Tag Archives: coronavirus

The Venus Flytrap: Healthcare Workers In A Time Of Health Crisis

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As a neurosurgeon and the managing doctor of a hospital, Dr. Simon Hercules would have directly or indirectly served thousands of patients. It was probably while in the line of work, treating COVID-19 positive people, that the doctor may have contracted the infection himself. He passed away over the weekend, and was prevented from having a dignified burial by two mobs of residents from the very neighbourhoods that his hospital serves.

On Sunday night, his family and a few colleagues received his body and travelled in an ambulance to a cemetery in Kilpauk. Here, the first mob refused to allow them to proceed. They then went to a cemetery in Anna Nagar, where a second mob unleashed violence on them, pelting stones and logs at the ambulance. A harrowing night ensued for the mourners and the ambulance staff, including sustaining severe injuries. It culminated in a colleague of the late doctor having to dig the ground with his bare hands in order to complete the burial, under police protection.

This was not the first such Indian instance, however. In Meghalaya, a deceased doctor’s family had to wait 36 hours before a burial plot was available to them, due to a mob of hundreds preventing the rites. The cremation of another doctor in Chennai, originally from Andhra Pradesh, was also initially stopped by a mob. All such gatherings were formed in direct violation of lockdown rules.

Medical workers have also faced sudden evictions, ostracisation from their neighbours, and other forms of discrimination during this pandemic. A report in The Guardian on March 20th detailed how a Kolkata nurse and her children were thrown out of their apartment without notice, and how janitorial staff and others had been sleeping on plastic sheets on hospital campuses, prevented by neighbours from returning home.

Just two days after that report was published, millions of Indians assembled with or without social distancing to bang pots and pans together, supposedly to show their appreciation for healthcare workers. As many healthcare workers themselves, both in India and abroad, have said: all such gestures are meaningless if not accompanied by demanding accountability from authorities, especially for increasing production and availability of PPE kits, as well as for increasing testing and other measures. Dr. Pradeep Kumar, who performed the final rites for Dr. Solomon Hercules, spoke to India Today about how misinformation spread to the public (about how the virus is transmitted, and falsities such as that lighting candles would dispel it) was behind the shocking breakdown of civil behaviour that night.

It is a mistake to aggrandize any role and assign noble qualities to it by default. But workers in the healthcare sector – not only doctors, but everyone who works in a medical environment – are at risk in this pandemic precisely because they are the ones fighting it directly. Everyone deserves basic dignity: the medical officer and the migrant labour, both. Middle-class India is revealing its vilest face through this pandemic, ungrateful to the vital people who administer the medications, clean the bedpans, build the cities, harvest the fields. How do we expect to survive without them? And do their own lives mean nought?

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on April 23rd 2020. “The Venus Flytrap” appears  in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

The Venus Flytrap: Working From Home, Within A Crisis

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I’ve been working from home since late 2016, and I hope I can offer some suggestions on effectively doing so if you’re new to it.

To begin, some practical tips: never work in bed. It’s terrible for your back. If you don’t have a desk, use a dining table or kitchen counter. If you have enough space so that you can set up an “office”, do so, and don’t eat or watch TV there. Demarcating spaces will also help you demarcate time. You may feel you have a lot less or a lot more time than you did before. Keep daily checklists (personal and professional) as well as weekly and monthly planners. It helps to keep your eye on the big picture when the days merge formlessly. If there’s less work, set manageable growth-oriented tasks: updating your CV, making a vision board, etc. Leisure soothes; don’t beat yourself up.

Working from home is an enormous privilege, as evidenced by the thousands of migrant labourers who walked the Indian highways to reach their villages when this lockdown was announced. People who are or provide the supply chain, sanitation services, home deliveries and medical attention can’t work from home either.

This reality doesn’t nullify the fact that “home”, even if there’s a roof above one’s head and Wi-Fi, can be a highly toxic environment. This is truer than not in the Indian context, bound by patriarchy, where every family has a mountain of “dust” swept under a flimsy carpet. Set private boundaries even if others don’t respect them. For instance, commit to not engaging with anyone whose behaviour sets you off. Bite your tongue, keep up self-healing practices if you have the privacy to, and train your eyes on the long-term. If you realise that you don’t want to live like this permanently, accept that it will be months at least before changing your life becomes viable. Focusing on surviving this, then getting out.

No matter your scenario, mental health is a priority at this time. In a state of uncertainty, we are softer targets than ever. With the anxiety-inducing effects of constantly checking the news, paired with the tentacles of inadequacy that brands/influencers still shoot into our lives, it’s best to be careful about social media usage. Take up journalling: empty your worries into it. There are many guided or prompt-based practices online. Be flexible about how you define productivity. It’s hard to concentrate right now, so if you don’t learn a new language or tackle that to-be-read pile, it’s okay!

When you feel overwhelmed, return to this question: Who do you want to be when all of this is over?

The skills you acquire in this time are not only meant for crises. They are all adaptable into the next normal, post-pandemic. Try to see this period as a beautiful opportunity to inculcate practices for the long-term. These include taking up meditation or exercise, budgeting better, building meaningful connections based on communication (not activity), fairer division or more efficient management of household chores, eating more creatively, developing clearer socio-political ideas, achieving a healthy work-life balance, becoming self-disciplined and much more. Lean into growth, not fear.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on April 2nd 2020. “The Venus Flytrap” appears  in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

The Venus Flytrap: Wishes For Well-Being

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I write from a place where I manufacture hope for myself – and for the world – out of nothing but with all of me, the way a silkworm spins a cocoon from its body, or the way the sunlight-catching gossamer that a spider weaves from itself becomes at once its home and its art.

May you find in this time of constraint that you have more will and more heart than you usually have recourse to. May you draw from old wells of strength, and may they show you how you have been here before, and how you lived through it. The circumstances may be amplified, but the feelings are familiar. You have felt helpless before. You have known isolation. May you receive this while bolstered by that memory, just as I send it to you from a place of periodic equanimity, gained by experience and with the sense that all the world has slid now to the level of disquiet I always live with. And having lived that way, I can tell you that you can too. If you have the bare minimum to stay alive in this adversity, you can still find or make mirth, romance, creativity, comfort.

I know that somewhere in this city, the boughs of mango trees must be ladening with ripening fruit. The season for them has surely arrived, as seasons do, even out of turn in this time when ecospheres evolve. Soon, the rare jacarandas – you may know where amidst these many streets suddenly empty of our urgencies and our vanities they are rooted – will prosper in purple. Have you noticed how many words in the English language for this colour borrow from the names of flowers that carry it? Lilac, lavender, violet, periwinkle. Jacaranda is not one among them, both tree and tint. How beautiful to think of them all: summer’s bounty – the flowering trees, the fruit-bearing boughs, the weeds, a wild luxuriance. They will loom radiant in their posts whether we can see them, or touch them, or take from them or not. I write from a place with no foliage in my sight, for the first time in over a dozen years. It’s enough for me to know it thrives out there, away from our plucking hands and our polluting vehicles. Remember that nature has its own rhythms, and that you can conjure them up in thought. They susurrate within you. They are you.

May this find you in a place where your water, your electricity, your subsistence and your Wi-Fi are blessedly stocked. May you have enough. May you know that your coffer of courage, your vault of ingenuity, your repository of goodwill, and your larder of intuition are renewable resources. You do not have to fill them as we did before, using the ways we took for granted. There are other ways: gentler, simpler, more generous, more connected from afar. May you know that you are precious, and so is each life. May you know that if you are lucky, it is disgraceful – as in, incognizant of the universe’s grace – if you do not use your survival to make the world a better place.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on March 26th 2020. “The Venus Flytrap” appears  in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

The Venus Flytrap: What The Virus Shows Us

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Imagine if able-bodied people routinely honoured habits taught in kindergarten – like closing the tap while lathering up or brushing, or washing hands after using the bathroom (many have commented on how long the queues at sinks in men’s bathrooms are right now, which tells you…). Imagine if these remarkably simple habits weren’t regarded as crisis-only measures. In fact, we’re already in crisis, all the time. Climate change has long been scheduled to kill us and many of Earth’s other populations, but that’s never taken seriously. Wash your hands, yes, but remember: even if you survive the coronavirus epidemic, the planet is running out of water and summer is around the corner.

Meanwhile, some European airlines, legally required to perform 80% of their allocated routes or lose them to competitors, have been burning fuel on empty planes. This is the kind of excess that misses the point: human life is at stake because of how humans have chosen to live.

This epidemic has begun to show that many of the structures that undergird modern civilisation are deeply flawed. The capitalist model in which few profit while many struggle is profoundly unsustainable. So is any system which deprioritises the environment. Or any way of life that strips us of our humanity, turning us into cogs in wheels, Other-ing peoples, measuring our worth by our productivity (or by any measure of validation that erodes our integrity or joy).

In this state of emergency, universities have switched to online classes, jetsetting meetings have become conference calls and telecommutes have been encouraged for various white collar jobs. People with disabilities, often excluded from opportunities because “there’s no substitute for presence”, have rightly shown indignation at how the world has been quickly reordered now whereas lobbying was ignored. The truth is that more of us could operate like this all the time: saving money, fuel and personal energy while cutting environmental risks and improving our quality of life.

International travel bans reveal starkly how illusory the lure of hashtag wanderlust always was. Just because we can have something doesn’t mean we need it. Especially when, like hand sanitisers today and maybe hospital beds tomorrow, there isn’t enough to go around. We’re also realising how free universal healthcare and paid sick leave are fundamental rights, which too many are deprived of.

We didn’t arrive at pandemic panic without there being long-term decisions at high authoritative levels. Our anger must be used to perform our own civic duties better, demanding greater accountability from those in power who can make structural differences, and activating change on the individual level too.

Experts currently say that most who contract coronavirus will recover, but to maintain high caution to protect the vulnerable (the elderly, the immunocompromised, etc.) who may be infected through them. What is a flu to one is death to another. If this doesn’t lend itself to a pithy teaching on responsibility and interconnectivity, what will? If this epidemic doesn’t galvanise those who survive it to insist on radically changing bureaucratic and ethical norms so that they support rather than define what society is, then humanity truly is doomed – and not because of a virus.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on March 12th 2020. “The Venus Flytrap” appears in Chennai’s City Express supplement.