Saturday, March 2, 2024

A tale of two lockdowns

Photo: Shaheen Abdulla/Maktoob


As the coronavirus that causes COVID-19 spreads from continent to continent, governments have imposed lockdowns. However, “lockdown” means different things in different countries. Here I tell the tale of two kinds of lockdowns, seen through the eyes of Marianne and Bharti – both imaginary – but recounting real-world scenarios.

Marianne’s story:

One evening, our leader came on TV to tell us that there will be no school from Monday. We just had Friday to suddenly pack up all our things, copy a mountain of homework, say bye to friends and exchange phone numbers. On Monday, my parents went to office to pick up their stuff – they would be working from home too. We were to stay at home. I may not even meet my friend next door – we shout from windows though to talk. My mother has filled the fridge and the store cupboards but she has explained to me that there is no need to buy too much – it would not make sense to confine us to save us from the virus if that in fact killed us due to starvation. We now have to write passes to go out – father or mother write it and sign it. We can go out for one hour a day to shop for food or to play – but not to meet friends. My grandparents are worried because they are old and infirm but mother is allowed to go to help them. The yellow-jackets who marched down our streets so often in the last months shouting slogans, have disappeared. My big sister explained that the president suspended the controversial laws they were protesting – since the reason to protest is on “pause”, the protest can be on “pause” too. We get homework from the teacher every day by e-mail. But homework is classwork now. My dad worries that his students who live in smaller flats are suffering – some don’t even have a balcony – but at least they can go out for an hour every day. My dad could not find my favourite brand of muesli last week but he got a lot of other food. I wondered what happened to Fred, who was always to be found in front of the big supermarket and smiled a thanks when I handed him an apple from our shopping bag. My mum explained that there are “shelters” where the homeless have gone. For now, those who were on dole, are still being paid by the government. The “restaurant of the hearts” for hungry people are open and Fred can go there to eat. Sheela, my American friend from music class, called to say that her parents can stay longer – all foreigners have had their visas extended by 3 months without asking. My parents worry a lot – for the old people in the care homes, for the doctors who do not have enough equipment to protect themselves, but my big sister consoled me – she said that many research laboratories have given their own supplies to hospitals, that masks were being rationed for the use of doctors fighting the virus, and that the government is doing its best to buy more. I hope this ends soon. I miss my friends at school.

Bharti’s story:

One evening, our leader came on TV to tell us that no one will be allowed to leave home for any reason from mid-night onwards. My parents snorted, they had been waiting for this. Over the last weeks our kitchen filled up with mountains of rice and dal. Potatoes and onions started invading our small dining room and even crept under our beds. Mum filled a small suitcase with medicines for my grandparents who live with us. The next day onwards, the cleaning woman stopped coming, my parents are now doing the cooking, washing, cleaning, everything. They cannot go to work, but they work with their computers, and make many phone calls. My parents are very worried – they talk about it all the time. Sonu, the washer-man’s daughter had stepped out to buy milk for her children – she got beaten by police. My dad called Dhano-Ram, the man who sometimes drives us, to see if he needed money, now that he cannot take his taxi out. We have enough food for now but no fresh milk or vegetables. My parents are scared to go out to buy food – in case they are beaten. Yet one day I saw many people in saffron going towards the mandir. I have also seen pictures of many people walking, carrying babies or bags. I dare not ask my mum where they are going – she was crying, saying people are dying. Rakesh called yesterday to say that he is getting to see very sick patients but has no mask to protect himself. My dad was very angry – we have seen ministers on TV with masks. My teacher sends homework by phone – my nana and nani help me with it. I worry about Imran – on TV they are saying Muslims are to blame for this disease. But that cannot be – Imran is my brother’s best friend – and he is as afraid of the virus as us. I wish this ends soon – the fear is hard to live with. I want back a life without so much fear.

Background for Marianne’s story

A spectre is haunting Europe – the spectre of a viral annihilation. Countries initially reacted with disbelief – in spite of China’s experience: in the early days France held local elections, Spain allowed huge crowds to gather for the International Women’s day and so on. Western Europe, with some of the best and most egalitarian health care systems in the world, was in the middle of an epidemy of biblical proportions within weeks of reporting the first cases. Though the welfare state had been hollowed out in all these countries in the preceding decades, and in spite of dithering and certain incompetence, the response of governments has, by and large, been humane. Police has been strict but not brutal. After prolonged lockdown, some cases of over-reach are coming in, but a lot of social actions have also been taken. London and Paris have requisitioned hotels for the homeless, Spain has forbidden laying-off of workers, France has universally extended validity of permits to allow international migrants to stay on, supply chains are open, citizens are helping with the harvest – usually carried out by seasonal immigrants. Perhaps most importantly for Europe, the lack of manufacturing facility – for masks for example – is beginning to bite hard, and may help reverse the trend of allowing companies to shift their production overseas. Though there is, as says the title of Slavij Zizek’s iconic book, trouble in paradise, paradise has not totally unravelled – yet. Its citizens are daring to dream that, with more funding for healthcare and research, the world post nightmare may look better than the one before.

Background for Bharti’s story

India has been a mass of contradictions since it conception over seventy years ago. Next only to China in population, and embodying as much diversity as entire continents, perhaps its inequalities are natural. Its progressive constitution gave India a tool to mitigate millennia of caste induced social fracture – a device only partially and imperfectly wielded, but the book left it to successive governments to mitigate economic fractures as best as they could. As a result, India has the dubious distinction of having world-class hospitals but an abject bed-to-people ratio. Throughout the months of February and March, the virus kept arriving in India, brought in by its globe-trotting elite and thriving tourism. Throughout, India was busy waging a proxy war against its Muslims, instead of preparing for the looming pandemic.

When the virus did arrive with a vengeance, an old Colonial law drafted to fight an epidemy from a century ago was pressed to service. It is perhaps not surprising that cruelty is embedded in a law designed to protect colonial interests rather than people’s welfare. Now, as then, the focus is on containment of the disease at any cost – with no heed to the vulnerability of the under-privileged or indeed, any kind of human dignity. True to its habit of unleashing unplanned projects on its citizens, the government imposed a total lockdown on the population with only four hours’ notice late at night. It is one of the harshest and most stringent in the entire world. A migrant work-force, faced with eviction and starvation if they stayed where they were, decided to trek back to their home-towns and villages, provoking the largest human exodus in India since independence and partition. The police in most states, unsympathetic and arbitrary at best of times, unleashed unprecedented brutality to enforce the unenforceable lockdown. Meanwhile, the national government has put the onus of containment squarely on the states, without any substantial financial or logistic support. Testing rate is one of the lowest in the world, doctors are woefully short of gear – amid rumours that masks are being diverted for VIP use. In a sleight of hand, while the opposition has called for unity, government-friendly news outlets are blaming the Muslim community for the spread of the virus, while Hindu rituals and festivals are allowed to proceed unabated, blatantly violating the confinement.

Much like in George Orwell’s Animal Farm, in India, some are now more equal than others. Heart-breaking scenes unfold every day in social media – the main-stream media having been largely gagged. Meanwhile, the harvest is rotting in the fields because there is no exception to the lockdown for farmers and distributers. India, which recorded fabulous economic growth in the last decades, has now accepted record aid from the World Bank. The prime minister has launched the so-called “PMCares” fund – with exemption from public scrutiny – raising the question of why the government coffers are empty and why vanity projects are not being dropped.

In spite of gathering darkness however, the solidarity shown by many ordinary people has been a spark of light. Many grassroots organizations and newly formed citizen’s initiatives have come to the fore which, along with more established NGOs, trade-unions and a handful of states, are showing that hope is not extinct in India. May be its citizens too may dare to dream that the world post nightmare may look better than the one before – with more solidarity and less PR-stunts.


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