By Vaishnavi Pavithran
I write this article sitting in a warm room in Rome, sipping my lemon tea and tapping my foot to a neighbour playing an Italian classic that I have, unfortunately, yet to learn in over a year of living here. I am momentarily distracted by a gorgeous golden retriever attempting to chase a tiny poodle that turns around and barks with confidence, making it clear there is more to life than meets the eye. A couple in the opposite building share a carbonara (one of the many delicacies that Italy will leave you craving for perpetuity) in their beautiful terrace and as I wave back “Ciao”, I am reminded again of this country whose produce will spoil you, culture will amaze you and spirit will engulf you. The reason why my neighbour turned into a DJ, the masks worn by the dog walkers or how I finally came to know people in the neighbourhood are details we don’t speak or think about anymore. They are part of an everyday lifestyle that I have normalized to over the 28 days I have now spent in my room. In four short weeks, relationships changed. Calls from friends warning me that my decadent gelato indulgences would win the war against my high metabolism turned into concerned calls filled with an overload of dog videos. In less than a month, an occasional family gathering at someone’s wedding changed into permanent weekly meetings (thank you, Zoom) with mandatory attendance to assure everyone I am alive. In a mere 672 hours, relaxing calls with my mama transformed into anxious conversations where telling myself not to cough makes me cough (and gives her mini panic attacks). But most of all, even though I grew up volunteering for over 11 years in different parts of India and work in an environment that constantly exposes you to the grim realities of life, since the 9th of March, I cannot stop thinking about privilege and inequality.
To break down privilege, I can write about the 736 million poor people that live below the poverty line today (and keep in mind this poverty line is set minimally at 1.90$ per day) or the 820 million people that go to bed hungry (a number that is worryingly showing an upward trend). For painting a grimmer picture, I can draw your attention to the fact that violent conflict has increased to the highest levels observed in the last 30 years and over 71 million people are forcibly displaced today. Spinning statistics about the world’s richest 1% having more than twice as much wealth as 6.9 billion people should give you an idea about the extent of inequality. However, the truth is these numbers intended to show you harrowing mega trends, while important, do far less to convince you of the problem. So, let me instead present the human side of inequality in this piece; a contrasting image I hope will allow us to think beyond ourselves even in these moments of panic.
In the middle of the world grappling with the impact of COVID-19, there are so few of us who can still get paid, work without fear of loss of income, possess gadgets to educate and entertain our children, stock up without cutting down on meals, attempt to become masterchefs on Instagram, or for the more positive of us, use this time to learn a new skill. We wash our hands as frequently as we can (or at least, I hope you are), religiously eat a Vitamin-C and do everything within our means to be in confinement waiting for this epidemic to pass. In contrast, there is an entirely different parallel world out there struggling with this pandemic on a whole different level. In that vulnerable world, lockdowns de-facto means no income, stock ups remain elite concepts unaffordable by most, some attempt to work in hazardous and dangerous settings to earn some money to feed their families, children are losing the only nutritious meal they were getting due to school closures, a woman is facing more abhorrent domestic violence, a man selling his few assets at peanut prices and mothers are mixing water into meals that are already only slotted for once a day. Shocking, right? But let’s not make any mistakes; this everyday struggle existed before COVID-19. These two contrasting worlds weren’t caused by COVID-19, only amplified by it. Job insecurity, lack of savings, living hand to mouth, health care being inaccessible, poor nutrition and inadequate earnings are not new characteristics for nearly half of the world’s population. COVID-19 adds an additional burden to the situation not due to its health consequences but by causing socio-economic threats as a result of countries dealing with the health consequences. Policy reactions such as banning of food exports, trade restrictions, and lockdowns disproportionately affect sectors like informal labourers and hourly wage employees by restricting their already limited financial means and access to food turning COVID-19 into nightmare for the ones born not so lucky. Because at the end of the day, COVID-19 may have been declared a health epidemic but the reality is, it goes way beyond that. It can be an economic and social epidemic if we don’t do anything about it (and maybe even then). There are millions and more facing food shortages, income disruptions and threats of degradation to an already poor standard of living. While concerns of health are true in this epidemic, worries on surviving with pennies and going to bed hungry take precedence for a lot more people than we can ever know. Such, my dear readers, are the glaring consequences of an unfairness that always persisted.
Any global crisis, including this pandemic, gives humanity a chance to re-evaluate the world we are living in. We know what the before held and we need to collectively decide what is the world we want to turn to after. Do we return to the ‘normalcy’ screaming of birth lottery privileges or do we want to create a more empathetic world where we try to correct the wrongs that have been allowed to exist for far too long? If it is the latter, we can already start building a better tomorrow by doing our parts whether as individuals giving donations, volunteers distributing food or employers paying labourers early, to ease the impact of this epidemic on the more marginalized and vulnerable sections of society. I hope you take up small contributions in your own way to make a difference. I acknowledge my privilege and am doing my part, are you?