The deadly virus COVID19 had engulfed the entire world and brought inexplicable misery to mankind, and India is no less traumatized by this pandemic as we hopelessly stare at a future that is so uncertain. However, as optimistic Indians, we are not only hopeful but certain that the power of intention would prevail and defeat the impending danger that hangs over our heads like the Damocles’ sword. This belief is firmly rooted in us because just like our soldiers stood guard along our borders for our safety, doctors, nurses, paramedics, sanitation workers and host of other humanitarian workers of this country are on the forefront fighting against this virus even at the cost of their own lives.
On March 22, 2020, at 5 pm, when the entire country stood up and cheered all these men and women of honour, we were moved emotionally because what we did for them in those five minutes was nothing compared to their sacrifices, therefore didn’t measure up even fractionally to what they did for us. But that cheering was not simply a token expression of gratitude to our doctors, nurses and other health workers, but it was the spirit of India shouting with the resolve that we shall stand as one in our fight against the invisible enemy. We are therefore certain that the small gesture we showed would bring out the best steel out of them and hardened their resolves further.
In the midst of those thousands who stood up for all us, there are several of our brothers and sisters from states of Northeast India, who made every one of us from the region even prouder. However, what we saw in the last few weeks have been disappointing and shameful. People from the region, including the same doctors and nurses are being racially abused, calling them “Coronavirus” in different parts of India and the national capital Delhi. Such behaviours are disgusting and spoke volumes about the utter ignorance of mainland India about the region. They have shamed the country and watered down that burning spirit of one India; of which people of north-east were also proudly part of. With a heavy heart, I reproduce a Social media post written by a nurse from the north-east who is presently serving in Bangaluru (Karnataka), and who in all humility does not want to be identified. She wrote,
“Today at 7:20 pm as I stood in front of a shop to buy some dry fruits to sustain me during my 14-hours night shift, a little kid who stood next to me looked up and ran screaming “coronavirus”. I know kids aren’t born racist. They were taught to be racist by people close to them. If only I could explain to this little kid that I am getting ready to handle people who tested positive for coronavirus, people who don’t look like me in appearance but different, it would have made me feel better. But I knew the kid wouldn’t understand that complex explanation from me. Yes, I am from Northeast India saving lives in South India. Racism is a disease suffered by adults, which now catches kids as well, and it hurts. This little kid will never know that I will be inside an isolation room with a “positive tested corona case” for 14 hours, breathing the same air, helping the patient sit up, walk and urinate. I will be fully covered with Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) suit from head to toe. For 14 hours I will not be able to eat or drink a single drop of water or urinate or open the isolation room door, because if I do so, I will have to re-shower and re-wear the entire PPE suit again. Most importantly, I cannot leave my sick patient alone in the isolated room even for few seconds because my patient is my priority. I am posting this message not because I am angry with the Kid, but only to convey a message to the adults that some of you may be racial and would like to call me “coronavirus” because you are suffering from a disease called “Racism”. But I am not sick with that disease, therefore I shall continue to take care of my patients who don’t look like me, but like you”.
This is just one experience of a nurse that I have decided to highlight. Day in and day out, people from the Northeast are facing racial slur in these days of Corona crisis. In Delhi, Landlords had happily kept students from north-east in their houses as tenants because many of them don’t insist on rent agreements as other tenants did. They found this arrangement best suited for evading taxes. Today, they suddenly found them to be potential carriers of coronavirus because they resemble Chinese in appearance. In Kolkata, two ladies from Sikkim were addressed as “Coronavirus” though they have been residents in that city for several years and spoke Bengali as fluent as any other. In an Ahmedabad popular salon, a lady customer refused to be serviced by north-east girls because she suspected they could be carriers of the Coronavirus. In north Goa, two doctors from Northeast who were on a visit were addressed as Corona by some venders, and when rebuked in fluent Hindi, they denied having used the word. The list goes on and on.
As a proud northeasterner, I dare say that in this massive country, nurses from the region are everywhere, serving India’s sick with devotion and dedication worthy of the noble profession they took up. They are next only to nurses from Kerala in terms of numbers, and today when the country is grappling to tackle the deadly virus, they are all right up there in front ahead of everyone fighting the “Corona”, a virus that threatens to kill everyone, including those who disrespectfully call them “Coronavirus”, their families and relatives. Like that Bengaluru nurse who refused to be cowed down by the bitter experience she had, the rest of them too shall surely outshone such mean-mindedness and racial prejudice and continue to live up to their expectations. Mentionable that it is almost six years since Bezbaruah Committee on Racial Discrimination had submitted its report to the Government of India, containing suggestions – both short term and long term measures. However, on the ground, we found no change in the way people of the region are treated. It is time State governments take up the issue with the Centre and their counterparts strongly.
(The author is a retired IPS officer. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Views expressed are personal)