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The Masks We Buy And The Sanitisers We Can Afford: Increasing Inequality During The Pandemic

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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).

Migrants workers during COVID-19
The four crore migrant labourers are engaged in various works in different parts of the country and so far 75 lakh of a migrant during the lockdown.

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.

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. Representational image.

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.

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An ambassador and trained facilitator under Eco Femme (a social enterprise working towards menstrual health in south India), Sanjina is also an active member of the MHM Collective- India and Menstrual Health Alliance- India. She has conducted Menstrual Health sessions in multiple government schools adopted by Rotary District 3240 as part of their WinS project in rural Bengal. She has also delivered training of trainers on SRHR, gender, sexuality and Menstruation for Tomorrow’s Foundation, Vikramshila Education Resource Society, Nirdhan trust and Micro Finance, Tollygunj Women In Need, Paint It Red in Kolkata.

Now as an MH Fellow with YKA, she’s expanding her impressive scope of work further by launching a campaign to facilitate the process of ensuring better menstrual health and SRH services for women residing in correctional homes in West Bengal. The campaign will entail an independent study to take stalk of the present conditions of MHM in correctional homes across the state and use its findings to build public support and political will to take the necessary action.

Saurabh has been associated with YKA as a user and has consistently been writing on the issue MHM and its intersectionality with other issues in the society. Now as an MHM Fellow with YKA, he’s launched the Right to Period campaign, which aims to ensure proper execution of MHM guidelines in Delhi’s schools.

The long-term aim of the campaign is to develop an open culture where menstruation is not treated as a taboo. The campaign also seeks to hold the schools accountable for their responsibilities as an important component in the implementation of MHM policies by making adequate sanitation infrastructure and knowledge of MHM available in school premises.

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Harshita is a psychologist and works to support people with mental health issues, particularly adolescents who are survivors of violence. Associated with the Azadi Foundation in UP, Harshita became an MHM Fellow with YKA, with the aim of promoting better menstrual health.

Her campaign #MeriMarzi aims to promote menstrual health and wellness, hygiene and facilities for female sex workers in UP. She says, “Knowledge about natural body processes is a very basic human right. And for individuals whose occupation is providing sexual services, it becomes even more important.”

Meri Marzi aims to ensure sensitised, non-discriminatory health workers for the needs of female sex workers in the Suraksha Clinics under the UPSACS (Uttar Pradesh State AIDS Control Society) program by creating more dialogues and garnering public support for the cause of sex workers’ menstrual rights. The campaign will also ensure interventions with sex workers to clear misconceptions around overall hygiene management to ensure that results flow both ways.

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MH Fellow Sabna comes with significant experience working with a range of development issues. A co-founder of Project Sakhi Saheli, which aims to combat period poverty and break menstrual taboos, Sabna has, in the past, worked on the issue of menstruation in urban slums of Delhi with women and adolescent girls. She and her team also released MenstraBook, with menstrastories and organised Menstra Tlk in the Delhi School of Social Work to create more conversations on menstruation.

With YKA MHM Fellow Vineet, Sabna launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society. As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

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A student from Delhi School of Social work, Vineet is a part of Project Sakhi Saheli, an initiative by the students of Delhi school of Social Work to create awareness on Menstrual Health and combat Period Poverty. Along with MHM Action Fellow Sabna, Vineet launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society.

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A psychologist and co-founder of a mental health NGO called Customize Cognition, Ritika forayed into the space of menstrual health and hygiene, sexual and reproductive healthcare and rights and gender equality as an MHM Fellow with YKA. She says, “The experience of working on MHM/SRHR and gender equality has been an enriching and eye-opening experience. I have learned what’s beneath the surface of the issue, be it awareness, lack of resources or disregard for trans men, who also menstruate.”

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A Computer Science engineer by education, Nitisha started her career in the corporate sector, before realising she wanted to work in the development and social justice space. Since then, she has worked with Teach For India and Care India and is from the founding batch of Indian School of Development Management (ISDM), a one of its kind organisation creating leaders for the development sector through its experiential learning post graduate program.

As a Youth Ki Awaaz Menstrual Health Fellow, Nitisha has started Let’s Talk Period, a campaign to mobilise young people to switch to sustainable period products. She says, “80 lakh women in Delhi use non-biodegradable sanitary products, generate 3000 tonnes of menstrual waste, that takes 500-800 years to decompose; which in turn contributes to the health issues of all menstruators, increased burden of waste management on the city and harmful living environment for all citizens.

Let’s Talk Period aims to change this by

Find out more about her campaign here.

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A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

A Gender Rights Activist working with the tribal and marginalized communities in india, Srilekha is a PhD scholar working on understanding body and sexuality among tribal girls, to fill the gaps in research around indigenous women and their stories. Srilekha has worked extensively at the grassroots level with community based organisations, through several advocacy initiatives around Gender, Mental Health, Menstrual Hygiene and Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights (SRHR) for the indigenous in Jharkhand, over the last 6 years.

Srilekha has also contributed to sustainable livelihood projects and legal aid programs for survivors of sex trafficking. She has been conducting research based programs on maternal health, mental health, gender based violence, sex and sexuality. Her interest lies in conducting workshops for young people on life skills, feminism, gender and sexuality, trauma, resilience and interpersonal relationships.

A Guwahati-based college student pursuing her Masters in Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Bidisha started the #BleedwithDignity campaign on the technology platform Change.org, demanding that the Government of Assam install
biodegradable sanitary pad vending machines in all government schools across the state. Her petition on Change.org has already gathered support from over 90000 people and continues to grow.

Bidisha was selected in Change.org’s flagship program ‘She Creates Change’ having run successful online advocacy
campaigns, which were widely recognised. Through the #BleedwithDignity campaign; she organised and celebrated World Menstrual Hygiene Day, 2019 in Guwahati, Assam by hosting a wall mural by collaborating with local organisations. The initiative was widely covered by national and local media, and the mural was later inaugurated by the event’s chief guest Commissioner of Guwahati Municipal Corporation (GMC) Debeswar Malakar, IAS.

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