As I surf through international news channels, very little has captivated global attention like India’s COVID-19 crisis. Labelled “a catastrophe” and a ”human rights crisis”, anchors from across the world try to draw links and connections as to how a tragedy of this scale unfolded. Foreign journalists are flocking to India to report from hospitals and cremation grounds to report the grim reality at hand.
As the images and reports continue to pour in, our leaders are complaining that such news paints a negative image of India that is detrimental to us being seen as a global powerhouse.
But why is the truth detrimental? Is it because it’s a glaring reminder of the abject failure of the administrative body?
I was born in India but grew up in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. My family and I still live in Kuala Lumpur. I moved back to India for my undergraduate studies, and over the last three years, I’ve made friends like family, and had a lifetime’s worth of kaleidoscopic experiences that cannot be reduced to just a few words.
After a while, I can’t watch the news any more. I think of the frantic calls from college friends – some worried and some inconsolable – as they struggled to get oxygen for their parents and plasma for their siblings. As I sit in quarantine in a hotel in Kuala Lumpur, waiting to test negative (for the third time), my friends are running around cities like Delhi and Bangalore, looking for hospital beds.
Unlike friends and family back home, I have the luxury of switching my TV off and escaping what is happening in India. My identity as a Non Residential Indian (NRI) gives me the privilege of “switching off” what is reality for half of my identity, and pretending like everything is fine even as my heart bleeds for home.
With the TV shut, I scroll through Instagram, I see friends in India requesting for plasma right next to videos of Corgis doing tricks, and Indian-origin influencers abroad rallying for donations to be sent home to various foundations while Indian celebrities continue to post mindless vacation photos.
I speak to friends here and around the world with fractured identities like mine – from India, but grew up abroad – and tell them about how I am struggling to come to terms with myself. How that while I’m grateful for all that I have, I wish I could do more to help.
Not infrequently do I get responses like: “But they had it coming, the dirty people they are.”
I’ve heard from adults that I respect, expatriates in high-profile roles across South East Asia and further, active members of their local Bharat Clubs (an NRI/Indian origin community group that meet for major festivals) that disdainfully say that “at the risk of sounding too harsh, this is nature’s way of cleansing” and that “the only sad part is that there is a lot of collateral”.
I try my best to argue only to be rebuked – when I say the government has failed its citizens, I’m told, “No, they’re trying but it’s just gotten out of hand.”
I find myself so dumbfounded at the lack of empathy and the hypocrisy at a time when my news feeds show the reality of what is taking place in India.
This is my collective response to those who see a major humanitarian crisis as just another way to push a Darwinian evolutionary lens – where countries with poorer infrastructure and less resources seemingly deserve to die; amputated like a diseased limb from the wealthier image we have of the 21st century. When India and Indian culture serves to your needs – of having cultural tokenism, of ‘chai tea’, Yoga and turmeric – you relied upon your heritage and cultural knowledge of being South Asian to propel yourself further in those conversations.
But now, as your nation of origin burns, you disassociate for your own benefit, because you know your hyphenated identity will no longer serve you any brownie points amongst members of your newly upwardly-mobile social strata. What have you gained by trying to hide the truth of systemic failures in India, I ask? What have you done to make things better for those living through the nightmare back home?
The ‘Brown Diaspora’ that stood up for #BlackLivesMatter last June, where are you now? How did your call for activism arise when inequalities arose in developed nations, but not when those same developed nations created inequalities in access to vaccinations on their own?
Maybe you no longer have any connection to your country of origin. For the longest time, I didn’t either. I actively tried to disassociate myself from my hyphenated identity in a quest to be seen as better than by an authority that knew nothing about the cultural nuances and intricacies of my heritage.
Reclaim your heritage, one step at a time. If ever you hear someone say that this was meant to happen, read up and point out the facts. Rally up other members in your community, donate whatever you can to any authentic sources who are working on the ground to help those in need.
I’m not asking for much. I’m asking you to refrain from being insensitive, and to help the world heal. Because without India doing better, the world will never fully recover from COVID-19 to even be able to start limping back to some semblance of normalcy.