Up until February end, Nepalis were still attending weddings and parties like their lives depended on it. By then, coronavirus memes, jokes and potential ‘cures’ were already circulating on our social media feeds. But with the quick access to information possible in these times, we eventually got a sense of how it was catching on like wildfire all around the world. And suddenly, coronavirus became a joke we wished we hadn’t made.
Given that we were keenly following the strategies adopted by nations around the world, people with resources started preparing for the uncertain times ahead. This wasn’t just limited to individuals or families. Offices began to place hand sanitizers at the entrance asking us to mandatorily clean our hands. Some organisations even began to finally test out a work-from-home policy. When the government decided on a nationwide lockdown on 24 March, many of us were already prepared.
In a predictable yet ironic turn of events, the government has made decisions keeping in mind people like us – the middle and upper classes – who are, given our economic resources and social capital, already able to face what is to come to a certain extent. Had the government thought through how each segment of our society lives, and how the virus and measures taken to contain it would affect them, the current scenario would be very different.
There is an underlying assumption in the government’s measures that every Nepali has a house to live in and clean water to wash hands with. Wage labourers and migrant workers, a section of Nepali society that contributes significantly to our economy, was thoroughly neglected in the government’s plans. But it is not just the government, as we scrambled to secure provisions for the lockdown, we did not think beyond ourselves either. This pandemic and the consequent lockdown have made us reflect on our privileges and have compelled us to reconsider the impact existing inequalities have during times of crises.
Most of us reading this article may be familiar with this year’s Oscar winning film Parasite. While analyzing the movie, a review on a Youtube channel describes the storm as a “minor inconvenience” for the wealthy Park family, while for the working class Kim family, “it is a catastrophe that nearly cost the family their home and belongings”. Similarly, while the current lockdown puts a small dent in the lifestyle of middle class families, it puts daily wage labourer’s lives considerably at stake. While we have been adamant in following the guidelines to clean hands with soap and sanitizers and to practice social distancing, for many, it is an impossible expectation.
There is a whole class of people that fall neither into the category of urban squatters nor of the rural poor and are somehow forgotten in times of crises. It was the case during the 2015 earthquake and the situation persists today during the corona pandemic. The urban poor live in dire conditions, sometimes accommodating families of 5-8 within a single room, sharing toilets with other families, and using a minimal supply of clean water stored in jars. How can we tell them to repeatedly wash their hands when, for years, they haven’t had the luxury of washing up after defecating?
Clean water is a sorely scarce public good in Kathmandu. A scientifically sound but sociologically blind instruction for washing hands becomes a means by which social injustices are perpetuated. For people who do not have enough money to buy food, and who have been stripped of their daily wages due to the lockdown, the expectation that they spend their hard-earned money on buying water with which to wash hands is insensitive and irresponsible.
Without any social security, the only option left for migrant workers is to go back to their village. But the urban poor, who do not have even a home to return to, must resign to their fates. Videos of migrant workers from India, who walked hundreds of kilometers in order to enter Nepal and finally reach home, have caused a stir among armchair activists. Though they sympathize with the harrowing conditions fellow Nepalis have been put through, they, like us, do so from the comfort of their homes. Today’s crisis isn’t about the impact of the virus alone; it highlights longstanding class differences and their unequal repercussions on our society.
Meanwhile, businesses dealing in essential goods are delivering to people’s doorsteps, but with a minimum charge that is so high, many, including those who work as sales- and delivery-persons helping provide the service, cannot afford. Right now, we are thankful to frontline workers who continue to sell vegetables in thelas or on their bicycles post lockdown. They offer respite to families who cannot venture too far from their residences and for those who cannot afford to avail of high premium corporate services.
Right now, we are thankful to frontline workers who continue to sell vegetables in thelas or on their bicycles post lockdown. They offer respite to families who cannot venture too far from their residences and for those who cannot afford to avail of high premium corporate services.
The government’s measures to implement the lockdown include clamping down on, and sometimes even beating up, ‘culprits’ who are travelling around town for no good reason. But this ‘culprit’ usually belongs to the lower middle-class or the poor. An extreme case of this can be seen among the Nepalis stranded at Darchula who tried to swim their way into the country, and who were arrested upon arriving, thereby becoming tragic ‘culprits’ of measures that refuse to dignify their lives or miseries.
Aside from the government’s use of batons and uthbas, a prevalent punishment practice of holding our ears and squatting, media influencers have been utilising the tools at their disposal to spread awareness on social distancing, isolation and other precautionary measures. Talk show host Rabi Lamichhane has been urging his predominantly privileged audience to stay at home and forgo meat products for a while, assuring them that a time will soon come when they can enjoy mutton in a variety of culinary styles. Mutton is one of the most expensive types of meat in Nepal, a luxury that a majority of daily wage earners can only afford to consume a few times annually in pre-corona circumstances. While social media is ripe with images of people cooking unique dishes, many daily wage earners may not be able to have even two meals a day as barely existent savings peter off.
Twitteraties are also inundating their feeds with reading material, opportunities for learning new things, and tips on how to be creative and productive under lockdown. Our question is: what does it mean to be ‘productive’ when half of our population is at the brink of starvation? Those of us who believe that social media is all that matters are living in a bubble.
After the pandemic is over, the middle class will move ahead, regarding it as a minor adjustment they made for a while. During the same time, a far grimmer reality will have drastically changed the lives of those already living in poverty.
The role of the government during such times should be to ensure that marginalized populations are equipped with necessary resources to protect themselves from current and future debacles.