The time has come for Manipur to face the second phase challenge of the COVID-19 battle. Needless to say, this would be as crucial if not more than the first phase. The difference is, the first phase came suddenly and as a terrifying shock, the like of which the state has never faced before. The state and its population were also not sure how they were to handle the situation, therefore faced a tidal wave of panic situation. Making the matter worse, a pandemonium of lies and half-truths about the disease and the two patients was also created by certain cowardly and hate-mongering sections of the society, using the free for all social media. Thankfully though the state was also not altogether bereft of sane minds and in the end, their counsels and influence prevailed to ultimately contain and allow the cacophony to end. Thankfully again, over and above our courageous health workers who stood resolutely behind the vow of their chosen noble profession of saving lives from diseases, even the deadliest ones, there were also legions of young ordinary brave-hearts coming forward to put in their might in the fight, doing yeoman service in raising resources to provide material and financial assistance to the weak and needy in the society. This was what the first phase was. The second phase will be no less dangerous or challenging, for we will now be opening our doors to our kith and kin stranded outside the state when the prolonged nationwide lockdown is relaxed a little from May 4. It may be recalled, they had become stranded because the announcement of the lockdown on March 25 came with only a few hours’ notice. It is quite possible some of them could bring the virus with them unknowingly. But the difference this time would be, the experience of the first phase has prepared the population psychologically to accept this evolving reality, no matter how harsh and threatening.
There can be no doubt that the end of this unfolding nightmare is far from over. Nobody will also doubt that the crisis is unavoidable, but we must gather courage to take it as it comes in the best possible way we are capable. In retrospect, given the fact that the nation remained complacent and doing little or nothing for weeks after the first cases of COVID were reported in the nation on January 30, the sudden March 25 lockdown seems a little unreasonable. Had there been a few days’ notice, much of the trauma for plenty of people thus stranded outside their states would have been saved. This is not just about those from Manipur, but we have also seen this trauma, perhaps worse, in the thousands of migrant workers leaving their places of work in various Indian metropolises and deciding to walk home. For many of them this walk was several hundred kilometres away. A young boy from Bihar was reported to have died of exhaustion with only few hundred meters left to reach his home. Yes, the sudden decision proved costly, but considering that the cost would have been higher if no decision was taken at all, and that the harsh decision was with the good of everybody in mind, we must be ready to put aside any grudge or grievance and prepare for the challenges ahead.
The state for the moment has been marked as a green zone, therefore free of the Novel Coronavirus, after two individuals who tested positive recovered and no other person reported of COVID symptoms during the 40 days or so of lockdown the state has gone through so far. This would have meant if the state boundaries were tightly sealed, the state would have continued to remain clean. But there is no way this can be completely so, for while it will make sense to continue to lock out non domiciles until the spread and prevalence of the pandemic has come under control nationwide, it would be impossible and heartless to force exile those for whom the state is their only home. COVID indeed is prompting may philosophers to raise some deeply troubling and fundamental existential questions. Must human life and morality be allowed to completely degenerate into a utilitarian enterprise with self-interest and self-preservation as the sole motivation? Is bare life enough? This cannot be. As Jeremy Rifkin points out, richness of life’s meaning depends greatly on the exercise of empathy, therefore sharing the sufferings and joys of the common human predicament is vital. Yes, life is much more than bare life. Its meaning cannot be given by “I” alone and the animal instinct to preserve and promote the self. An intuitive acknowledgement of the importance of “WE” therefore is vital. The empathy circle or the “WE” consciousness has also always been expanding in concentric circles throughout human history. The family, clan, tribe, co-linguists, co-religionists, nation, humanity, sentient animal world etc. The final frontier of this empathy expansion is towards an ecosphere consciousness says Rifkin, therefore more and more of us now feel the hurt when forests are burnt down, a species of butterfly go extinct, the rivers are contaminated, the ocean is littered or the ozone layer is depleted.
Let the state and its people then prepare to receive their kindred stranded outside, but after taking necessary precautions to minimise, if not eliminate, risks involved. Since those who want to return are in multiples of thousand, the state must evolve a strategy so as not to be overwhelmed. For this, the returnees could be brought back in batches so that the number of entries into the state each day is within the capacity of the state’s COVID administration mechanism to manage comfortably. The returnees must all be mandatorily screened and made to go through quarantines of differing rigours depending on where they are returning from, and the proximity of their places of previous stays or travels to identified hotbeds of the pandemic in the country. If any of them show suspected symptoms of the disease, they could for instance be straightaway isolated and taken to two hospitals, RIMS and JNIMS, both now equipped to deal with the disease. If they do not have these symptoms but are returning from any of the hotbed districts in the country, they could be taken to the top-grade government quarantine facilities. If they show no symptoms and are returning from safe zones, they could be asked to be in home quarantine after notifying their arrival so their neighbourhoods can help keep vigil on adherence to prescribed quarantine disciplines. Grant of permission to return must also be prioritised and those known to be in dire financial straits because of the lockout must be given first preference. The government should also request those who are outside the state but are well off and have no problem of accommodation or daily upkeep, to remain put where they are until the problem stabilises. If they still want to return, they could be put lower down in the list of those to be given permits for return.
Editor, Imphal Review of Arts and Politics and author