I have been increasingly worried about the use of the term ‘social distancing’. This has been my concern from day one of COVID-19 epidemic guidelines. We all know that 'social distancing' was any way the way of life for this class of people for centuries. Affirmative action may have changed the economics for some but the ‘social distancing’ has remained.
The upper class never wanted them anywhere near them. So the emphatic social distancing guideline creates new untouchables even as the old ones suffer.
Human Distancing Not Social Distancing
What was needed was to recommend ‘Human distancing’ or even increasing ‘man-to-man spacing’. Even 'Human distancing' in poor families is impossible at homes where 8 to 10 sleep on the floor in the 'Jhuggies' that they ‘exist’ in. You can't call their existential space as rooms or as houses as they use a small covered area for living, sleeping, toileting and cooking all rolled into one. I remember my colleague paediatrician scolding a mother who, on a rainy day, got her son to ease himself for toilet into an aluminum mug and then washing the same mug and using it to give tea to the child. She quietly heard the doctor's scolding and then said 'but that is the only vessel I have in the house for this". We were left speechless and miserable internally.
Human distancing at a community level is also not possible for them in the slums they live in. All these years no one cared to look at how these people live and how the health system, especially the Public health system, was systematically destroyed.
Giving people pipe dreams of insurance based care in private hospitals which anyway was a failed model in the west and which was only making few doctors and managers wealthy at the expense of the lives of these poor. The very poor on whose illness they became skilled 'doctors'. Corporate hospitals! Building the economy and wealth for the nation! They are only exploiters of the poor making wealth out of ill health of the poor.
I am also worried about the riot victims who have lost everything. They have been forgotten in this 'social distancing' curfew! They have lost all money, lost jobs, lost all their papers and their loved ones when their house was burnt. Many have an injured at homes to care for. How do they survive?
The labourer, the daily wager in the market has no work. Who will give him wages without work? Crowds of men milling around rain baseras where some do get food tells a poignant tale of hunger. But my worry in this is I see only men. Where are the women and children? Suffering quietly hunger and deprivation as most Indian women do so that the bread winner can survive. They were anyway the ‘expendables’ in this time and space.
No, don't blame these helpless people for not 'Social distancing' they have no choice. Their only hope is that someone, some good soul somewhere, will bridge this ‘social distancing’ and reach out at least to let them exist. My worry is even if they survive the COVID they will succumb to hunger. The people in power around us who had a choice never cared. I hope someone somewhere has the heart to care.
(Dr Mathew Varghese, a veteran orthopaedic surgeon, is known for his contribution in eradicating polio and for running the country’s last polio ward at St Stephen's Hospital, Delhi.)