CoronaVirus: Snippets 1May – 30 June 2020

5 May: Modi & the Migrants

There is little doubt that Modi has made a woeful blunder in otherwise reasonably competent handling of the CoronaVirus pandemic: The Lockdown on 24 March was the right step, but Modi did not take into account the plight of the millions of ‘migrants’ across urban India. It was obvious to a blind Freddie that casual jobs would be the first victims of business closures.  Modi exhorted all to stay where they were, but he offered no incentives to the migrants to stay in place once their casual daily jobs disappeared.  What choice did these poor people have, living on daily wages, once the cash flow dried up? With interstate transport also prohibited, images of millions walking hundreds of miles to their homes in villages across the breadth of the country – reminiscent of the scenes during the Partition – are indelibly etched among observers of the Indian scene.  Nearly two months later, migrants are still walking.

Modi’s blunder apart, it took the government six weeks to come up with special trains and buses to transport these walking millions.  While these are operating in fits and starts, the whole programme of returning migrants to their respective states has been marked by flip-flops, discretionary exemptions, and by the usual bickering between the Centre and the non-BJP state governments on how to handle the returning migrants – Covid19 tests, financial burden, accommodation, etc. – with some States even unwilling to accept their own back because of fears of infection spreads.

Social media have been full of videos of pitiable walking masses (particularly children) in obvious distress without food, accommodation, transport.  English medium Twitter and Facebook are rampant with criticism of Modi from obviously educated and presumably well to do urban commentariat.  One question: Were these critics not aware of the state of living of migrants in the streets in the upmarket or gated suburban pockets in which they themselves live?  How could they have missed the all too evident deprived living conditions of these migrants who serve them as domestic servants, plumbers, itinerant construction workers and such like? Does their conscious get pricked only when a crisis occurs which affects themselves and then and only then they acknowledge that it is affecting migrants too?

I could not resist replying to a tweet (accompanied by a video displaying awfully sad imagery), which (rightly) condemned the Government, but betrayed the classic Indian middle-class inability to look at oneself first before passing judgement on others. My Tweet, 5 May:

Replying to Uma Sudhir, Tavleen Singh

Why is it that these unfortunates become visible in India only during a crisis? Why are they invisible in ‘normal’ times? Do we recognise their dire circumstances only when we fortunates experience such a crisis ourselves and see its reflection in their plight? We too are guilty. “

11 May – Cultural Distancing

NYT has just published an article on the “puzzle why do some nations fare worse than others” when it comes to the ravages that Coronavirus is inflicting across the globe. (p54rx5.html)

In exploring various theories. it implied cultural distancing as one of the factors to explain the riddle in India.  “In Thailand and India, where virus numbers are relatively low, people greet each other at a distance, with palms joined together as in prayer. In Japan and South Korea, people bow……In many parts of the Middle East, such as Iraq and the Persian Gulf countries, men often embrace or shake hands-on meeting, yet most are not getting sick.”

The role that cultural distancing might be playing is correct but betrays an abysmal ignorance of cultural intelligence regarding India.  Yes, ‘namaste’ is certainly a more effective measure against COVID19 than a handshake – see my snippet of 4 April – but it is ludicrous to suggest that it even partly explains the Indian ‘riddle’.  In fact, Indian cultural behaviour is, if not more, touchy-feely than in the Middle East.  In India, unlike in the Arab world, women touch, hug and hold hands in public.  Men are as expressive in physical contact as their Arab counterparts.  It is accepted cultural practice for young men to walk hand in hand or arms draped over each other’s shoulders.  Indeed, quite apart from the sheer spatial propinquity inevitable in slums and teeming urban spaces, it is this cultural aspect that makes social distancing a distant dream irrespective of regulations in place.  Namaste does not explain the ‘riddle’.

(A historic footnote: From the onset of the Raj, the British (and other occidentals) mistook this Indian male behaviour as a sign of gayness – and weakness.  As late as in the 1990s, western diplomatic reporting from New Delhi on defence policies suggested that Indian (Hindu) martial skills were inferior to those of Pakistani (Muslim) warriors because they were effete – better in bed (hello, Kama Sutra) than on the battlefield. Sub-text: Do not write off muscular Pakistan vis a vis soft India when considering strategic options in South Asia.)