We as a people
Barely a week of staying indoors, locked down, fearful of an unseen enemy, has brought some grim realization of who we are as people. For a crisis, a challenge, an unseen opportunity, often brings out the best and worst in people – and reflects in our collective mirror, images of who we are and where we are most likely to go. Our prejudices, biases and the worst of our default settings are coming forth
As long as we remain unaffected, we care very little about others. We are seeing done to us, what people of Kashmir have experienced for over 6 months. Their lockdown was without any means to communicate with the world. With very little warning, or discussion or dialogue. With grandiose promises of a shiny future that seems distant, if not unlikely. We are luckier. Yet it has not sunk in, even after the rest of the country is experiencing much the same, that the mass incarceration that happened in Kashmir was cruel and a crime against humanity
India is mostly People Like Us. Or people who live in cities with jobs in large companies, residing in relatively spacious areas, with bank accounts, access to an online, digital way of life and with a sense of long-term security. Our ministers, policy makers and commentators seem to have forgotten that much of India still lives in villages. And these people migrate from place to place seeking daily wage jobs, or work in the fields of landowners or form most people in cities that are employed by the informal sector. That we expected this vast majority to have the ability to observe a disciplined “lock down”, totally deprived of livelihood and a safety net, is indicative of how many of us live in bubbles of our own making.
Who are these people, ignoring the lockdown, walking away from cities? When People Are Not Like Us, in contrast to the previous reflection, they must be frog marched, sprayed with chemicals or locked away, for simply desiring to return to their families in times of this huge crisis. People Like Us, stranded abroad, will get a free plane ride to return to their country, while, People Not Like Us, who are stranded in their own country, do not even deserve the dignity of a bus ride to get them home. We seem to display our caste and class hang-ups with glee.
Holy Cow! We accept hocus-pocus very easily. Presence of an ancient Vedic past and the desperate desire to reclaim its glory, has caused us to suspend whatever scientific temper that existed. An educated film star had the audacity to allegedly suggest to his fellow Indians that viruses are potent during the full moon and that making cacophony will destroy them. The same star comes on mainstream media a few dozen times a day to publicize, programs on sanitation and vaccination! On the other hand, our obsession with cow dung and cow urine as a universal panacea, continues.
We are long on sympathy and short on putting money where our mouths are. The well-heeled people, who are quick to pose for selfies with leaders, are at ease with banging their pots and pans to appreciate those at the front line. Because that costs nothing. Very few, if any, have come out with monetary and material support to the affected, that is commensurate with their livelihoods and affluence. Yet we remain the country that will donate generously to places of worship and to charlatans who claim to be seers and people of wisdom
Let us not get into politics at times like these. We are reduced to seeing politics as a means to appoint our representatives. But we expect truly nothing from these appointed representatives! Even in a crisis like the present one, we display a stoic unwillingness to question policy decisions or potential acts of omission or commission that are having an impact on lives of millions today and perhaps for future generations to come. Few have asked why a country, with only 6% of its population at 65+ years of age, is facing a disease which has 99%+ mortality in the 65+ age group, with a 100% lockdown.
We must be ready to forgive our leaders, for they have our best intentions in mind. World leaders (Germany, NZ, Canada) are communicating daily in interactive sessions with their citizens on how they plan to cope with the epidemic and what resources they are committing to the effort, the rationale behind their strategies, a daily update on the outcomes, and expectations from the citizens. Our leaders, barring a few, on the other hand, have struggled to come to terms with the scope and magnitude of the problem at hand. And reduced the response to an “opaque drip feed” for a problem that possibly requires a “transparent tsunami of well-reasoned resources” to be poured in. The Partition of India still evokes debates on whether our leaders of that era did the right thing. Images of the current migrant exodus, arguably on a scale unparalleled since Partition, has evoked little outrage or concern
Oh, but they are communists! A state that has been eons ahead of the rest in coping with this pandemic is Kerala. Pinarayi Vijayan was one of the few leaders who diagnosed the problems early as a health problem that has the potential to snowball into a socio-economic crisis. A control room approach has been in place for weeks that is dealing with not just the aspects related to awareness, tracing, diagnosis, treatment, isolation of the affected, but also to the needs of the “People Unlike Us”. The ones who don’t have the privilege and means of observing a lockdown. The state remains ahead in testing, in keeping the highest number of people in observation or in isolation as needed, in the number of people who have recovered, of having the earliest state wide multi-functional multi-departmental task force in place, with a military like on ground implementation network in place. The war room covers not only the health issues but also those related to essential services like food security, water, electricity, essential travel, hygiene of front-line workers, etc. down to the Panchayat level. The state’s ability to cope and responds to a crisis, particularly since it was caught flat footed in the recent floods – gets scarce mainstream mention, largely due to our preconceived notions of the ideology that governs the state. Cuba’s healthcare system is ranked, by WHO, almost on par with that of US and almost 80 spots ahead of India. This has been achieved despite severe sanctions. What is the barrier to learn from a country with whom we have always had friendly relations?
We remain stuck in the “left, right, center” era. A crisis like the present should make us realize that there are only two ideologies – one that supports compassion and one that does not. One that has the ability to feel the suffering of others and act on it, and one that does not. When Angela Merkel, to relate to the present crisis, invokes the suffering of WW2, she is displaying this empathy. When she allocates nearly 20% of GDP to fund the country’s return to normal, she is saying “each life is precious, and if there is no life, there is no nation”
The Earth can bear infinite development. Even while the crisis is in full swing, our country is placing orders for defense equipment, allocating funds for temples, beautification of the capital roads. United Nations Environment Programme chief Inger Andersen has said that “The nature is sending us a message with the coronavirus pandemic and the ongoing climate crisis. Humanity is putting too much pressure on the natural world and it will have dangerous consequences. When we don’t take care of earth, we are not taking care of ourselves. Though the immediate priority is to protect people from coronavirus and prevent its spread, the long term must be on tackling habitat and biodiversity loss. Never before have so many opportunities existed for pathogens to pass from wild and domestic animals to people. Our continued erosion of wild spaces has brought us uncomfortably close to animals and plants that harbor diseases that can jump to humans. Other impacts, such as the Australian bushfires, broke heat records and Kenya saw the worst locust invasion in 70 years. Nature is sending us a message!” Are we listening? Are we preparing to act now?
Amongst all this gloom, there are millions of ordinary, often unseen warriors at the front line, who are braving the fear of the epidemic, to provide care, food and succor to their compatriots. They constantly remind us of what we could be – a nation of caring, compassionate citizens, a nation “where the mind is without fear and the head is held high, where knowledge is free and where the world is not broken up into fragments by narrow domestic walls”
If the Mahatma were alive, he would remind us that “Our greatest ability as humans is not to change the world, but to change ourselves”