Reducing a people to a statistic

Published: May 22, 2020, 04:26 IST | Rosalyn D'mello | Mumbai

While India directs all its might towards winning the war against the COVID-19 pandemic, those considered by the urban elite as outsiders are being preyed upon by hunger on the road

Migrants walking to Rajasthan rest on the highway. PIC/suresh karkera
Migrants walking to Rajasthan rest on the highway. PIC/suresh karkera

picAs the disastrous impact of inconsiderate governance is being revealed daily, I keep returning to the same question — what was the worst-case scenario we were hoping to avoid? What's unfolding now, the scale of mass migration by vulnerable people afraid of how they can continue to subsist in cities that never truly accepted them as residents seems pretty worst case to me.

When the lockdown was instituted with little notice, with barely any time for people to make informed choices about securing the sites of their dwelling, what was the situation we were trying to avoid which necessitated the lockdown in the first place? Was it an escalation of fatalities? Were we trying to mitigate the burden on our under-funded health-care systems by populating our highways with the casualties, instead?

When I hear the pre-recorded public-interest message each time I try to make a phone call, telling me I shouldn't stigmatise people with illness, I feel a distinct rage at the hypocrisy of the people presiding over our fates. Firstly because they were extremely quick to berate members of a non-Hindu sect for organising a public event as if Hindutva evangelists had done nothing of the sort; and secondly, because the message speaks about "winning the war against COVID-19".

This language of warfare is upsetting because even though the enemy is invisible, the talk of conflict implies that there will be bodies that will be sacrificed in the larger interest of protecting "the nation". These are akin to frontline casualties. When will we stop speaking about people, especially those most fragile, vulnerable, and marginalised, as mere bodies? When will we start to understand that each body is a whole, complete with mind and soul, and subjectivity, and longing, and the desire to create, live, feel?

It is dehumanising to be reduced to a statistic. Those who have died from complications arising because of COVID-19 at least have the dignity of being counted as a fatality of a pandemic. Those who are dying some kilometres outside their villages after having walked for days in scorching heat and amid hunger aren't accorded that privilege. They are the casualties of this alleged war that India must, at all costs, win. You start to accept, gradually, that this country doesn't belong to them, because they are not the elite. The blatant overturning of labour laws by certain state governments speaks volumes about how those in power, in cahoots with capitalistic frameworks, perceive the migrant, labouring body as just that, a body, a machine, disposable and replaceable.

That so many migrants were being turned away at the borders of the states to which they belonged, to which they were seeking re-entry on grounds that industries were being re-opened speaks volumes about how we consistently deny our working population agency over the kind of labour they may desire to perform.
P. Sainath truth-bombed many, in a recent interview whose title drew from a quote from him, "Urban India didn't care about migrant workers until 26 March, only cares now because it's lost their services."

There is a part of me that secretly hopes that the migrant labour that manages to return home finds they are happier there and don't need to subject themselves to the precariousness of servicing an elite populace that didn't, until recently, care about their existence. It could signal the beginning of contemporary anti-capitalist dissent.

Rebecca Solnit reminds us, in her recent essay, "'The impossible has already happened': what coronavirus can teach us about hope," that we have reached a crossroads, we have emerged from what we assumed was normality, and things have suddenly overturned. "One of our main tasks now — especially those of us who are not sick, are not frontline workers, and are not dealing with other economic or housing difficulties — is to understand this moment, what it might require of us, and what it might make possible," she writes. "When a storm subsides, the air is washed clean of whatever particulate matter has been obscuring the view, and you can often see farther and more sharply than at any other time. When this storm clears, we may, as do people who have survived a serious illness or accident, see where we were and where we should go in a new light. We may feel free to pursue change in ways that seemed impossible while the ice of the status quo was locked up. We may have a profoundly different sense of ourselves, our communities, our systems of production and our future."

This is where hope could lie, in the choices we make in this crucial moment, about how we want to live our lives. It is my prayer that we begin to do so by acknowledging how we relate to each other, the wondrous interconnectedness that binds us together, that makes us accountable to each other, that makes us complicit in each other's self-care.

Deliberating on the life and times of Everywoman, Rosalyn D’Mello is a reputable art critic and the author of A Handbook For My Lover. She tweets @RosaParx
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