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Lockdowns & Layoffs: We, the People of La La Land

By DEBASHISH CHATTERJEE
May 28, 2020 08:53 IST
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'India has been cleaved into two by a government that has shown amazing consistency in cleaving.'
'One India is gasping for life, and the other is doing yoga and clapping from balconies and WhatsApp groups,' observes Debashish Chatterjee.
Illustration: Uttam Ghosh/Rediff.com

Cancellations, confusion and chaos on the first day of flights reopening after they were shut two months ago.

Special trains being run to take back the stranded workers delayed by days and needing to be 're-routed' when other passenger trains aren't even running. Passengers dying.

An economy, that was thriving a decade ago, on ventilator in ICU.

An economic stimulus package, unveiled over days like a Netflix show, that offers little apart from loans.

The spike of novel coronavirus cases touching new highs every day, with cities such as Ahmedabad and Mumbai struggling.

 

If you ask what the lockdown -- the most stringent in the world -- has achieved in India, the four sentences above probably make up the short answer.

Sure, the lockdown has also had us see movie stars wash their hands, some of us have discovered the joys of cooking, connected with our inner souls and reconnected with abandoned hobbies.

It has made us type 'nature is healing' after watching photographs of snow-capped mountains visible from Saharanpur in Uttar Pradesh and Mount Everest visible from Sitamarhi in Bihar.

And, yes, the lockdown has probably kept the number of COVID-19 cases lower than what it would have been.

However, epidemiologists and infectious disease specialists have been screaming from rooftops that a lockdown can only buy time.

To set up specialised treatment facilities, to put in place an army of contact tracers and testing personnel with adequate PPE (personal protective equipment) kits.

To test, isolate, treat, and let life resume.

Else, cases will spike when -- whenever -- the lockdown is lifted.

A cursory glance through what other countries have done -- and what Kerala is being lauded globally for -- bears testimony to that.

The South Korean model -- where you can get yourself tested for the novel coronavirus at drive-ins where you don't even have to get out of the car -- has also been much discussed.

But the experiences of countries such as Vietnam and Japan also hold lessons for us because their reality is closer to ours.

Tokyo is one of the most congested cities in the world, and it has not had a lockdown.

India has had two months of a lockdown declared at four-hour notice, and obeyed it exceptionally for an inherently chaotic country.

Millions of people -- please don't call them migrant workers if you believe India is one -- have been displaced, hundreds have died trying to get home.

How many hospitals have been built?

How easy is it to get a COVID-19 test done?

Is there a plan on how India will reopen?

How many people have lost their jobs?

At present, India has been cleaved into two by a government that has shown amazing consistency in cleaving.

One India is gasping for life, and the other is doing yoga and clapping from balconies and WhatsApp groups.

'The migrant workers' issue is a mess, let us not talk about that. Thankfully it does not affect us. But we have to help the government. We should extend the ban on maids even after the lockdown lifts on May 31.'

That's what a person wrote in the WhatsApp group of a residential complex in a city. It could have been any Indian city. It just goes to show how successfully the dispensation has transferred the responsibility of public health to the public.

In other words, yet another masterstroke.

On Twitter, a person has put up the video of his reporting manager telling him over a WhatsApp call to resign.

The victim, who said he had worked for a year at one of those big brands that have their fingers in everything from real estate to microfinance, tagged quite a few minister's handles, including the prime minister's.

What the poor fellow probably didn't know is that what he has been served is the modus operandi for most layoffs in corporate India. You are asked to resign.

It's an offer you can't refuse. Murder, turned into suicide. No trace of blood.

It is inhuman to fire people in the middle of a lockdown, but companies across the spectrum are doing it, including a bleeding-heart, fiercely anti-Narendra Modi newspaper.

While millions trudge the highways and thousands lose their jobs and livelihoods, instead of even trying to boost up healthcare facilities, the government has been going after dissenting voices.

It has shown absolutely no empathy towards the millions of people stranded due to the lockdown, who are now getting home or dying on the way, and adding to COVID-19 cases in their home states.

It told the Supreme Court that there were no more migrant labourers walking. Jharkhand alone, meanwhile, was bracing for 7.5 lakh people to return.

If we, the ones who are dialling in what we need, think that such a massive migration of people will not affect us we are living in la la land.

The lash of the lockdown will be felt long after it is over, it is time to urgently end it.

Use the PMCares fund -- and every other fund available -- instead to ramp up testing, isolation and treatment centres.

Set up a health-care army. Have a plan in place for how to reopen, communicate that clearly to the people. Spell out the new reality.

That would take visionary leadership.

Unfortunately, we are satisfied with being locked down at home, safe, and binge-watching shows on streaming networks. Till we get that call ourselves.

We, the people of la la land.

Production: Rajesh Alva/Rediff.com

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