The Coronavirus outbreak and the middle class of Indian subcontinent

The Coronavirus outbreak and the middle class of Indian subcontinent

Foreign Affairs

“We must fight Corona being a Pakistani nation”

“We will make a new story in the new era being Indians”.

The popular words in Pakistan and viral songs sung by Indian doctors fighting against the Coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreak respectively, appeared as symbols of ‘patriotism’ of the middle classes of neighbouring rivals during the pandemic.

Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan, as usual, expressed his commitment of fighting against Coronavirus in his three consecutive speeches to the nation within a fortnight, differing with the lockdown announced by the provincial governments, but begging for a relief fund, of which preparation is yet to be done. Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced a 21-day-long countrywide lockdown, claiming it was necessary to save India and every citizen of India.

Indian media broadcasted strict actions of police against the lockdown violators but failed to broadcast the story of a poor man in West Bengal beaten to death by the police when he came out to purchase milk. Despite no written order from the high command, the police are familiar with the state policy that it is better to kill the poor than to render the middle and upper classes unsafe. In Pakistan the technocrats are worried about Coronavirus spreading through street children collecting garbage, ignoring the fact that  Coronavirus was spread by clean nobles, religious and liberal people who came from abroad, especially from Europe, Iran, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and the UAE.

The governments in both of these countries have implemented no policy with respect to the arrangement of transport, food and shelter for the workers who had to leave the locked down cities. In India, within 24 hours of strict implementation, at least 22 migrant workers died, out of thousands of others who are walking for hundreds of miles to reach their native villages and towns. The last words communicated by one of them namely Ranveer Singh to his family superseded all the other viral communications regarding Coronavirus:

Lene aa sakte ho toh aajao”(If you can take me, come”).

Similarly, from Karachi poor people arranged their journeys to their native towns riding packed last trains, in trucks and containers, hiding in luggage, petrol tanks and among the cattle, casting their lives in danger.

Such initial incidents overruled the arguments advanced by the liberals and the liberals affected by the left, renouncing any kind of criticism upon authorities but to fight only against Coronavirus. The epidemic of hunger, masses moving with empty pockets, closure of government hospitals and failure of the government in providing basic necessities to the downtrodden masses sufficiently expose the policy to save the rich and the middle class instead of the poor. Such discriminatory policies have rendered the proofs of citizenship like ration cards, national identity cards, etc, insufficient for the poor of India or Pakistan to avail food and treatment. 

Owning immovable and movable properties is a basic requirement of practical citizenship. Safety of life is subject to what one possesses, rather than the labour one gives. You should be in a condition to watch Ramayan or Zakir Nayak on TV during the lockdown. The homeless people are advised to remain in homes. Pertinent to mention an old Indian commercial wherein the telephone department conditioned the identity of any person subject to installation of landline phone: possible in case of holding an immovable property. The working masses are recognising well, due to the Coronavirus crisis, that they are not the part of decision-making forces and also that the lockdowns do not mean to save all countrymen but the privileged classes who are an equal target of the deadly virus, therefore, the working masses do not face any lockdown in their lives, in the so-called normal times when viruses of hunger, starvation and poverty kill a large number of people. 

In the Rajasthan state of India, hundreds of peasants reportedly committed suicides, individually or by grouping up with their families, due to their failure in repaying debts, in view of strict policies of transnational corporations (TNCs) dealing with the agricultural sector. No doctor sang any song for an India, free from such suicides and miserable condition of the poor especially when examining the bodies of deceased persons. Similarly, in Pakistan, thousands have been dying since 2013 in Thar (a desert area), whereas only in 10 months of 2018 deaths of more than 500 children were officially reported, lest the other who died in far-flung areas. The Pakistani elites and the middle classes never paid any attention towards such a state-sponsored massacre of the poor of Thar. Rather, they were happy with their (so-called) heroes, who, while investing billions of rupees in and starting a project to generate electricity from Thar coal, did never bother to install tube wells in drought-affected areas of Thar. 

The clerics awarding titles of martyrdoms to the victims of Coronavirus remain silent regarding those who die due to starvation and drought in Thar. But neither the suicides were bound by borders nor did hunger & starvation remain confined within Thar. In other areas of Pakistan, dozens commit suicide due to starvation and unemployment every year. The last one was reported in Karachi on March 29th 2020 of a young man named Sarfaraz, who left behind him two minor daughters (and a fetus in his wife’s womb) due to lack of money for his treatment along with an apprehension of Coronavirus. In 2012, the leading newspaper Dawn reported that suicide is appearing as the only solution for the elimination of poverty in Pakistan. In Balochistan, dozens of mine workers die in accidents every month but no government ever tried to implement the mandatory safety laws due to the millions of dollars they get as gratification from the mine owners and contractors every year. 

The working class of the industrial hub of Pakistan won’t forget the hypocritical stance of the state, especially of the Supreme Court of Pakistan for taking suo motu action upon the murder of Shahzaib, who belonged to a wealthy family but ignoring the killing of hundreds of workers in Baldia Textile factory of Karachi, wherein the owner and the management of the factory locked its gates in order to save the goods from theft while confining and leaving hundreds of burning workers, the majority of who were young girls, at the mercy of flames. Similar steps were also taken by the factory owners in Bangladesh for years, which prove the kinship of the capitalists based not upon blood or nationality but upon class interests. Despite the lapse of eight years, those responsible for closing the gates of Baldia Textile factory remain free from clutches of law. 

The incidents of rape and outraging of modesty of female tenants in Pakistani rural areas are routine things (even law enforcement agencies do not bother to take actions against such crimes) but the unchecked rapid growth of sexual abuse of children, especially in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Punjab, illustrates the priorities of the government. The increasing deaths of the poor in government hospitals even due to mild illnesses are evidence of the collapse of the public health sector. Wards of the hospitals are more filthy than the toilets of any house. Most of the senior doctors who are receiving a guard of honour nowadays used to force patients to avail treatment from their private hospitals and clinics, instead of the government hospitals — those from where they draw their salaries. Such offers for private checkup and treatment aren’t driven by the greed of higher fees, but due to lucrative commission offers given by the TNCs to the doctors subject to their prescriptions advising excess medicines, even irrelevant ones. irrespective of side and after-effects on the stomach, liver and kidneys of the patient. 

In view of such social trends and traditions, one must not be astonished finding traders, pharmaceutics and shopkeepers involved in black-marketing and increasing the prices of essential items. While showing its helplessness, the government of Pakistan is completely silent on sharing the details of expenditures of the redirected $40m (Rs 6.8 billion) obtained from the World Bank to be utilised against the Coronavirus outbreak. No one knows about the hundreds of billions of Rupees, allegedly recovered from different politicians lying in the ostensible (benami) bank accounts. After donating an amount of Rs 50m to the private cyber team of the ruling party from the public exchequer, the act of describing the miserable conditions of the poor masses by PM Khan is contemptuous one, which makes fun of their poverty. The worse circumstances and miserable conditions of the poor masses of the Indian subcontinent, for whom the virus may become deadly, remind us of the declaiming of Karl Marx in 1848 that the workers have no country.

But the outbreak of the pandemic is going to disclose the actual category of the middle class in the world dominated by the TNCs. Whereas the state’s affairs cannot contradict with the larger interests of these TNCs, hence, the odds of contradictions between government authorities and the middle class —  mostly government employees, officers, entrepreneurs, technicians, medical officers, small businessmen — cannot be ruled out. Pro-corporate policies of Khan, which accelerated the Coronavirus outbreak and the collapse of the public health sector, and criminal failure of screening at entry points at airports and the borders, have quarantined him politically. The announcement of the so-called Corona Relief Tiger Force is considered as a lack of trust upon the country’s security forces and army deployment, which is already requested by the provincial governments.

Former federal minister Atta-Ur-Rehman warned that the rate of those infected by the Coronavirus can be higher than the figures announced by the federal government. Constant hesitation in declaring lockdown, which already had been announced through the issuance of notifications in a suspicious way, will sharpen the conflicts among privileged classes in Pakistan. The deaths of high profile people in Spain and Iran, as well as the suicide of a German finance minister, created panic in different rows of upper and middle classes. Those who have spent a large part of their lives serving the interests of the corporates and the bureaucracy are now worried about the number of ventilators in Pakistan. But the tragedy is that they have no history of resistance. They have always ignored or condemned every kind of resistance movement or voices against starvation, poverty and social injustice; hence, their agitation shall be confined within the social media. 

They are also afraid of each other such as in Pakistan they are still at odds with each other on a sectarian basis. whereas in response to the Sunni middle class’s censure against Shia visitors, the Shia middle class reminds the former the number of carriers of Coronavirus infection who either returned from Umrah or from Dubai, despite being aware that neither any Ayatollah nor any Khadim Haram Sharif could send any medical or food aid to them. The Arab Sheikhs, who in every winter hunt the innocent Siberian birds in Rahimyar Khan, Kharan and Killa Saifullah, didn’t bother to inquire about the conditions of their Pakistani hosts in the midst of the Coronavirus crisis. It seems the foreign masters are aware of the fate of the middle and upper classes.

Nevertheless, the ruling elite and the authorities may endure doing more for the class that remained their crutch for decades by restraining the downtrodden masses from rebelling against the former by using religion, nationalism, culture and traditions. But the rotten and decayed social and financial structures are unable to save the skin of the middle class from the severe attack of the Coronavirus. The system, which failed to provide clean drinking water to the people in the past seven decades, can’t face the sudden attack by the pandemic. The banks are running out of cash. There is a complete shortage of life-saving drugs and food items in the markets. The governments at different levels have expressed their failure and incapability while begging for food and medical items, while they never begged to purchase tanks and fighter jets. 

In the wake of the forthcoming downsizing of white-collar employees, the repayment of their debts may lead many of them to worse conditions than the daily wage-earners. A decline in the prices of immovable properties, which already slumped before the Coronavirus outbreak, will make the lives of survivors dreadful than death itself. The advice of restoration of relations during lockdown would become futile in the forthcoming economic crisis in the wake of Coronavirus along with the realisation by certain politicians that the TNCs were better aware of the status of used tissue paper.

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Advocate, activist and author from Quetta, Pakistan

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