103rd Day Of Lockdown

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Opinion Columnists 03 May 2020 Shreya Sen-Handley: ...
Shreya Sen-Handley is the author of the recently published Strange: Stories, the award-winning Memoirs of My Body, and a forthcoming book of travel misadventures.

Shreya Sen-Handley: Smells like a ‘cleanse’! Is it the virus or the State?

Published May 3, 2020, 4:40 pm IST
Updated May 3, 2020, 7:07 pm IST
The coronavirus has claimed 27,583 lives in Britain and killed 2.38 lakhs worldwide
Representational image (AP)
 Representational image (AP)

Remember when Kurt Cobain sang ‘Smells like ethnic cleansing’? Well, he would’ve if he’d lived to see 2020. Because the world reeks of it. Of the pong of pogroms. And the whiff of dissimulation.

As the coronavirus spreads across the planet, indiscriminately passing from person to person as viruses do, killing hundreds of thousands without heed to nationality as pandemics must, a strange pattern has emerged. A pattern of pernickety culling unknown to contagion.


Far from the “Great Leveler” politicians like British second-in-command Dominic Raab insist it is, it appears to be targeting particular people. Not just the ailing and elderly as originally suggested, but people of colour, and of specific creeds. More than a pandemic, it’s begun to look like a pogrom.

The virus, personified though it has been (“A genius,” hailed Trump), has no particular bone to pick. Nor is it a manifestation of God’s displeasure. It isn’t a Chinese biological weapon unleashed on the West, or a western one on China that boomeranged. Or fallout from the implementation of 5G.

And every other kooky conspiracy theory that has spread like corona is, unlike the latter, fake news.

So you should ignore the “damned lies”, but not the statistics which tell a worrying tale. In a number of American states, over 80 per cent of the dead are black, though they form a much smaller segment of the country.

Of the 15,464 British dead, 35 per cent are from black and Asian backgrounds, despite forming just 14 per cent of the population. Whether painted a drain on resources, or bogeymen to Brexiteers, they are Britain’s unwanted.

Though the magnitude of the coronavirus crisis in India is not borne out by the 507 official Covid deaths, plus 200 from starvation in lockdown, ground reports reveal millions in jeopardy. Most, poor migrants, often dalits or Muslims, cluttering up the pure Hindutva landscape promised by those in power.

Yet, these are all “natural” deaths, from disease or circumstance. Can it be a coincidence, or have the powerful taken advantage of this perfect storm to cleanse their world of the inconvenient? Have they been finetuning not just the figures, but the path of the pandemic itself? That’s not to suggest they are neck-deep in some nefarious plot, but that they’re more than happy to throw those they consider dispensable under the bus.

They didn’t manufacture the bus or drive it down. They saw it coming and gave an almighty shove to those teetering on the edge. Teetering because years of aggressive disenfranchisement had put them there. How easy it is to bump off the already vulnerable! Easy peasy corona wheezy.

We know Boris Johnson supports eugenics, with white supremacists amongst his advisors. That Caribbean immigrants from the Windrush generation, invited over by the UK government, were deported recently by the same.

That the elderly dying of Covid-19 in care homes have been denied hospital treatment. That a nasty organisation called NICE had recommended that Britain’s limited ventilators not be wasted on the disabled. Even emergency services have assigned a worth to those in distress, turning BAME away while blond buffoon BoJo is shooed into ICU suffering from “mild discomfort”.

And what can one say about the thousands of black and Asian medics pushed to the frontline in the fight against the pandemic, and dying? They have been carefully placed in the line of fire over years of discrimination with jobs.

In the US, as bodies of immigrants, the poor, and people of colour, pile up, no one (except Duplicitous Donald) can deny that years of marginalisation have put them in the jobs, housing, and neighbourhoods, that expose them to the virus more than others.

Yet, is that a surprise when the US administration not only wanted to erect a wall to keep immigrants out, but mass-interred them in detention camps, having snatched and caged their children? Or that they do nothing now as the homeless die of Covid and cold in American parking lots?

We know that Modi too has been building detention centres for migrants, many of them Muslim, awkward masjid-shaped pegs in our mandir-shaped holes, and that he’s turned a blind eye to their murders across India, as in Gujarat in 2002.

That in his bungled lockdown of the cities, impoverished migrant workers were left open to disease, and without livelihood, and therefore food, were compelled to walk thousands of miles to get home to ravaged villages, dropping from starvation as they went. That the people of the world’s largest slum, Dharavi, have been offered up as lab rats for experiments to find a cure for Covid.

And that nothing was done as fake news sent the desperate to Bandra railway station from which trains would allegedly take them home, exposing them to condemnation for their malicious intent to spread infection, and the infection itself.

With Covid-19 as both cover and enabler, our new-age Pots and Goebbels don’t even have to ethnic-cleanse in secret. Not only are their personae-non-gratae apparently disposing of themselves, it’s now possible to be rid of many more than in a month of non-pandemic Sundays.

To paraphrase Kurt again, “It’s fun to lose (the right wrong people), and then pretend (innocence)”. Pretense hasn’t been hard either, in India, for example; dazzled by its new son-et-lumiere, the thali bajao and bati jalao show.

Not the great leveler then, but the great revealer. And the great reveal won’t be the Himalayas from your Bengaluru bungalow, clearer though the air is after a 50 per cent dip in pollution. It will be the Nirvana of knowing they’ll come for you too.

The “scrubbing clean” of society happens in incremental steps, starting with those on the margins, and with each layer it decimates, it gets closer to the middle, the mainstream, “us”. After World War II, Martin Niemöller concluded, “then they came for me/And there was no one left/To speak out for me.”

I looked at myself in the mirror today after weeks of lockdown, and felt “stupid and contagious” like Cobain. For reasons of colour, disability and dysfunction, I was just as likely to be next. As yet untouched by Covid, I could clearly smell ethnic cleansing’s acrid stench. Can’t you?

This piece was written on April 19. As of May 2, the coronavirus has claimed 27,583 lives in Britain and killed 2.38 lakhs worldwide.

Shreya Sen-Handley is the author of the recently published Strange: Stories, the award-winning Memoirs of My Body, and a forthcoming book of travel misadventures. Her Twitter and Insta handle is @shreyasenhan.