“The death of human empathy is one of the earliest and most telling signs of a culture about to fall into barbarism.” – Hannah Arendt
The first Covid-19 case in India was reported on the 20th of January, 2020 in Kerala, and the first Covid-19 death was reported on the 12th of March, 2020 in Karnataka. The first Covid-19 case in Manipur was reported on the 24th of March, 2020 and its first Covid-19 death on 29th July, 2020.
Exactly 16 months after Manipur’s first covid case, the state still has 9939 active cases and 1451 deaths till date. As the Covid-19 cases surges in the North-eastern states of India, the second wave has caused rise in deaths even in the hill districts, compared to the first wave of Covid-19, Ukhrul being one. It is quite alarming now that Manipur is among the top 10 states with the highest positivity rates in India.
During the initial months of Covid-19 cases being reported in India, I came across stories about Covid-19 patients and families facing harassment from neighbours/locality in the mainland cities in India. From North-eastern people being hurled abuses to healthcare workers being abused, from nurses/doctors being asked to vacate rented flats to abandoning of Covid-19 patients by their own kin, it seemed like the public needed more awareness. Yes, there was lack of empathy and a whole lot of stigmatisations, but I excused these behaviours as lack of information.
What I never imagined was for this brazen cruelty to hit home, in my own little town! Irrespective of a symptomatic or an asymptomatic patient, of a family of such patient or of a family grieving the loss of the patient, it’s a wonder what this virus can do to a self-proclaimed god-fearing community.
During the initial lockdown in the town, a friend called me up and narrated to me about how a family from her village were asked by the neighbours to vacate their house then and there because two members in their family tested positive for Covid-19. The neighbours were adamant that they would bring home the virus and they must, therefore, leave immediately! I listened in disbelief, but there was little that I could do.
Over a month ago, my parents tested positive for Covid-19. My father, unfortunately, lost the fight. It was on a rainy Sunday afternoon. After a proper burial in my village, we came back to our house in the town to isolate as advised by the doctor. And the next morning, we had a very warm welcome from a particular neighbour whose tenant had a shop at the ground floor, about 15 metres away from our house. One of our tenants had gone to the shop to buy stuffs (we have three families as our tenants), and they were chased away from a distance saying the owner (our neighbour) had threatened to thrash them if they (shop keeper) sold anything to my family or to any of our tenants. It was reasonable to keep us away, but, really? Our tenants who had no contact with us?
But these are stories that are more bearable than the ones you will read now.
A very young uncle I know died in May, leaving behind five children and his wife. The children are still in colleges and schools. When he passed, they had to take the body to the village for immediate burial (as per protocol set by the govt.). So, when the family took the body to the village, they were made to wait for over an hour at the village entrance as the grave digging was incomplete. Then upon reaching the cemetery, the daughter of the deceased had to help carry the coffin because no villagers were allowed to step out of their house, and there were no one else around to carry the coffin.
In another incident is that of the burial of an uncle I knew of. When his body was brought to the village for burial, there were no pastors/ministers present to preside over. So, the deceased’s wife had to say the last prayer for the burial. I remembered my mother at the time of the burial, and empathised with the uncle’s wife- of how she would have had to hold back her tears to say the final grace.
There are other such stories, but one that really broke my heart was of when a body was being brought from Imphal to the village for burial, a certain village announced over the microphone that if anyone was found attending the funeral, the person/s would be chased away from the village. So, it is said that the coffin was left outside the church compound, unattended. And it was around midnight that two persons came in bullock cart to bury it, perhaps the deceased’s kin. But this is not an isolated event, there are stories of prayers being said over the microphone in the Church (as most cemeteries are close to the church or are of audible distance).
It seemed ironical to me how selfish we have all become in this time of Covid-19; of how little of faith and little of empathy our Pastors/Ministers and God-fearing people have come about! Then again, I remembered how my God-fearing friends (from Church mostly) were almost incognito during the times I was rushing in between hospital and pharmacy and home, and after my father’s passing.
All these made me realise how we are not just fighting the Coronavirus, but we are fighting ourselves. It’s not just people who are dead, but our empathy is also long buried. You never really realise it until it happens to you, like it did to me.
And religion (definitely) does not teach you empathy.
Yuimi Vashum, author of Love, Lust and Loyalty.