Migrant workers

Across countries, social groups, communities, religions, castes, gender, at this very moment a different kind of unity seems to be taking place. Covid-19 has become a new, overarching and ubiquitous reality, perhaps one nightmarish truth for all of us that has taken over everything else.

Certainly, it is one of the deadliest viruses which has put the world in peril. The intensity and rapidity with which it spreads, infecting thousands in a short span of time has created a despicable situation. Its novelty has just added to its catastrophic nature where we are still uncertain about how long will it take to research, examine and hopefully proceed towards discovering an antidote.

However, the question is, does this fatalistic virus which originates outside us and threatens our physiological well being the only source of crisis today? What about the virus which lies inside us, produce, reproduced and reinforced by the society and in turn sustain by our actions and attitudes.

It is usually said that after any major crisis that the world witnesses, the course of history takes a dramatic shift. This made many people believe that the pandemic no matter how much hardship it will bring, perhaps is a new moment, a harbinger of a positive change.

The hope that human beings will become more compassionate and caring and will realize the value of life was widely expressed both in social media as well as through everyday conversations at home. But, such hopes and beliefs were shattered too early and much before we even could see a little possibility of overcoming this challenging situation.

One of the first concomitant phenomena of coronavirus which is equally deleterious and disrupted a hope for better morrow is racism. In no time the people in the western countries began discriminating people from Asia, accusing them of being the carrier of the virus, not actually acknowledging that it is the western arrogance and the superiority complex syndrome which at the very onset made them ignore the harmful character of the virus.

Given the fact the obsession and pride western nations seemingly have with their advancement in science and technology, they ought to believe that they are always invincible in the face of any crisis. Thus, prioritizing the “stock market” over an alien virus seemed more important to them as their perceived invincibility is intrinsically related to the smooth functioning of the “market”.

This time, however, the countries of the west had to pay a huge price for their ignorance which was nothing but a result of their superciliousness. It is very ironic that the virus which they blatantly neglected has now become the greatest threat to their race- which has been the ultimate source of their sense of supremacy and vanity for centuries.

In India the very first evidence of shattering what seems now like a futile hope occurred much before it witnessed the real intensity of the virus. It was when in Mumbai, a Naga girl who came to visit her friend was abused verbally by the neighbours of her friend’s flat as they were stubborn in their belief that she was from China and thus was infected by the virus [1].

In spite of assuring repeatedly that she was not from China, the adamant neighbors’ racist slurs just continued and became intensified. Though we are familiar with such remarks and racism, what we least expected that when the major source of the outbreak would have no relation even remotely with the region of the northeast and nor its people, these racist attacks would take a much uglier form.

Physical abuse (to be more precise spitting) and throwing people out of their rented places by the landlords in different parts of the country would just become a piece of daily news even when the spread of the virus would be at its peak latter.

The second blow to that hope for realization and reflection came from news of increasing domestic violence due to the imposition of lockdowns by several states. Cases of domestic abuses have been reported across the world which is a triggering point to ponder where we have gone wrong in terms of gender just and equal society as these words just seems to be empty rhetoric.

As the United Nations Secretary-General appealed to the governments of all the countries to put the safety of their women first in the face of surging instances of domestic violence, it can be understood the acuteness of this heinous crime[2].But the question remains ,are we really paying enough attention to this abhorrent phenomenon which has killed more women in the past than this pandemic? And now, with the lockdown, the threat that women are facing at their homes which is considered as the safest haven amidst the global health crisis is unimaginable.

Countries like France, Spain, UK have already recognised this violence and certain initiatives have also been taken to curb it[3]. In India, till 16th April, the National Commission of Women has reported 587 cases of domestic violence across the country[4]. This is just the reported cases and it needs not to say that in reality, the figures may double up since many instances go unregistered and especially now, when women are living constantly with the abuser at home.

It is being contended that lockdown stress, financial uncertainty, and inaccessibility to alcohol are some of the major reasons for growing domestic violence during the pandemic. Well, it might be true but it cannot obscure the entrenched ideology of gender difference where men (to be precise cismen) are regarded superior, their bodies are seen as the norm and their actions are legitimised based on these values that all patriarchal societies approve. Domestic violence has once again exposed the persisting gender inequalities in spite of the hue and cry about women’s emancipation in the 21st century.

Once the lockdown started globally, another harsh reality shattered the hope for a new world. It is the plight of the labour class, mostly working in the informal sector. This was profoundly witnessed in India where the economy is thrived and sustained by these lakhs of people working tirelessly , each day with minimal or no financial security and merely visible.

The lack of apathy towards this section of the population was also seen in the state’s policies to tackle the Covid-19 virus. Did they even figure in the precedent discussions and meetings to the lockdown between the state representatives? What followed the nationwide lockdown implies that the remedial measures seemed to have overlooked the repercussion of its sudden announcement which these workers would face.

Therefore, while the Prime Minister on March 21 asked the citizens to come out to their balconies and bang thalis to show gratitude to the healthcare workers, on other hand , the migrant workers living in shanties and squalor, experienced as if the entire roof has fallen on them. The havoc that the lockdown created was simply unimaginable.

Due to no prior policy to address the concern of this section, the workers who mostly survive on daily wage work, began flocking to bus depots and train stations in cities like Delhi and Mumbai where a large number of migrant workers are concentrated. But most of their efforts to go back to their villages went in vain as with a sudden lockdown, both the modes of transportation stood cancelled. What followed next was not only tragic but also very inhumane.

Thousands of labourers along with their family, comprising of infants to 90-year-olds started walking several miles to reach home. However, their plight did not end here. While for many the long walk was met with a sealed-border of their home states, the others experienced the brutality of the police in their bid to control the frenzied crowd of jobless workers.

Though, many state governments, as well as the centre, immediately responded to this ruckus by appealing to the people to stay back, reassuring them to provide basic amenities and in some cases special bus services to reach their homes. But the question remains does that solve the problem which myriad of these labourers are facing?

We have seen the result of the inadequacy of these ad-hoc measures which forced many labourers to walk miles only to be succumbed by tragic deaths. How do we understand the state’s dismissal to take cognizance of the existence of this section of the population in the very first place? What does it exactly tell us about our public policies at times of crisis and also in general? The answer is what we all know but just our privileges make it obscure. It is loud and clear, if you are poor and marginalised, (also consider the overlap of caste and class here) then, you hardly appear in the public of the “public policy”

The last heartbreaking case is the growing Islamophobia in the country. What could worsen the already wretched scenario is associating and targeting people of a particular religion to be the culprits in spreading the virus and ruining the condition of the country. Though the politics of blame game is not new in global as well in Indian politics, what was most disdainful was giving fuel to the Islamophobic tendency in an already polarized country through a deadly combination of Corona virus and communalism.

It all began with the religious congregation organized by the Tablighi Jamaat (TJ), which is a small sub group of the Deoband school of the Sunni sect of Islam. The school itself has differences with TJ and even, a large section of the Muslim community in India neither support his views nor the TJ.

It should be noted in this context that Islam is not a homogenous religion but consists of a number of sects and sub-sects. TJ is one such sect and Nizamuddin mosque has been kept in the loop to conduct its activities for the last 100 years. Every two years the congregation is being organized and this time too the same was done. It meant that since last year onwards preparation had been going on which also hosts many foreign nationals. The congregation took place between March 13 and 15, two days before the Delhi government declared a lockdown and also prior to the countrywide lockdown was announced by the Prime Minister.

Though until the March 15 religious congregation was not banned, nonetheless, organising the congregation is not only stupidity but also an incorrigible mistake. It not only jeopardized the lives of its followers and others but also disrespected the Quaran[5]. While, criticizing the role played by Maulana Asaad, it is equally important to look at the discrepancies which the Delhi state authorities have committed.

In their press release, Tablighi Jamaat has clarified that they in fact had contacted the officials in order to evacuate a large number of people who got stranded inside the mosque as the lockdown began. Even before the congregation, the authorities were informed about the gathering and there was constant correspondence between both sides.

If this is the case, then why in the first instance, it was allowed to be organised? The question also arises in the lack of efficiency in testing people at the airports coming from outside the country as it was believed that the followers who came from abroad brought the virus with them. Another crucial question is why necessary steps and prudence was not observed when Telangana reported on March 22 that it detected two possible cases in people who attended the jamaat.

The list of questions can continue but what needs to be understood is that this fiasco is the culmination of both religious orthodoxy and mismanagement of the authority. However, what is most contemptible and pathetic is the united effort of many media houses as well as fringe elements to fuel Islamophobia by labeling the entire community as the “super-spreader” (as the headline of one of the forefront news channel flashed out) of the virus.

In no less time, they were ready with their own narratives and doctored videos to incriminate how Muslims have been most irresponsible and therefore need to be castigated. Trolls and online abuses just deteriorated the scenario, creating versions where Tablighi jamaat was shown as coterminous to all the Muslims and even suspected them to plot a conspiracy to commit homicide against “Indians”.

Clearly, a very deleterious process of othering began which further reinforced by the reckless and insensitive media briefing sessions of the government officials. The matter became so volatile that in various parts of the country Muslims were stigmatized and physically and mentally abused. Thus, the question arises, ain’t this equally despicable and irresponsible act on the part of the media and the government to label the entire Muslim community culpable for spreading COVID-19 , just like the insensitivity of the Tablighi leadership?

These are just a few incidents that have taken place after the outbreak of COVID -19 which actually mirrors the reality of the time we are living in. There are many more, for instance, attacks on  medical staff, misusing Unlawful Activities Prevention Act( UAPA ) or  clearance for an hydroelectric project in the Dibang Valley which time and again reminds us of our failure as human beings and the collective which we have spun, i,e; the society.

We are very concerned about the impact of the pandemic and in our bid to fight it some of us have also contributed to the funds set by the government. But at the same time, we do not hesitate a moment to send a forward in whatsapp, full of hatred and stigma towards a particular section without even checking the authenticity of the fact. The government is equally indulging itself in unwarranted and mindless expenditures in the name of showing respect to the frontline workers while lagging in providing the requisite infrastructure to ensure their safety such as the PPE kits and thereby giving the respect and dignity which they really deserve.

Therefore, when someone says, “we are together in this”, I couldn’t but get amused by our capacity as human beings to be such hypocrites and specious. Coronavirus is just an excuse for those who wear privilege on their sleeves without even acknowledging it that their notion of getting rid of all the wrongs while overcoming the life threatening virus is nothing but a blatant indifference to the looming problems.

It seems that as if there is a magic wand which can also cure the social viruses living and growing inside us. Nevertheless, if we really think that we need a pandemic to realise the virtues of love, care, and compassion and to bring a new reformation to the whole of humanity, then isn’t this the most shameful and sad moment for all of us? There is definitely something wrong within us!

Endnotes

[1] https://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/city/mumbai/mumbai-coronavirus-scare-leads-to-fight-in-chembur-society/articleshow/74143836.cms

[2] https://www.npr.org/sections/coronavirus-live-updates/2020/04/06/827908402/global-lockdowns-resulting-in-horrifying-surge-in-domestic-violence-u-n-warns

[3] https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2020/04/locked-abusers-india-domestic-violence-surge-200415092014621.html

[4] https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2020/04/locked-abusers-india-domestic-violence-surge-200415092014621.html

[5] https://thewire.in/communalism/coronavirus-criminal-liability-of-tablighi-jamaat

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