The virus doesn’t but the powerful do

LOUD and angry, the child’s voice reverberates along the Dhanmondi streets. Unlike the other cries, this one quickly recedes before I can turn on my audio recorder. The incessant pneumatic horns, the screeching of brakes, the dust spewing up from potholed worn tarmac that bedraggled buses bump their way through have gone. With factories and offices closed, load sheddings have also gone down, though the transformer blowing up as the kal boishakhi storm hit, did lead to a power outage. Above the cawing of a crow that has built its nest close to our verandah, we can hear other birds sing. Sounds interspersed with calls of small time vendors, trading what they can, selling what they can. While they can. Despite the other sounds, the child’s cry keeps echoing in my mind.

Hungry woman walking the streets of Dhanmondi, in search of food 280039Running down the street as she cries for food, Dhanmondi. — Shahidul Alam/Drik/Majority World

In March, I’d written that famine was over the horizon due to the COVID-19 lockdown, but I hadn’t expected it to rush headlong at such great speed. When our rikshaw pedalled down empty Dhanmondi streets to the few shops that were still open, I couldn’t help seeing the rising number of people sitting on the footpath. It was the first visible sign of famine. Blank faces, looking straight ahead. Expressions stoic. The unmistakable stamp of hunger etched in their eyes. These are not people used to begging. They are there because they have no choice. At the wrong end of the capitalist food chain, these are the people the state considers ‘expendable’. Stripped of their dignity, they wait for our largesse.

‘Possibly over a million people died in the 1974 famine in Bangladesh from July 1974 to January 1975’ said John Pilger in his documentary ‘An Unfashionable Tragedy’. It had been a man-made famine, as most famines are. Like most famines, it too could have been avoided. The sound of hungry people in the streets, the news of looting of food trucks and at distribution queues, the look on people’s faces, tells me that the horizon is near.

Yes, COVID-19 hits everyone, but for those who live day-to-day, lockdown equates to hunger. A gnawing hunger that engulfs you from the inside. Once that meaning is understood, perhaps the ease with which lockdown is uttered and the responsibility for its implementation cannot be taken so lightly. `Home’ lockdown assumes one has a home, and food and ways to stay connected. Samageet’s recently-released song ‘Chhuye Dibo, Chhuye Dibo’ powerfully mocks the ill thought out lockdown diktat.

I’ve been recording the cries. Throughout the day and well into the night, we hear them from our kitchen, people in the streets, crying out for food. ‘Amma (mother), khalamma (aunt), haven’t eaten for four days. Give me some rice.’ Voices of women, men, children. The sounds break the silence of the quiet streets. ‘Amma, khalamma, haven’t eaten for four days,’ The cries fade slowly. In the secure apartment blocks we now live in, people from ‘outside’ are a threat. People are not sure how to help. A few find ways to give food through the locked gates.

Advised by Drik’s electrician Nannu and our driver Joshim and sympathetic shopkeepers, Rahnuma and I started off by distributing bags with rice, lentils, potatoes, onions, cooking oil and soap, a month’s ration to each recipient. The inequalities we live within, cannot be solved by such stop gap methods alone, and we quickly discovered how inadequate our attempts were. We deliberately left at 6:30 the next morning, hoping things would be more manageable in the early hours. Nannu had arrived even earlier and, looking at the empty streets, had thought we’d find no one. Spotting a man in a wheel chair a few hundred metres down the road, he stepped out to hand over a bag. Others quickly gathered, and we stopped on the other side of Dhanmondi bridge on Road 8, to give out a few more bags. It worked for a while but people kept coming, seemingly from nowhere and soon we were out of our depths and had to leave.

We later turned to friends who knew better. Like long-time political activist Zonayed Saki. Like Taslima Akhter who has been working with garment workers for years. Advocate Hasnat Quaiyum and his team, providing cooked food for thousands all across the country, even running online workshops on volunteering. Other friends working with Biharis at the Geneva camp. Some with indigenous people in the Chittagong Hill Tracts, while others, with sex workers and hijras.

When we were youngsters, we would go door to door after a disaster and collect food, money, old clothes and go out to distribute them ourselves. Now we leave it to professional organisations, and charities. It is time to return to community values. Those aiding us in our efforts include relatives and friends here, and children of friends afar, also, a mother of three, who works long shifts, and has a child with autism. They have found creative ways to get small sums across avoiding the exorbitant bank transfer charges.

Despite looming famine, some spot opportunity. True to form, a section of ruling party affiliates stole rice. Others supplied fake masks. Expensive testing kits were imported illegally. All bought by taxpayers’ money. Some even saw it as a photo op, crowding around a bag of rice, or by a farmer in a rice field.

Hearing the cries outside, we wanted to give out the food bags kept aside for later distribution, directly from home – but decided against it. The CCTVs and uniformed guards protecting our tall buildings are designed to keep out the poor. Welcoming them in times of need or at any time at all (except as household help and cleaners), and nurturing a community spirit that does not discriminate, has been architectured out of our urban middle-class planning. I see no gruel kitchen at Abahani Club grounds. No local mosque feeding the poor.

What we’ve collectively been able to do, will make little difference to those who grow our food, earn our nation’s wealth and build the citadels we live in. The stolen rice, the hijacked elections, the share market scams and the corporate profiteering, in village malls and in distant boardrooms, are the less covered stories. The perpetrators, often powerful themselves, are shielded by others in power. The ‘stimulus packages’ hardly reach the crying child. They say the virus does not discriminate. The powerful do.

First published in The New Age

Author: Shahidul Alam

Time Magazine Person of the Year 2018. A photographer, writer, curator and activist, Shahidul Alam obtained a PhD in chemistry before switching to photography. His seminal work “The Struggle for Democracy” contributed to the removal of General Ershad. Former president of the Bangladesh Photographic Society, Alam set up the Drik agency, Chobi Mela festival and Pathshala, South Asian Media Institute, considered one of the finest schools of photography in the world. Shown in MOMA New York, Centre Georges Pompidou, Royal Albert Hall and Tate Modern, Alam has been guest curator of Whitechapel Gallery, Winterthur Gallery and Musee de Quai Branly. His awards include Mother Jones, Shilpakala Award and Lifetime Achievement Award at the Dali International Festival of Photography. Speaker at Harvard, Stanford, UCLA, Oxford and Cambridge universities, TEDx, POPTech and National Geographic, Alam chaired the international jury of the prestigious World Press Photo contest. Honorary Fellow of Royal Photographic Society, Alam is visiting professor of Sunderland University in UK and advisory board member of National Geographic Society. John Morris, the former picture editor of Life Magazine describes his book “My journey as a witness”, (listed in “Best Photo Books of 2011” by American Photo), as “The most important book ever written by a photographer.”

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