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The Politics of a Pandemic in India

For the majority of the people in India, a nation-wide lockdown does not just mean not being able to go out or go to work. For the 450 million Indians who depend on daily wage earnings, not being able to work could mean death.

When the lockdown was first announced, hundreds of thousands of migrant labourers were forced to walk thousands of kilometres home, some of them with young children. With no vehicles accessible to them and little to no food for the route, at least 22 people died along the way. Those that do, may get sprayed by poisonous pesticides as they attempt to enter their villages in order to ‘clean’ them. Though those Indians flown in from places like London and Dubai have a higher risk of being exposed to COVID- 19 because of international travel, they are not treated in the same way. Now that lockdown has eased up and the government has opted to operate trains and buses in a limited capacity to bring these labourers home, reports are coming in about how labourers have been made to pay for their own tickets, despite having no income, at often double or triple regular cost. Homeless people and poor people who cannot afford to stock up on supplies are being brutally lathi-charged when they dare to step out and obtain their rations for the day.

The government, meanwhile, shows little to no sympathy, even lowering the salaries of those worst affected — primary healthcare workers — to obtain funds to donate to the newly minted “PM Cares foundation”. At the same time as this massive humanitarian crisis is happening, 20,000 crore rupees have been set aside to build a new parliament building. And, of course, any article on how badly the government is dealing with the situation that has arisen would go amiss without mentioning that Kashmir is still only running on 2G internet. While this causes massive disruptions to the lives of students and workers in Kashmir, it could prove fatal for those who have tested positive for coronavirus. Without steady, fast, and uninterrupted access to the internet, it is difficult for the doctors to access all this new data emerging that could save the lives of the patients they are treating. Many have pleaded with the Central government, but they are yet to respond.

The government, however, is yet to take any serious action of the kind being taken across the world. In the midst of a crisis where medical workers have little to no access to Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) and are making do with makeshift protection like raincoats and plastic bags that put them more at risk of contracting the virus, India exported 90 tonnes of medical protective equipment to Serbia. Yet again, the government has proved that profit is a far more motivating factor than the health of their citizens.

The BJP government has also tried to turn this into a PR campaign that proves the sort of stranglehold they have over the Indian populace. Where in countries like Italy, clapping and lighting candles for medical workers is a symbol of their support for those at the frontlines fighting this virus, in India, it has turned into a show of who supports the government and who does not. Those that do are celebrating this support even if it means putting themselves (and others) more at risk of contracting the disease and, thus, further threatening our already fragile medical system. Those that aren’t, especially minorities, are being targetted and violently attacked for what is perceived to be anti-national behaviour. It would do good to remind people at this time that the government is not and can never be the nation. The nation is the people. We are the ones who give them their power. They do not ‘give’ us our rights. Citizens are under no obligation, legal or otherwise, to support a government that does not support them.

Before the government announced a state of crisis over the spread of coronavirus, there was a Tablighi Jammat gathering held in Nizamuddin in Delhi that has led to a vast increase in cases. However, it has also led to an absolutely unwarranted amount of violent and communal messaging across social media platforms as #CoronaJihad has been trending. The fact that similar gatherings of Hindus were held across the country does not occur in this narrative. Mass media is also relatively quiet on reports of 3000 families being quarantined in Madhya Pradesh as a Hindu man returning from Dubai hid his travel history and attended his mother’s funeral, not knowing that he had coronavirus. Why is religion relevant in one case and not in the other?

Meanwhile, in the Southern state of Kerala, 20,000 crores have been designated for fighting COVID- 19, just within the state. The government has announced free rations for 2 months and is making an effort to deliver mid-day meals to the vulnerable students who are left without them as they are forced to remain home. While ministers at the Centre have shown their communal colours in the last 4 months, BS Yediyurappa — the Chef Minister of Kerala — fights against communal messaging, warning the perpetrators of such verbal and physical violence that they will be punished.

Communal hatred is not the only kind of violent behaviour being incited during these trying times. As cities go into lockdown and the Supreme Court advises police officers not to arrest anyone unless absolutely essential (and to decongest prisons as far as possible), arrests are being ordered of academics and journalists across the country on trumped-up charges. Anyone who dared to question the government (especially during the 3 months of protest prior to the pandemic) is being locked up and questioned. The government is using the pandemic to suppress any kind of dissent against their rule. It turns more and more authoritative with each passing day.

However, supporters of the government are not quick to pick up on these cues. People like Rangoli Chandel, known for being actress Kangana Ranaut’s sister, are advocating for a complete end to democracy as she calls for the 2024 elections to be cancelled in order to save money that could go towards the crisis.

As the pandemic rages across the nation causing hundreds of death, both as people get infected and because of the negligence of a badly implemented lockdown, politics continue with no end in sight. What is increasingly apparent as time goes on is that this is not a government for all the people, but a government for those few who their power depends upon. If you happen to be one of the privileged, there is no bad. If you happen to be anyone else, there is no good as private organisations are being forced to step in and feed citizens the government stopped caring about two elections ago.

Featured Image via The Deccan Herald

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