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Lives in the second wave

A week ago, Meena lost her job the sixth time. “It’s the second wave, Meena. You may not be knowing how many people are dying each day. But trust me, most of the infection is being carried by maids. Better, you just take off for a couple of weeks,” her employer said.

Meena’s son stopped going to the school long ago, and after her husband had to give up the rented autorickshaw, he had been unemployed for more than eight months. A maid’s job is one of the least paid, and Meena tried to compensate by serving as many houses as possible. Her mask was stained with repeated use, and though entry into apartments was barred for those without a proper mask, residents rarely offered one.

When her mother passed away in the village, Meena could not go for the last rites as she was afraid of losing her job. For a few months, households had been refusing her one by one, and a week ago, the last bit of her earnings was gone. She walked home, trying to suppress a cough, lost in thoughts of hunger.

Hungry and homeless

In the same slum, Bhavani was a well-known face. He was in his 50s and was homeless. His clothes were tattered and the daily meals would not come from the local teashop as it closed for the second time now. Bhavani would sit on the footpath near the five-point signal in the afternoon sun and gaze at the busy crowd. But he has never begged, not even when hungry and cold during the lockdown last year.

Bhavani had a knack for searching the corporation dustbin for reusables and had recently discovered a multi-coloured mask which he deemed suitable for his frail mother who was homeless just like him. Bhavani and his mother had not eaten since morning. With a blank stare, both of them stood on the pavement as the sun set.

Tarun was usually posted near this signal. It has been his duty as a traffic constable for years. “What should I control when there is no traffic,” Tarun smiled. His smile was soon replaced by the terrifying thought that his duty was coming to an end. That meant he had to go back to his family. Two rooms held four people, including Tarun and his ailing father. It has become regular to hear about deaths in the neighbourhood.

Always being posted on the open streets for duty, Tarun spent sleepless nights on the balcony, feeling like a criminal responsible for carrying and spreading the virus. He had not hugged his five-year-old son in days.

Walking past this tired traffic constable was Ratan, who had returned that morning from Mumbai, spending triple the train fare to escape an imminent lockdown. He had forfeited his job, savings, dignity and shelter after being forced to leave his job for the second time in a year. Throughout his tiring journey back home, he got used to the looks of disgust and hate, nearly convinced that he was the source of the pandemic.

With two sisters in school, a brother in college and elderly parents, Ratan did not understand what was more concerning: how to obtain the vaccinations to keep them safe or how to get some cash to help them survive.

Ratan’s sister Neha awaits her board exams in the suburbs. She is yet grasping the “new normal” of online classes, courtesy a smartphone provided by a local NGO. As her mind wanders off to the open playgrounds, tiffin boxes and classroom bells, Neha struggles with bandwidth. Classes barely move beyond “Am I audible?”

A few blocks away, in a posh apartment of the city, Parameshwar was alone. He did not feel like having his dinner or even “Zooming” to have the usual talk with his children in the U.S. He was breathless and in pain; he knew this would happen. He has been concealing his symptoms for days now with a fear that he had to leave his room, his bed, his only company. He sat on the balcony gazing at the moonlit sky, and the last thing he remembered was the smile of his newborn granddaughter, whom he could never touch in-person.

Dreaded history

People like Meena, Bhavani, Tarun, Ratan and Parameshwar are real and not some estimated percentages in a COVID-19 database. They live amid us. These faces and stories which are re-emerging with the second wave, remind us of the dreaded history a year ago. They are all trying to stay positive, fight back the pandemic and live through adversities in their own way. Be it the fear of losing jobs, or not being able to meet the family, or the painful loneliness among riches, or not able to get vaccinated, or being labelled as the “virus-spreader” or staying perpetually hungry or just struggling for survival, anxiety is all pervading in every sphere of our life.

Let us take a step back and think, what could have happened if domestic helps were not labelled for spreading illness; homeless and stateless people were provided some protection; frontline workers received psychological support; migrant workers had means of restoring respect and social security; and individuals had hands of ‘love and support’ even in their last moments.

What could have happened if as a society we all cared and worked for their mental well-being?

(Dr. Banerjee is a psychiatrist and Dr. Chandra is a Professor of Psychiatry at NIMHANS, Bangalore)


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Printable version | Jun 21, 2021 9:45:10 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/open-page/lives-in-the-second-wave/article34564380.ece

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