Edit/Op-Ed

Unlocking the Lockdown: India faces dilemma between pandemics and natural disasters

It has been almost three months since the variant of the SARS family created global havoc affecting several countries, bringing life to a standstill. Although few countries have eased the lockdown after observing it for a few months with a bid to retrieve the economic downside, some like India stand dumb-founded in no-mans-land with poor strategies and ill execution. Let there be no illusion, there has been so far no panacea to the Pandemic and it is still affecting if not claiming lives.

What strikes us as individuals is the inability to take lessons from history and act rationally and cautiously. To add to our utter dismay the subcontinent has been facing several challenges simultaneously in the form of natural hazards and other socio-economic problems. India has implemented lockdowns categorically with varying degrees of stringency or leniency. Amidst lockdown, the nation witnessed many a challenge. While the rich and the privileges were enjoying their quarantined work from home in the scorching summers, it is poor and underprivileged who had been facing the brunt. The burgeoning social inequality is a matter of shame. 

At the end of the fourth stage of lockdown, India is about to touch 2 lakhs of COVID cases. It’s a challenge for this country with more than 130 billion population. It can be said that the four phases of lockdown have been a bane for the poor and the underprivileged. The harrowing accounts of their struggle is a failure of democracy owing to adoption of aggressive public health measures and mandating physical distancing in the maiden days of Corona era. Penniless hungry walking several sleepless nights just to reach their haven of peace, their wait for Godot was endless. Unheard cries and muffled sobs only led to the running of special trains with absolutely no trace of exclusivity. Similarly, now India becomes 7th highest’s coronavirus cases in the world. So, unlocking the lockdown will have heavy chance to increase in COVID cases rapidly. In addition to the pandemic, the natural disasters have taken a heavy toll on the already deteriorating Indian economy.

The historical trajectory of pandemics is quite ancient​ and​ is traced back to the time when humans as species came into existence. The worst-hit pandemic recorded in history so far is perhaps the Bubonic Plague (1346-50) popularly called the Black Death erasing about 30 to 50 per cent of the European population approximately. Although the outbreak of the noble virus has put a ginormous global population house-locked this is not the first instance of being quarantined.

Instances of quarantine and isolation at the behest of the pandemic are pre-historic dating back to the onset of Justinian plague. During the Bubonic plague, people indulged in physical distancing with the those infected and at times abandoning them completely. Another instance was that of a loaded cargo named Grand-Saint Antoine was quarantined in Marseille as a pre-emptive means contain the plague in the 1720s. Therefore, pandemic, as well as the strategies to stop them, are not new to the world. Almost every time a new outbreak has wreaked massive destruction before waning down.

Every century has witnessed at least an epidemic if not pandemic with catastrophic casualties. Historical analysis point at three causes that might be seen as triggering pandemics: international trades, urban population boom, and the dearth of medical knowledge. In the past trade among different countries led to the spread of the virus and interestingly human beings were the carrier. While speaking of the present crises there is no hiding the fact that the outbreak had rapid expansion owing to international travelling or connectivity.

Therefore, a major lapse on part of the Indian government could be seen as a delay in stopping such activities. This must be seen as a major cause behind the huge increase of the virus-infected numbers. Keeping in mind the huge populous of India the containment and travel restrictions should have been imposed much earlier. On the contrary, what happened was a complete fiasco. The reverse international migrations of the rich and affluent NRIs aggravated the contiguity of the virus. Whereas those at the grassroots could hardly make it to their homes, stranded and abandoned in a plethora of plights. The social media flooded with instances depicting the pathos of the poor migrants. While some are deprived of the privilege of giving birth some the privilege of death. There ​are ​instances of migrant women giving birth on roads on hand. On the other hand, there are heart-wrenching incidences of a child playing with the carcass of his mother. With no food, no shelter some souls departed heavy-hearted while the others ventured for an uncertain future. To add to their miseries, they have no facilities or privileges of safe home quarantine or work from home. Back at home they again encountered cyclonic storms or floods and locust-swarms.

Also, statistically more than 70% COVID cases in India have occurred in the urban areas. So, the major cause of rapid urbanisation holds true for the present pandemic as well. The high population density and unhealthy living conditions of the slums in India have had a catalytic effect on the existing crises. Those underprivileged migrant workers hailing from remote villages once moved to the cities to earn their bread were now compelled to regress with shattered dreams and broken roofs. Back at home, there is no respite with deluge, thunder-storms and pest-swarms. The last week had encountered hazards consecutively. While eastern India was bracing super-cyclone Amphan and storm-surge inundation, parts of Northern India were battling massive locust attacks.

At present India is on the verge of easing the lock-down which is yet another challenge for the underprivileged. With no assurance for basic amenities, they are unsure of what is awaiting them post the unlock phases. Will they be able to revive their livelihood and earn a stable income for supporting themselves and their families? Also, there lies a big question of whether they will ever return to their former workplaces? Will their contributions to huge projects remain unfinished? Besides the migrant labourers, there are several private employees who have lost their source of income, what would be the possible alternative to provide for them remains ambiguous.

Already the Indian government committed several mistakes during the different lockdown phases for the unplanned lockdown strategies and throughout these four lockdown phases centre couldn’t address the problems of migrant labourers. The nation’s head urges the citizens to be self-reliant in order to uphold the country’s economy. But what exactly will make people self-sufficient is ambiguous. There is no denying the fact that the nation is currently facing and will be facing economic crises for quite some-time. Will the poor and the under-privileged again be the ones to be affected the most? It is high time to take critical issues seriously without jeopardising lives. Healthy discussions must ensue on part of the officials before executing the unlock strategically.

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.

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