UNLIKE the deadly Ebola virus, which didn’t allow its carriers to travel any distance given its near imminent fatal score, the coronavirus travels faster through healthy and sick carriers alike. The virus is an equaliser of sorts and hounds every gender, race and class.
The UN secretary general was pleading for a $2 trillion contribution from the rich nations to support the global fight against the Covid-19 outbreak, roughly the amount the US has earmarked exclusively for itself. “The health catastrophe makes clear that we are only as strong as the weakest health system,” António Guterres reasoned with the wealthy nations ahead of their G20 meeting. “It is time for solidarity and, not exclusion,” Guterres suggested. Cut to Mumbai.
“We are broke to our last penny. There’s no shelter to stay the night, nor a toilet to go to, nor a paisa to buy something to eat. The seth has stopped our wages.” The helpless truck driver was being interviewed in Mumbai but he wanted desperately to return to his hometown thousands of miles away in Uttar Pradesh. The request comprised a double bind — damned if you do, and damned if you don’t. In a way, the truck drivers embodied the crisis faced by millions of migrant workers across India.
The word ‘seth’ is used commonly in overlapping ways. It could mean the owner or employer. It could mean a rich man. It usually refers to a moneylender or a capitalist, and Sahir Ludhianvi used it in the latter sense in describing a very old problem the working class faces in Indian cities. And he was writing at least six decades ago.
It’s a sorry sight to see the poor being made to crawl in punishment.
“Jitni bhi bilduinge’n thi’n, Setho’n ne baat li hai’n/ Footpath Bambai ke, hai’n asihiya’n hamara.” (The seths have cornered all the buildings in Bombay. Fortunately, the footpaths offer shelter to our overworked bodies.) The lines belong to an acerbic poem Sahir employed to quiz Allama Iqbal’s elegy to India, “the best country in the world”. Iqbal was writing before the 1947 independence from colonialism. Sahir was describing the hard reality that Nehru had inherited.
Manmohan Singh sold a silver bullet to kill the grinding poverty. He offered a free market system, the benefits of which were garnered by the Bharatiya Janata Party, primarily the seths. There’s no dearth of dollar billionaires shoring up the right-wing party. Some of its financiers have featured in Forbes list of wealthiest individuals. Nazir Akbarabadi (1740-1830) described them in the poem Banjaranama as people seeking infinite wealth in a finite life.
As divisive as he is, President Donald Trump was not alone in initially projecting the disease as an exaggeration. However, Covid-19 knows how to extract a craven apology from the cynics. Boris Johnson is kneeling in prayers before the National Health Scheme he spared no opportunity to revile. And no marks for guessing which country after the outbreak of coronavirus began screening for fever at the arrival lounges of its international airports from mid-January, which was an excellent idea, and still continued its export of life-saving ventilators to foreign shores, including Israel.
India’s ban on their exports came on March 19, and that was after the much-maligned Rahul Gandhi raised alarm over a ‘criminal conspiracy’. That’s how crucial weeks (and ventilators) were lost in the life-and-death battle against the deadly outbreak in India.
The loss of those days turned into a nightmare by a sudden prime ministerial order for a 21-day lockdown. After ruminating over precious weeks for no good reason, two or three days of warning ahead of the debilitating nationwide lockdown would surely have eased the calamity, not worsened it, particularly for millions of migrant workers who now inadvertently pose a great threat to themselves, their families and everyone they are likely to meet.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi had resorted to a similar eventful gesture when he shut down 85 per cent of Indian currency overnight. The decision rankles as an unmitigated disaster for the economy and for the poor in particular. A three-day notice in Delhi would have allowed Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal and others to organise makeshift shelters and food with due care for social distancing required to keep a lid on the disease. Now tens of thousands had gathered on the Uttar Pradesh border because the UP chief minister (who broke the lockdown cynically in Ayodhya) promised to take them home and also to Bihar and Uttarakhand. But there were no buses, and few passengers had masks or sanitisers.
It’s a sorry sight to see the poor being made to crawl in punishment, ushering memories of the colonial-era Rowlatt Act. And then came the desperate call from the chief minister of a north-eastern state pleading with the prime minister to stop Indians from abusing people from his area because they look different.
This racism is not new, but has only resurfaced at a time when it should have been reined in at any cost. And what should the poor prime minister do? Should he be marshalling his resources to stall the outbreak, or will he now be weeding out a virus more deep-seated than the one threatening everyone equally?
One has seen right-wing groups doing excellent work during calamities. The Jamaat in Pakistan and the Shiv Sena and the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh in India are good examples. I have observed Shiv Sena workers picking up rotting corpses with bare hands after the Latur earthquake in Maharashtra. The RSS won applause with relief work in Andhra Pradesh after a destructive cyclone in the 1970s.
But the coronavirus is different kettle of fish. It needs a cadre equipped with scientific training, like Fidel Castro’s magical doctors, China’s disciplined medical corps, and Kerala’s highly experienced people. The common factor between them is high literacy, and a commitment to the most defenceless, somewhat like the army of 400,000 volunteers raised overnight in the UK.
The writer is Dawn’s correspondent in Delhi.
Published in Dawn, March 31st, 2020