Patralekha Chatterjee | Inequity & privilege in the time of a pandemic

The Asian Age.  | Patralekha Chatterjee

Opinion, Columnists

Even in these traumatic times, those of us who can work from home, for instance, are massively better positioned than others

A patient struggles to breathes with the help of oxygen provided by a Gurudwara (Sikh Temple) under a tent installed along a roadside amid the Covid-19 coronavirus pandemic in Ghaziabad on May 4, 2021. (Photo: AFP)

As India reels under a devastating second wave of Covid-19 infections, I hear people say that “we are all in this together, we are all equally affected”. But I wonder.

Are we? We may be all trying to survive in a lifeboat on the same viral sea, but some of the lifeboats are just more seaworthy than others, as someone pointed out. Even as we grieve and try to navigate our way through these terrifying times, it is important to recognise that some of us are more privileged than others.

I am alive. My family is with me. We are together under the same roof. We have food on our table. I have had both doses of the Covid-19 vaccine.  I can work from home. These are huge privileges when so many friends, colleagues and people one has loved and cared for have been felled by the coronavirus.

The infection tally has zoomed past the 20-million mark; more than 222,408 people are dead across the country, says the health ministry; the actual number of those who died is likely to be much higher.  

It’s true that the virus doesn’t discriminate; it doesn’t care if you are posh or poor. But Covid-19 will bludgeon the poor and marginalised unless urgent remedial steps are taken. Those of us who are not that old, not that poor, do not have co-morbidities or a compromised immune system have a responsibility to protect those who don’t have our advantages.

The first step is to acknowledge our privilege.

New Delhi, where I live, continues to be under lockdown, and continues to gasp as friends and families of critical patients run helter-skelter trying to organise medical oxygen. Hospitals have taken their battle to the courts. The Delhi high court has become the last hope for so many hospitals scrambling to get oxygen for their Covid-19 patients as supplies become precariously short and government officials engage in verbal jousts over who is responsible.

This week, the high court issued a show cause notice to the Central government over the “non-compliance” of its order from last week to provide 700 metric tonnes (MT) of medical oxygen for the treatment of Covid-19 patients in Delhi. “You can put your head in sand like an ostrich, we will not,” the high court said.

Even from my vantage position, it is easy to relate to that.

How does one reconcile the rage and helplessness of people on the street with the Centre’s claim that there is no shortage of oxygen? Or the grotesquely grandiose Central Vista redevelopment project continuing in the heart of the nation’s capital as part of “essential services” despite a petition in the courts arguing that the project was not an “essential service” and that it posed “a threat to the lives of the citizens of Delhi and beyond, including the lives of the workforce/labour engaged in the project”, and that the project construction could prove to be a Covid-19 “super-spreader”.

How does one recognise privilege at a time like this wherever we are?

I found a pandemic privilege checklist on the website of Arizona State University’s initiative, Project Humanities.

Some privileges it flagged were: If you have health insurance, if your racial group has not been disproportionately affected by Covid-19, if you have easy access to private outdoor space, if you do not live alone, if you have not been quarantined from someone you live with, if you are below the age of 65, if you have not experienced an income/wage loss in the past two months, if you do not have a compromised immune system, if you have home access to high-speed Wi-Fi, if you have not felt unsafe because of your job in the past two months, if you have received professional counselling in the past two months, if no one you know personally has contracted and died from Covid-19, if you have not received food assistance in the past two months, if you have exercise equipment in your home, if you do not have someone in your home that needs adult supervision, if you have a pet.

This is a list for people living in the United States. But some of it could apply in this country too.

Even in these traumatic times, those of us who can work from home, for instance, are massively better positioned than those whose nature of work does not offer them that luxury or those who have no work right now.

The first wave of the pandemic took a heavy toll of those working in the service industry, especially in the lower rungs. People survived by tapping into their meagre savings. Many people went into debt, were forced to cut down on nutritious food. I wonder what is happening to the young spa attendant who shared her dreams with me just a few months ago, the tailor down the street, the man selling flowers in my neighbourhood market.

Knowing people who matter have always been part of privilege. It continues during the pandemic. Even in these traumatic times, those of us who can work from home, for instance, are massively better positioned than Those of us who know someone who in turn knows someone else who is resourceful and whose voice is amplified in the social media have a far better chance of saving our loved ones than those whose have no connections.

Of course, even that does not always work. A former Indian diplomat lost his life while waiting for a ICU bed in the parking lot of a top hospital in the national capital region.

We all live in fear of the virus, of losing our loved ones at a time when citizens appear to have been left to their own devices. Lack of privilege is when one also copes with the fear of slipping into destitution.

Delhi chief minister Arvind Kejriwal has promised help to auto rickshaw and cab drivers in the city whose incomes have taken a huge hit due to the coronavirus. The Delhi government also says it will give free rations to 72 lakh ration card holders. These are baby steps but in the right direction.

However, there needs to be a strong nationwide social safety net for people who are likely to fall through the cracks in the coming days.

We must not let them fall. We must speak out. Privilege brings greater responsibilities.