Back in December, we first started hearing whispers of a disease in China. A flu virus which had infected quite a few people. We had bigger fish to fry. Back in December, the disasterclass of the Assam National Register of Citizens had unfolded, with millions of Hindus having been declared as foreigners. Political commentators dubbed it as an own goal from the BJP, who were gleefully rubbing their hands at the prospect of Justice Gogoi harrying and hurrying the NRC coordinator to complete the list. As BJP backpedaled to ensure that their Hindu votes in Assam didn’t get thrown out and the popular sentiment didn’t question their motives, they introduced the wonderfully un-subtle Citizenship Amendment Bill. The CAB gave citizenship to all non-Muslim refugees who arrived in India before 2014. Protests broke out, cases were filed, the CAB rolled on and became the CAA (Citizenship Amendment Act, 2019). India was protesting in January, we started hearing murmurs of an infectious disease in January, Delhi was voting in February, Delhi was rioting in February, Liverpool lost their first league match in February, and people started stocking up on masks and sanitizers in February.
Come the March, cometh some Italian tourists to visit our famous sex sculpture caves in Khajuraho. It is a tad unfair to target these individuals as the first carriers of the disease, as they are merely the first reported carriers. Who knows how many have been flying in and out of this country for the past three months? Anyway, they left, but left something to remember them by. It was official, Coronavirus, aka COVID-19, was here to stay.
India was slow to wake up to the virus, but it soon swung into action. By mid-March, many states have announced social distancing and work from home policies, with some making this mandatory. A lot has been said about the testing, the efficacy and efficiency, the flaws in our healthcare system (which I had written about here). Lets not rehash the same. There should be, and hopefully will be, many studies conducted that analyze the lacunae in our medical responsiveness and healthcare system. I want to focus on another perspective, namely, the vulnerability of certain classes of society when society comes to a standstill.
I went out for a quick grocery run last night, a day before the Prime Minister’s Janta Curfew was to take effect. I noted a state of panic in the streets, with people doing their best to buy and sell as much as possible. The people wanted to hoard as much as they could to the point they feel safe. The hawkers and shop-less vendors conducted as much trade as possible, to offset any possible losses today and for the next few days, weeks or even months. Maids refused to take off-days, since they needed the paycheck to feed their families. Families refusing to give maids a paid off-day, with winsome arguments like “Accha so will you wash the clothes, sweep the floors, cook and do the dishes?”, and the ironically egalitarian logic of “I may not get my bonus this year, and may even get a pay cut. I am still retaining her employment, its only fair to cut her pay na? Why should I fund this maid for free? Corona is a force majeure, and I am still doing the best I can.” Well, for one, if you do not recognize the difference between your Rs 10 lakh bonus or a slight pay cut in your Rs 3 lakh monthly earnings, and the Rs 60 that the maid earns for making your day possible, you are a majeure asshat. Some are innocuous, arguing that even if they stop asking the maid to come, others still will, so they might as well. Some are downright scummy employers, going out of their way to ensure people show up even if means their death.
This virus must have given many people some idea on how poverty is cripplingly vulnerable. Not everyone has a job that can be done remotely. Not everyone has a job that can afford to, and is inclined to, pay them even if they don’t show up. Social inequality is the root to many many problems in the world today, and it is a cycle that has perpetuated itself over millions of years, with the well-offs at their peaks having stepped on the fingers and faces of others. Caste, class, sexism and patriarchy has propelled a select few to the upper echelons of society. In these troubled times, COVID lifts a mirror and shows us what we are as a society. It is up to us to learn a lesson and continue discussing this larger societal disease long after the shadow of this current disease moves on. Society moves on. I hope society doesn’t continue to mow on.