Society

Journeys in India, Covid class

Illustration by Mihir Balantrapu

Illustration by Mihir Balantrapu  

There are no scripts to tackle a post-lockdown world, but we will ad lib our way through

Let me present two scenarios. In the first, an exhausted child is asleep on the suitcase his mother is dragging along behind her as she treks home across hundreds of kilometres. In the second, the Uttar Pradesh government is accusing the Congress of a “scam” because of 1,049 buses arranged to transport workers, only 879 are “buses”, while the rest are autos and — horror of horrors — even school buses and ambulances.

As I write this, both scenarios are playing out in parallel, filling one with impotent rage but also with shame that we alone among nations have failed to treat our workers with dignity and compassion. One marvels that a government capable of organising Kumbh Melas for 100 million people nonchalantly “forgot” to make arrangements for workers before the lockdown was announced. But so it was.

And like the unfolding of a comedy noir, even as restrictions are lifted one by one each day, the workers are still trudging home. Why, they might still be on the road when the lockdown lifts on May 31 and the rest of us begin our shopping expeditions. But who then will man the boutique counters and wait tables at restaurants? I suspect the same government that’s now debating the definition of a bus will organise air-conditioned transport to haul workers back.

But will the old jobs still exist in a post-pandemic world? I see visuals from China of restaurant tables shrouded in transparent tents enclosing solitary diners. From the US, there are images of bars with L-shaped partitions between stools. Near my own home, a vegetable market has come up with stalls partitioned by asbestos sheets and aisles separating shoppers, a far cry from the higgledy-piggledy jumble we used to call a mandi.

We have no script, no tools to survive in the new social order that is being birthed, and we’re obviously making up the lines as we go along. Like Sir Bedivere in Morte d’Arthur, I feel like saying, “For now I see the true old times are dead, when every morning brought a noble chance.” Indeed, there will be nothing noble or uplifting in our collective scramble to stay safe.

With no cure or vaccine in sight yet, I wonder how we will negotiate quotidian life. Already I sense a great tentativeness in inter-personal encounters. As soon as someone comes too close, we automatically reach for masks and avoid eye contact, unsure whether it is more impolite to be masked or unmasked. Hands are stretched out and as quickly withdrawn and hugs die unborn. For people suffering from allergies as I do, sneezing in public seems like an offence, and I feel compelled to apologise and launch into explanations. Will we dare cough in public again?

I am amused to think that an organism named SARS-CoV-2 might finally imbue Indians with a vague understanding of private space. I would like to believe that we will finally start queuing without attaching ourselves to the person in front with umbilical affection. And spitting! Will we allow that great Indian need to hack and thwack in public spaces continue unabated?

It is fascinating to think that a virus might literally rewire social mores. In Oregon, US, a strip club has morphed into a drive-through café, where masked, gloved and G-stringed hostesses double up to pole-dance on the kerb and deliver food to cars. I wonder, will masquerade balls make a comeback, this time with gloves on? Perhaps the element of danger, which once came from the risqué behaviour a mask allowed, will now lie in not knowing if you’re dancing with a Covid positive partner.

As the idea of being jammed in a plane or auditorium with hundreds of snifflers gets increasingly repugnant, I do believe we might now politely exchange test results as we once did visiting cards before we accept proximity. I can see posh dinner party RSVPs asking you to tick a Covid -ve box before you accept.

One thing, however, is certain. Even as irony coughs itself to death, what should change will not. Crowded and unsanitary slums will not be rebuilt. Working class amenities won’t improve. Public transport won’t be ramped up. Migrant workers will trudge back to their shabby rooms and millionaires will build in-house ICUs.

But worry not. The nomenclature will change: we will now call ourselves Covid haves and Covid have-nots.

Where the writer tries to make sense of society with seven hundred words and a bit of snark.

A letter from the Editor


Dear reader,

We have been keeping you up-to-date with information on the developments in India and the world that have a bearing on our health and wellbeing, our lives and livelihoods, during these difficult times. To enable wide dissemination of news that is in public interest, we have increased the number of articles that can be read free, and extended free trial periods. However, we have a request for those who can afford to subscribe: please do. As we fight disinformation and misinformation, and keep apace with the happenings, we need to commit greater resources to news gathering operations. We promise to deliver quality journalism that stays away from vested interest and political propaganda.

Support Quality Journalism
Recommended for you
This article is closed for comments.
Please Email the Editor

Printable version | Jun 5, 2020 10:41:51 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/society/on-how-the-indian-government-is-dealing-with-migrant-labourers/article31649693.ece

Next Story