Op-ed: Esha Mendiratta
On privilege, productivity, (old) parents, and a pandemic
There is nothing like a global pandemic to make you think of your privilege, or how #blessed you are, as my students say. I write this from an apartment that I have been able to afford on a single income in the Netherlands, a country with one of the best public healthcare systems in the world.
I live alone and have fortunately not had to start a new career as a school teacher to kids staying at home because of a pandemic. I spend hundreds of euros buying coffee every month and eat out far more often than I should, all without batting an eye.
I know that I have luxuries that many around me can only dream of in normal circumstances, let alone in the time of a pandemic. I am acutely aware of the tremendous economic privilege I enjoy at this moment when many people are losing their source of income, and when many of our students are unable to afford their rent. But you see, I also live away from home. I was born and raised in India and I live here in my adopted home of the Netherlands.
As I sip the lactose-free cappuccino I just bought from a take-away café, I worry about what is going to happen in India. I just spent hours doing the numbers to analyse how hard this virus might come down on my country, my childhood friends, and my family.
Official projections seem too scary to be real, so I decide to be arrogant about my academic training and prove the epidemiologists wrong and reassure myself. Hours of analysis later, I realise that the epidemiologists and public health officials are obviously right, as they usually are (side note to the people being yolo about the whole thing and partying on my block a week ago – listen to them already!).
Who will look after my parents? How will I see them if I need to with the borders closed and no flights going?
India might indeed have a staggering 300-500 million people infected by the coronavirus in the next four months if the government does not adopt any meaningful public health measures immediately.
At least once a day, I think about what would happen if my old parents got sick. Who will look after them? How will I see them if I need to with the borders closed and no flights going between the Netherlands and India in the near future? Will they get a hospital bed if they need one?
In theory, I have everything I really need and I should be using this time of selfisolation to focus on my research. I have also seen hundreds of videos and tweets on how to remain productive during these times. Surely I couldn’t be so much worse than everyone else and try to implement at least of some of their advice.
Maintain a routine, separate my office and living space, get proper sleep and exercise, ‘schedule’ social time with friends and family, make a to-do list… The list goes on.
Yet, sleep, exercise, routine, or productivity is the last thing on my mind. My mind is miles away, with my parents, wondering, once again, what will happen if they get sick. A black swan event like this sure has a way of generating unanswerable questions, and making you touch your face, a lot (seriously, everyone: stop touching your face, and wash your hands again while you’re at it!).
My face-touching gets worse knowing that most preventive measures suggested by experts to slow down the spread of this virus or to flatten the curve are laughable for the majority of India. Social distancing is almost impossible in a country of 1.3 billion people, where more than a hundred million are crammed into slums and entire families live in one-room apartments.
Social distancing is impossible in a country of 1.3 billion people, where more than a 100 million are crammed into slums
Maintaining hygiene seems ambitious for the 75 million people who don’t even have access to clean water. Where the luxury of clean water and space is available to Indians (like it is to my parents), social structures where generations of families live together make implementation of social distancing complicated and put the elderly at a higher risk.
Combine all this with the economic costs of a lockdown, and you are not only looking at a public health crisis, but also an ‘economic tsunami’ for the poor, as prominent Belgian-Indian social activist Jean Dreze recently called it.
Every now and then, the concept of privilege comes up in my classroom. I discuss its multidimensional and relative nature with my students. I tell them that while they might be privileged in some ways relative to some groups, they may not be in others.
Now, more than ever, I should remind myself of that and focus on the economic privileges and good health I enjoy. However, as it turns out, during a global pandemic, I am conflicted.
Somehow, at this specific moment, privilege feels unequivocally unidimensional and absolute – the only thing that seems to matter is that there is a higher than average chance of my parents getting sick and a zero chance of me being able to see them if they do, lactose-free cappuccino in hand or not.
Esha Mendiratta is an assistant professor at the Faculty of Economics and Business