The curse of corona and the homeless

The homeless and the stateless don’t figure anywhere in our imagination

Prince Charles Philip Arthur George, the crown prince of the United Kingdom, having tested positive, Tom Hanks and his wife Rita Wilson contracting that scary ailment in Australia and the Canadian prime minister’s wife Sophie Grégoire Trudeau, being one of the patients, are a few examples of how the corona virus has turned out to be an equalizer.

That pronouncement by a close friend stirred my analytical faculty. The prescribed cure and precautions too are the same for everyone, he went on to say.

He was right on the money in saying so because the advice on precautions pouring in from every corner is essentially the same. Having a home, and state protection in such circumstances, are propositions, we tend to take for granted.

The homeless and the stateless don’t figure anywhere in our imagination. The homeless in this extraordinary situation is the main theme of this column. However, let’s look into the socio-economic differences within the category of those possessing a home before we proceed to discuss the homeless and the vulnerability they are consigned to.

After having tested positive Prince Charles will stay in isolation at Buckingham Palace with the best of medical care at his disposal. Similarly, Justin Trudeau and Sophie will be confined in their palatial residence in Ottawa and those living in katchi abadis or slums in the Third World will be incarcerated in their shabby houses.

Is asking the people living in a single room accommodation to observe social distance is not quixotic? Do they have soap to wash hands as frequently as is advised? As for homeless people, haven’t we struck them off our consideration - as if they don’t exist?

The seemingly straight forward suggestion to ‘stay home’ very conveniently precludes these unfortunate beings, not blessed with a home or a shelter of any kind. The smugness in assuming that everyone inhabiting the world has a home is symptomatic of how preposterous our analysis and how narrow the remit of our understanding of the social realities around us has become, is disconcerting.

How can the dispossessed and the marginalized fend for themselves if corona hits them is something that figures at the very bottom of the priorities set by the people at the helm. The plight of the poor does not seem to bother many. What will become of those hapless creatures condemned to live on the streets?

The homelessness phenomenon too is quite universal. The Indian cities of Mumbai and Patna present the starkest of examples where whole generations of people have been born on the streets, lived all their lives on the streets and died on the streets.

From these cities, as big and affluent as New York, London and Vancouver, large numbers of homeless people at the street corners or the main entrances of the train stations mock at the social system that looks the other way instead of ensuring that everyone has a shelter over one’s head.

In times of adversities like this, just the sort of social hiatus whose spread traverses across nations, continents and cultural divides, presents the biggest impediment to stemming the lethality of the corona curse. How will the victims of the virus be quarantined or be rendered in self-isolation if they have no home, is a million-dollar question.

It is among the phenomena that testify to the veracity and validity of several Marxist assertions. Despite Fukuyama’s pronouncement of the eventual triumph of the liberal democracy and end of socialism, Marx is relevant and the questions he raised have not been addressed. Rather, those questions have been shoved under the carpet.

An excruciating sight in Pakistan, particularly in Lahore, is a beggar woman holding a child. Seeing their number swell with every passing day compounds the agony. Given the lockdown, these women appear regularly at their assigned spots to earn their living by begging.

An excruciating sight in Pakistan, particularly in Lahore, is a beggar woman holding a child. See their number swell with every passing day compounds the agony.

Expecting them to observe social distance is absolutely absurd. The coronavirus and the peril it may spawn, is none of their concerns.

I wish to draw the attention of the Punjab government to the issue and advise it to set itself this task of rehabilitating these women who obviously are being forced to beg for a living.

Such rehabilitation is vital for social development, which so far has not been any government’s priority. Besides, the small babies that they are holding during the daily grind should be a cause for serious concern. What sort of memories will these babies grow up with? What exposure is the future generation of Pakistanis being subjected to?

These are some of the questions the people at the helm must ask themselves. At least for a few weeks these unfortunate women should be hauled up and at the government’s expense kept at the girls’ hostels which are lying vacant for the last few days. A rigorous process of their de-briefing should be set in motion. They should be taught manual skills and given basic education.

Feminist groups should also play a constructive role by launching an emergency campaign for the rehabilitation of these women. The very presence of women begging at the traffic signals defeats the very cause of those calling for empowerment of women. A full-fledged campaign is required to put an end to the social bane.

To conclude, it is extremely important to understand that we are in a situation that resembles a war. Our government must take cognizance of the urgency of the situation. The announcement of relief-cum-incentivising package is a welcome move.

This situation also calls for a serious review of the medical facilities and no effort should be spared to equip hospitals with modern equipment and well-trained staff. In this regard, the government can take a leaf out of Singapore’s book, a tiny state that offers the best medical facilities in the entire world. The situation requires all of us to act like a nation. Let’s do it.

The curse of coronavirus pandemic and the homeless