COVID-19 | “Stay safe” conversations that illuminate the glass walls between her and me by Mausumi Chetia

Disasters are lived in different ways by different classes of people. During the COVID-19 pandemic, the differential impacts of disasters lie in the blurred spaces between populations fortunate enough to focus on ‘productivity-during-lockdown-times’ and others who focus on ‘providing-food-for-their-children-and-having-a-home-during-lockdown-times’. For generationally disaster-prone or disaster-torn populations of India, this global pandemic is only widening the class gaps that have characterized local realities for the Indian society for centuries.


My husband and I recently witnessed thousands of daily-wage workers and families marching towards a bus terminal near our home in Delhi. From there, they would take buses to their hometowns. Many were travelling on foot, too, trying to make their way to their homes hundreds of miles away from Delhi after the entire country was placed under lockdown from 25 March. This involuntary exodus of workers from India’s many cities that has continued despite fatal consequences is an oxymoronic act that seems to oppose the social distancing measures prescribed by the WHO and related suggestions from developed nations. It is not that these workers are unwilling to keep safe—it is simply that a substantial part of India’s population, including these workers, cannot afford to do so, as has been emphasized repeatedly.

My current research looks at the everyday lives of families facing protracted displacement due to the disaster of riverbank erosion along Brahmaputra River in Assam, a state in India. The families I engage with for my research source their income from daily wages. As economic activity suddenly ceased in March, the small stream of income stopped. Consequently, many of the workers were not able to travel back to their families, as they usually would when on leave or a break period. Many male members of these families are currently trapped in the towns within Assam where they work. They were unable to travel to their homes, many miles away, not only because of the physical cost of walking or taking a bus home, but for a different set of reasons as well.

Conversations on care and health that are classes apart

Pic 11
Rita and her friends after collecting firewood for cooking from a neighbouring paddy field. February 2020

A few days after the Delhi exodus, calls from concerned families I work with increased significantly. “You should have just stayed back here with us,” Rita Saikia, a regular caller, often quips. “Come back to the village whenever you can.” Megacities like Delhi have much higher infection rates than rural places, as many of the rural inhabitants I work with recognize.

Besides the exchange of well-intended thoughts and mutual worries, these telephonic conversations are constant reminders of the class differences in the everyday lives of people that surround us, beginning with those of the researched and the researcher. Ironically, despite my power position over the families I work with for my research, they offered me what they thought I did not have in Delhi: a sense of safety they felt in the countryside. Here, thus, they were able to close the distance between the researcher and the researched. Nevertheless, the challenges that these families are facing are colossal in comparison to those I am facing, such as not being able to travel to my university in Europe or being anxious about my inability to work on my dissertation as effectively as I would have liked to from home.

Rita[1] is from one of my host families in one of the villages where I spent time conducting research. With no other choice, she has been managing the household and two children all by herself this entire period. Ajeet, her husband, is a construction worker surviving off daily wages. He is currently stuck at one of his work sites, around 100 kilometers away from his family village. For now, the family is surviving from its meagre savings. Rice has been provided by the children’s school and another one-time ration (of rice) provided by the local government. Quietly hiding away from the eyes of authorities, Rita, along with other women from her village, regularly goes to collect firewood behind their village in the dry paddy field. Refilling the cooking gas cylinder from their savings is a luxury they cannot afford right now.

Ajeet had left the family’s only mobile phone at home, so he calls his family once every three days from his co-worker’s phone. Last night, their younger child of four cried himself to sleep because his father’s call was disconnected before the child could speak to him. The mobile credit had probably run out. The older child of six years smiled and casually said to me, “you know pehi[2], Deuta[3] will not come home now even if the virus dies, but only later. He needs to bring the money home.” This understanding of the daily realities and hardships, and the acceptance of the hardships of life, contrasts sharply with how more privileged people experience the coronavirus pandemic, like any other disaster.

Amidst all of this, the annual season of extreme winds in Assam has begun. Homes of three of the research families have been battered by these winds. The families plan to complete the rebuilding process once the lockdown is relaxed, unable to do so during the lockdown. In addition, come June, the monsoon will make its appearance, inviting the annual visit of the floods, erosion of the banks of Assam’s rivers, landslides and associated socio-economic insecurities that are now compounded by those the lockdown has brought about. A slowing economy post-pandemic and consequential decrease in sources of income, along with exposure to the said disasters, will significantly push these already displaced families further to the brink of poverty.

Living through the intersections of inequalities

Poverty is both a driver and a consequence of disasters[4]. The year 2020 could become one of the most barefaced examples of this. Many socio-economically and politically insecure populations elsewhere in India and in the neighbouring countries of Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, the Philippines, and Indonesia etc. are also disaster-prone or -torn. Once the world gets back on its feet post-COVID-19, these populations are set to face increasing human insecurities in their everyday lives arising due to the pandemic and its after-effects, like the families in Assam.

A society’s many aspects are unclothed in the aftermath of a disaster[5], which continues to reinforce social inequalities[6]. Disasters, therefore, including the current pandemic, hardly manage to break the walls of class structures – political, economic, social, and so forth. If anything, they increase the height and depth of these walls – between societies within a nation, between different nations, and, most definitely, between the researcher and the researched.

Pic 1
The Brahmaputra River at the backyard of one of the families’ home (from the research). January 2020

[1] All names of research participants have been changed
[2] Assamese word for paternal aunt
[3] Assamese word for father
[4] https://www.preventionweb.net/risk/poverty-inequality
[5] Oliver-Smith, Anthony, and Susanna M. Hoffman, eds. The angry earth: disaster in anthropological perspective. Routledge, 2019.
[6] Reid, Megan. “Disasters and social inequalities.” Sociology Compass 7.11 (2013): 984-997.

This article is part of a series about the coronavirus crisis. Find more articles of this series here.


Mausumi ChetiaAbout the author:

Mausumi Chetia is a PhD Researcher at the ISS. Her research looks at the everyday lives of disaster-displaced people in Assam, a northeastern state of India.

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