All of us saw the television visuals and heard the accompanying reports of 2000 people gathered outside the railway’s Bandra Terminus. All of us saw a small group of policemen standing helplessly by while someone seemed to be addressing the crowd. Finally, we saw the cops lathi charging the men who then ran helter-skelter.
Adding two and two together, this is what seems to have happened. The date was April 14, originally announced as the last date for the national lockdown. The railways started advance preparations for long distance trains to operate; an alert TV reporter saw an internal memo regarding this and thought he had a scoop; the channel aired the information without bothering to verify it; a trade union leader heard the report and spread the news. Then, before you could say ‘social distancing’, a couple of thousand migrant workers from UP, Bihar and Bengal had quickly gathered there to catch a train home.
A few days later, the police arrested the reporter and the union leader. Perhaps this will act as a deterrent to others not to be hasty in jumping to conclusions. What it will not do – what nothing can do – is to arrest the plight of migrant workers who live from day to day. In a complete lockdown, they have no money to buy their daily meals and no prospect of future work. An unskilled worker earns Rs.300 to 500 per day. And that’s when he is able to get work. Typically, he stays in a kholi in a slum, sharing it with half a dozen others like him. They have been told to wash their hands frequently but water supply is intermittent. They store what they can and pool money to buy a bar of soap.
The dilemma facing them is actually quite simple in its brutality: COVID 19 may or may not affect them. If it does get them, they may or may not die from it. But if they don’t get work, they will, for sure, die from starvation. There’s no may or may not about that.
What happens to people who do test positive for the virus and do not have the luxury of self-isolating themselves in their homes? They have to go to hospitals of course. The city of Mumbai, with its teeming millions, has only two government- run hospitals designated for this purpose. The leading one is Kasturba Hospital. It has no ICU facility. The second one is Seven Hills Hospital which has just 8 ICU beds.
Seven Hills was called the Seven Hells hospital a few days ago by a leading local newspaper: it was so understaffed that neither the wards nor the toilets were cleaned for days. Plates with half eaten meals were left lying around; bedsheets and clothes for patients weren’t replaced; nurses and ward boys threw medicines to the patients from a distance because they didn’t want to get infected (they didn’t have protective gear). The newspaper report brought immediate action from the Municipal Commissioner and the 400 plus patients are now breathing easy (that’s if COVID allows them to).
The government had asked private hospitals to provide isolation facilities, but six of the city’s leading hospitals, Jaslok, Breach Candy, Hinduja, Bhatia, Wockhardt and Saifee have been closed down because their medical staffs tested positive. Presumably, they will open soon after being thoroughly disinfected. But who knows, tomorrow there will be a new horror facing us.
I have turned into a newspaper delivery man. Kind editors (like the editor of this magazine), send me their publications on WhatsApp. Some newspapers arrive very late at night, some very early in the morning. I now know the sleeping habits of the country’s top journalists. I then forward these to people I know. The blue ticks that instantly appear on WhatsApp, tell me that my friends have been waiting for the papers and magazines to arrive – if I am late, I know their tea must be getting cold. Soon a flurry of thank you symbols appear. I feel pleased that I am being useful.
In the hands of hate-mongers, the internet is the bane of our lives and the destroyer of reason. But it does give you the option of ignoring its vile side and choosing the good to get helpful advice and essential information. In this time of the worldwide lockdown, the internet has also become the focal point of giving us two essential human requirements – access to knowledge and to entertainment. Cultural bodies like New York’s Metropolitan Opera or Mumbai’s National Centre for Performing Arts have opened their archives for us to see and hear; Andrew Lloyd Webber’s long-running musicals were made available to streaming sites; the world’s leading museums and galleries opened their doors to us, no tickets required, and educational institutions like Harvard laid out online courses for us to imbibe, no strings attached.
In a world going to pieces, we do learn that for all our technological advances we can be felled by an invisible virus. On the other hand, there are things that tell us that shared knowledge and culture can help us keep our heads above the rising waters.