April 12, 2020
-Who can use the term “gone viral” now without
shuddering a little? Who can look at anything any more —
a door handle, a cardboard carton, a bag of vegetables —
without imagining it swarming with those unseeable,
undead, unliving blobs dotted with suction pads waiting
to fasten themselves on to our lungs?
Who can think
of kissing a stranger, jumping on to a bus or sending
their child to school without feeling real fear? Who can
think of ordinary pleasure and not assess its risk? Who
among us is not a quack epidemiologist, virologist,
statistician and prophet? Which scientist or doctor is
not secretly praying for a miracle? Which priest is not
— secretly, at least — submitting to science?
And even while
the virus proliferates, who could not be thrilled by the
swell of birdsong in cities, peacocks dancing at traffic
crossings and the silence in the skies?
number of cases worldwide this week crept over
a million. More than
50,000 people have died already. Projections suggest
that number will swell to hundreds of thousands, perhaps
more. The virus has moved freely along the pathways of
trade and international capital, and the terrible
illness it has brought in its wake has locked humans
down in their countries, their cities and their homes.
But unlike the
flow of capital, this virus seeks proliferation, not
profit, and has, therefore, inadvertently, to some
extent, reversed the direction of the flow. It has
mocked immigration controls, biometrics, digital
surveillance and every other kind of data analytics, and
struck hardest — thus far — in the richest, most
powerful nations of the world, bringing the engine of
capitalism to a juddering halt. Temporarily perhaps, but
at least long enough for us to examine its parts, make
an assessment and decide whether we want to help fix it,
or look for a better engine.
who are managing this pandemic are fond of speaking of
war. They don’t even use war as a metaphor, they use it
literally. But if it really were a war, then who would
be better prepared than the US? If it were not masks and
gloves that its frontline soldiers needed, but guns,
smart bombs, bunker busters, submarines, fighter jets
and nuclear bombs, would there be a shortage?
after night, from halfway across the world, some of us
watch the New
York governor’s press
briefings with a fascination that is hard to explain. We
follow the statistics, and hear the stories of
overwhelmed hospitals in the US, of underpaid,
overworked nurses having to make masks out of garbage
bin liners and old raincoats, risking everything to
bring succour to the sick. About states being forced to
bid against each other for ventilators, about doctors’
dilemmas over which patient should get one and which
left to die. And we think to ourselves, “My God! This
Are You Tired Of
The Lies And
No Advertising - No
Government Grants - This
Is Independent Media
The tragedy is immediate, real,
unfolding before our eyes. But it isn’t new. It
is the wreckage of a train that has been
careening down the track for years. Who doesn’t
remember the videos of “patient dumping” — sick
people, still in their hospital gowns, butt
naked, being surreptitiously dumped on street
corners? Hospital doors have too often been
closed to the less fortunate citizens of the US.
It hasn’t mattered how sick they’ve been, or how
much they’ve suffered.
At least not
until now — because now, in the era of the virus, a poor
person’s sickness can affect a wealthy society’s health.
And yet, even now, Bernie Sanders, the senator who has
relentlessly campaigned for healthcare for all, is
considered an outlier in his bid for the White House,
even by his own party.
And what of my
country, my poor-rich country, India, suspended
somewhere between feudalism and religious
fundamentalism, caste and capitalism, ruled by far-right
December, while China was fighting the outbreak of the
virus in Wuhan, the government of India was dealing with
a mass uprising by hundreds of thousands of its citizens
protesting against the brazenly discriminatory
law it had just passed
case of Covid-19 was reported in India on January 30,
only days after the honourable chief guest of our
Republic Day Parade, Amazon forest-eater and Covid-denier Jair
Bolsonaro, had left
Delhi. But there was too much to do in February for the
virus to be accommodated in the ruling party’s
timetable. There was the official visit of President
Donald Trump scheduled for the last week of the month.
He had been lured by the promise of an audience of 1m
people in a sports stadium in the state of Gujarat. All
that took money, and a great deal of time.
there were the Delhi Assembly elections that the
Bharatiya Janata Party was slated to lose unless it
upped its game, which it did, unleashing a vicious,
no-holds-barred Hindu nationalist campaign, replete with
threats of physical
violence and the
shooting of “traitors”.
It lost anyway.
So then there was punishment to be meted out to Delhi’s
Muslims, who were blamed for the humiliation. Armed mobs
of Hindu vigilantes, backed by the police, attacked
Muslims in the working-class neighbourhoods of
north-east Delhi. Houses, shops, mosques and schools
were burnt. Muslims who had been expecting the attack
fought back. More than 50 people, Muslims and some
Hindus, were killed.
into refugee camps in local graveyards. Mutilated bodies
were still being pulled out of the network of filthy,
stinking drains when government officials had their
first meeting about Covid-19 and most Indians first
began to hear about the existence of something called
March was busy
too. The first two weeks were devoted to toppling
the Congress government in the central Indian state
of Madhya Pradesh and installing a BJP government in
its place. On March 11 the World Health Organization
declared that Covid-19 was a pandemic. Two days
later, on March 13, the health ministry said that
corona “is not a health emergency”.
March 19, the Indian prime minister addressed the
nation. He hadn’t done much homework. He borrowed
the playbook from France and Italy. He told us of
the need for “social distancing” (easy to understand
for a society so steeped in the practice of caste)
and called for a day of “people’s curfew” on March
22. He said nothing about what his government was
going to do in the crisis, but he asked people to
come out on their balconies, and ring bells and bang
their pots and pans to salute health workers.
mention that, until that very moment, India had been
exporting protective gear and respiratory equipment,
instead of keeping it for Indian health workers and
surprisingly, Narendra Modi’s request was met with
great enthusiasm. There were pot-banging marches,
community dances and processions. Not much social
distancing. In the days that followed, men jumped
into barrels of sacred cow dung, and BJP supporters
threw cow-urine drinking parties. Not to be outdone,
many Muslim organisations declared that the Almighty
was the answer to the virus and called for the
faithful to gather in mosques in numbers.
On March 24, at 8pm,
Modi appeared on TV again to announce that, from
midnight onwards, all of India would be under lockdown.
Markets would be closed. All transport, public as
well as private, would be disallowed.
He said he
was taking this decision not just as a prime
minister, but as our family elder. Who else can
decide, without consulting the state governments
that would have to deal with the fallout of this
decision, that a nation of 1.38bn people should be
locked down with zero preparation and with four
hours’ notice? His methods definitely give the
impression that India’s prime minister thinks of
citizens as a hostile force that needs to be
ambushed, taken by surprise, but never trusted.
we were. Many health professionals and
epidemiologists have applauded this move. Perhaps
they are right in theory. But surely none of them
can support the calamitous lack of planning or
preparedness that turned the world’s biggest, most
punitive lockdown into the exact opposite of what it
was meant to achieve.
The man who
loves spectacles created the mother of all
appalled world watched, India revealed herself in
all her shame — her brutal, structural, social and
economic inequality, her callous indifference to
lockdown worked like a chemical experiment that
suddenly illuminated hidden things. As shops,
restaurants, factories and the construction industry
shut down, as the wealthy and the middle classes
enclosed themselves in gated colonies, our towns and
megacities began to extrude their working-class
citizens — their migrant workers — like so much
driven out by their employers and landlords,
millions of impoverished, hungry, thirsty people,
young and old, men, women, children, sick people,
blind people, disabled people, with nowhere else to
go, with no public transport in sight, began a long
march home to their
villages. They walked for days, towards Badaun,
Agra, Azamgarh, Aligarh, Lucknow, Gorakhpur —
hundreds of kilometres away. Some died on the way.
they were going home potentially to slow starvation.
Perhaps they even knew they could be carrying the
virus with them, and would infect their families,
their parents and grandparents back home, but they
desperately needed a shred of familiarity, shelter
and dignity, as well as food, if not love.
walked, some were beaten brutally and humiliated by
the police, who were charged with strictly enforcing
the curfew. Young men were made to crouch and frog
jump down the highway. Outside the town of Bareilly,
one group was herded together and hosed down with
days later, worried that the fleeing
spread the virus to villages, the government sealed
state borders even for walkers. People who had been
walking for days were stopped and forced to return
to camps in the cities they had just been forced to
people it evoked memories of the population transfer
of 1947, when India was divided and Pakistan was
born. Except that this current exodus was driven by
class divisions, not religion. Even still, these
were not India’s poorest people. These were people
who had (at least until now) work in the city and
homes to return to. The jobless, the homeless and
the despairing remained where they were, in the
cities as well as the countryside, where deep
distress was growing long before this tragedy
occurred. All through these horrible days, the home
affairs minister Amit Shah remained absent from
walking began in Delhi, I used a press pass from a
magazine I frequently write for to drive to Ghazipur,
on the border between Delhi and Uttar Pradesh.
was biblical. Or perhaps not. The Bible could not
have known numbers such as these. The lockdown to
enforce physical distancing had resulted in the
opposite — physical compression on an unthinkable
scale. This is true even within India’s towns and
cities. The main roads might be empty, but the poor
are sealed into cramped quarters in slums and
of the walking people I spoke to was worried about
the virus. But it was less real, less present in
their lives than looming unemployment, starvation
and the violence of the police. Of all the people I
spoke to that day, including a group of Muslim
tailors who had only weeks ago survived the
anti-Muslim attacks, one man’s words especially
troubled me. He was a carpenter called Ramjeet, who
planned to walk all the way to Gorakhpur near the
Modiji decided to do this, nobody told him about us.
Maybe he doesn’t know about us”, he said.
approximately 460m people.
State governments in India (as
in the US) have showed more heart and understanding
in the crisis. Trade unions, private citizens and
other collectives are distributing food and
emergency rations. The central government has been
slow to respond to their desperate appeals for
funds. It turns out that the prime minister’s
National Relief Fund has no ready cash available.
Instead, money from well-wishers is pouring into the
somewhat mysterious new PM-CARES fund. Pre-packaged
meals with Modi’s face on them have begun to
to this, the prime minister has shared his yoga
nidra videos, in which a morphed, animated Modi with
a dream body demonstrates yoga asanas to help people
deal with the stress of self-isolation.
narcissism is deeply troubling. Perhaps one of the
asanas could be a request-asana in which Modi
requests the French prime minister to allow us to
renege on the very troublesome Rafale fighter jet
deal and use that €7.8bn for desperately needed
emergency measures to support a few million hungry
people. Surely the French will understand.
the lockdown enters its second week, supply
chains have broken,
medicines and essential supplies are running low.
Thousands of truck drivers are still marooned on the
highways, with little food and water. Standing
crops, ready to be harvested, are slowly rotting.
economic crisis is here. The political crisis is
ongoing. The mainstream media has incorporated the
Covid story into its 24/7 toxic anti-Muslim
campaign. An organisation called the Tablighi Jamaat,
which held a meeting in Delhi before the lockdown
was announced, has turned out to be a “super
spreader”. That is being used to stigmatise and
demonise Muslims. The overall tone suggests that
Muslims invented the virus and have deliberately
spread it as a form of jihad.
crisis is still to come. Or not. We don’t know. If
and when it does, we can be sure it will be dealt
with, with all the prevailing prejudices of
religion, caste and class completely in place.
(April 2) in India, there are almost 2,000 confirmed
cases and 58 deaths. These are surely unreliable
numbers, based on woefully few tests. Expert opinion
varies wildly. Some predict millions of cases.
Others think the toll will be far less. We may never
know the real contours of the crisis, even when it
hits us. All we know is that the run on hospitals
has not yet begun.
public hospitals and clinics — which are unable to
cope with the almost 1m children who die of
diarrhoea, malnutrition and other health issues
every year, with the hundreds of thousands of
tuberculosis patients (a quarter of the world’s
cases), with a vast anaemic and malnourished
population vulnerable to any number of minor
illnesses that prove fatal for them — will not be
able to cope with a crisis that is like what Europe
and the US are dealing with now.
healthcare is more or less on hold as hospitals have
been turned over to the service of the virus. The
trauma centre of the legendary All India Institute
of Medical Sciences in Delhi is closed, the hundreds
of cancer patients known as cancer refugees who live
on the roads outside that huge hospital driven away
will fall sick and die at home. We may never
know their stories. They may not even become
statistics. We can only hope that the studies
that say the virus likes cold weather are
correct (though other researchers have cast
doubt on this). Never have a people longed so
irrationally and so much for a burning,
punishing Indian summer.
this thing that has happened to us? It’s a
virus, yes. In and of itself it holds no moral
brief. But it is definitely more than a virus.
Some believe it’s God’s way of bringing us to
our senses. Others that it’s a Chinese
conspiracy to take over the world.
Whatever it is, coronavirus has made the mighty
kneel and brought the world to a halt like
nothing else could. Our minds are still racing
back and forth, longing for a return to
“normality”, trying to stitch our future to our
past and refusing to acknowledge the rupture.
But the rupture exists. And in the midst of this
terrible despair, it offers us a chance to
rethink the doomsday machine we have built for
ourselves. Nothing could be worse than a return
Historically, pandemics have forced humans to
break with the past and imagine their world
anew. This one is no different. It is a portal,
a gateway between one world and the next.
choose to walk through it, dragging the
carcasses of our prejudice and hatred, our
avarice, our data banks and dead ideas, our dead
rivers and smoky skies behind us. Or we can walk
through lightly, with little luggage, ready to
imagine another world. And ready to fight for
with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, this material
is distributed without profit to those who have
expressed a prior interest in receiving the
included information for research and educational
purposes. Information Clearing House has no
affiliation whatsoever with the originator of
this article nor is Information ClearingHouse
endorsed or sponsored by the originator.)