20 April 2020

The underside of sequestering

You can't just suit up and keep deprivation away
 Curfews, lockdowns, quarantining and other forms of sequestering are not all bad. There are positives. There are signs that limited human activity is improving the health of the planet. Marginally of course and we really don’t know for how long. There’s a greater awareness of how utterly selfish we have been as a species. If there were doubts about over-consumption, they’ve been laid to rest. Needs and wants are scrambling to their true values. Collective has acquired greater value vis-a-vis the individual. We are rediscovering the world, the nation, the community, the neighborhood, the family and ourselves.

All good. 

We need to focus on positives. We need to keep the spirits high and depression at bay. We have to keep perspective. Abiding by and affirming the Sathara Brahma Viharana seems all the more sensible. The logic of conduct framed by compassion, loving kindness, rejoicing in others’ joys and equanimity is clearly compelling. 

There are thousands of feel-good stories. There are thousands of stories about people and the things they do or say, people who don’t make the news usually.

I heard about a female employee of the Colombo Municipal Council being interviewed on Derana TV. She said ‘me wasangathe iwara wunaama api hemotama awurudu ne, nedda mahattayo?’ [Once this pandemic is done it will be ‘avurudu’ for all of us, isn’t that so, sir?]

There’s softness, innocence, equanimity and conviction in those simple words. And then there are stories without quotes. Or names. People helping people. Not just the rich helping the poor. That also happens of course. It’s ‘news’ because, well, that’s not normal, for CSR projects are about brand-building mostly and target awards. It’s different when the humble think of sharing or giving.

All feel-good stuff. And yet, there’s an underside which romanticized rendition or rendition of the romantic can hide. There are the anomalies. Indeed there is the accentuation of anomalies and related deprivation.

If it’s about basics then it’s about food and medicine, assuming there is a roof over your head and you are clothed. Think of the urban poor. There’s no space to grow food. Everything has to be purchased. Now think of a person who is dependent on a daily wage. Curfew and other restrictions have effectively put a full stop to income earning opportunities.

Three-wheel drivers, mechanics, lorry drivers, bus conductors and those who labor in a myriad other ways don’t really earn enough to save. They don’t have disposable incomes. They can cut down on non-essentials, they can adjust consumption patterns, but they quickly run out of bucks. 

Let us not forget that the service sector dominates our economy. Let us not forget that a sizable portion of the population can neither demand from nor supply to the market. Let us not forget how big our informal sector is. Let us remember that a significant percentage of the people in these ‘areas’ are in a hand-to-mouth mode of existence.

And let’s not assume that they want handouts. I know many people in these categories who have told me that they are not beggars waiting for the government to give them food stamps. They want the opportunity to go out and earn some money. They are proud. They do understand the nature of the threat and the logic of restrictions, but they are the frontline of the hunger-army, so to speak. They get hit first.

In the USA and even here in Sri Lanka, the talk of ‘stimulus packages’ is about ensuring that corporates survive. It’s the trickle-down logic and one is reminded of that classic Beetle Bailey cartoon where the observation is made that money doesn’t trickle down, ‘only pain does.’

What happens to the nurse, the attendant, the person pumping petrol, the drivers of lorries that deliver vegetables, meats, eggs, other things essential and non-essential, the choon-paan malli, the other deliverers of everything and anything, from pizzas to gas, the pharmacy-assistant, the policeman and soldier at checkpoints, the PHI and the undertaker? What of their families?

Is it enough to say ‘you are our heroes!’? Is it enough to say ‘Kudos to our public service,’ and add, ‘we are sorry we vilified you guys left, right and center all the years’? And how long will it take to forget after we are through all this, hopefully soon? 

There’s an element of elitism in romanticizing the situation, lifting spirits and being positive notwithstanding. There’s an element of class privilege. And in the rush we forget or brush aside the structures that generate poverty. We ignore the laws, processes and institutional arrangement which inevitably create these conditions.

There’s an underside that’s not pretty. It’s an underside that doesn’t get written. It’s an underside, it can be argued, which is the bedrock on which glittering edifices are constructed. It is an underside that enables privilege. It can crumble and bring the mountains down. It can revolt and reorder the earth in more wholesome ways.

It won’t go away.  And while it exists, it should not be forgotten or buried in the romanticization or over-fragranced in the bloomage that is class privilege.

Other articles in the series 'In Passing...':  [published in the 'Daily News']   
Let's not stop singing in the lifeboats
When the Welikada Prison was razed to the ground 

Looking for the idyllic in dismal times    
Water the gardens with the liquid magic of simple ideas, right now    
There's canvas and brush to paint the portraits of love    
We might as well arrest the house!
The 'village' in the 'city' has more heart than concrete
Vo, Italy: the village that stopped the Coronavirus    

We need 'no-charge' humanity 
The unaffordable, as defined by Nihal Fernando
Heroes of our times Let's start with the credits, shall we? 
The 'We' that 'I' forgot 
 'Duwapang Askey,' screamed a legend, almost 40 years ago
Dances with daughters
Reflections on shameless writing
Is the old house still standing?
 Magic doesn't make its way into the classifieds
Small is beautiful and is a consolation  
Distance is a product of the will
Akalanka Athukorala, at 13+ already a hurricane hunter
Did the mountain move, and if so why?
Ever been out of Colombo?
Anya Raux educated me about Juvenile Idiopathic Arthritis (JIA)
Wicky's Story You can always go to GOAT Mountain
Let's learn the art of embracing damage
Kandy Lake is lined with poetry
There's never a 'right moment' for love
A love note to an unknown address in Los Angeles
A dusk song for Rasika Jayakody
How about creating some history?
How far away are the faraway places?
There ARE good people!
Re-placing people in the story of schooldays   
When we stop, we can begin to learn
Routine and pattern can checkmate poetry
Janani Amanda Umandi threw a b'day party for her father 
Sriyani and her serendipity shop
Forget constellations and the names of oceans
Where's your 'One, Galle Face'?
Maps as wrapping paper, roads as ribbons
Yasaratne, the gentle giant of Divulgane  
Katharagama and Athara Maga
Victories are made by assists
Lost and found between weaver and weave
The Dhammapada and word-intricacies
S.A. Dissanayake taught children to walk in the clouds
White is a color we forget too often
The most beautiful road is yet to meet a cartographer