If you have ever attended classes on political science, journalism or any other Humanities course, or have taken an interest in current affairs, you would know terms such as ‘economic inequality’, ‘income inequality’ and ‘digital divide’. Now, let’s add ‘corona divide’ or ‘pandemic inequality’ to the list.
The brilliant ones among you might have already guessed where I am heading. For those still trying to guess, this is how it goes.
It was the night of 11th July, 2020, when my phone rang abuzz with notifications. It sounded like my alert tone of my NDTV app, sending me news updates. It’s the same sound that often gave me a sense of fear throughout the pandemic. Each update would talk about the highest single-day hike in the number of COVID-19 cases in the country.
But this time, the news update was different. Amitabh Bachchan and his son had tested positive for the virus and were hospitalised. As an Indian, I wasn’t surprised at the VIP treatment. Nothing new, I thought. While my sympathies were with the Bachchan family, I was taken aback by the city Mayor tweeting relentlessly about the actor’s test reports.
What stayed unfathomable was a Maharashtra minister tweeting about the Bachchan family’s COVID-19 updates. The fact that the family got access to hospital beds wasn’t new — it might be one of the perks of being a celebrity in a country of 1.3 billion people. But the irony that government officials deemed it important to give updates about a celebrity, even as families of so many COVID-19 patients claim to run from hospital to hospital for a bed, made me realise that even a pandemic can be discriminatory.
As the pandemic progressed, Dr C Vijayabasker, Minister of Health and Family Welfare, Tamil Nadu, tweeted, “Virus doesn’t discriminate the rich or poor, literate or illiterate, young or old, men or women! We should understand #COVID is a pandemic and anyone can be victim to the disease. So, let us support each other and overcome.”
But there’s a rider. Anyone can be a victim, sure, but not everyone has equal access to healthcare facilities. This is a result of years of selfish governance and corruption. All political parties are to be blamed equally. News reports of patients dying because they did not receive medical help on time, and visuals of inhumane burial of dead bodies of COVID-19 victims make me wonder about how the pandemic is being handled.
A personal example: the mayor of our city visited our colony to encourage the residents to get themselves tested at the nearby community testing centre. But she had a condition. The centre would first test the workers of the Bharatiya Janata Party. At the end of the day, only the party workers got tested for the virus. The rest of us got left out.
Even though certain state governments and government officials want to ensure treatment of every patient, the public healthcare system is too rotten to be fix within 4-5 months. Private hospitals charge lakhs of rupees for even a five-day admission. We shouldn’t forget our healthcare workers – some of whom haven’t been paid their salaries for months – amidst all the clapping and showering of petals. Didn’t the government promise an insurance scheme of Rs 50 lakhs for our frontline workers?
The pandemic does discriminate. Remember the lakhs of migrants who had to walk back home after losing their livelihood in the metropolitan cities. It took public outrage to compel the state and Central governments to arrange transportation for them. What a mess it was! While many of us worked from the comfort of our homes, imagine having to walk for kilometers and kilometers to reach your village.
No struggle is small, I agree. But imagine having to fight for a packet of Parle-G biscuits because you and your family have had nothing to eat for days. The image of the baby trying to wake up his dead mother still sends shivers down my spine. I wonder whether these stories have slipped out of the public conscience! The pandemic does discriminate, not because it wants to, but because society is designed unequally.
I write this at the cost of sounding cynical. But I appreciate the countless citizens who rose up and did their part in supporting those who have been hit hard by the lockdown and the pandemic. I appreciate those who did not resort to not just social media activism, but made an impact on the ground. I personally know some of them and I salute them.
Some people who are part of the system did their best. But at the end of the day, if the poorest of the poor go to sleep on empty stomach, nothing else matters…nothing!
P.S. Meanwhile, hoping trolls don’t troll the Bachchan family anymore.