Covid-19, beyond data: A saga of resilience and the struggles for existence

by Dr. Sabhya Pritwani and Dr. Prerna Sonthalia

Image courtesy: The Christian Science Monitor

Despite the apparent democratic nature of the virus, there is multi-layered injustice and clear disparities at the population level disproportionately afflicting- the marginalized and the oppressed; rural and urban poor, migrants and daily wage laborers, frontline workers and susceptible communities.

Ever since the first COVID 19 case was identified in India on 28 January 2020, we are facing war on two fronts. One war is against the virus weakening our body; while the other is against the crisis weakening human societies. To fight this common enemy, scientists and researchers are working diligently in labs to find effective preventive measures and cure. However, the weapon against the virus, which weakens the society, has never been invented in any of the pandemics; whose repercussions and wound leave a lifelong mark.

The FRONT LINE WORKERS are the ones who are diligently trying to do their job, with their inner struggles and stress going unseen. When people heave a sigh of relief sitting in the comforts of their homes and are able to spend time with their families, our warriors are doing whatever they can to save every patient who comes to them. We Indians have a unique culture of providing gifts as a token to express our feelings and gratitude. However, violence, harassment, assault, and social expulsion towards our warriors are the unique ways, in which we have returned that gratitude, not to mention the lack of PPEs, delay of salaries and wages. When the world is paying tribute to frontline workers fighting with a virus, “Mera Bharat Mahan” is dethroning our so-called angels from their pedestals.

Amidst the notorious image of corruption, bribery, and toughness, COVID-19 has shown us a rather hidden side of our POLICE FORCE who managed to build trust among the community in this apparent gloom. With simple act of kindness in distributing essentials to needy, performing aartis and yoga sessions, celebrating birthdays, this pandemic has shown us the humane side of a tough cop. When the rest of the world is staying indoors with the air-conditioners and coolers on, they are trying to keep 1.3 billion people indoors in the scorching heat of 44 degrees. Managing the public and dealing with the unknown virus with a few questions in mind,

“What if I am positive? What if I infect my family? When will I get to see them?” is just another tale of overlooked emotion, sacrifice, and consistent fear

India's 40 lakh SANITATION WORKERS are in direct contact with COVID-19 infection from handling unmarked and contaminated biomedical waste. Because who cares about garbage? Standing lowest in the hierarchy of workers while having an equal or riskier chance of contracting the infection, this already neglected population, now faces social exclusion by the government too. While drum rolls, pans, claps and bells thundered aloud from balconies to boost the morale of healthcare workers, a sludge cleaner bathed in filth, cornered a tear. “Yeh jaati-dharm ke naam pe hamesha se humein bhulaya gaya hai, hum harijan hain na shayad islie” (This neglect often existed, even historically, because we are dalits) says one worker. With India's biomedical waste production standing at roaring 600 tones every day, where are we heading with the neglect of handling hazardous covid-19 waste? Isn't this the correct time to talk about garbage?

This pandemic has shown us the things that many of us would have never witnessed; mass exodus of MIGRANTS (131 million Indians, as per census 2011), perhaps the largest that India has ever seen post independence. They were all over yet invisible, behind the sky rise buildings of industries and apartments that most of us dream of living and working, at street side as vendors making everything easily accessible for us, as roadside food stalls to satisfy our taste buds, as house helpers so that we rest peacefully at our homes and many many millions like them who enrich the lives of individuals, society and a country. It’s only now that we began to see them when a man breathed his last after walking thousands of miles, when we saw dry rotis covered in blood on the railway tracks. It’s only now that we have begun to see them, when an exhausted child asleep on the suitcase was dragged along by his equally exasperated family, when an old woman with wounded and cracked feet chose to walk hundreds of miles just to get affinity and bread, when a baby tried to wake his dead mother at the railway station, when these hapless humans were sprayed with disinfectants. It’s just now we began to see them, when a mother delivered her child on the road and walked again to reach her own village, when a man after losing his family cursed his fortune and cried, “Kash main gareeb na hota” (I wish I was not poor)[1]. We would not say we have failed as a society; instead, we have lost our so-called conscience. Who was responsible behind their deaths and sufferings; an invisible virus, hunger or poverty? This question would always remain, whenever someone would talk about Covid-19, without any answers.

Commercial sex work is one of the oldest professions in the world. The mere mention of the word itself raises eyebrows. There are an estimated 6,57,800 SEX WORKERS in India, who chose to be or end up being sex workers due to the circumstances. When the mainstream society is learning to live with the new normal, its outcastes are living in tiny 3x3.7 meter (10x12 foot) cubicles without any hope. Lack of legal status and non-dignified existence further deprive them of their basic human and fundamental rights. Among the 20000 crore economic booster package when marginalized (poor) section of society were receiving Rs 500/- cash transfer in their bank accounts, a sex worker of Delhi who has yet to earn a penny since lockdown sums up her sufferings by saying, do gaz ki doori ne sahab, humein maar daala. Ab to ye hi sawaal mann me aata hai ki lockdown khatam hone k baad koi grahak hamare paas aayega? Mujhe to koi umeed nazar nahi aati” (The norm of two yards of physical distance has devastated our livelihood; now it's uncertain whether the customer will flock to us after lockdown ends...I hardly see any hope)[1]. There is an invisible virus and an invisible community with very visible threats of losing their sustenance.

The famous saying by Walter Johnson fits into this situation, “You can’t hit what you can’t see”. Nonetheless, turning a blind eye does make the scenario look as if the lane to the brothel is a forgotten and neglected one now.

India is home to around 4,90,000[1][2] TRANSPERSONS. They had their livelihoods dependent on the theme of social functions and interactions, ironically, social distancing and virtual world has put a pause on their living. They existed on the edge of society, barely making a living with begging and sex work. But with Covid19 around the corner, no Mumbai locals and no hidden red streets provide them with money to fulfill their hunger. Disabilities, chronic illness, compromised immunity and with no family support; they are struggling to make their ends meet. Facing the double burden of stigma with HIV, procuring essential ART medicines is a cumbersome task too.

"As the world fights together, India's trans community fights the

battle alone”.- Amnesty International,

Inequality in healthcare accessibility, affordability, and availability blocked ways for many. One of the major sections to suffer is the PHYSICALLY DISABLED. World was already unjust and cruel to the disabled. Availing basic health services has always been a humongous task for them. And to continue this painful legacy, general self-care and preventive public health measures due to pandemic took a toll on this chunk of population. Cleaning homes to cooking food, washing hands regularly to sanitize their belongings, keeping corona virus parked at a distance are proving to be challenging for them. Requirement of someone to help them perform daily chores could violate social distancing norms. Women with physical disability become even more susceptible to exploitation adding up to their mental stress.

This pandemic has snatched someone's shelter, someone's livelihood, someone's family and for some, their whole existence. Locked inside the comforts of our four walls, one could feel suffocated, dream of a magical land of freedom; but let's rethink this again in our minds, what about the ones craving a decent two-time meal and a sense of serenity. What about the constant toil and sweat of the first line of our defense. Because at the end, it's not just a health crisis, it's a battle within and between humanity.

Dr. Pritwani and Dr. Sonthalia are post graduate students of public health from the Indian Institute of Public Health Delhi,Public Health Foundation of India. The views expressed in the article are authors' personal views.

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