In these days of the pandemic, a metaphor we hear often is of war. Health professionals, governments and people the world over are fighting a war, indeed a world war, against a virus which threatens to destroy tens of thousands of lives, and some believe even much of the world as we know it.
Every war has weapons. Some weapons are obvious in this war — science, public investments, state capacities and the quality of political leadership. But what will be most decisive is a weapon rarely remembered, understood or nurtured. Our solidarity.
There are indeed many dazzling displays of such solidarity. Most of all, by public health professionals at all levels. Often badly let down by a state which has not invested nearly enough in their protection, testing kits, equipment and infrastructure, they still battle at the bunkers of this war.
And then there are what I call “circles of kindness”. Each time I am on the streets helping distribute food to the homeless and destitute, I am struck by the numbers of ordinary people reaching out to the hungry with food and care. The police mostly allow people distributing food even though they have no formal permissions. And I even hear reports of policepersons organising food kitchens at the police stations for the hungry.
My young colleagues resolved to drive out to distribute cooked food and dry rations from the second day after the lockdown to the homeless who they knew would be worst hit. We organised masks and gloves, but the risk of the infection always lurked. “We cannot sit at home and watch people suffer,” one explained to me. “I am frightened of corona,” another added. “But their hunger is greater than my fear.”
In Nizamuddin, I ask a homeless man how he was surviving. He says he had just a little money saved up, which he is spending on food. But not just for his own family. He feeds also three other families who sleep on the pavement beside him. He is not related to them. But how can he eat and watch their children sleep hungry?
In Ghazipur, during the long march of migrants, I find many people drive up, their cars packed with drinking water pouches and food, which they hand out to grateful walkers.
And yet, this period has simultaneously witnessed the most profound decimation of our solidarities. Public health experts differ about whether such a harsh and comprehensive a lockdown was advisable in India. But assuming it was, it was designed and implemented entirely bereft of empathy and compassion.
Let us play a mind game. Suppose all of us in middle-class and formal sector employment were informed that none of us would be assured a salary during the lockdown. Instead, the state would endeavour to pay some of us maybe two days’ wages and 5 kg grain. Suppose we had little in our banks to fall back on. Suppose we were also stripped of our health insurance and could only depend on ramshackle public health systems. Would we then have accepted the lockdown as a reasonable and acceptable response to the looming pandemic?
Solidarity demands we should have demanded from the state that every worker in the informal worker must be paid for the entire duration of the lockdown, no different from us, at least the statutory minimum wage. But we did not.
Let us play another mind game. Suppose you worked far from the place you call home, and abruptly were left without food and work, terrified also by a disease which could kill you. Would you still obediently stay on in the city, ready to die among strangers? Or would you desperately do anything to reach your loved ones, even if this meant walking hundreds of kilometres, dodging an uncaring state? The inability to anticipate, and then to deal humanely with the largest exodus of people in India since Partition, was another spectacular failure of public solidarity.
It was as though we then needed to find some scapegoat for our fears and hate. The first were people from Northeast India, who we subject to savage discrimination, only because their narrower eyes reminded ignorant racist people of China where the virus originated.
Then the scapegoat became any outsider. We have reports from around the country where not just gated colonies but poor neighbourhoods and villages have blockaded themselves, with no stranger allowed in. Even migrants who managed to dodge the police — they walked or hid in the boxes on trucks, trying to return to their families in the dead of the night — and are willing to quarantine in their homes, are not allowed to.
And now, the biggest scapegoat is the Muslim. It is true that misguided leaders of a fundamentalist sect held a meeting which infected large numbers. But there were also other misguided gatherings at that time. And all Muslims cannot be held responsible for their mistake. But social media is fevered with hate, labelling Muslims corona bombs waging a corona jihad. Social and economic boycotts of Muslims are growing. Many fear violence.
The coming months will demand the best from us. The only chance we have of overcoming one day is by cementing our solidarity. By holding each other in circles of kindness. Across all our differences of class, ethnicity, religion, gender, age and national boundaries, by standing with each other, caring about, caring for each other.
This article first appeared in the print edition on April 15, 2020 under the title ‘Circles of kindness’. Mander is a human rights worker and writer.
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