Amidst lockdown, poor need karuna

The poor rush back on crowded trains and buses or walk.

Despite all the talk about globalisation for the last 30 years, the current crisis is the first truly global one. It began in China, which used to be a byword for poverty but is now an economic superpower. It stayed in East Asia but was mastered best by South Korea. Then it jumped across to Europe and real tragedies have struck these ‘developed’ economies. Italy has higher mortality numbers than China and Spain is catching up fast. The US is on the steep side of the curve and numbers of cases and deaths are multiplying at a rapid rate. India has just begun its journey on the infection ladder and the next three months will tell whether the public health system and the government machinery are up to protecting the public.

War has been the most frequently used image in the UK, which has romantic memories of having fought in the Second World War on its own (forgetting the millions from the Empire who fought on its side). Prime Minister Narendra Modi used the analogy of the Mahabharat, saying it lasted 18 days while the lockdown to defeat the virus was for 21 days. Not a happy analogy, as lakhs died in those 18 days. But this is nothing like a war. There is no visible enemy out there you can attack. We are our own enemies. Any one of us could be carrying and spreading the virus. If you care for your family, friends, town, country, stop meeting friends and family, stop going to work. Become like the untouchables in old India whose shadow was not allowed to fall on the savarna.

We are all globally together but only if we keep apart, socially distancing if we are to live and let live. Display karuna (compassion), as the Prime Minister said, to fight corona. Each country has a national character. The East Asians — Japanese, Koreans, Chinese — have an enormous feeling of national solidarity. If the government were to say stay in, the East Asians comply. This is why South Korea succeeded in controlling its mortality and the Chinese were able to lock down the Hubei province.

The British find it very difficult to obey orders except in a real war situation. Many think it is their birthright to disobey what they are asked to do by anyone in authority. So, PM Boris Johnson dithered for two weeks before finally reading the Riot Act and putting the country in lockdown.

India is a mixture of apparent obedience with lurking anarchy. It is the second most populous country and the public health infrastructure is dilapidated. The system looks after VIPs (who think rules don’t apply to them, as we saw in Kolkata) and those who can pay, but leaves the 99.5% to manage the best they can.

The lockdown was launched last Sunday and then accelerated, but no one seems to have grasped the morphology of the society. The poor cannot afford social distancing. If they cannot work in the metros, they have to flee to their rural homes. They can’t stay indoors as they live outdoors. They rush back on crowded trains and buses or walk. These trains are traps for the virus, so, for the poor, lockdown cancels itself.

Show karuna — behave like an achhoot (untouchable).