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Friday, May 22, 2020

COVID And Amphan: Indian Contrasts In Crisis Times!

When the extremely severe cyclonic storm Amphan hit Kolkata and adjoining districts of West Bengal in the evening of 20th May, 2020, with a speed ranging from 110 to 133 km per hour the damage could very well be anticipated. West Bengal is not new to cyclones originating in the Bay of Bengal, in fact, three cyclones namely ‘Fani’, ‘Bulbul’ and ‘Amphan’ swept over the state within a span of one year only—from May 2019 to May 2020. However, the force and speed of Amphan was unprecedented in the state as some point out that the areas had not seen such a severe cyclone in 283 years. By late night that fateful day, closeted in the control room of her secretariat in Howrah, Chief Minister Mamata Bannerji, distressed and sad, said while briefing the media online that a few districts of her state and Kolkata were totally destroyed and it would take days to assess the damage apart from the loss of lives. She desperately hoped that the central government would come in with some help as her state was already drained of resources with the battle against COVID-19 raging on. Didi, as she is popularly known, also hoped Prime Minister Modi would come and see the damage for himself. And, the Indian Prime Minister responded magnanimously, announcing the very next morning his decision to visit the state on 22nd May.

Political differences between BJP-ruled central government and TMC-ruled West Bengal state government are only too well known with both parties not stopping the rivalries and the parleys even during COVID times, in fact, fighting over COVID issues in recent days. Therefore, Mamata wishing for Modi’s presence and Modi’s gesture in coming immediately is being viewed in a new light: that they have come together in a spirit of cooperation in the time of crisis, setting aside politics for the moment. The Prime Minister expressed full solidarity with the state government—hit by twin-tragedies, and praised its efforts in tackling both the catastrophes. He assured full help at every step of the way ahead—restoration, reconstruction, rehabilitation and the like, and announced a preliminary financial package for immediate expenses.  Later in her media brief at the airport after seeing off the Prime Minister, Mamata Bannerji appreciated Modi’s visit and his promise of joint efforts, not saying anything against the offer of help as claimed by a ‘national’ news channel that started carrying supers ‘Mamata Slams Aid’.

Unfortunately, Maharashtra wing of the BJP failed to learn any lesson from its central leadership bonhomie, and selected this same say to stage public protests all over the state claiming the state government’s mishandling of the COVID fight, perhaps the very first instance of such kind in the worldwide war against the killer virus. One of their allegations, as puerile as it sounded, was that why Maharashtra has witnessed such a spike in cases while Kerala handled it so competently. Well, ‘serving’ the interests of the local people for decades they still don’t understand why Mumbai is Mumbai, and why it should have the largest number of COVID-19 infections, like, in a similar way, why the virus should select New York for its special treatment. In totality, they must understand that COVID is not a political phenomenon and doesn’t go by who ruled which state. At this hour of crisis for the state the best option for them is to inspire the people to follow the precautions religiously and to jump in the fray for total cooperation. Perhaps, in India, political parties need multiple tragedies strike in unison to make them lose their political rivalries and power-hungry politics, even if for the time being.  

Monday, May 18, 2020

India Fights COVID-19: Lockdown 4.0 From Today!

After the 5-episode bilingual presentation of the COVID Package of Rs. 20000 billions hugely disappointed many of the direly-affected stakeholders the government of India extended the Lockdown till 31st May, 2020 which was largely expected following a 10-day heavy spike of new COVID-19 cases in various states of the country.  Thus, Lockdown 4.0 comes into effect from the 18th of May, 2020, now making it go up to 68 days. Maharashtra, the worst affected state with more than 33000 cases, had announced an extension a day before the national lockdown with the total cases in India nearing the 100,000 mark. In the last twenty four hours there was a record spike of 5242 new cases and deaths crossing the 3000 mark. The main point of focus of Lockdown 4.0 was on easing of curbs as promised by Prime Minister Narendra Modi in his national address a few days back that this Lockdown was going to be different than the others.

Domestic flights, railways except for the migrants’ and special trains, metro rail, malls, cinema halls, gyms, places of worship and large gatherings, schools and colleges continue to remain shut; other marketplaces and shops are allowed to open with conditions like staggered timing or odd-even options; restaurants and bars are to remain shut in most places while in some places these can open only for home deliveries and takeaways; red, orange and green zones are to be decided by the states; inter-state travel would be permitted depending on the concerned states’ consent; sports complexes and stadiums are allowed to open without spectators; app-cabs and other taxi services are also allowed to operate with the protocols to be maintained; the condition of 33% attendance in government and private offices is also withdrawn; the provisions of children below 10 years of age and the elderly above 65 not allowed to go out of home and the night curfew from 7 pm to 7 am are to continue; e-commerce of non-essential services are to be allowed and opening of salons will be subject to discretion of the states concerned. All of these relaxations are not applicable for the containment zones.

However, the states are not obliged to carry out the relaxations granted depending on the prevailing situation. States like Maharashtra, Tamil Nadu and Gujarat are not likely to follow the easing of curbs as heavy spikes of new cases have been going on unabated there. In a contrast, the Delhi Chief Minister has been showing a spirited inclination for easing of most of the curbs despite the sharp spike of new cases continuing in the Union Territory. Karnataka where the spread seems to be under control is going ahead with maximum relaxations including reopening of salons and all forms of intra-state public transport except for Sundays when the state plans for complete lockdown. The case of the eastern state of West Bengal has been a most peculiar one with play of politics in time of a national crisis largely due to ideological differences between the state and the central governments which led to compromising the regulations, norms and protocols regularly. Situation in the state is still precarious: the highest death rate shown by an Indian state, steady rise in new cases and tests done still being very low. Meanwhile, the government of India has warned all the states not to dilute the prohibitions and granted relaxations.

The logic behind the phased easing of curbs has been that lockdowns are not permanent solutions and so cannot be continued indefinitely. However, from the start of May, 2020 the country has seen some contrasting developments: the spread of the novel Coronavirus has been showing a consistently rising trend in various states; a delayed action on the migrant workers’ issue has involved most of these states in huge movements of the laborers by trains, buses or by all means of transport including walking on the highways; possibly the biggest ever peacetime repatriation of the world taking place same time evacuating thousands of stranded Indians from various countries through planes and warships; the much-awaited stimulus package failing miserably to put some cash into the hands of the migrant workers and to help some severely affected sectors like the hospitality and tourism, promising only medium term to long-term measures and reforms at best; and still locking down domestic flights that provides safer sanitized services while trains have been running full capacity without social distancing norms.

It is crucially important for India not to lose the advantage the country had by imposing an early lockdown that, in fact, earned praise internationally, and therefore maximum caution and discretion must be exercised. With peak level of infection expected in June-July, 2020 India must ensure a controlled fatality rate while trying to contain infection through aggressive contact tracing, conducting random tests and strict enforcement of guidelines and precautions so that by the peak time the country’s limited but expanding healthcare infrastructure doesn’t go out of control. 

Thursday, May 14, 2020

COVID-19 Exposes Migrant Workers Reality in India!


It has been a fact of modern developing India that nearly 90% of its workforce is engaged in the unorganized sector, and that this fact has been dealt with so far only academically or for research oriented purpose. Most of the unorganized workers are daily wagers with no commitment by the employers to provide work on a continued basis and even those with monthly salaries have no job security or agreements. A sizable chunk of this workforce constitutes the migrant workers who go to other states in search of livelihoods. All the major cities of India have hundreds of thousands of migrant laborers engaged in all kinds of activities from construction work to plying cycle rickshaws. Some of them are able to rent accommodation while some others live on the pavement tenements, slums and even on roads and bridges.

It is preposterous to imagine that a problem of such immense proportions was not anticipated by the government of India while imposing the Lockdown from 24th March, 2020. If fact, it is perhaps due to the ‘immense proportion’ statistics that the government considered it practically or logistically impossible to manage. They also might have thought that making elaborate preparations to tackle the issue could very well defeat the purpose of lockdown or delay it ominously. Besides, the main focus that time was ‘save lives’ by preventing the possible exponential spread of the novel Coronavirus, and so, the government wanted everyone stay home or to stay on wherever they were. The most desired ‘stay home’ mission got derailed immediately, because the moment lockdown was imposed all the employers dismissed the workers without even paying due wages or salaries, and asked them to leave. Suddenly, millions of migrant workers found themselves workless and penniless, and those who were in rented accommodation could no longer afford to stay on. They found themselves shelter less too, and the desperation to go to their home states grew and grew.

Of course, the concerned state governments, NGOs, religious institutions and others jumped into the humanitarian fray and claimed or even bragged about giving shelter and food to all with the slogan ‘no one will go hungry’. However, as we mentioned earlier, achieving a mammoth job such as this, involving millions, was practically or logically impossible. The migrant workers protested in large numbers complaining of ‘no work-no shelter-no food-no money’ almost in all the cities; they thought they would surely die of hunger if not by COVID infection and wanted to go home at any cost. The government did boast of controlling the spread of the virus effectively,
and slowly brought in the issue of ‘livelihood’ in the later versions of the lockdown; however, they still did not do anything to reduce the sufferings of the floating distressed millions. And the migrant workers started walking hundreds of miles home—some dying on the way of exhaustion while some others getting mowed down by cars, trucks and goods trains; some of them who could afford to spend a few bucks tried for rides on trucks or tempos or any mode of transport at least for some parts of the journeys, with some of them still not spared by tragic accidents.

Finally during Lockdown 3.0 the government of India started providing trains for the workers—with no social distancing maintained, but only to clear the huge unmanageable loads of humanity. Running of hundreds of trains with various state governments arranging buses has not still achieved the goal, and workers continue to walk home. At the moment, scores of such helpless humans are getting killed in accidents daily. Shivers run down your spine when you imagine the inhuman scenario; hundreds of workers—men, women and children—carrying head-loads of luggage walking on the highways in scorching heat with no or little stock of water or food; trying to rest their tired bodies on the concrete-rough of the roads at night only to resume in the morning. And the parallel scenario: other vehicles—SUVs, media vans, goods carriers and the like—kept on passing them; media interviewing them, police checkpoints and inter-state border authorities monitoring or allowing them; but nobody helped them or even tried to reduce their agony a bit.

Yes, you are asked to stay home and stay safe, and some of us somehow can afford it. But the luckless migrant workers struggle to reach home with many of them never ever reaching— getting killed just few kilometers away from their sweet homes. Stay home irony! This staggering Indian reality hits you hard, very hard indeed, and you have no one to bank upon to tackle this problem. The decades-old reality has come to the fore now, COVID-10 makes it impossible to avoid it any further. However, in India money is always power: power to influence or lobby or to pressurize, and since this vast mass of humanity has no money power it is still uncertain if the authorities would finally try all means handling this issue, if at all. After all the sufferings and misery, some money is being allocated now for their welfare. Irony again!

Tuesday, May 12, 2020

Vocal Regulations!

They are safe at home—he, his wife and their two boys. So far, that is to say. Their house is in a red zone—declared by the government due to the spread of the novel Coronavirus or COVID-19. For nearly two months now they have continued to stay at home, at times working from home and he has been very strict lately, not allowing his young sons to go out at any cost. He has heard that young people, even if infected, can get on well without even showing symptoms and recover quite easily, but the problem is the possibility of their infecting elderly persons who are prone to having serious complications if infected. Naturally so then, he thinks, why grandsons are separated physically from grandparents. Their rations come mostly from online orders. At times, he has to go out to the fruit or vegetable vendors for the odd and fresh requirement.   

Things amuse him; although he had never seen such unprecedented times or heard about in his lifetime, and that humankind is going through a critical time. Wearing a mask is compulsory while venturing out; rightly so, he supports, because the goddamned virus thrives on human droplets. It all boils down to the plain fact that human beings can no longer open their mouths freely and unchecked. He talks to a stakeholder through a mask and the other one interacts back through his/her mask thus preventing scattering of the droplets while sound waves do reach them both, though a bit muffled. However, that is still not enough, there has to be at least one and half meters of social distancing between them so that the droplets somehow escaping the masks fail to reach the targets.

He remembers his language teacher very clearly now; the teacher was notorious for his split-wide mouth spitting out the words, and he being a front-bencher was exposed to the droplets sometime landing right on his cheeks. In those innocent times the mouth-openings or floating spit particles hardly bothered anyone. Now, the droplet syndrome has landed on humankind like a bombshell. No wonder, he muses on, the schools and colleges are closed indefinitely: just imagine the free-flow of droplets, invisible or not, oozing out from the spirited teacher and all those of the students in equally spirited response. This is serious man, don’t make fun, he cautions himself; but his musings cannot be checked—even in the times of rigorous checks and controls.  

The crux of the problem is opening of the mouth, he thinks more seriously now. Why, this is going to affect every field of human activity in future: even in small allowed gatherings of the business or homely or the religious kind the main speaker will not be able to indulge freely in opening or demonstrating his/her mouth cavities; in entertainment shows the actors will have to restrain themselves from mouthing or lip-centric exercises, confounded because in their scenes before the camera they cannot possibly wear masks;  in restaurants/bars, even after strictly following social distancing norms, there will be precarious moments when customers let go of the masks for the pleasure of eating/drinking and allowing words regurgitate through the holy mess of saliva, food and drinks; debates or petty quarrels in any form of public transport will have to be guarded strictly against and even in one-to-one encounters caution must be exercised as to how much of mouth-opening is being adhered to.

A profound question comes to his mind now: why humankind has been singled out for this? Have the human beings been talking too much? Well, he reasons, more than being talkative the human beings perhaps have been indulging in too much of needless and harmful talking—leading to all kinds of unrest most of the times. He recoils back in wonder: wow! look at the animal world—all animals, birds, insects are totally spared from this regulation; the animals are really freaking out everywhere, in all sites mostly infected by human invaders, and are opening their mouths in ecstatic boundless joy, in their word-less natural sound waves; even the mosquitoes at his home now finding exquisite pleasure in searching and hunting out their victims.  Well, at his reasoning best, perhaps humankind has imposed untold torture and misery on the unsuspecting animal world over the centuries, and so now is paying for it.

He turns his attention to the television screen for the latest updates. He looks fondly at his wife sitting quietly by his side and at his two sons busy with their smart-phones. He smiles in satisfaction: he can still open his mouth freely here. So far, that is to say. 

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