Privilege Checks During a Pandemic

There are currently more than 209,000 confirmed cases of coronavirus in the world. Almost 9,000 people have died. The pandemic has claimed four lives in India while 206 cases have been confirmed. But as we grapple with this new reality, we must remember that emergency preparedness is a luxury.

I stop for a minute to think about all the cancelled meetings, malls and gyms that shut down and all the companies sending employees home; with many sanctioning work from home for the foreseeable future.

But social distancing is an exercise in privilege, and even though our Prime Minister has advocated it, not everyone will be able to practice it. The economic impact of the pandemic is being felt, with reduced salaries, lay-offs and the like already taking place. Businesses are being hit hard and several industries will take a beating over the next few weeks. There are thousands of people who do not get a fixed salary a month; who are bound to contracts and gigs. Many live paycheque to paycheque and hope to not encounter a medical emergency.

The recommended time for self-quarantine is 14 days. In a perfect world, people would not have to choose between staying healthy and “flattening the curve” and paying rent, gas bills, and getting food etc. But with disaster at our door, the disparity between someone’s ability to actually be able to practice social distancing should serve as a reminder to admit your privilege.

Cancelling everything is a natural response for you, but is it an affordable one for everyone? As we view this public health emergency through our narrow lens of experience, there is a freelancer unable to buy basic hygiene products because someone picked up extras. Hoarding medical supplies and food is a privileged response to the virus, because for people who work three jobs in rotation, buying groceries is a constant bargain; choosing only as much as they need, having to put one item back on the shelf in order to choose a more important item.

Taking even eight days off work for a daily wage earner could mean that the gas supply for next month would be cut off. And have we, barring the Kerala government, thought about what happens to children who depend on mid-day meals in school?

Also read: Social Distancing: Why It’s the Best Tool We Have to Fight the Coronavirus

Even as your self-quarantine is in the safety of your home, there are roadside food stall workers, juice sellers, door-to-door salesmen and thousands of other people who cannot afford to work from home.

Food delivery couriers through different companies and cab drivers who are paid bases on how many rides they complete in a day cannot afford to work from home. Some companies are even offering leaves without pay for a few weeks. But how will the bills get paid? Why will people choose to stay at home when even their most basic needs cannot be met without money? Who will make sure their families have the means to survive until they can work again?

The numbers for paid leaves in India are painfully unsatisfactory, and a lack of means to fend for themselves pushes people to go out even in the middle of a pandemic.

One could argue that a massive chunk of the working class consists of young people, who are statistically proven to be more prepared to fight off the virus. But young people are also effective carriers of the virus, and they could potentially spread it to the most vulnerable.

Buying masks, sanitising every high-touch product and eating more nutritious foods are costly choices, unavailable to massive sections in our society. So, even though coronavirus infects people regardless of their race, caste, class, gender and political leanings, it is a direct threat to the poor and marginalised.

And without a doubt, some will be impacted far worse than other. But by moving ahead with care, love and solidarity is the only solution and the only way we can move towards positive recovery as a nation. So let’s use our privilege for the right things and do whatever bit we can in whatever capacity we can.

Sarah Carlos is a student from St. Xavier’s College, Mumbai. She has previously written for LiveWire, Youth Ki Awaaz and runs @sarviving on Instagram – a platform to express views on numerous issues around social interest and the general good.

Featured image: Men enter a hospital where a special ward has been set up for the coronavirus disease in Mumbai, March 5, 2020. Reuters/Francis Mascarenhas