Covid Frays Nerves

By Nita Chicooree-Mercier

While the global economy comes to a halt, the coronavirus goes on a free round-the-world trip and is now on a courtesy visit back home in Hubei. It leaves everyone in its trail – political leaders, medical staff, doctors and nurses, police forces, the army and the public at large – grappling frenzily with the effects of its presence and adopting a military stance to ‘fight against a common enemy’.

Hot-tempered Philippine President Duterte goes nuts and asks the police to shoot at undisciplined folks. Wah! When you think that Filipinos are one of the nicest people in Asia! French tourists strolling merrily in Goa get a taste of lathi charge by Indian police. Sweet holidays gone awry.

The Indian government already has its hands full with one Sikh man who came from Switzerland and attended a religious festival gathering 10,000 people in Punjab, and was found infected with the virus after his death. An Irishman luckily escapes from an Indian hospital without being caught by the police. Less lucky are the 400 members who attended a Tablighi assembly, a highly conservative religious association, who gathered despite present police notice, and were ordered by policemen holding lathis having to force them to get on buses and head to quarantine centres after a few got contaminated. Their counterparts in Pakistan went in hiding to avoid public hospitals after police started looking for them. Hard times indeed. A US nuclear aircraft carrier with 4000 marines on board in the Pacific has a few cases of contamination, and it is out of question to evacuate the ship despite recommendation from the navy. Rivals might get wild ideas. A nightmare for President Trump.

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Over here, after two days of confinement, the Prime Minister flies into a temper and announces a full non-negotiable shutdown order for twelve more days, an ordeal for a number of people caught unawares. The re-opening of supermarkets gives additional headache to decision-makers with radio anchors joining in the chorus of exasperated politicians, police force and doctors to hammer down the ‘Stay at Home’ recommendation into the minds of common folks, portrayed as thick-headed. A journalist on a private radio peremptorily tells people: ‘If you don’t understand now, you will never understand.’ A typical local form of rebuke which people do not mind. What might not go down well with the public in advanced countries with more pronounced ego is okay here. Folks are not touchy and do not take words literally and start a scene for nothing. So the unflattering compliment made by an irritated doctor, calling unruly elements who hang around and go for a ride in groups, ’empty heads’ – cocovides — goes like water on brède songe.

On radio and television the national committee often reminds the public that it is racking its brains to sort out all issues caused by the disease and its propagation, and strives to project the cool image of an overworked team which keeps everything under control. Opponents resort to social media and private radios to sling a few arrows at the government with a list of suggestions on how to do better, something that chafes the PM and his team. There are charges of delayed date for confinement for personal family reason, single-minded decision for total confinement, hardships faced by citizens, ineffective and insufficient means in dealing with quarantines and so on.

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It is understandable that stocks of masks for medical staff had to be a priority. Apparently, there are insufficient stocks in such an unprecedented situation. But telling the public not to wear masks unnecessarily looks like a way of dodging the issue. International medical platforms insist on wearing masks as much as possible. Chinese medical test kits are reported not to be the most reliable.

What draws our attention after the decision of MPs to part with 10% of their salary for a year was the suggestion put forward by the leader of the Reform Party to deal with expenses at lesser costs by cutting down for a year on the various allowances ministers benefit from and which add 100 thousand rupees more to their salary, and putting them in the special funds to tackle the virus issue. Rs 42,000 for duty allowance (whatever it means), Rs 22,000 for entertainment, Rs 35,000 for petrol and Rs 15,000 for driver’s allowance. Rs 35,000 for petrol per month sounds a hell of a lot. Mileage covered by ministers in normal times when they are on duty? A reasonable price looks like around Rs 10,000 monthly for 40 kms to their office and back. Present circumstances of limited travelling logically cut down petrol expenses. Rs 22,000 a month for entertaining in cocktails, receptions for foreign guests, etc., we guess. Trimming down a big part of the allowances for a year sounds quite reasonable.

Opposition members do their job, constructive criticism or noisy outbursts. They are paid by public funds, anyway. Private radios offer a platform, a caisse savon, to a varied number of protagonists, provide an outlet for rising level of adrenaline of disgruntled individuals and create jobs for new anchors. A means for the public to get connected, express their opinions, ask for advice and favourite songs, and share experiences. Radios meet with varying public approval. No one is fooled by partisan propaganda disguised as political analysis.

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The ruling governmental team holds the privilege of wielding power, which should enable them to be above the fray, and not display low self-confidence and bristle at negative remarks aired by any private radio. The national committee probably gave laconic explanation to requests for more information concerning the deceased, contaminated citizens and their whereabouts. It was a matter of respect for the deceased and their families not to reveal their identity all the more as the deadly virus forces one and all to lay aside funeral customs, family gatherings and prayers. It is unnecessary to add more grief to bereaved families by drawing public attention to them.

It makes sense in a small island. Two weeks ago it might have been relevant to get information on the whereabouts of those who tested positive. Not so sure, though. Cases of irrational stigmatisation have been reported. Employees in essential services, medical staff, drivers, supermarkets hail from all parts of the small island, which means the best option is to follow the rules of confinement.

Patience comes easily to our compatriots, with a majority of them imbibed with an incredible amount. A valuable asset, indeed. After two weeks’ confinement, they have settled down to the routine of idleness, masks, gloves, sanitizers and all. Self-employed and the underprivileged are the hardest hit. As the third week draws to an end, there are signs of nerves getting frayed. And what with being conned by supermarkets and boutiks as well, that’s all they needed in times of pandemic crisis! Big business is getting impatient and nervous; they have the most to lose. Ordinary folks are used to living with just enough. The lobbying for going back to business as usual unleashed the fury of employees on social media, which forces the big wigs of big business to stay at home and look out of their window at patches of snowy clouds moving away in the blue sky above.


* Published in print edition on 14 April 2020

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