What demonetization did to black money, lockdown will do to Coronavirus.
On the evening of March 24, PM Modi announced lockdown for 21days starting from the next day that is 25th March and said, "If the situation is not handled in these 21 days, the country and your family could go back 21 years. If the situation is not handled in these 21 days, several families will get devastated forever. Hence, you must forget what going out means for the next 21 days." India reported the very first case of Coronavirus as early as January 30 but the first-ever address by PM on the pandemic came on March 19 for the call of voluntary lockdown for a day on March 22 and was named ‘janta curfew’ (people’s curfew) which is now seen as a preparation for total lockdown that followed three days later.
Such addresses by PM Modi are not the first of its kind. He has the distinction of not addressing a single press conference in his till date six-year tenure as the Prime Minister but has delivered several monologues, many of them under the title ‘mann ki baat’- mind speak.
But the announcement of lockdown finds close resemblance with the announcement he made on November 8, 2016, for demonetization which banned high currency notes from the next day with the agenda to hit at black-money. Both Demonetization and Lockdown gave a few hours’ notices to the public and so both resulted in immediate panic. While demonetization announcement made people rush to jewelry stores, real estate agents to purchase high-value assets before the currency gets redundant, lockdown announcement resulted in people flocking for pharmacies, groceries to store essential as much as possible. In both of the announcements narrative of establishing ‘only one solution’ as the panacea of all evils dominates. As ‘cash transaction’ was made the only cause of black-money and so demonetization comes up as the solution. Likewise, ‘isolation’ is propagated to be the only way to fight Covid-19 and so three weeks lockdown, a brutal lockdown, comes up as the solution, the only solution.
After more than three years of demonetization, it’s no more a secret the irreparable damages that demonetization has brought to the economy with no impact on black money. Now, even the government does not mention demonetization episode at any platform, just like to live with the narrative that it was ‘a decision with some flawed implementation but with good intention’. But before the 21 days lockdown is also going to be reduced to the legacy of ‘a decision with some flawed implementation but with good intention’, it will take its toll heavily like never seen before in the recorded history of Indian sub-continent, and has already started the signs. What demonetization did to black money, lockdown will do to Coronavirus.
Social distancing without physical distancing
Social distancing is the term generally used for isolation as a measure to prevent the spread of the virus. But this can be confusing in the Indian context, as social distancing has always been here and exists for more than three thousand years. People are maintaining social distancing between the upper caste also known as ‘swarna’ from the lower caste, known as ‘shudra’ or Dalit. There’s a noticeable distance between them in every sphere of life- occupation, housing, education, health & justice. Hence the term social distancing may not represent the right chord in India, it's more appropriate to use the term ‘physical distancing’ as a preventive measure against the coronavirus.
Mainstream media has effectively convinced its mass viewers that ‘isolation’ is the only solution and so other important aspects like- testing, treatment facilities like ventilators, and safety of doctors through Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) all have become non-issues. Entire communication has been limited to make lockdown a success. Indian citizens have comfortably digested the chronicle- because the Indian health system is not equipped to tackle a pandemic so we have no other option than a complete lockdown. The government is happy with this narrative as it exonerates it from its core responsibility and in the case of an outbreak, experts say is imminent, the entire blame would be on the public for not following the lockdown directives properly.
Government has successfully run such campaigns in the past also. One of the flagship projects of the Modi govt was called Swatchh Bharat Abhiyaan which was the cleanliness & sanitization drive. PM Modi’s most dominant part of his every speech was ‘if 125crore people of the country decide not to spread litter, then no power on Earth can stop making India clean.’ In other words, if you see garbage piled up near to your house, you know whom to blame. The entire Swatch Bharat campaign was run on such slogans. There was no space in the mainstream media to debate on the investment done by govt to procure cleaning equipment, recruitment of more cleaners, enhance the working conditions of cleaners and tackling manual scavenging. So, there is no visible change after more than five years of the campaign except that Indian rivers have become more polluted, air quality has further degraded and litter all around. The 125 crores failed to do their job properly.
India so far has one of the lowest coronavirus testing ratios in the world. India has approximately 1 doctor per 1500 citizens. In rural India where two-thirds of the Indians live and rely almost solely on government hospitals, the ratio is 1 doctor to more than 10,000 people. India has 2.3 intensive care beds per 100,000 people, and 30,000 to 40,000 ventilators nationwide. This is in addition to the severe shortage of PPE. On the day of Janta Curfew, many came out on the streets beating utensils and dancing in groups, though Modi had appealed to clap or beat utensils only from the balconies as a show of gratitude for doctors. But the public responded more enthusiastically. A lot of gratitude was showered but without surety of safety for doctors. In between, there are instances of landlords asking doctors to leave their rented accommodations as doctors can bring coronavirus to their homes. The government hasn’t shared any concrete plans to address the core issues except the announcement of a mere Rs15000 crore package to strengthen healthcare with not much detail.
The first few days of lockdown shows that it may not serve the purpose of physical distancing, but will enable social distancing to the next level. Tens of thousands of daily wagers and migrant workers, the majority of them are Dalits, are leaving for their homes into the deep rural parts of the country. The place where they belong, far away from the urban civilization which is designed for the privileged class. They were in urban areas to run factories and construction work. With the closure of these, they are not required now and will be called back as and when required.
They have embarked on an arduous journey to their homes. Their journey range from 50km to 500km which can take 5 to 10days, on foot. There’s no public transport, no trains, no buses, as part of disciplined lockdown. So they have to travel on foot. Many are carrying infants on their shoulders, some holding malnourished hands of toddlers along with a bag of household items. Some have few currency notes in their pocket, many don’t. Lockdown also has little options of food their way back as most of the dhabhas / eateries are closed. At many places, state governments, NGOs, Sikh organizations, other religious organizations & individuals are organizing free food for them but all these efforts are insufficient considering the magnitude of the situation. Physical distancing becomes irrelevant at these free kitchens. Thousands can be seen flocking at the state borders hoping to get some transport. Lately, some state governments have arranged buses for them. A 1.5-meter safe physical distance norm cannot be applied here either practically or mathematically. This lockdown has ensured that the virus reaches every village of the country which otherwise was restrained to the urban areas.
The concept of ‘Work from Home’ applies to the minuscule population of India. We are talking of millions of people who are daily wagers and migrant laborers who are left with neither ‘work’ nor ‘home.’ We are talking about the huge population for whom a loss of day’s work means they might miss the meal for the day, and we are talking about 21 days lockdown. Finance Minister announced a 1.7 lakh crore relief package for 800 million poor people for 3 months which is less than 1% of India’s GDP. This was too little too late. Mathematically per person, it comes out to be Rs 2125 for 3 months or Rs 24 (0.32 US$) a day assuming 100% of it trickles down the corrugated bureaucratic pipeline.
Covid-19 is believed to kill 2 to 5% of the infected population, but hunger kills 100%. Very soon people in India would start dying by hunger and famine before coronavirus could catch them. We are just a few days away from the major food riots. Though PM Modi in his address assured that no one needs to worry about essential commodities, but at the same time using the word ‘curfew’ several times. Indian Police who is trained as per the legacy of colonial rule understands ‘curfew’ better than ‘lockdown with essential commodities’. So at various places police were seen stopping the transportation of essential items. Many instances have been reported of police beating mercilessly people moving around even for the purchase of essential commodities. In rare cases, the public also gets the chance to beat the police.
This migration will ensure that urban areas are cleared of poor, Dalits and migrant laborers. A perfect social distancing. This will ease out the pressure on the urban hospitals and the privileged people can be treated a little better. Mainstream media will do its job of focusing on the urban areas and blackout the news from the poor rural, where there are almost negligible health services, ventilators or ICUs remains a far cry, the poor do not even expect these things. They know they don’t deserve equal health facilities.
The times of riots, famine, and health crises are great opportunities for rulers to tighten the grip on society and ensure that democratic institutes are further crushed in the greater national interest. The government will do everything right, there may be a flawed implementation but with good intention. The government cannot be blamed if the 125 crore population failed to do their job properly.