A major humanitarian crisis unfurled in India the moment Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced the sudden and strict (perhaps the strictest and harshest in the world) coronavirus lockdown in end-March. Our highways were scenes of untold miseries of the migrant workers desperate to get home, of poor mothers desperate to access healthcare and sick kids dying in their arms.
It was around that time that I got to collaborate with the German digital magazine, Perspective Daily, to do a piece describing the helpless situation prevailing in India then. Translated into German and edited by Juliane Metzker, the story was published in the form of an open letter, addressed to the mother from Bihar who ran about the streets carrying her child who had just died due to lack of timely medical attention.
Click here to read the story in German on the website of Perspective Daily where it was first published. The following is the English version (with minor variations) of it.
Dear bereaved sister (and all you poor people),
Let me get straight to the point: it’s your fault.
I saw that viral video. I heard your wails. They felt like a thousand pins on my body. Your three-year-old son died in your arms as you and your husband literally ran from hospital to hospital. You were refused by ambulances; and thanks to the total lockdown, you got no public transport to take your ailing child to the referral hospital where they could treat him.
Your fault is that you are poor. And didn’t you know it’s a crime to be poor in this country? Especially now, in this season of pandemic, more than ever before.
Sorry, I am angry. I am angry because it helps me cope with my helplessness. I am angry with you, because who else can I be angry with? The government which announced this lockdown without thinking of you? Or the privileged people, like me, whose lives this lockdown will protect better, while risking yours? Let me be angry with you, and all you poor people, who I know are going through so much hardship to even pause and complain.
It’s past midnight and I write this letter, sitting on the bed with the two kids asleep by my side. Even as I write I know, thousands of migrant workers are on the streets, on inter-state and national highways. They’ve been walking for days and weeks now, from cities to their village homes, for hundreds and thousands of kilometres, their belongings on their heads and children on their shoulders.
Don’t know if it helps to know, but you are not alone, sister; there are millions suffering with you, like you. The abrupt and total lockdown of the country, aimed at containing the spread of coronavirus, has uprooted at least 40 million lives. Eight-year-old Rakesh, a ragpicker, died of hunger and illness in Bihar. Twelve-year-old Jamlo 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. Mukesh, a daily-wage worker near Delhi, sold his mobile to buy food for his family and then hanged himself.
Hundreds have already died, sister, hundreds—just trying to get home, or due to lack of food or treatment for their illnesses like tuberculosis and cancer. They are not part of covid statistics, mind you; they are casualties of a lockdown meant to prevent covid deaths.
A massive humanitarian crisis is underway. But who’s bothered? While the poor are worried hunger will get them before the virus and the rich fear lockdown boredom will kill them before anything else, the biggest concern for the government is the managing the optics.
Did you listen to Prime Minister Narendra Modiji’s speech announcing the lockdown? Did he have any word for people like you? A vast majority of Indians are poor like you, and nothing was said as to how you all will survive the lockdown—people for whom work-from-home is not an option and neither is social distancing. And what hygiene will you maintain when you have no access to clean water or enough money to buy a soap bar?
The government said it will directly transfer money to the accounts of the poor. Public broadcaster Doordarshan showed many women—all well-off, living in big homes—thanking Modiji for the sum of Rs 500 (5.9 euros). Did you get that tiny dole? Ninety-four per cent construction workers did not.
However, the govt has started work on the central vista project, which will redevelop Delhi’s central administrative district by 2024, at a cost of Rs 200 billion. Speak of priorities!
So, basically, you guys have been left to your own devices. What will you do? Giving up is never an option, though many I am told are doing so. Our only hope lies in people—people like you and me. At a time when the government has distanced itself from the people, especially the poor, the common people have come together to support each other, and feed each other, doing what a govt should ideally be doing.
In 13 states of India, NGOs have outperformed the government in providing free meals to the poor and migrant workers. Even some of my neighbours have come together to provide ration to families living in poverty, or those rendered jobless by the lockdown.
People helping each other with no consideration for their religious backgrounds give me the most hope. We live in highly polarised times, as you know already. After the media—I am sorry and ashamed of my fraternity—went on and on about how coronavirus is an Islamic conspiracy after many participants at the Muslim congregation tested positive, Islamophobia is seeing a new high. Yet, in spite of such divisive attempts in full view of a silent government, people have risen to help each other, burying religious differences. Hindus are giving Muslims burials and Muslims are cremating the Hindus when their relatives are unable to be present because of the lockdown, or otherwise. Chink of hope peeps through in dismal times.
This spirit of unity should see us through the pandemic, and beyond. It shall not be forgotten that when the state failed, we came together, stood by each other.
Before I sign off, sister, allow me to apologise. This is the least I can do. I wanted to tell you we are in it together, but I am only too aware of my privileges—I’m one of those “work from home” people with enough food in the kitchen. While the virus may not distinguish us, it certainly will hit us differently. The thought makes me feel so utterly helpless. And it amazes me how tolerant you are; and all those poor people suddenly rendered jobless and homeless in the cities due to a virus that came by flight with the rich people. This resilience and kindness on your part will save the day.
Living in hope,
A faraway sister.