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May 17, 2020

Who Can Afford to Be Hopeful During This Pandemic?

What hope can we offer to the kin of the migrants who were crushed under the wheels of a train or the 12-year-old girl who died on her way home to Chhattisgarh?
A man leaning towards the wall walks through the narrow passage along the banks of Bagmati River as he leaves after offering prayers for his departed mother during Mother's Day, amid the lockdown during the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak, at the premises of Pashupatinath temple in Kathmandu, Nepal, April 23, 2020. Photo: Reuters/Navesh Chitrakar

Have you ever stood at the edge of a precipice and looked upon the sea beyond? You must, if you haven’t. Life is too beautiful to be lived securely!

Simple dictums of life come to offend you at the most awkward moments. The ongoing coronavirus-induced lockdown is one such moment which each one of us is managing in our own broken ways. The collapsing world and the grief which has come to surround us like a fog is forcing us to change the details of our living. We are horrified and scared, a dangerous combination because when we are petrified of life and scared, we lose hope.

Grief has a weird potential to float unbridled in the air. The deaths caused by COVID-19 are exceptional in a way. To be dead is one thing but to die in a haunting loneliness where your loved ones cannot even bid you a final goodbye, is an altogether different story. No wonder, the grief induced by such a horrid pandemic floats even into the crevices of the most hopeful minds.

As a doctor when I talk to friends, relatives or even acquaintances, the utter hopelessness which drips from their mouths is fantastically disheartening. The rainbow of hope which we always construct around us as humans has never looked so monochromatic as it has been in the last three months. The exalting spirit of human survivorship appears broken like never before and for me, it is the worst outcome of this obnoxious nanoparticle which has come to infect us.

Having said this, the lockdown in India, supposedly the strictest in the world, has also seen something exceptional. Something which should come to haunt us if we make it to the other side of the pandemic. The poor, the homeless and migrant labourers have literally been thrown under the bus by the unplanned, hasty lockdown. Their livelihoods challenged, and hunger staring them in the face, these ‘wretched of the land’ decided to migrate back to their villages.

Also read: The Pandemic is Changing the Face of Indian Labour

With a callous administration and poor planning, the only way these journeys could have been undertaken was on foot. They walked hundreds and thousands of kilometres to reach their villages and towns – some are still walking from that fateful day of March when the lockdown was called!

Scenes of this migration have been exceptionally disturbing. Little children, women and the elderly were the worst hit. Men too were not spared by this artificially created catastrophe. Reports of accidental deaths and deaths due to exhaustion, hunger and disease of these ‘walking unfortunates’ should further dent the nation’s fragile and ubiquitous consciousness. Their walk back home dominated international headlines. Even the national media, which is usually engrossed in the obsequiousness and toadying of the regime, could not ignore the unfolding tragedy for long.

Thus, this lockdown and the general despair it induced has extinguished our abilities to rekindle ourselves with hope and get back on track. This is a serious impediment in our ability to exit the current lockdown even if it is officially called off. In short, our minds are in a lockdown which won’t be easy to open.

Nothing is more immoral than the wickedness which comes with accidental or premature death. It has the uncanny ability to crush the human spirit and its ability to hope. But this depressing quagmire can surprisingly only be defeated with more hope, ravishing hope!

Having said this, hope too belongs to the privileged. What hope can we offer to the kin of those exhausted migrants, who were sleeping on a rail track and crushed under the wheels of a train? Or what hopeful thing can we say to that mother, whose picture pulling a suitcase with a young child sleeping on top, has become a national shame? Can hope bring back Jamlo Makdam, the 12-year-old girl who died while on a 150 km long trip from a Telangana village to her home in Bijapur district of Chhattisgarh? Hope too works within limitations of life and its privileges.

So should we become hopeless and accept the current situation as a matter of our destiny? Surely not. Grief, as mentioned, has wings of its own. And the wings of grief are best clipped by hope. But we argued that hope is for the privileged? How to bring hope amidst the tragedy of Jamlo Makdam or the tribal labourers crushed by the train? Undoubtedly it’s difficult, but it is not impossible. In India, the lockdown has affected two entirely different subsets of populations. The two subsets are as different as day and night, as black and white, as life and death.

Also read: The Inspiring Compassion of the Student on the Scooty

My privileged neighbours are worried about their children’s class twelfth examinations. The delay caused by the lockdown has hampered their plans to apply for undergraduate courses in the US and the UK. The ironwala of our colony, who is stuck in this native village in Uttar Pradesh called me the other day. He told me that with all his savings exhausted, his three children are now surviving the lockdown on rotis and chutney. The contrasting tragedies (even if we can call my neighbours’ dilemma a tragedy) cannot be compared.

Honestly, I have nothing to offer in terms of hope to my neighbours and the like. The lockdown is difficult for them because it had limited their abilities to think in terms of their privileges. The lockdown has affected their kids future in the US and UK, it deranged their summer vacation plans and delayed their buying a new car. Hope, I am sure, will soon find its way into their bloodless hearts. The momentary stoppage of their life is but momentary and in all honesty not lethal.

But what hope for the ironwala and the ‘wretched of the land’ who are still walking to reach their villages? Their hope is in their ability to see this colossal tragedy as a time to unite. Their hope is their indomitable spirit which should now allow them to think selfishly. They build our cities, cleaned our homes, washed our dirt and yet we have left them to die. It is thus their right to shun us with all arrogance at their disposal.

Ironically, revolutions do not happen in places where they are most required. The critical mass needed for a revolution comes through national tragedies. If a tiny non-animate nanoparticle can bring the most exotic and the most arrogant species of the planet on its knees, I am sure that the ‘wretched of our land’, can bring the most haughty of the political class to the brink of submission. In these despairing times, nothing can be more hopeful than this thought!

Dr Shah Alam Khan is a professor of orthopaedics at AIIMS, New Delhi. Views are personal.

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