In Kolkata, bureaucrat, doctor and teenage son become poster family for irresponsibility in time of coronavirus outbreak
Some are seeing this as a classic case of the well-heeled thinking they are invincible, stupidly confident that their power and wealth renders them immune to all the plagues of the world.
By now the story is well-known. A young man returns from London where he partied with others, some of whom tested positive for the novel coronavirus. He was advised not once, but twice, to immediately get admitted to the infectious diseases hospital but spurned that advice.
His mother, a senior bureaucrat, went to work and had meetings with several people including the home secretary of the state. His father examined 37 children at his chamber in Nadia. Two drivers ferried the boy around. Now the government is scrambling trying to track the passengers of the flight the youth was on, the father’s patients, the government officials the mother met, tracking CCTV footage, disinfecting offices and elevators.
The home secretary is in quarantine at home along with his wife, the vice-chancellor of Calcutta University. The parents and the drivers have tested negative but will still need to be under observation.
Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee is livid. “You see that symptoms have come, but you roamed about like an irresponsible person. It could infect 5,000 others, from contact with you. Er cheye obibechok kaaj aar kichhui hotey paarey na (there can be nothing more inconsiderate than this).”
But then we are not a generation taught to be considerate of others, especially if it requires us to be inconvenienced.
The father is a doctor and presumably understands the gravity of a pandemic. The mother is a bureaucrat well aware of the challenges of implementing public health programmes. This should have been the model family for spreading a message of precaution and safety. 24,000 people live per square kilometre of Kolkata. It can ill afford to be complacent in a pandemic.
If no one else, this family should have understood this. Instead, they chose to be utterly and selfishly irresponsible. They became the embodiment of the Ugly Privileged Indian, living symbols of a personality disorder that exhibits a complete disregard for the well-being of others.
Since the news broke in Kolkata, the WhatsApp groups have been buzzing. Though the media did not name the family, their names, pictures and the residential complex they lived in have been all over WhatsApp groups.
“This London-returned boy is our pride… He wandered around Kolkata and its shopping malls with the virus,” sneered one message. “Babu is used to a golden spoon in his mouth, Babu just came home holding his mother’s hand (instead of going to the infectious diseases hospital)” said another.
It seems that in this case with great privilege comes great irresponsibility.
Some are seeing this as a classic case of the well-heeled thinking they are invincible, stupidly confident that their power and wealth renders them immune to all the plagues of the world. But in reality, this is the well-heeled thinking their power and wealth renders them immune to the laws and regulations that lesser mortals have to follow.
The boy’s mother can be part of meetings that chalk out government responses to the novel coronavirus but also moves heaven and earth to save her own son from having to be admitted into, God forbid, a government hospital.
It shows bluntly that the greatest threat in a time like this comes not from just the virus but the sense that too many of us have that laws and precautions do not apply to us, that if we have enough money or connections, everything can be managed in our favour. Forget sacrifice, we cannot deal with even garden-variety inconvenience.
Mamata did not mince words. “Ekhaney VIP-LIP korbar jaayga nei (There is no room to do Very Important Person, Less Important Person here. The rules that must be followed in my home must also be followed in yours.”)
Unfortunately, too many of us have been raised thinking that was not true. Power in our society is measured by the ability to not follow rules. And politicians have certainly shown the way in that respect. Literally. Every politicians' car that sticks a siren on top and breezes through traffic rule whether it needs to or not is sending out a message.
It’s a message that has been reinforced over and over again. The politician who thrashes a toll-worker who dares to ask for toll or the one who beat up an airlines manager with a chappal because he did not get a business class seat on a flight which had no business class seats are all examples of privilege run amuck. Rules are for losers. No one got ahead by playing by the rules.
Is it any great surprise that at a time of emergency this family failed to step up to its responsibility?
But the more uncomfortable question for the rest of us sharing outrage on social media, is would we have passed the test?
Would the upper-middle-class Kolkatan who has never stepped into a government hospital willingly check himself into one for the greater good of society? Do we think about rules when we pull contacts to skip the queue at the bureaucrat’s office? The rich kid who crashes the expensive car at high speed at night just lays low for a few days and then returns to the nightclub. We can barely stand to wait our turn at a traffic signal, trying to get ahead every inch we can, often snarling up traffic in our haste.
Even as so many point fingers at this family, others share stories of Europe and US-returned residents of their apartment complexes who are happily wandering around in public because they are bored after a couple of days of quarantine. There’s only so much Netflix one can watch.
Much as we might be loath to admit it, this family in Kolkata was probably not the exception. They just didn’t get away with it this time. But if the boy had tested negative they would have even though all the ways they flouted the rules would have been just as egregious. It might feel satisfying to put up their pictures on social media and shame them but that does not mean many of those casting stones don’t live in glass houses themselves.
The problem is that power and privilege can be used to cover up a misdeed, to escape unscathed from its consequences. But you cannot cover up a disease or escape its symptoms. A disease does not differentiate between VIPs and LIPs. That is what this family failed to understand, not just at great cost to themselves but to the larger society around them.
Once we are done pillorying this family for their irresponsible ways, the rest of us need to understand that grim truth.
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