When it’s crime to be poor

She hurtles down the empty road clutching the lifeless body of her three-year-old son, howling. Her husband walks after her, their other child in his arms. A man, an onlooker, with a cell phone is filming them while walking with them. At some point she sits on the road, rending the air with her wails, her baby on her lap—his face serene in death.

I watched this viral video with my daughters sleeping by my side. Breathless, I listened to the sobbing father narrate how they went from hospital to hospital but were turned away, each one referring to another hospital. They got no ambulance. With the country in lockdown, they could find no public transport. The child eventually died.

My first thought was, hell this could be me! The helpless mother seat on the roadside with a dead child on her lap, wailing. I tried hard to imagine what it would be to be so helpless, and so poor to be refused even an ambulance. But I could not. I only felt helpless, and guilty.

He did not die of the virus. Neither did the 12-year-old girl who collapsed after walking 150 km for three days, trying to get to her home in Chhatisgarh in central India from the chilli fields of Telangana in south India where she worked. Nor the hundreds who succumbed to the hardships forced on them—the migrants on their way home, non-covid patients denied treatment, food and care—by the harsh nationwide lockdown. Their deaths are not part of the carefully collated and routinely updated covid statistics. They were not killed by the virus, but the lockdown meant to save people from the virus. It seems as if it’s decided, a choice was made as to who gets to live in these times; and it’s certainly not the poor.

India has been shut since March 25. Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced the lockdown at 8pm on March 24, effective from midnight. In that short notice, those with money crowded at shops for essentials. Migrant workers in cities were being rendered jobless. Faced with the impossible task of living in a city without work and their landlords asking them to vacate, their only hope was home where at least food was guaranteed.

“Morons,” my friends commented on Facebook. “Who told them to go out of their homes? Don’t they understand what a lockdown is? These people are going to fail us.” My friends, like me, are privileged. They have a stable roof above their heads, their families around them and food stocked in their kitchens. It is easy from there to say anything you feel like.

Even as India is battling coronavirus, a major humanitarian crisis has gripped the nation. Even after a month of the lockdown, the country’s highways are teeming with home-bound migrants. But, barring a few independent and international media, no one is interested in their stories. In all my years of growing up in this poor, “developing” country never I have seen so much neglect and contempt for the poor. It is as if being poor is a crime.

The casual dehumanising of the poor and stripping them of all dignity is alarming. A group of migrants were made to squat on the road and then sprayed with a harmful disinfectant solution when they returned to their hometown of Bareilly in Uttar Pradesh. Can you imagine the rich being treated like this? Not only was the treatment humiliating, the chemical solution was harmful too.

Also, there’s this easy assumption that poor people will easily line up for free food. Even if—theoretically speaking—it is possible to feed everyone in this country (be it through private donations or government dole), it is wrong to assume the poor will line up with their empty bowls. It is not easy—the fall from being a hard-working daily-wage earner to an unemployed with a begging bowl. It must be extremely painful. But this pain remains totally unacknowledged. Neither the government, which it seems was thinking more about the rich than the poor while planning its coronavirus response, nor the privileged who love posting photos of themselves giving a packet of biscuit to the poor really seem to care.

However, India is not the only country where the poor are so neglected. Singapore, the model country in coronavirus response, is now seeing a really bad outbreak. Reason: it has neglected its poor migrant workers. “May Allah forgive us our sin of neglecting our dispossessed & poor citizens,” tweeted Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan after acknowledging the lockdown was called without giving a thought to the daily wage-earners. It’s the same story everywhere, only the format is different.

The pandemic will get over some day. What shall never stop haunting us is how we treated the poor when crisis struck.


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