The best way to focus on writing this column is to confess right away that I am sick with the Covid-19 infection. This sentence may sound alarming but it also contains in itself the information that I have been incredibly lucky in this season of death, despair and abject dereliction of duty by the state. I’m managing our personal tryst with Covid-19 at home along with my children, who are all also battling the same symptoms of fever, fatigue, nausea and body ache. A close group of friends, family and my husband are on call and once in a while when there is a pocket of peace, I send them a photo to let them know that we are resting and recuperating. We will recover.
On my phone, there is a constant stream of distress messages from friends and colleagues, most of whom are trying to coordinate support for others. The mayhem and mismanagement is such that even people of privilege and power have been unable to get tests done and have searched desperately for hospital beds, oxygen cylinders and life-saving drugs for those close to them. Both mainstream as well as social media feeds have been strewn with videos of bodies from cremation grounds and people lying defenceless outside hospitals unable to admit them.
I don’t know how we will recover from the trauma of the circumstances in which so many of us have struggled to find help. I do not remember this level of dissonance in my lived experience. It is beyond our imagination that despite scientific progress and systems of governance in 2021, people are suffering and dying because of the callous abdication of responsibility of India’s political and administrative leadership.
Last year, at exactly this time of the year when India was under lockdown, we had felt similarly trapped as we watched millions of desperate workers stranded without work, shelter or food and walking across the country to reach their home districts. Volunteers across the world had confronted the forced helplessness by bonding together online and offline and starting food distribution drives in solidarity. People had organised buses and donated generously to ensure that others were able to survive the mass hunger that had been thrust upon them.
We need to respond to the dystopian scenes of the present in the same way. As usual, action and solidarity with each other is the only way to dent the hubris that has created the panic we are in. The same social media feed that brings news of devastation is also the location where people are coordinating resources to try to save as many lives as possible. #PakistanStandsWithIndia is the top trending hashtag on Pakistani Twitter, reminding us yet again that human connections trump political divisiveness.
In his book, ‘If This Is a Man’, Primo Levi, who had survived life in a concentration camp, writes: “…precisely because the Lager was a great machine to reduce us to beasts, we must not become beasts. One must survive to tell the story, to bear witness; and that to survive we must force ourselves to save at least the skeleton, the scaffolding, the form of civilisation… We must walk erect, without dragging our feet, not in homage to Prussian discipline but to remain alive, not to begin to die.”
As we stand witness to another phase in human history when cruelty and ruthlessness is being normalised by those in power, we must fight back with the conviction that each individual life is precious. We, as a people, must have power over those who we have elected to govern. We need to keep telling stories that are sought to be buried, asking questions to hold others accountable and lending a hand to those in torment. The good within us must triumph over moral turpitude.
The sense of shock that seems to overwhelm us now has a purpose to serve. Collective grief reminds us of our interconnectedness and how much we are all the same beneath the veneer of race, community and class. Let us resolve to never forget that it is not the Covid-19 pandemic that defeated us, it is the insensitivity and reckless arrogance of those who looked the other way when our people needed responsible and compassionate governance the most.
The virus will come and go but the lessons we have learnt of loss and abandonment must always stay with us.
The writer is a filmmaker and author firstname.lastname@example.org
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