Privilege amid pandemic

Something to write home about

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If there’s one reason why I love movies, it’s that they can make me cry. All my life, I’ve subtly wiped away tears when a character delivers a moving monologue or when a rapturous film ends. Still, I can always leave a movie theater or close the Netflix tab knowing the emotion I just experienced came from something surreal. Talking to my mother over video call recently, I couldn’t forget the helplessness in her face, and it made its way into mine, lasting days after the call.

We had talked about the Indian government’s recent response to the COVID-19, colloquially known as coronavirus, outbreak in India, and especially about the low-income majority of the country. On March 24, Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced a three-week national lockdown to combat the spread of coronavirus. All forms of public and private transport were abruptly banned, leaving many migrant workers with no other option but to walk back to their villages. More than 20 workers have died during this exodus in the past few days, and an alarming number of people continue to make their way across the county on foot. Multiple villages in the states of Bihar and Jharkhand have barricaded entry points to prevent residents from entering their homes without undergoing a health check.

More recently, migrant laborers from Uttar Pradesh were sprayed with a disinfectant meant to sanitize buses upon their entry into the state. Disturbing photos of these laborers sitting in large groups on the ground, wearing handkerchiefs over their mouths to avoid ingesting disinfectant, have taken over all of my social media. Worse, the government plans to spend less than 1% of its gross domestic product on a stimulus package, which is in drastic contrast to the immense sums proposed in other countries, such as Britain, Spain and Germany. India’s version of the package is a sum fundamentally inadequate to help daily wage earners.

My mother is the founder of a nonprofit that bridges the employability gap for disadvantaged youth in India, yet she felt utterly helpless during our call the other day. Her students and their families were suddenly denied vital resources, with no chance to stock up on goods from a fancy grocery store as my family could. They could not possibly follow the government’s forceful social distancing guidelines. My hometown, Mumbai, is home to Dharavi, Asia’s largest slum, which houses a population of 1 million in an area of less than a square mile: Every one of those people is unavoidably at risk.

India was unprepared to face a lockdown so sudden and severe, and law enforcement’s brutal force against its people only exacerbates the awful situation. On March 25, West Bengal policemen beat a 32-year-old man to death when he left the house to buy milk for his family.

My friends and I are constantly discussing how to help the current situation for the many disadvantaged communities in India, and we’ve been gathering and circulating information about organizations that can help people acquire food and other necessities. I am working on a social distancing campaign with a team, consolidating guidelines on how groups can socially distance, even in extremely confined spaces, such as India’s slums.

Still, the grave situation of the country’s majority is lost on many privileged Indians. Instead of organizing drives to send essentials to low-income areas, residents of my apartment complex in Mumbai are blaring “encouraging” music from the building speakers to spread “positivity,” and wealthy Indians won’t stop posting patriotic photos on social media.

This is my plea to people across the world, and especially those in India who have the privilege to practice social distancing: Do your part. Cook extra food, and tell your friends to do the same so that you can deliver it to people suddenly in dire need. Donate books you’ve already read to people who may not have reliable Wi-Fi. Generate employment in any way you can. Trader Joes, for instance, is advertising “We’re Hiring!” flyers so it can increase access to food and household essentials; encourage your local grocery stores to do the same.

Workers across the country have suddenly lost their livelihoods; don’t deny them a steady income like the Indian government has. Don’t hoard supplies, since essential services will continue to function, especially for the affluent. So don’t do this just for yourself, do it for the millions of people who cannot.

Anoushka Agrawal writes the Wednesday column on her experiences as an international student from India. Contact her at [email protected]