflessly and generously helped the poor and needy. I believe helping those in need is not charity; it is humanity. As long as selfless, generous and kind people exist among us, our society will remain intact and strong. We must understand that kindness promotes solidarity and solidarity makes a society better and worth living. Needless to say, if we do not leave hatred and communal bias behind, it will make our survival difficult during this health crisis. A sense of togetherness and a collective response are the need of the hour.
Shahid Jamal is an alumnus of Jamia Millia Islamia. Currently he is teaching PGT History in Crescent School, Ansari Road, New Delhi. He regularly presents papers in national and International seminars and writes for Urdu Newspapers and online portals.
Cafe Dissensus Everyday is the blog of Cafe Dissensus magazine, based in New York City and India. All materials on the site are protected under Creative Commons License.
Read the latest issue of Cafe Dissensus Magazine, “Poetics and politics of the ‘everyday’: Engaging with India’s northeast”, edited by Bhumika R, IIT Jammu and Suranjana Choudhury, NEHU, India.