What Covid-19 will change about us | Opinion

Updated on Apr 01, 2020 05:58 AM IST

From our engagement with family and faith to our empathy for migrant workers, a lot will transform

Visuals of migrant workers suddenly out of a job and trying to get home have shaken up our collective conscience(Amal KS/HT PHOTO)
Visuals of migrant workers suddenly out of a job and trying to get home have shaken up our collective conscience(Amal KS/HT PHOTO)
ByDerek O’Brien

Every crisis changes us, as individuals and as a society. The coronavirus pandemic (Covid-19) will also do so. It is too early to make defining predictions, but the initial days of the national lockdown have given us some indications. Here are 10 thoughts about what can potentially change.

One, this experience is changing how we pray and worship. Sunday morning would unfailingly have found me in church. Yet, for two Sundays now I have missed out, as advised by bishops across India. I am praying at home, “doing church” at home. This is the period of Lent, leading up to Easter Sunday. In a season of enormous religious significance for Christians, I am not part of a congregation. My loneliness is shared by countless others — Hindus, Muslims, Sikhs, Buddhists. Faith is common. Will worship become individual?

Two, many of us are beginning to appreciate and tell apart serious journalists from the usual motormouths, those who sit in television studios — and these days, in cosy drawing rooms — and hold forth before a camera or with tweets that have no relevance to real life. There is greater respect for reporters on the ground. We need less-pompous punditry. We need more of those who are diligently relaying facts as they unfold, especially the troubling scenes from the Delhi border; those who walk with the migrant families and tell their stories with feeling.

Three, how do we view health professionals and doctors? In normal times, we may be critical of long waiting lines and costs. Today, we value our health professionals as frontline warriors. Yes, there have been unfortunate incidents of violence against doctors — by the odd policeman or by ignorant neighbours. But overall, doctors and nurses are our favourite people today. We should not forget them and their needs when this is over.

Four, how much do we spend on public health? Take ventilators. In a country of 1.3 billion people, there are only 40,000 ventilators, and just 8,500 of these are in government or public facilities. The rest are in private hospitals. This is not tenable. Public health specialists are getting their moment in the sun; I trust their warnings will lead to something more lasting. Journalists on the health beat tell me that they are now being taken more seriously.

Five, Indian federalism is being strengthened. State governments and chief ministers are being put to the test and, across party lines, they are performing. State governments as far apart as West Bengal, Kerala, Maharashtra, Delhi and Punjab are rising to the lockdown challenge. West Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee has written to her counterparts in 18 states seeking coordination.

Six, how do we judge our public representatives? To lead by example is to be responsive and purposeful. Most critical has been driving home the message of social distancing. A chief minister walking around in a local bazaar, as she drew circles on the road with white chalk, to show how people should stand away from each other, was a powerful piece of communication.

Seven, we are bonding as families. Four or five people cooped up in a flat, being forced to interact and engage multiple times a day — every family is coping with this. Children are doing online classes, parents are working from home. They all meet for lunch, which is far from normal, but welcome. Families are playing board games when they can. For those not having to worry about where their next meal is coming from, this period can be fun and fulfilling. I hope some of this survives the lockdown.

Eight, we are learning of the hard life and enormous value of our guest workers. As per the Census 2011, 453 million Indians — 37% of the population — are internal migrants. Of these, about 10%, or 45 million, migrate for work and employment. Thirty million among this group are men, and nearly all of them are part of the unorganised sector. Twenty million migrants come from just two states: Uttar Pradesh and Bihar. Ten million migrants go to just two cities: Delhi and Mumbai.

Harrowing visuals of migrant workers suddenly out of a job and trying to get home — attempting to walk impossible distances of up to hundreds of kilometres — have shaken our collective conscience. These guest workers are a treasure; without them, our urban economy will collapse. This crisis must awaken us to their needs and vulnerabilities. Each host state owes them a lot.

Nine, in the time of Covid-19 and the lockdown, perceptions about charity and doing good have changed. Charity is no longer about signing a cheque for a worthy, but abstract, cause. Charity is now much more do-it-yourself. Organise food for daily-wagers living in a nearby slum, buy more than you need from your neighbourhood grocery store only to ensure that the shop owner has some working capital respite. It’s simple really.

Last, there’s a changing notion of privacy. Mobile phone signals are being used to track those in home quarantine. Three months ago, this would have begun a debate on privacy. Today, it is accepted as unavoidable. Phone numbers, addresses and passport details of 722 Delhi residents, recently returned from abroad, were made public on WhatsApp.

The list included a one-year-old child. In the heat of the crisis, we may overlook all this. After it’s over, we need to calculate the cost-benefit ratio of privacy breaches.

Derek O’Brien is the parliamentary leader of the Trinamool Congress in the Rajya Sabha
The views expressed are personal
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