Sanjida Parveen for BeyondHeadlines
When Indians were just straightening their backs and trying to find new measures to mitigate the CAA-NRC ruffle they are faced with a colossus foe, microscopic yet powerful. The effect is so rapid that it has brought the entire world including the mightiest of nations to a complete standstill with humans waging a silent war against its formidable opponent. This, of course, takes me back to the famous short story named Lalu and Gopal Khuro, by famous Bengali writer Sarat Chandra Chattopadhyay. In this story the author, Sarat Chandra Chattopadhyay describes the situation in colonial Bengal hit by the pandemic of cholera. Around 23 million people died due to cholera in India from 1865 to 1917. This was exactly the time period when Sarat Chandra was dishing out his tales depicting the social reality. He speaks of a time when cholera was incurable and people hardly received proper funeral rites. People would avoid areas affected by the epidemic and practise social exclusion against the sufferers. Not just in India but across the globe the concept of a pandemic has been intrinsically linked to mankind. The noble-winning author Gabriel Garcia Marquez in his classic likens love to cholera in its passionate affliction of human souls and minds. Several pandemics like The Great Plague (1720-1723), Spanish Flu (1918-1920), Asian Flu (1957-58) did not just claim millions of lives but was accompanied by ginormous socio-political and economic implication. COVID-19 also has sparked similar repercussions with several conspiracy theories trying to reason its occurrence catapulting into transnational economic and political blame-game. India is no exception to it exacerbating the already existing animosity among religious-political groups.
I will not go into the political implications incumbent in this entire episode as there are several others to delve into it and also I am no expert in analysing political underpinnings. I am looking at this issue as a layman, social thinker, but as a human being at first. Such instances of social ostracism are quite common in a country like India where people are very easily guiled and misled by the situation owing to the sheer lack of education. By education, I do not necessarily mean formal literal education acquired from learning spaces but the sense of understanding what entails basic human rights. In the present situation when all nations are baffled in their combat against the noval corona scientifically rechristened as COVID-19 this short story holds quite a significant place. What we are faced with besides the serious medical emergency is a series of clueless questions with apparently no answer.
Flipside of the coin: Lockdown and Hindu Mythological practices
When the virus started spreading in Europe and other nations across the globe India still had ample scope to restrict Reverse International Migration as pre-emptive measures to control the viral effects. What should have been the very initial step came at the eleventh hour resulting in massive lockdown across the length and breadth of the country. The nation which has a huge majority below the poverty line and quite a large populous at the threshold of poverty are finding it quite difficult to cope with the national emergency. Millions stranded on roads, several others peddling miles and yards have no clue what is awaiting them.
To add to their misery the prime-minister has announced gimmicks and urged Indians to participate in it no matter how irrational it might be. What he has in his mind is the established group of citizens with stable incomes and peaceful houses and no worries about food or other basic amenities. Food stocked in refrigerators, the only means for them to while away time is by watching Ramayana on T.V sets. Indian government quite aware of the limitations of the health-care system and the simultaneous failures of the developed nations to resolve the crises has no other refuge than the mythical practices. What can be a better moment than this to fiddle the sensitive chord and revive the Hindutva ideology in the name of fighting Corona in the secular democratic country?
Do migrants have equal rights?
India has a huge migrant population both inter-state and inter-city. According to the 2011 census, 139 million population are migrants with a large majority of daily wagers who find it difficult to make both ends meet. Their migration revolves around the urge to survive and sustain their families sometimes as sole breadwinners. The sudden lockdown has taken a heavy toll on the entire diaspora who have travelled miles, days, nights in unprecedented circumstances with no fixed destination. The abrupt and unplanned dislocation has jolted them out of their temporary niches landing them in no-mans-land. The stories count the number of casualties across the nation but fail to depict the trauma and hysteria they encounter. This is not enough; they are treated with sodium-hypochlorite as means to sterilize them in the same manner in which dead and deceased are purged. Could they have ever imagined that their lives would be shattered in this manner by an unheard virulent attack? This hints at the hopelessness and helplessness of Indians who are driven to the extent of practising isolation on trees in the dearth of proper quarantine facilities.
The concept of social distancing is not a new affair for Indians. We have often heard of instances of social distancing though in different contexts. What is bothering it that it has almost always been practised with intolerance, contempt and hatred? The social distancing borne out of pandemic is meant for social well-being but Indians are leading it unintentionally towards untouchability.
What to trust? Fake news, Rumours or Memes
In the wake of the COVID-19, rumours and fake news have had a catalytic effect among Indians who are more prone to these than authentic sources. To their utter dismay, they have taken for granted any kind of statements and instructions without enquiring the validity of the source. Consuming gau-mutra believing it to be a potent elixir against all panacea has been doing rounds in media and all kinds of social forums. Fake news such as origin and spread of the disease, false diagnosis of the ailment and revamped old posts are inundating the social media and circulating as wildfires. Creating various kinds of memes ridiculing affected individuals and misleading posts have become favourite pass-times of those sitting safely in quarantine. Every individual has a social responsibility to inculcate positivity in order to fight the crucial situation collectively. The memes and rumours have become an obsession with the younger generation who have taken it lightly and are nonchalantly ameliorating the situation, jeopardising the vulnerable ones. These farcical elements have broader implications on the elders and kids those who are devoid of the power to distinguish between fake and real news. What could otherwise have been utilised as a creative potential is being drained out as mere trash creating short-lived repartee?
No matter what blame the minorities
If we closely analyse the decisions of several nations, we are to find faults in all. Despite the presence of several advisory bodies, several nations have not been able to take responsible decisions owing to the haphazardness of the situation. The entire world has been anxious about the spread of the pandemic in the densely populated south-Asian sub-continent. Recently issues of a group of non-political religious preachers of the Muslim minority in India, namely Tableeghi Jamaat conducted their regular activities. The Tableeghi Jamaat gathering mainly comprised of south-Asian population. At the behest of such a global crisis, such gatherings are not acceptable at all and the leaders should have acted more responsibly. The greatest annual pilgrimage to Mecca and the daily prayers in the Vatican City have also been called-off. The mistake of a particular group cannot put an entire community under scanner holding them solely responsible for the spread of the pandemic. Society and media houses have also acted quite contrary to their roles aggravating the situation all the more instilling despise and hatred among minds.
History bears testimony to the consequences of such blame-game. During the Black Death (1348-1351) in Europe, the Jews who were a minority were held responsible for the epidemic as they were comparatively less affected by it. The circulation of this ideological myth culminated into the rampant persecution of innocent Jews. With an exponential rise in the number of deceased, there is every possibility of incrimination of Muslims in India. Media houses and opportunists can successfully encash upon such lapses if not nipped at the bud. The seeds of communal disharmony are deeply entrenched just waiting to be kindled from its nascency.
Inadequate medical facilities: Medical professionals pay a heavy price
Doctors have so far been accorded the best possible position in society owing to their service to humanity pedestaling them next to god. But it has been noticed that the corona incident has quite reversed their roles from guardian angels to potential human carriers of the virus. It’s not just doctors but the entire health-care system that has suffered havoc in the wreck of corona outbreak. There have been numerous incidents of doctors and nurses being asked to vacate houses in this situation owing to their immense exposure to the Virus.
The app-cabs have also started refusing trips to any medical place. On one hand, when the prime-minister asks citizens to applaud the commendable actions of every medical staff has the society responded in the esteemed fashion? Has their continuous plea for more PPE kits and hand gloves being heard or turned a deaf ear? On the contrary, they have been made to suffer utter humiliation in the form of stone-pelting.
Despite WHO recommendation that states that the Doctor-Patient the ratio should not be more than 1: 1000, India is lagging behind drastically. With regards to the statistical inputs, the condition is really deplorable and demands severe attention. In such circumstances as individuals are, we successful in giving doctors and other health professionals their due reception? How can we encourage future generations to pursue the medical profession without eradicating the social stigma associated with it?
Dead also, deserve proper funeral rites?
What appalled me immensely was an incident about an odd 40 year old man denied his basic funeral rights by his brethren in fear of the contagious disease. This strikes one immediately that without being affected by the fatal disease if he could be discarded like a burden on the society what might befall those battling the disease and dying of it? The virus has aroused such a fear owing to its portal contiguity that people had to discard humanity reluctantly at times and shove it off as an extravagance?
In countries like Italy, France and the government, authorities have been compelled to perform the funeral rites as a customary duty sans family and near ones. A country like India with such a dynamic diversity and multicultural population also observe an emotionally driven funeral passage. In the days to come it is really hard to fathom the death counts in the country. It’s really doubtful as to how far the government will be successful in accomplishing such rites. Is the country, which has already fought social ills like untouchability and has still been combating it gearing up for another?
Every cloud has a silver lining: Let there be sunshine.
After the vitriolic initiation of the year, the nation encountered numerous pan-national incidences and crises, the present one being the worst of all. The virus will take its due course and show its true colour what will remain is the menace of contiguity among Indians. The numbers and statistics are worth all attention and wary but what goes beyond, is how this pandemic will be drafted in the pages of history for the generations to come.
Two possible alternatives may be anticipated. One leading Indians towards irredeemable hatred and spiteful apathy towards each other. The other lies in garnering support and empathy strengthening the filial bonds of the world’s largest democracy. The choice of the nationals will determine the course of history. The responsibility does not end with government initiatives and protocols. It’s a call for every single citizen of this country to think globally and act pragmatically liberating oneself from the clutches of irrationality and impulsiveness.
(The author is a PhD scholar in the department of English literature, Aligarh Muslim University, India. She has been engaged in interdisciplinary research that brings together literature and social-science methods and materials.)