The inequalities in our society that came to notice amid or post the COVID-19 pandemic are visible to those who understand the meaning of inequality, but invisible to those who have created this inequality in the first place. Two types of population are currently living in our country (we may also assume these types to exist in the world as well) — one that is fighting against the diseases and lack of essential needs, while the other is confused about choosing between masks and sanitisers. They are the ones sitting in air-conditioned homes and posting pictures of work-from-home as their Whatsapp status, while the other type works on the streets with bare clothes to cover their nose and mouth. Some people are looking for the best professional psychologist for counselling, while on the other hand, some are standing in queue to collect food packets.
I was at home during the lockdown period and back to Delhi as the city started to unlock. I am currently staying here in a rented room and waiting for my institute to open up, and over this short span of time (hardly six months), I witnessed a rapid change in society. I get updates on the COVID-19 situation from news apps, social media and e-newspaper that I read regularly. Like many others, I also stop following mainstream TV news channels because for them, COVID-19 cases are just numbers.
However, these are not just numbers, they are the outcome of our 70-year-old health system, and of the failure of the government’s strategy in handling the virus. The disease that was brought in the country by the rich and elite class is taking the lives of the poor. The elites invited the virus and then quarantined themselves in luxury hotel room or homes, and then left the virus on the streets where the poor got infected and are now struggling between life and death.
The rich soon recovered and started working from home, but the poor got infected and then got scared to even be able to go to hospital to get themselves tested. I know many people who were unwell but did not want to visit the hospital or a doctor due to fear of this dangerous disease. Their life is in a crisis — they have lost their jobs and are not able to consult a doctor. The migrant labourers who recently reached home are now set to go back to work. In fact, many of them are already back to the factories or construction sites they were earlier working at, because they cannot work from home and if they could, we would not have been able to enjoy packed food with hot coffee (see the manufacturing dates of the food items you buy, you will get the idea).
So, this bigger picture of the current Indian society exposes its existing inequalities yet again. The kind of memes and jokes being made on lockdown, pandemic or the current situation are showing our inhuman perception towards this population that is struggling between life and death.
I was roaming around the Munirka market one day and saw a shop named ‘COVID-19 Kit’, where a variety of masks, sanitisers of different scents and coloured hand washes were available. The markets as well as e-commerce sites have suddenly bloomed up. While we fight against the novel coronavirus, these industries have occupied an even stronger hold of our lives. During the initial days of the lockdown, due to scarcity of masks and sanitisers, local pharmacies started selling masks, sanitisers, hand washes and sprays, but now, due to the blooming of e-commerce sites or big retail stores, these local, corner stores are getting cornered again and further suppressing the income of the poor.
A profile of these industrialists on the basis of their caste will make things clear about who these people are. Why are people from only one particular community a part of this group of industrialists? These business are offering masks that match your clothes, and come in various prints according to different occasions. The more you pay, the more comfortable your masks will be, and the easier it will be to breathe while wearing them. You can now buy masks in any fabric you want, if you have the money. Slowly, you will see your social status being judged and determined based on the mask you wear, just like we do when someone wearing a three-piece formal suit is accepted to be of high status everywhere without any suspicion. So wait and watch, your mask will soon decide your status in this hypocritical and Brahmanical society of ours.
And this trend won’t stay limited to masks; the same will happen with sanitisers and other safety equipments, and they all will become fashionable items. You can get a sanitiser with a variety of scents and colours. Different kinds of sanitisers are available for different purposes — one for disinfecting your hands, one for your vegetables, water bottles, groceries, clothes, and one especially for disinfecting your idols. So, the kind of safety you want to ensure also shows your understanding of the recent fashion trends; we might try new trends of spray the same way we might go forward in case of our use of sanitisers.
In contrast, if you go outside, you might find your street vegetable vendor keeping a bottle of sanitiser on his cart, but you’d hardly see him use it because he can’t afford to buy bottles of sanitiser again and again. Most of them are keeping it to avoid being threatened by the police. See the inequality between these two populations even in something as small as a sanitiser. While one group has found choicely flavoured sanitisers for themselves, the other group cannot even think about buying a regular bottle of sanitiser. Still, if this inequality is invisible to you, then there exists no humanity in you.
I am not trying to say here that we should quit wearing masks, but I’m trying to point towards the intentions of our capitalist society behind providing fashionable things in the name of fighting against the virus. These safety kits are really necessary to fight against the pandemic, but at the same time, we must also look around us and see the growing inequalities based on different social determinants. We must open our eyes and see how this paradoxical society of ours has transformed masks and sanitisers from essential commodities of the time to an entity of luxury and social status.
You must not forget how market forces of a capitalised world work again suppressing your mind and convincing you to buy things for the interest of the company, and not for your safety. My mother sewed some masks for me to wear in Delhi. Once I was out to buy milk, when the shopkeeper told me, “Kya bhaiya, pachaas rupay me stylish mask mil jayega market se, wo pahan liya karo (Brother, you will get a good-quality and stylish mask in just fifty rupees, you should wear that).” The general perception about expensive things is that we think they are good in quality. This perception helps the market suppress our minds time and again.
In my opinion, this transformation of essential necessities into luxurious goods will keep us occupied to run after this peculiar happiness, and divert us from larger concerns. This market strategy of wearing fashionable masks and using eye-catching sanitisers will keep us self-centred and establish the perception of the market on our minds. Larger concerns such as the rising cases of COVID-19, growing unemployment due to the lockdown, deaths due to malnutrition and food scarcity, the condition of the migrant labourers as they walk on the roads, the issue of farmer suicide, the condition of education, cases of corruption and failure of governments, misleading media reports etc. are kept out of our minds because we occupy ourselves with individual-centric happiness.
This happiness is what is distracting us from concerning, long-term issues that will impact our livelihood and widen this gap of inequality that is already too wide. This individual-centric happiness is not letting our minds see the pain of people suffering from the pandemic. So, this short-term happiness is going to negatively impact our long-term happiness.