Lockdown for the good of people not a weapon of impunity

When the people interpreting the lockdown in power are casteist, Islamophobic, patriarchial, and ideologically inclined to non-constitutional behaviours, then it becomes a weapon

Lockdown
The scientists concluded that the three strategies should not be considered as one or the other | File Photo: PTI

The current lockdown in India has unravelled an “interpretation creativity” i.e. it is an opportunity for different groups to interpret the lockdown in their own creative ways. When the people interpreting the lockdown in power are also casteist, Islamophobic, patriarchial, and ideologically inclined to non-constitutional behaviours, then it becomes a weapon. A weapon that comes with impunity because it comes under the guise of being for some larger good – the larger good being to ‘protect against the COVID-19’. There is, therefore, the need for a primer on what a lockdown is NOT.

First of all, a lockdown is not an irrational/illogical intervention. Those governments and bureaucrats who think that a lockdown means “anything goes”, have not understood the principle of a lockdown. A planned lockdown is an attempt to REDUCE TRANSMISSION while also MINIMISING INCONVENIENCE. A government should be able to justify and give rational explanations for any decision on agriculture, food, education, public transport, healthcare, police, etc. Lockdown doesn’t mean a government becomes less accountable or less scientific.

For e.g.  passing an order asking people living in an urban deprived area to stay at home may work for some but actually INCREASE risk of transmission in others. Then failing to provide people with essentials required to stay at home INCREASES inconvenience. This means that people are less likely to follow stay at home orders. The bureaucracy then descends on the people with an iron arm and punishes them, partly to show the country that it is ‘doing something’ about preventing the infection. This is a good example of an irrational intervention.

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If, on one hand, large groups of people don’t have access to fruits, vegetables, poultry, meat, eggs, etc. and on the other hand, farmers are going into distress because no one is buying their produce, then it points to irrational decision making by the government. It also shows a lack of concern, poor planning as well as a worrisome lack of accountability.

Secondly, a lockdown is not a time to settle scores. Some government, bureaucrats, officials etc. dislike/hate certain people or communities. They may (wrongly) assume that a lockdown is a good time to settle scores. So if a corporator doesn’t like a community, he may choose to use the lockdown as a way to deny milk and rations to this community. This shows a totally wrong understanding of a lockdown. Bureaucrats, ministers, and all other officials are responsible for all people in their ward or district or administrative area. They become officials ABOVE petty personal communal or caste politics and instead become responsible people in power who do everything in their capacity to minimise adverse impact on people, irrespective of their migration status, caste, religion, gender, class, power, etc.

The police may believe (quite wrongly) that a lockdown is a time to pick up people and communities that they anyway dislike anyway and use this opportunity to beat, arrest, harass, discriminate. This behaviour is not part of the “lockdown implementation strategy”. In fact, it cannot be a part of ANY strategy, so the police should really revisit why they are in this occupation in the first place.

Media also seems to have blossomed under the lockdown. They seem to believe (again wrongly), that their role during the lockdown is to create the illusion of an ‘enemy’ so that the government can escape scrutiny. The media has allowed its imagination to run wild creating fake stories, false victims, criminals, conspiracies etc. but mostly hatred and misinformation. If this is the role of a media during a pandemic, then, even the media, and especially journalists who aspire to some higher ideals, really need to revisit their purpose (in life)

Thirdly, it is not a lockdown of the government itself. Some governments and their staff think that a lockdown is a time to stay at home and relax with paid leave while watching serials like Ramayana on Doordarshan. However, the exact opposite is true.  If people’s agency to earn and take care of their families has been removed by a GOVERNMENT decision, then it is the prime responsibility of the government to ensure that there is no inconvenience caused to people. If people are used to buying their vegetables from a local vendor, then this cannot arbitrarily be removed by the government without providing both the means and the way of accessing these same services. A government doesn’t abdicate its responsibilities while counting on volunteers and civil society to respond to distress calls for basics like food and healthcare.

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Fourthly, it is not a competition. While healthy competitions may have their benefits, lockdowns are not the time or situation to get into aggressive competitive mode. Lockdowns are certainly not competitions between countries and governments. It is not like two teenage boys showing off who is tougher. Governments that try to show off about who is stricter with its citizens have failed completely to understand what a lockdown is. No country or state or political party can prove that its lockdown is ‘better’. Each government has to have a very good understanding of what the situation is before the lockdown, what are the consequences, how it should be altered/changed based on each local circumstance, what are the checks and balances, what are the dangers, how can these dangers be eliminated? Each government/administrator has to act based on the unique situation in their area. A corporator in an influential area may provide free internet connection for children to study from apps. However, a corporator from a deprived area may have to ensure that children get adequate nutrition. While these are not mutually exclusive, the point is that an informed, balanced approach is the way. Not an unhealthy competition.

Fifthly (and often wrongly assumed), a lockdown is not a time to practice discrimination. In fact, a lockdown is exactly the time when people have to be extra careful to avoid discrimination and be inclusive. In a community, if some families are denied rations, they are less likely to follow rules out of sheer hunger and fear for the lives of their families. Then they are further discriminated and it leads to a vicious cycle. Any lockdown calls for people to get in touch with their humane nature and lookout for people who are usually left out. Migrant workers cannot be refused food or rent. They are extremely vulnerable and a lockdown is not a time to exclude them. It is not a way of reinforcing class/caste/religious intolerance

Sixthly, it is not a punishment. Many governments and citizens who vote for these governments genuinely believe that some people should be punished during a lockdown. The police become active and they form their own ways and methods of punishing people, often brutally. A policeman overturning a poor street vendors cart in full public view without any reaction from those who watch this is a very good example of how a lockdown is converted into a punishment.  Rules made during this period have to be sensitive. People are not criminals who need to be punished for a pandemic. They are equal stakeholders and need to be viewed as such by the government. This is not the time for the elite to punish the poor under the misplaced notion that ‘they are responsible for all the problems’

Remember, in this instance, it was the international travellers who brought the virus into the country…and most poor in India don’t do international travel.

Related news: Telangana extends COVID-19 lockdown till May 29

If people are treated badly or neglected during a lockdown, they will rebel and demand these services. They are not anti-social elements who have to be put in prison. The government becomes responsible if it fails to meet people’s needs during a lockdown.

Seventhly, it is not a replacement for investing in healthcare. Some governments that think that they can impose a lockdown and then sit it out for that period of time, haven’t understood the principle of it.

The only legitimate purpose a lockdown could serve is to buy time for the government to quickly put in those systems that can ease the peak of the pandemic when it hits the country.

Some of the healthcare interventions the government could do:

  1. Train volunteers so that they could take over some of the responsibilities from healthcare staff to free them up for other essential services
  2. Create accessible healthcare close to where people are to avoid traveling long distances to meet a professional or to get a lab test/other diagnostic investigations, or to access specialised treatment.
  3. Ensure essential medicines close to where people live
  4. Public health education messages on what people should do during the pandemic – what they can do themselves when they have to urgently seek medical help, who they should contact etc.
  5. Distribute healthcare staff for COVID and non-COVID related health services. At no point should other healthcare needs suffer because of COVID.

Eighthly, the lockdown  is not a baby step towards an authoritarian government

Lockdown is not a time to take advantage of obliging people. People would like to support the government initiative by staying at home. This doesn’t mean that they are puppets or people without agency and that the government can use this situation to bring in stringent laws, surveillance, police rule, communalisation etc.

Lockdown is not a time for a government to either introduce or implement regressive laws and policies only with the confidence that people cannot retaliate or protest. It is basically an abuse of a lockdown by a government and shows bad intent. On the pretext of contact tracing, surveillance systems are being put into place. Needless to say, the middle class is gleefully clapping from the sidelines imagining that surveillance (of others) protects (the middle class) from all kinds of real and imaginary dangers. The power that surveillance gives to governments cannot be handed over willingly just because …..the lockdown.

Related news: West Bengal registers liquor sales worth ₹ 40 crore on Day 1 of lockdown relaxation

Ninthly, it is not a short term strategy where other things can be put on hold. Even as a government is planning a lockdown, it has to race against time to minimise consequences. The migrant workers are paying a big price for the lockdown. What has the government put in place to ensure that they do not suffer? Hunger, loss of jobs, loss of dignity, domestic violence, child abuse, suicides, withdrawal symptoms, stress, stigma, discrimination……these are not acceptable collateral damage. If a government cannot prevent these, then that government really needs to rethink its decision. Its not a time when a government says “Never mind if you are hungry, being abused, sick, without income, piling up debts…..just stay at home”. It is an unethical and unjust decision and totally not in keeping with what a responsible government would do.

Last but not least, it is not a way to take away people’s agency. Some governments and officials believe (wrongly) that during a lockdown people should not challenge the government or question its decisions. It is not a time to tell people that the government will decide what they will eat, how much, and even whether they will eat or not.

If people are used to reading newspapers, then the government should ensure that this reaches them.

If people are used to cooking meat or eggs or paneer or dal, then this should not be taken away by the government under the pretext of a lockdown. It is the government’s duty to ensure that people are informed and that all decisions are made in a rational and humane way. A government that says “I will do this because I CAN’ is abusing the lockdown.

(The writer is a public health doctor, researcher, and part of the Right to Food and Right to health campaigns.)

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