The COVID-19 outbreak came to light on December 31, 2019, when China informed the World Health Organization (WHO) of a cluster of cases of pneumonia of an unknown cause in Wuhan City. The outbreak of the novel Coronavirus leading to the COVID-19 outbreak starting from China raised alarm bells across the world. The disease spread to other provinces in China, and the rest of the world. The WHO subsequently declared it a pandemic. Ever since, it has become a crisis for the entire humanity. More than 501,940 people around the world have died after contracting COVID-19. The infection has spread to 10,146,971 people and shows no signs of slowing down.
With 6 lakhs testing positive, and new cases continuously being added every day, the end does not seem anywhere near. Over three months of lockdowns and openings have not managed to improve the situation; and, as widely perceived, the situation is out of control. This calls for further reflection as to where are we going wrong. One of the important questions amidst the heart wrenching and worrisome situation is what have we learned from the corona crisis?
An online survey on ‘Corona Crisis: Perceptions and Practices’ was undertaken by the Indian Social Institute, New Delhi, to document how humanitarian organizations perceived, understood, and responded to the crisis emerging due to corona virus. The survey was conducted between May 3 to 17, 2020, the lockdown phase III. As many as 140 individual respondents, representing 104 organizations in different capacities, covering nearly 20 states across India, from Kashmir to Kerala and from Assam to Gujarat, and a few having a pan-Indian presence, participated in the survey.
The survey revealed that though many lessons are unique and specific to each respondent, there is a commonality of learnings among most respondents. It is a borderless imagination of living in the same reality, with hearts hiding a shared pain and minds being preoccupied with identical thoughts. This provides a possibility for common learnings that would change the way the world thinks, acts and behaves.
In this context, it is important to note that as many as 60% of the respondents expressed that humanity is above the divisive forces like caste, class, race, religion etc. “We must care for mother earth and the universe” say another 56% of the respondents. The fundamental ethos expressed in our Constitution is expressed by 46% of the respondents who have learned that “We are all connected - respect diversity, live in harmony”. Nearly 40% of the respondents asserted: “be compassionate to others, especially those who are vulnerable”. “We must be grateful to God and other human beings,” said another 40% of the respondents.
Assessing the situation over the last few months, one is forced to go beyond these learnings. The corona crisis has brought deeper realisations, and one of them is “do not take things and persons for granted…” We are so used to taking things for granted in day to day life and often are not even conscious of why we take things for granted until we are on the verge of losing them or ourselves.
Corona virus has hit humanity’s “take for granted” attitude. It has taken control of the essential element of our living – breathing. Corona chokes up our breathing, ultimately leading to the absence of the air in our lungs - to death. Breathing is a fundamental act for existence. The air we breathe is universal, necessary for all living beings irrespective of caste, creed, colour, class etc. It is freely given - there is no exchange or commodification; and easily available - no marketing or trade transactions. Because of these fundamental characteristics, air is taken for granted and breathing, without which we cannot live, goes unnoticed.
The corona virus made the world run for ventilators, artificial mechanisms to pump air into our lungs to keep systems functioning. It is here we realized how expensive the air that we freely breathe is, and how important is the act of breathing itself. The government and all establishments just could not manage to provide air, even only to those who were in dire need to breathe. Today, oxygen is commercialized; ventilators are in scarcity; and people take precautions to ensure that the breathing system does not get affected in any way. This reminds us of the post that went viral on the social media: After the 93-year-old in Italy got better in the hospital, he was told to pay for the ventilator for one day, and the old man cried. The doctor advised him not to cry over the bill. What the old man said made all the doctors cry. He said, "I don't cry because of the money I have to pay. I can pay all the money. I cry because I have been breathing God's air for 93 years, but I never pay for it. Do you know how much I owe God? I didn't thank God for that before."
The corona crisis has put our well-being at stake. The corona virus is strongly associated with fear – fear of being infected, fear of death, fear of losing someone, fear of moving out etc. Fear, worries, stress are the common symptoms appearing on every face and life, so to say. Nearly 91% of the respondents agreed that people in their operational areas are indeed worried about their physical well-being due to corona virus, as well as the crisis. On similar lines, as many as 83% of the total respondents perceive the people in their operational areas are worried about their mental well-being as well. Similarly, 88% of the respondents perceive that people feel stressed about venturing outside the house.
Almost after four months of its presence in India, only 38% of the respondents feel that people in their operational areas have come to terms with the pandemic. The people are more worried and stressed about the situation now, as the severity and spread of the pandemic, as well as the number of deaths has increased manifold in India. This has awakened humankind to the fact of how easily we take life for granted. The corona virus has led to lock us down into our homes and in our inner chambers, providing space and time to learn to slow down. Amid deaths and dying, we are learning to live, and the slowing down is teaching us what is the essential for life and of life.
Along with the air we breathe, we have taken for granted the workforce – the frontline warriors – who care for us and the lifeline of our economy – workers who toil for us.
The corona virus has provided the entire humanity an opportunity to be grateful for the sacrifices of frontline workers and all those who are caring for fellow human beings around the globe through their services and the systems they maintain, day in and out. Ever since the corona virus appeared on the scene, the frontline workers are at the rescue, relief, and healing engagements without counting the cost. They were of course counted as one of the most vulnerable groups to be affected directly by their engagements associated with those infected with the virus. Hence, it was the responsibility of the government to take care of them. There were public acknowledgment and appreciation of the contribution of health professionals and frontline workers by citizens, as the Prime Minister had given a call on 22nd March 2020, for a day-long Janata curfew and to come to balconies to clap ( taali), to beat the thalis to appreciate the work being done by the health professionals.
However, it does not speak well where 30% of the respondents disagree that the government took care of them. It has been reported widely on social media as well as on national media how at many places the health professionals were either physically assaulted or mentally tortured even by stigmatizing them. These workers face social stigma while performing their jobs because of the fear that they may infect others. Several states were helpless when frontline health workers were battling the crisis without protective gear and with an abysmally low number of ventilators and testing kits. COVID-19 has exposed India’s crippled healthcare system: the people at the forefront of the battle against the pandemic are underpaid, unprotected and unheard. Frontline corona warriors are struggling to feed their families despite putting their lives in danger (see thehindu.com/article31932506.ece June 28, 2020).
The lifeline of our economy consists of the often-invisible army of over 100 million migrant workers in India – 20% of the workforce – who leave their villages for jobs in cities (see https://scroll.in/article/963251/ May 30, 2020). The situation of migrant workers across the nation exposed the government’s attitude and its way of functioning. It is being widely perceived that the sudden lockdown announced on 24th March 2020 by the government was a decision in haste and without a thought-out strategy. The government failed to consider the poor and those at the margins, especially the migrant workers labouring across the nation in various cities who were held up away from home. It is well documented that the government was too late in responding to the corona virus until it became a crisis. People at various levels were not consulted at all, and they were not prepared for the nation-wide lockdown. As the days passed by, more and more details were revealed about the impact of COVID-19 and the lockdown on the migrant workers across the country.
It was absolute carelessness of the authorities to disregard the workers who toiled in our industries, keeping the economy alive. It is only when the lakhs of workers walked miles to reach home, leaving our cities and workplaces, that brought some realization of how we have taken them for granted. Rightly so, as many as 42% of the respondents who have a humanitarian approach in their reaching out and are in touch with the grassroots reality disagreed with the statement that the government took care of the migrant workers while responding to the corona crisis.
During the lockdown, hundreds of thousands of migrant workers were stuck in metro cities, far away from their homes. The plight of the poor, especially the migrant workers who were largely abandoned by the government increased considerably when it came to providing the means to reach home from the cities. By the time the third lockdown was to be extended, migrant workers were experiencing tremendous uncertainty and insecurity. It was the most important moment of crisis and uncertainty where people expected the government to provide a sense of security and to stand by them. Instead, they were left to fend for themselves, which indeed intensified the crisis.
As reported in The Wire, ‘The migrant worker crisis that we have been witnessing over the past few days could unfold into one of the biggest Indian tragedies, and the government only looked to push it under the rug. (see https:/thewire.in/rights/28 March 2020 ) .
The power of the ordinary cannot be taken for granted for too long and, when it explodes, it can be a reason for great worry. With the large-scale exodus of migrant workers to their hometowns, a massive workforce shortage has hit the operations in industrial, transport and other sectors. Many migrant workers have already sent messages that due to the treatment meted out to them in the cities, they have decided not to return to their workplaces post lockdown. Thus, due to the unprecedented manpower crunch, various factory units have also been hit.
The question on everyone’s mind is, “When will the coronavirus pandemic end?” The answer is not easy to come by, but the World Health Organization has warned, "Make no mistake: we have a long way to go. This virus will be with us for a long time." Therefore, it is time that we press the pause button and ask ourselves how long will we take things for granted, especially those which appear ordinary but essential for our living and life? The learnings from corona crisis demand a fundamental shift from taking things for granted; it will certainly change the way we think, act, and behave.
(firstname.lastname@example.org)(Published on 06th July 2020, Volume XXXII, Issue 28)