Covid-19 adds brutal, discriminatory bias towards poor, already 'socially distanced'

Social distancing has always been practiced in India with an ethnic bias. Now, corona-phase has added a brutal, discriminatory angle against the poor as if they are responsible for it. This includes policemen’s stick. Despite this virus having affected largely the rich, with an international travel history, speculations are circulating about possibility of lakhs of Indians falling victim to this virus. These lakhs include India’s poverty-stricken people who cannot afford sanitizers or even soaps. In addition to migrant workers, these are domestic help in urban areas, self-employed tailors, barbers, vendors, shopkeepers and numerous others.

For representation
For representation

The first cases were taken note of in India and United States in January this year. Population density in India is 464 per km (1202 per mile), a much higher figure than in US, which is 36 per km (96 per mile). India is nowhere on the corona-affected list topped by US at present. Nevertheless, it is feared, whatever is expected to be achieved by lockdown may fall victim to immigrants having rushed back to their native villages, giving no importance to “social distancing”. Another fear is that “unhygienic” practices in cities’ slums and poor areas, home primarily to maids, cab-drivers, vendors and other similar workers, may contribute to stage three and four of this epidemic.

The poor are being assumed to be possible carriers of this virus primarily because of their socio-economic stature. For a moment, reflect on duties performed by maids. These include washing utensils and mopping floors. The focus here is not on their employers being compelled to do this during lockdown. Rather, it is on disinfectants and soaps used more than once by maids while performing these tasks. The majority of these live in one-room houses, which serve as their living, dining and sleeping areas. They don’t use wall-to-wall carpets, which are common in rich homes. What is important is that they clean their floors at least once or twice daily. Vacuum cleaners are used for cleaning carpets usually once a week. The implication is obvious: germs, etc in linger around for a longer period in carpeted areas. Besides, poor Indians use their hands to wash their clothes and dry them in the sun. They don’t have access to washing machines and dryers normally owned by rich families in the West but not all western homes have their own washing machines and driers. So far, not much has been said on common washing machines/driers being touched by different people throughout the day and thus acting as carriers of this virus.

The disadvantage poor Indians suffer from, that is use of common bathrooms and toilets cannot be ignored. The saving grace here is that these toilets are the traditional, Indian type. The seating arrangement is such that their body doesn’t come in contact with structure as it does in western toilet-seats. The risk spelled by the latter is that one doesn’t know as to how many persons, with what ailments, may have used the same seat earlier. Besides, Indian practice of using water to clean instead of toilet paper is far more hygienic. Water is used by poor too. Even if they were familiar with toilet-rolls, it would not be in their budget.

Forks and spoons are not used by a majority in India, particularly the poor. Elementary analysis of this is a pointer to their being familiar with the practice of washing hands. Meals prepared – whether in rich or poor homes - contain several spices with medicinal benefits. These include turmeric, cinnamon, cloves, onion seeds and several others. The same can be said about spices used in pickles, which most in West aren’t probably familiar with. There is also a world of difference between fresh Indian bread usually cooked at meal-time and that purchased in West for the whole week or even more.

Hugs and shake-hands aren’t as common in India as they are in West. “Hi,” “Namaste,” “Adaab/Salaam,” “Sat Sri Akaal” and other greetings are often exchanged without any physical contact.

National lockdown announced by Prime Minister Modi certainly seemed need of the hour. If some advance notice had been given and arrangements made for migrant labourers to return to their respective villages, they may have been spared traumatic suffering of walking back hundreds of miles to reach their homes. Lockdown also spells loss of their income. Certainly, financial loss is better than allowing Covid-19 to reach fourth stage. Yet, while even affluent and middle-classes cannot afford economic crunch for too long, how can poor sections bear the brunt of being without any work, wages and food even for a day?

Overall, some importance should be given to difference in diet, life-styles, etc while comparing stages reached by Covid-19 in India and West. It is possible, Indian habits and spices may check the stage four and perhaps also the stage three of Covid-19. At the time of writing this piece, greater part of India was stated to be in stage 2. Let us keep our fingers crossed, exercise caution and stop holding a biased corona-tagged approach towards the poor. Social distancing is important but not on ground of socio-economic stature of any individual, section or community.