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Postcards from a green zone

  • Published at 11:28 am May 14th, 2020

As long as red zones exists, no green zone will be truly safe

Goa is on the go again. India’s smallest state was the first to declare itself “Covid-19 free” last month, which allowed its administration to considerably ease lockdown. Over the past fortnight, most people went back to work, the retail sector opened up, and the streets resumed buzzing with vehicles. This weekend, regularly scheduled passenger rail commences across the border, and everyone expects domestic airlines to start flying again soon.

What’s happening here is likely to play out almost identically everywhere else, as the world begins probing what “the new normal” might look like in our Age of Contagion. So the first thing to note is the moment Goa loosened controls, seven asymptomatic cases were detected amongst travellers seeking entry. They are in treatment, and the coronavirus is amongst us again. Lesson number one. There is no permanent green zone.

To the extent we know about this “novel” coronavirus, the most salient fact is that it’s remarkably contagious and durable. It can survive for 72 hours on plastic and steel, over a day on cardboard, and up to half-an-hour simply suspended in the air. 

Even in stringently sanitary hospital conditions, it continues to infect almost unabated. From the pandemic’s onset, doctors and nurses have been disproportionally affected.

Earlier this week, the brilliant author/physician Dr Atul Gawande wrote in the New Yorker: “The four pillars of our [anti-infection] strategy -- hygiene, distancing, screening, and masks -- will not return us to normal life … but they could get people out of their homes and moving again. As I think about how my workplace’s regimen could be transferred to life outside the hospital, however, I have come to realize that there is a fifth element to success: Culture. It’s one thing to know what we should be doing; it’s another to do it, rigorously and thoroughly.”

That’s a deadly kicker, if the evidence of green zone Goa is indicative. Even in this conspicuously well-educated and affluent state, there’s considerable resistance to the elementary precautions. Some people are cavalier, others careless. Many are cynical (the refrain “it’s just the flu” still circulates). None of this bodes well for the strenuous long haul that all of our societies will unavoidably have to endure, for the coming months and years.

Of course these are complicated times, with complex systems at stake. Roughly two months into the coronavirus emergency in India, we know that hundreds of millions of people are suffering extraordinary privations because of the ostensible “cure” that is the world’s strictest lockdown. Yet, it’s certainly possible the situation could have been even worse if Covid-19 had swept unchecked through the cities. 

But what is also immediately apparent is that governments everywhere in the world are using this opportunity to ram through regressive, undemocratic schemes and proposals that would otherwise have to face much more public scrutiny. 

Just this week in Goa, the government unilaterally set aside its longstanding framework of labour laws and approved 12-hour shifts (four of those hours are classified as overtime). This is the tip of the iceberg: The giant states of Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh want to scrap almost all worker protections, and impose penalties on those who no longer want to risk their health by showing up at unsafe workplaces. 

Earlier this week, hundreds of conservation scientists (including 12 former members of the apex National Board for Wildlife) appealed to the Environment Minister Prakash Javadekar to cease using the “empty formality” of video-conferencing during quarantine -- thus excluding public oversight -- in “fait accompli situations” endangering India’s environment. Amongst these semi-clandestinely approved projects is one that will destroy hundreds of hectares of the most pristine jungles of the Western Ghats in Goa and Karnataka.

When we think of green zones, the most urgent parallel from recent times has to be the 10sq-km central Baghdad district that was first heavily fortified by Saddam Hussein, and then made globally famous as the seat of power during the American occupation of Iraq from 2003. 

In his contemporary classic Imperial Life in the Emerald City: Inside Iraq’s Green Zone, the Indian-American journalist Rajiv Chandrasekaran (he was the Washington Post’s bureau chief in Baghdad) describes astonishingly surreal circumstances. Outside the fortifications, everything was disintegrating in explosions and bloodshed. But within this “Versailles on the Tigris” there was Little America imported in full, and “US government regulations dictated that everything, even the water in which hot dogs were boiled, be shipped in from approved suppliers in other nations.”

Unimaginable wastefulness, immeasurable costs, and always destined to fail. This brings us to the bottom line of green zones, which is they don’t last. Saddam’s obsessive controls were bombed to smithereens, and it was the same for the American regime. The perimeter was breached, the fortress crumbled. As long as red zones exist, no green zone will ever be safe. Our fates are irrevocably intertwined. 

Vivek Menezes is a writer based in Goa, India.

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