Is the Internet Making Us Meek and Callous?


Is the Internet Making Us Meek and Callous?

Illustration: Robin Chakraborty

Yesterday, I asked a rather simple yet slightly provocative question to some people around me who were advocating a continued strict lockdown: Would your opinion remain the same if you didn’t have access to the Internet? There was some hawing and huffing, but by and large the consensus was that Internet connectivity was the primary reason why people – people like us, that is – have been able to deal with the lockdown without getting wholly overwhelmed by it.

It has allowed the children of the privileged to avail of online classes carried on by some tech-enabled schools. It has allowed people to get their daily or hourly dose of entertainment on their video-on-demand services, be it Amazon or Netflix or YouTube or MX. It has allowed – thanks to e-commerce – people to lead a rather “comfortable” lockdown existence with all the essentials intact. More importantly, it has given us the comfort of constant data.

Would your opinion remain the same if you didn’t have access to the Internet?

But imagine if the Internet was not as omnipresent. Or that connectivity was not as good as in the 4G era. Would we have been as comfortable? Isolated, uninformed, un-entertained, and unserved by Big Basket, would we have been so unquestioning about the validity of this enforced lockdown? I heard today about village called Bagaha, about 250 kms from Gorakhpur where a young, desperate mill owner, tired of waiting for his workers, started working his own machines when his kadha got entangled, pulling his right arm into the gears. I don’t know what drove him to attempt to operate heavy machinery, but I can easily imagine. Would we, like him, have not been tempted to push ourselves or break rules if we have to, in search of goods, services, or cash even at great harm to ourselves?

In many ways, the Internet has shaped the current pro-lockdown narrative, as much as governments and doomsday angels who look at data from other nations and apply precautionary long-term clampdowns without context. “Look what happened in Italy and US” is the common refrain. Many use the example of a lockdown as the reason why India has relatively less than 50 cases per million of Covid-19 as against a huge multiple of that number in Italy or US. But few question the fact that even with a lockdown in place, ICMR projections gave us only around 50 days extra to face the peak rate of infection. According to this leading panel of medical experts, daily infections without a lockdown would peak in about 100-150 days and with the lockdown the peak would 150-200 days! There was never any question of us not reaching peak infection.

We who are advocating the lockdown are envisioning a contact-less, work from home, Internet-fueled economy to be our future.

Now over a month into lockdown, our headstart is all used up. We can only hope that it’s been used well to prepare for the fight that lies ahead. It seems evident now that Covid-19 is here to stay, but instead of focusing on how exactly we navigate as close to normal a life in the midst of this disease and develop a playbook for this new world, we’re focused on perpetuating one of the strictest and most crippling lockdowns any country has seen. We want to believe desperately that if we put our head in the sand long enough the virus will pass like some inclement weather.

Because, we can afford to. We have our Wi-Fi’d home bubbles and life, although dull, is not so bad. But do we really understand the impact of this unthinking advocacy on the poor? Do we even realise that most of the migrants who started walking back home weeks ago, and who we forgot as we tuned into season 3 of Ozark, are still walking? “Minimise democracy, maximise interfaith distance, maintain aloofness from poor — may be the new normal,” says an Indian Express editorial. “Equally disturbingly, the lockdown has ensured that the class-chasm would become more real, more sharp and yet politically infructuous. The overwhelming support that the lockdown has received among India’s middle classes is noteworthy not just because of the gullibility of that class but also because of its complete lack of social connection to anything beyond itself.”

We have our Wi-Fi’d home bubbles and life, although dull, is not so bad.

So instead of ratting on neighbours taking a walk, advocates of continued strict lockdowns should reassess their humanity a bit by envisaging themselves in the situation of that dal mill owner who was probably driven to desperation because the economic cost of not doing it felt far greater than losing his right hand. Or his missing workers, millions of whom are holed up with fellow villagers who work as construction labourers or security guards or delivery boys, in 10X10 foot rooms used in rotation in three shifts. Envisage an average of 15 men to a room, taking turns to sleep on a hot summer, on rationed electricity, without a toilet. The hours tend to hang hot and heavy, weighed down further by fears of a virus too complicated to understand and a future too bleak to comprehend.

In a country where the common man lives an uncommonly hard life, we who are advocating the lockdown are envisioning a contact-less, work from home, Internet-fueled economy to be our future. This idea is as bizarre as Marie Antoinette suggesting the poor should eat cake if they didn’t have bread, but we don’t see it. Around us are millions like us, living in this echo chamber, while the urban migrant and poor don’t even have a voice. They have been missed out of this entire narrative primarily because they do not have access to the shouting rooms of social media where the “modern” Indian narrative of being a global leader in aggressive lockdowns is being shaped. Governments have a thing about hearing the people, but unfortunately, it is this cacophony of the relatively privileged that keeps getting heard. Loud cheering on the Internet is almost akin to checking the pulse of the people and the people seem to be doing just fine. After all, they’ve got the Internet.