Disruption: We are all in together. Or are we?
Our happiness’s may or may not be the same, our sufferings are not alike.
As the COVID-19 onslaught continues its march, the world has desperately searched for answers to this challenge. We in India are no exception. The shadow of the Novel Coronavirus has lengthened by the day, enveloping almost every aspect of our existence. The economy has been battered, of course. And the effect has not left healthcare, supply-chains, education or even diplomacy untouched. For instance, the future of our relationship with China has been opened for a review. It is increasingly evident that the virus has seeped deeply into the innards of our fabric.
As we await the passing of this cloud with varying degrees of uncertainty and hope, the post-COVID scenarios loom on our minds. What will our existence be like once we are back to the ‘normal’, whatever be the definition of that half-forgotten word? The overused expression employed to describe the fuzzy future is ‘paradigm shift’.
Let us look at one nuance of the larger mosaic: the impact of vulnerable financial situations on different strata of our society. How will this play out while we turn to the more knowing and the powerful to crank the levers of the economy? One idealistic theme that is aired by many is that we will surmount the challenge because we are all in it together. No one is untouched, and that gives us both despair and hope. The latter being the product of the treacle-like thinking that we are a united bulwark against the vagaries of the near-future.
If we wish to slice the demographic for an analysis of the impact of the parlous state of the economy, you could wield the knife in numerous ways. You could look at age groups, the government and the private sectors, service and manufacturing economies and so on. But if a basic criterion was adopted, we can arrive at some simple – though not simplistic – conclusions.
If we look at our society as comprising of the rich, the middle-class and the poor, it will become apparent that the aftermath of the pandemic holds different prospects for the three.
The affluent have been impacted, of course. But for the wealthy, the disruption has mostly meant discontinuity of business, inability to fund new projects, cost-cutting in operations, dislocation of supply-chains, the challenge of functioning remotely, the freezing of credit etc. These are debilitating issues for any business. But, for obvious reasons, the personal lives of the affluent have been relatively unscathed. Money may not buy love, but it is a highly desirable companion in times of disruption. The rich await the turning of the worm, as we all do. But possibly the affluent do so with far greater assurance than those who are the bottom of the food chain.
Let us look at the other end of the spectrum, the eternally dispossessed. These are the ones we glibly refer to as the ‘real India’ or even ‘Bharat’. Nothing factually inaccurate with applying these labels – it is just that most countrymen stop at that description and think no more about the ‘unwashed’. The countless migrants ditched by the cities that they cleaned, serviced and built trudging back to their homes in inhuman conditions are fresh in our minds from the TV grabs. These hordes of workers have now reached destinations where greater poverty awaited to take them into an embrace. In this period the daily-wage earner must have faced heart-breaking situations at home. We get that. Horrendous as the situation is – and it is genuinely terrifying – one must also understand that mentally, there is a degree of resilience in the ‘real India’. It is not a stranger to hunger or unrequited want. This large swathe of our country has suffered for ages. It does not claim the sense of entitlement of the other two categories. It is a class of survivors.
The third category – the middle-class may experience the most significant psycho-social trauma. Especially its urban variant.
The middle-class has no doubt struggled for its future but, over the decades, it has increasingly experienced growth, progress and surplus cash. It no longer fears abject poverty or hunger because these have receded too far into the past. It takes comforts offered by technology and urban living for granted. Now, suddenly, a significant portion of the middle-class is staring at job losses, steep drop in salaries and an ambiguous future.
Dave Chappelle is my most favourite stand-up. Under the surface of his raucously raunchy comedy lies a social commentary on race and ethnicity that is sheer brilliance. He once compared poverty between the Black and the White Americans. It hurts the Whites more, he said, because somehow they feel that poverty is not supposed to happen to them.
I have a similar feeling about our middle-class.
I fear that while everyone will joust to reclaim space, it is the middle-class that will be most traumatized by the experience.
Add to the scenario of the return of the so-called migrant worker, the now deeply suspicious, fearful and hurt individual, and you can deduce the combustible mixture we may be looking at.
Are we in it together? Is there any evidence of that? Even if your answer is in the negative – like mine is – it is clear that we need to be in it together like never before. That is the direction in which the civil society must move. That is the narrative we need to build. And at every level, let us take concrete steps to help the ones below us. This is not a governmental responsibility alone. And mere tokenism and sloganeering will not cut. NGOs, the civil society at large, communities, religious groups have all a role to play. But the beginning has to be made in our homes.
Being together in it should no longer be a palliative-like slogan. It is an urgent necessity and an operational one at that.