by Amrita Bhatia
The first case of the COVID-19 in India was reported on 30th January in a student who had returned from Wuhan for a vacation in the state of Kerala. The spread of the virus was initially low as it was contained after 2 other students in Kerala were tested positive, and were discharged after recovery. India was seemingly COVID-free for a month till two new cases were reported on 2nd March, when the virus began to spread gradually. The following weeks involved active air travel with a mission to bring home the citizens scattered in various hotspots across the world. India’s response, with its surveillance, travel restrictions, closing international borders, airport screenings and more, was “quite robust”, according to WHO’s Chief Scientist. However, while the government might be putting surveillance technologies to seemingly “good” use, there are other things going haywire in the middle of this commotion. From communal sentiments and racism, to fake news on cow urine curing the Coronavirus, India faces many problems in its politically charged environment.
On 24th March, India embarked on the world’s largest nation-wide lockdown (announced overnight!) of 1.3 billion people, with an exemption to essential services. This included a complete stop to flights entering and exiting the country and massive restrictions on travelling within the country as well. While the WHO lauded India over its quick response, a series of challenges and a humanitarian crisis began.
As portions of the population began to “work from home”, factories and businesses closed down rendering many migrant and daily wage workers effectively unemployed. Left with little or no savings and no means to sustain a livelihood, on the first few days of the lockdown, they began their journey to walk hundreds of kilometers to go back home. Gaining considerable attention of the media, states announced bus services to ensure safer travel, but problems of poor health facilities in home states (most of them being Bihar, Odisha and Uttar Pradesh) are also posing a threat to such groups. To add to this, a rather discriminatory tactic of spraying disinfectants on migrating groups also caused outrage this week, throwing light on the casteist and classist angle of the act.
Days before the lockdown, people travelled in large numbers to the Delhi headquarters of the Islamic evangelical organisation, Tablighi Jamaat (TJ). The TJ ignored the guidelines banning gathering of 50 people or more and did not clear out its headquarters even after the lockdown was announced, which gave impetus to the Indian right-wing to communalise the lockdown. What the right-wing supporters conveniently forgot was the Chief Minister Adityanath’s (of the BJP) violation of the lockdown rules by travelling to take part in a religious (Hindu) ceremony; and this is just one such instance.
We have seen in many circumstances in 2019 and 2020, that in India the police do not think twice before resorting to violence, and the pandemic is no different. Soon after the lockdown, social media broke out with numerous videos of police using violence to enforce the measures, lashing out at citizens who are out to buy essentials like groceries or medicines. On 1st April, the video of a Police constable beating vegetable vendors and damaging the produce went viral, leading to his suspension from the forces. Not only are these brutal measures demeaning, but also prohibited under the law.
Kashmir faces many blockages in this lockdown, amidst its already existing decades of conflict and the clampdown by the Indian State since August. As the rest of the (privileged) nation relies on the internet to work from home or pay for groceries, Kashmir struggles with barely functioning 2G internet. This is creating impediments for doctors’ responses to the COVID crisis. Moreover, the hospitals are ill-equipped, with a shortage of health workers, posing a new rising fear among the people.
According to Indian authorities, we have not yet reached the community transmission stage, and are still on the local transmission stage, as of 30th March. This also means that India has not begun testing enough people, but is working to expand its testing capacity. As of 3rd April, the total reported cases crossed 2,000; with 56 deceased and 156 recovered patients. The lockdown will end on April 14th and the authorities do not plan to extend the lockdown as of now. The Prime Minister announced a ‘PM Cares Fund’ to mobilise emergency relief to fight coronavirus, with donations coming in from many sources. Attention of the international media, now diverted from the poor quarantine facilities, is towards two aspects of the lockdown – its “success” in controlling the pandemic and its failure to ensure the safety and lives of its citizens, regardless of their privilege.
The virus, as many public awareness campaigns tell us, does not discriminate, but the response of governments does, bringing into sharp focus the horrifying inequalities that countries have harboured. The most vulnerable populations of India deserve a lot more, and a lot better, than Prime Minister Modi’s “apology” for causing difficulties as a result of the lockdown. Here’s hoping the cacophony of the celebratory bartan banging (utensils) does not deafen us to the cries from the gross violations of human rights.