Modi’s Janata Curfew on this Sunday was welcomed with what can only be described as rabid energy; the fake news marshalls forwarded messages about how the virus will die after 12 hours, and the 14-hour curfew was the best solution. The religious mafia and susceptible older believers were adamant that the ‘bartan banging’ would dispel any virus and bad bacteria from the body, as this was the very same rationale with which our ancient temples were (apparently) set up.
Yet, the core sentiment of the five minutes of thronging was to honour all those who don’t have an option but to work in these times of need; doctors, police, the media (surprisingly so!), and many more individuals. For the days leading up to the Janta Curfew, I met some of these people on the ground, during the gradual shutdown Delhi found itself in.
A pandemic brings forth the vast wealth inequality in our society; in this case, the measure is simple — who has the luxury of being able to earn something by working from home, and who doesn’t. The auto-rickshaw drivers, the rag pickers, the garbage men, the small fruit and vegetable sellers, your ‘chai dada’ around the corner from your house — they can’t afford to stay at home. For them, the fight is more real than most: it is literally one less meal for them and their family.
Meet Nand Kishor, a waste collection truck driver for the Municipal Corporation of Delhi.
He came up to me as I was taking a picture of two men filling the truck with the waste our neighbourhood had collected in the past week. He stood by me looking at them and said, “What if they decided to go on a strike tomorrow because they don’t feel safe working right now? Their day starts with their hands in shit, day in and day out. How are they supposed to protect themselves? I have to drive this truck because I just have to. I can’t say no. One week, that’s all it would take if we decided not to come out of our houses and clean the city. The city will become a stinking pile of garbage… But it is what it is, what can we do?”
The situation of ragpickers is no less. Big plastic bags on their backs, they rummaging through waste thrown on the roadside while dogs constantly bark at them. As we sit at home, the cleanliness of the city is a responsibility that falls in the laps of Delhi’s 80,000 estimated ragpickers. That’s 80,000 people, who can’t afford to stay at home, and indeed whose definition of ‘home’ may be different in the first place. There is another face to this at-risk population; those who meet our more direct needs — the fruit seller, the vegetable seller, the dood-wale bhaiya. Even in the current lockdown Delhi finds itself in, the government has ensured that these providers of essential commodities continue to operate, shedding new light on the distinctions we make between ‘skilled’ and ‘unskilled’ labour.
Amidst the lockdown, the Union and Delhi governments have classified the media, both print and electronic, as essential services. While there is little doubt that crowded newsrooms can be potential hotspots for COVID-19, one can argue that the largest threat to the media ecosystem is actually faced by those who finally deliver the newspaper at our doorsteps.
Take Avinash, who I saw standing a little ahead of me folding the day’s newspaper, in preparation for his daily rounds. He is 15 years old and delivers newspapers in our area. I asked him to wear a cloth on his face and be careful. He just looked at me, smiled and then looked away.
People at home are bound to get restless at some point. You and I will step out for a walk, to go to a friend’s house, to meet some relatives, and even to go to work. Yet so many find that their homes are ‘outside’ to begin with.
As I walked back home, I saw the last person on my list of essentials; an aging guard of a neighbouring society. I stood there for a moment before I decided to click a photograph. Security guards are positioned at every colony’s buildings and gates, at the ATMs, at the malls, at the hospitals, and are pretty much the first line of defence in our fight against this pandemic. In the gated colonies across Delhi, they will often walk around at night thumping a stick on the ground and whistling in regular intervals; this, for many, is the sound of safety, of someone looking out for you.
As coronavirus spreads across the subcontinent, it is these citizens, among many others, who will bear the brunt of whatever is to come; whether economically, or health-wise, they will be the most affected.
So instead of just slapping utensils and shrieking ‘go corona go’, we need to abide by science; stay at home if possible, wash your hands often, and isolate yourself if you’re feeling sick. Here is a link to some guidelines that you can, and should follow. Because you and I may get by, even if we do contract the virus. But for those who can’t afford the hospital costs, or even the costs of a basic test, COVID-19 is fatal.