Every single day since the last week of March 2020 has begun and ended for me with the incessant buzz of the phone. No prizes for guessing that most of these calls are related to the coronavirus pandemic. But while these calls are ‘related’ to the pandemic, they are not necessarily about the virus or infection itself. In fact, it would be a safe guess to say that 95 percent of the calls are about the impact of the lockdown to contain the pandemic.

Social activists engaged in community mobilization, awareness generation and outreach on public health issues might agree with me. A major part of their work has often been about human rights or social justice issues around the public health problem in question, whether it is HIV, mental ill health, tuberculosis or malaria. The pathogen itself or body and mind malfunction, medical tests and treatment constitute an important but a smaller part of the challenge.

Personally, I have some experience with regard to HIV prevention, care, support and treatment issues. Though not as engaged with these issues as in the past, I still receive several requests for help around accessing HIV testing and treatment. But in equal measures these cries for help are about actual or anticipated mistreatment by health care providers and family members, or stigma and discrimination at the workplace. So often the key to the solution lies not as much in the medicines or medical procedures but in human attitudes and behaviours, including their reflection in government policies! The latest pandemic has driven home this reality in far greater measure than the past ones – especially in the way the lockdown was announced and implemented.

Quote: Sadly, in terms of containing the pandemic itself, the lockdown in India has become part of the problem. It has reflected the same old malaise of class bias, neglect and thoughtlessness that went into or still does in dealing with HIV, cholera, malaria, dengue . . . The main point is that the lockdown has become a human rights crisis. As in any other human rights challenge, this requires citizen consciousness and awareness of one’s rights. It also calls for citizen action and involvement to mitigate the crisis and demand better actions and accountability from the State, other stakeholders that have power, and also from each other.

It may be that our governments, health systems, media and civil society organizations have done better this time than in previous large scale health emergencies in terms of generating awareness about the pathogen, its transmission, prevention and treatment. As in the case of the HIV epidemic, there may have been instances of public bias and vigilantism around coronavirus. For instance, in more than one district in West Bengal, trans and gay persons have been ‘declared’ coronavirus positive by their neighbours simply on grounds of suspicion about their travel history or deep-seated prejudices against their sexual orientation, gender identity or gender expression.

Yet, thankfully we have not seen large scale panic around coronavirus, or the kind of social ostracism that people infected with or affected by HIV experienced, especially in the first two decades of the epidemic in India. Even on dating apps, there is an option to mention one’s HIV status but not the coronavirus status, at least not so far.

Perhaps the high survival rate of people infected with coronavirus is behind the absence of panic (though HIV too is not as fatal as it once was thanks to availability of effective treatment). It could also be that the panic is somewhat contained because people infected with coronavirus can be ‘sent away’ to a quarantine facility, a ‘psychologically safe distance’ so to speak.

Sadly, in terms of containing the pandemic itself, the lockdown in India has become part of the problem. It has reflected the same old malaise of class bias, neglect and thoughtlessness that went into or still does in dealing with HIV, cholera, malaria, dengue . . . A description of the innumerable crises faced by migrant workers across the country need not be repeated here.

The main point is that the lockdown has become a human rights crisis. As in any other human rights challenge, this requires citizen consciousness and awareness of one’s rights. It also calls for citizen action and involvement to mitigate the crisis and demand better actions and accountability from the State, other stakeholders that have power, and also from each other.

For Varta Trust as an agency engaged with the concerns of communities marginalized on the grounds of gender and sexuality, the coronavirus crisis has meant strengthening its provision of legal aid for trans and other queer communities. It has also meant starting the third pilot of our community reporters training and citizen journalism programme.

A workshop in mid-March in Kolkata on using citizen journalism as a tool to develop legal aid strategies for queer people led to the participants taking up citizen journalism on the coronavirus pandemic as well! The first output from this venture was a podcast-based round-up of how queer groups and their allies were responding to the pandemic – read story here. This story in turn led to a few micro successes in terms of fundraising for people affected by the lockdown.

The next step has been a larger citizen journalism programme not just to assess and document the challenges faced by queer people and other vulnerable groups, but also to disseminate the documentation through reports published in Varta and deploy them in raising resources for immediate survival and long-term sustenance. Visit this link for the reports published under the Coronavirus Diary column. It is early days yet, but these stories are beginning to help raise invaluable resources from the general public for those affected by both the pandemic and the Amphan super cyclone.

Varta’s citizen journalism initiative is both about skills building and citizen action. We seek your support as well in amplifying the efforts of our current team of citizen journalists Bana, Chandan Kumar Nayak and Pradosh Dash from Bhubaneswar, Joyita Mondal from Islampur, Sudipa Chakraborty from Kolkata, Sukanta Banerjee from Bally and Shivalal Gautam from Guwahati. Please share their stories on social media and help spread the word.

Main graphic credit: Ranjay Sarkar – pencil sketch on paper (based on a photograph by Pawan Dhall)