Arundhati Roy: after the lockdown, we need a reckoning
What do I most look forward to as we emerge from the lockdown? Most urgently, a carefully drawn up ledger of accountability.
On March 24, India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced the most punitive and least-planned lockdown in the world, giving 1.38bn people just four hours’ notice. After 55 days of lockdown, even according to untrustworthy official data the graph of Covid-19 positive cases in India had risen from 545 to over 100,000. Media reports quote members of the prime minister’s Covid-19 task force saying that the lockdown failed because of the manner in which it was implemented.
Fortunately, a great number of patients are asymptomatic, and when compared to the US and Europe, relatively few have needed intensive care. After all the military metaphors, the fearmongering, hatemongering and stigmatisation around the disease, we have now been informed that as the lockdown is eased, we will have to learn to live with the virus.
In India, we are good at living with illness. So far, according to government figures, just over 3,000 people have died of Covid-19 in India. During the same period (starting January 30) extrapolating from existing data, 150,000 people, most of them poor, would have died from that other infectious respiratory illness, tuberculosis, much of it the drug-resistant variety.
The zero-planning lockdown has meant that in these last 59 days (make that 120 days of lockdown and a 10-month internet siege for Kashmir) India has witnessed a nightmare from which we may never fully recover. Unemployment was at a 45-year high before the lockdown. The lockdown is estimated to have cost 135m jobs.
Millions of workers found themselves stranded in cities with no food, shelter, money or means of transport. The exodus of traumatised people walking hundreds of miles from cities to their villages that began on March 25 is now, all these weeks later, a deluge.
Stripped of dignity and hope, these once self-respecting people travel hundreds of miles on foot, on bicycles or crammed illegally into private trucks like so much cargo. They have carried the virus with them, spreading it like bushfire to the remotest parts of the countryside. Many have died of hunger and exhaustion or been killed in accidents on their desperate journeys.
To escape being brutalised by the police as they walked on the highways, they began to trek on railways tracks. After 16 people were crushed to death by a goods train, the police started to patrol those routes, too. Now we see people wading across rivers and streams, their luggage and little children held aloft. They are going home to hunger and unemployment.
We see stampedes for food, and thousands swarming bus stops and train stations (where social distancing is a cruel joke) hoping to get on the few trains and buses that the government organised weeks after the reverse migration crisis began. For now, we only have a rough idea of the scale of the horror. We know little of its depth and texture.
In his various addresses to the nation, Modi has only once mentioned this desolate exodus, even then obliquely, dressing it up in Hindu notions of tapasya and tyaag — penance, self-mortification and sacrifice.
In the meantime, in the hugely publicised “Operation Vande Bharat” (Operation Salute India), Indians stranded abroad were flown back home. In order to reassure the socially distanced flying classes about how much is being done to make travel safe in the future, TV reports showcase the elaborate sanitisation protocol in airports and planes.
In the era of Covid-19, such attentiveness towards one class and such overt cruelty towards another only makes sense if in future India’s flying classes and walking classes are to be hermetically sealed off from each other and almost never encounter each other physically. We have lived with “untouchability” — caste apartheid — for centuries. Religious apartheid is in an advanced stage of preparation.
We have a new anti-Muslim citizenship law and a new citizenship register in the works. Those who protested against it, mostly young Muslims, are being arrested under draconian non-bailable laws. Muslim ghettos and massive detention centres are already a reality in India. Now we can welcome class apartheid. The era of Touchlessness, in which the very bodies of one class are seen as a biohazard to another.
The biohazardous bodies will be required to labour, of course, in hazardous conditions without the protection afforded to the privileged. And the interface — the service class — will be replaced as far as possible by non-hazardous machines. What will become of the surplus working class — the bulk of the world’s population — not just in India, but worldwide? Who is going to be held accountable for this apocalypse? Not a virus, I hope.
We need Covid Trials. In an international court. At the very least. That’s my post-lockdown reverie.
Arundhati Roy’s latest novel is ‘The Ministry of Utmost Happiness’