YOU DON’T NEED HAMMER TO KILL A FLY!

JOBLESS: The majority of migrant labour working in highly industrialized cities like Bengaluru and Pune had no choice but to return to their home towns in Bihar or UP

BY RAJAN NARAYAN

AND a few stray thoughts for yet another Saturday. For a Saturday following the week of my discovery of the misery caused to poor by a sudden lockdown. For a Saturday following the week when all residents of the country were asked to stay at home for 21 days. For a Saturday following the week when migrant labour was worst victims of the shutdown. For a Saturday following the week when failures in the implementation of the novel coronavirus control scheme got exposed.
AND a few stray thoughts on my belated discovery of the disruption that has been caused by the sudden lockdown announced by Prime Minister Narendra Modi. It was an action replay of Narendra Modi’s sudden announcements on demonetization and general sales tax (GST). The objectives for the lockdown were as commendable as the decision to demonetise 1,000 and500 notes and consolidate the tax structure. The provocation for the current lockdown is a new deadly new virus coming from the Wuhan province of China. Unlike the SARS virus the coronavirus has proved to be far more infectious. The coronavirus spreads much faster than earlier viruses which struck not just India but the world.
In fact in the case of some diseases like AIDS it took a long time to trace the origin of the virus. It was crucial to trace the origin of the virus to create an antidote for treatment. For instance, in the case of AIDS, besides the discovery that it came from a specific species of monkeys it was also established that it spread through homosexual practice. Once the nature of the virus and the means of transmission were established it became much easier to diagnose and treat AIDS. Indeed, AIDS is now curable and even preventable if proper treatment is given. The problem with the coronavirus is that it is just a little more than six months old. The rapidity with which it has spread not only within China but across the world has shocked people.
Unfortunately, we now live in a globalised, inter-connected world. So much so that it literally is the case of coronavirus that if people sneezed in China, deaths occurred in faraway in Italy and California. India should perhaps be commended for acting very quickly to try to contain the deadly coronavirus infection. An illness for which so far there is no sure cure. An illness for which so far there are no adequate diagnostic kits available in the best hospitals in Goa. In India, for instance, if an individual is suspected to have coronavirus symptoms, the sample has to be sent to the Virology Institute in Pune for diagnosis.

MY EXPERIENCE

I FORTUNATELY or otherwise missed the trauma of the first week of the lockdown. I had injured myself in my right leg during an overnight brief holiday to Gokarna. I ignored the injury anew over an older injury and didn’t realize I’d hurt myself by knocking against a rusted metallic device out in the Gokarna resort. I should have taken a tetanus injection. Then over the last weekend with my wife’s sisters from Mumbai and Chicago here visiting, I ignored the growing infection on my right leg and the pain. Only on Monday I felt something was seriously wrong and should go to a doctor. I am in the peculiar situation of having car but no driver.
After my guests had left I tried to get some transport to get my wound attended to. I was willing to pay even the extortionate charges of the taxi mafia. Then I suddenly discovered that the cheapest way of getting to the most expensive hospital in Goa is by calling for one of their ambulances! In a brilliant marketing strategy the Manipal Hospital in Dona Paula does not charge you even one paisa for taking you to the hospital. They make up for any loss they may sustain by their charges imposed for other things later. Manipal Hospital also seems to have taken full advantage of the coronavirus epidemic. They have closed down their out-patients department in several areas which do not fetch them much revenue. They have not closed down these departments but instead created a new emergency medicine department.
The old Casualty used to function after office hours or if there was a medical issue late at night. But in the case of Manipal Hospital if you are taken to a department which is considered a poor revenue earner, you are then taken to the emergency casualty medical department. The preference is that in the emergency medical department to which the ambulance takes you, you are allotted a comfortable bed. Within a few seconds blood is drawn to check if any of your problems are related to blood circulation. An ECG is performed to see if you have a heart disease. There is even a portable X-ray machine.
Strangely in my case though the injury was in the right leg the x-ray done was on the chest. It would have made more sense to take an x-ray of the injured part. All these happens before the consultant doctor appears on the scene. In my case what I urgently needed was the attention of an orthopaedic doctor. So even before the problem was diagnosed my bill had already gone up to 5,000. I was moved at my request to an air-conditioned single room in the hospital. I decided to take full advantage of my newly renewed insurance policy under which I can claim 1% of the insured amount of5 lakh for my hospital room. I was aware that other charges go up in proportion to the size and quality of room. I was too tired at that time to think of the financial consequences. Though I have a TV set at home I only watch some soap operas in the evening. I have long since stopped watching the news which is biased, misleading and downright false. Many of them are like the nakli wrestling matches on WWE. The competition will be between who can shout louder than Arnav Goswami.
Just by chance in my hospital room the technician repairing the television set cable network switched to Times Now around 6pm. Every 15 minutes there was an announcement that Narendra Modi would be addressing the country at 8pm. I was curious and decided to listen to see what fresh shocks the country and I were going to be given. But even then I did not quite realize the intensity of the lockdown till I got back home on Thursday lunchtime.
The situation appeared desperate. Particularly after the PM announced a complete 21-day lockdown from that very night from midnight. Since I was locked up voluntarily in a hospital I did not realise the consequences. I discovered that the lockdown meant that from 12 midnight nobody could step out of the house. The only exception was a few hours when curfew was lifted for people to buy their urgent needs in the morning if any stores were open. Initially, even petrol pumps and banks were included in the lockdown. The lockdown also meant that except for people in essential services like picking up garbage or fire fighting, all Goans were expected to stay at home.
Wherever possible everyone was expected to work from home. This applied to everyone included government servants. All factories including the biggest multinationals including the Vedanta’s and Zuari’s were asked to close down for three weeks. This applied also to schools, including aganwadis. It took some time for the fact to sink in that the lockdown meant virtual imprisonment for all Goan residents in their homes. There was no question of staying in a hotel as all hotels and lodges were also closed down.
As the subsequent drama unfolded it became impossible to go outside the states as domestic flights were banned. It became impossible for even the free Indian traveller let alone the charters to come to Goa because they were banned. Presumably, it was worse than Nazi times in Germany as if you stepped out of your home during the curfew hours, police assaulted and chased you back!
ENGLISH `OONCH, NEECH’

AND a few stray thoughts on the realisation that English is for the majority of Indians the only foreign language. It is the phrase “social distancing” which is creating so much confusion. In classic English “social distancing” means the distance between the rich and poor. The distance between slum dwellers and those who stay at Altinho Panaji. In many villages in the country and perhaps a few in Goa the bahujan or harijan or tribals are literally treated as untouchable. In India the expression — social distancing — means that some people are superior to all others.
What the PM intended to convey was that all citizens need to maintain a physical distance from one another. This means that whether you are prince or common citizen, millionaire or beggar, you maintain a physical distance of at least half a meter or more from all other people or persons. The logic behind this being the coronavirus could not travel beyond one meter. Moreover the coronavirus cannot survive heat. Which is why testing for the viral fever basically involves the use of a thermal scanner to check the temperature of anyone who arrives by air, ship or train. The normal body temperature is 98.4 degree. If the person being tested has a temperature above 100.4 degree it is automatically assumed he may be a coronavirus suspect.
If the person displayed other symptoms like constant sneezing, a sore throat and respiratory problems, it’s still assumed he needs to test for coronavirus infection. The best example to show the use of a wrong phrase is the voluntary internment of Prince Charles, first in line to succeed Queen Elizabeth as monarch of UK. It would not have mattered if Prince Charles was hugging his cook. Who in terms of social distance is very far from the prince. But if the prince were within one meter of even his mother, Queen Elizabeth, he would be considered vulnerable to coronavirus infection. It is the lack of understanding of the right words to use which is creating so much tension in the current coronavirus crisis. Translated in Hindi “social distance” would translate to oonch (upper) and neech (lower) caste and acquire a very different meaning from what the Prime Minister meant.

RICH VERSUS POOR

AND a few stray thoughts on why solutions which are effective or suitable in developed countries do not work in poor countries. The 100% lockdown which means that families and their paying guests in Goa have to stay within their small houses for most of 24 hours means that physical (social) distance would not be maintained. If there was no lockdown the children would go to school. The parents would go to work. The migrant paying guest would also go to work. So automatically most of the time the physical distance between any two people in the house would be more than one meter.
In the UK if you were ordered by the PM not to go to work for three weeks you would still get some wages under the social security scheme. In the UK when you start working legally or illegally you are still expected to pay a tax which is deducted from your income like TDS. This is used to extend social security benefits, the most important being free medical treatment. Under the National Health Scheme treatment whether it is a heart attack or a hip transplant it is totally free under the National Health Scheme.
In contrast in India and Goa there is no security at all for someone who does not work. Particularly for daily wage workers or employees. Forget about the private sector, even the garbage collectors are on daily wages. If you stop them from working they will have no cash to live or will fall back on whatever small savings they may or may not have. There are some states and cities in the country where it is easy to get a job because it is a developed place like Mumbai or even Goa and Kerala. In contrast there are states like Bihar and UP which were once called “bimaru” (sick) states because they were and probably still are undeveloped.
If there is mass migration from the north and south or north-east to Goa it is because you are guaranteed a job at a reasonable salary even if you are illiterate and have no skills. This is why when the lockdown was declared the trains from Bangalore, Chennai and Mumbai to Bihar and Lucknow were full and overflowing with daily wage earners leaving for their village homes – because they lost their source of income. The majority were taxi drivers in Mumbai. The majority were Nepali and other migrants doing domestic work in hospitality establishments and around about Dempobhat where I live, they seem to have vanished since the lockdown was announced.

FINAL COUNTDOWN?

AND a last stray thought on why the lockdown is being enforced for 21 days. A calculation was made of the time needed to check how many of our estimated population of 130 crore in the country had coronavirus. The average time estimated was 21 days. So the belief is that if everyone is confined to their homes for 21 days it would become much easier to separate those who have the virus from others not affected. The logic seems to have succeeded as it is being revealed in the pattern of the spread of the epidemic.
In states where the population density is high and there are a number of migrant labour, leading to overcrowding, the spread of coronavirus infection has been much higher than in states like Europe. In India it is Kerala which took the lead partly because some students from the state were doing their medical and engineering courses in China. Cases have also been reported from highly industrialised and crowded areas like Chennai and Mumbai. Relatively, less than 25 residents of Goa have even been interned for testing for coronavirus.
As on March 27, 2020 only three residents of Goa have been proved to be coronavirus positive. The hope of the government and Health Services is that within three weeks all suspected cases can be identified or sent to hospitals for treatment. There has not been a single death due to coronavirus infection in Goa. The intention may be very honourable. But the means are as important as the objectives however noble they may be.
We have no objection to the government efforts to protect the country and Goa from the deadly coronavirus infection for which there is no cure. Worst still we have no kits to effectively test whether a suspect has the virus or not. We are a poor country and kinder, gentler methods should have been used. You don’t need a hammer to kill a fly.

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