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Lungphou village Kangpokpi ahead of Rai Basti toward the Koubru ridge

‘My Village Went to Sleep Oblivious of COVID-19 One Night and Woke Up to a National Emergency the Next Morning’

[avatar user=”Dennis” size=”thumbnail” align=”left” link=”file” target=”_blank”]DENNIS MISAO[/avatar]

FOREWORD:

Things have been moving too fast, especially for a small, slow paced, easy going village like Lungphou, and I think it would be only appropriate if I speak exclusively in the context of my village Lungphou. Every Hill Village is a world into itself, and it would be unfair to generalize them into a single pattern of thought.

PRELUDE :

When schools and colleges were shut down on the 12th of March, we had no idea what was to come in the weeks and days ahead. No one was really worried about the virus. This was seed planting time for the vegetable patch, and the only concerns were whether the April rains would be on time. Water scarcity was (and still is) a bigger concern than corona.

Most of us took the closure of schools as an overreaction from the State Government. Borders with Myanmar were already sealed, and no corona cases had been detected in the state, or even the entire North East. The extra help from teenagers on the farm was welcome though. The smaller ones running around wild at home were not.

Everyone went about their normal lives. Go out and farm in the day, come home in the evening and share the latest corona joke circulating on Whatsapp. In most hill villages, including Lungphou, the Android powered smart phone has replaced the TV as the idiot box of choice. The funniest joke circulating at the time went something like this – “If corona comes here, there will be hardly anything left to reach the common man after all the percentage cuts in between”

PUBLIC CURFEW:

When the PM announced a “Public curfew” at 8 PM on the 22nd, most villagers were already asleep. When I rang my Mantri at 9 PM, he still didn’t get what the fuss was all about. Most villagers still considered it a far away event of mainland India. Sunday church services were cancelled grudgingly, and announcements were made over the community loudspeakers. The panic had begun.

The following day, I visited a few households in the village to get a sense of the mood, and also to lift up their spirits. Even while maintaining the recommended distance of 2 metres, I couldn’t avoid the barrage of questions, opinions and ideas from the common villager. Here are the top five:

Why do we need to avoid handshakes? Honestly, I didn’t know how to get around this one easily. Handshakes are an integral part of our meet and greet. To refuse a handshake in a Kuki Village is a sign of disrespect bordering on grave insult. Maybe handshakes with gloves could work. Visitors kindly take note.

Why do we need to cancel Church? The Church associations had made our task easier on this one. They had already announced a suspension of church gatherings. If it was any comfort, absence makes the heart grow fonder, and you can bet on an increase in church attendance once the doors open again. The common villager is a devout Christian, and I have no doubt they will be praying for safety, deliverance and forgiveness – not necessarily in that order.

Is the Air force going to spray us as well? A fake video circulating on Whatsapp at the time was the air force spraying disinfectant to kill the virus. Most people didn’t buy it, but a few thought it was a good idea to keep the kids indoors. Maybe that could work in other problem areas. The sound of a plane approaching could empty streets faster than a tear gas shell or an angry baton charge.

The Chinese are up to something. If they did, they sure pulled it off spectacularly. And killed a lot of their own people first before the rest of us – Doesn’t add up. Fact of the matter is, none of the villagers have been to China. Neither have I. Best we mind our own businesses. By the way, we raised eyebrows when they locked down a whole province. Now we are doing the same thing.

Is this the end of the world? References to the apocalypse are not restricted to any religion. When you add this to the mix, we get an assured dose of panic. Honestly this is not about religion. It is about nature sending a message – Maintain a safe and healthy distance. Ignore it at your own peril. What goes around, comes around.

SECTION 144:

Two days later, the District Administration declared section 144. If the intent was to enforce social distancing, it failed miserably. Panic buying began in the District HQ, and villagers also joined in the fray. A lot of goods and cash exchanged hands in very crowded places in a very short time. The only problem with panic buying is that the common villager cannot afford to buy more than what his daily or weekly budget affords him. Hoarding is a concept reserved for the upper and the middle class, who in any case, have a better reserve of cash to see them through tough times. The irony of this concept should not be lost on anyone.

21 DAY LOCKDOWN:

The timing of the lockdown coincided with the first positive COVID19 case in Manipur. If timing is everything, then the State of Manipur has got it right so far. The only nagging question was – Did anyone slip through the net and is quietly spreading the virus amongst us? This pandemic is a health crisis, not just of the body but of the mind as well. This Pandemic will end, of that I have no doubt. But I fear we will all have become paranoid hypochondriacs at the end of this particular one.     Lockdowns have ensured that everyone finds refuge in the shelter of their own borders. A few villages went gung ho and put up gates and barricades, much to the chagrin of the District Administration. We too did it initially, and then sheepishly removed them a few days later. Social Distancing in a small village like Lungphou comes naturally. When you have a population of 364 souls spread over 14 square kilometers, you get 26 persons per square kilometer. Although that’s a reassuring statistic, it also runs the risk of going the way of the ancient forbidden kingdoms – Keep the aliens out. Stay within the walls. This is the center of the universe. If you go out, you will fall off the earth.

Other pressing questions remain, but the chief concern remains a four-letter word – RICE. Everyone quickly realized that the government supply of rice was not going to last forever. To that end, the collective wisdom in the village has been to divert all labour towards the humble village farm and field. We have decided to grow whatever we can, wherever we can so that we don’t starve. And may the Gods bless us with plentiful showers to water our crops.

Besides farming, a good number of villagers earn their livelihoods through carpentry, masonry and other various forms of semi-skilled and unskilled labour. The places offering work are mainly in the District HQ and other towns outside the village. Most of the wages earned are on a weekly or daily basis. No work means no pay. It is still early days, and no one can predict how this pandemic will play out. In the absence of work, they are quietly doing what every other rural village is doing at the moment – tend to the animals and vegetables. And crack an occasional corona joke or two. Only thing is, it’s not as funny anymore.

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