The state of Manipur has been one of the model states in preparation, prevention, and protection against the pandemic COVID-19 that has now swept across the ‘isolated’ region of the northeast. However, cases are increasing every day and fear of community transmission looms larger than our preparedness.
We cannot stop the virus but the spike in cases could have been better handled as the state has one of the best medical facilities, infrastructures and human resources in health in the region.
There are cases of people knowing their COVID positive status only after being discharged from the institutional quarantine centres (IQC). There are also stories of returnees who have completed the mandatory 14 days of quarantine protesting and demanding that they will leave the IQC only after getting their test results.
It is both tragic and ironic that it is the citizens demanding the test results instead of the state making it mandatory.
Instead, the state is shifting and decentralizing its roles and responsibilities that are critical in controlling the spread of the virus to the communities and villages when we know that the fund allocation, health infrastructure and every other facilities and services in the state are deeply skewed and centralized.
There are photo evidences of returnees transported from IQCs to villages in Shaktiman trucks in Ukhrul, dead body being ferried through the river in Tamenglong that speaks of the conditions of remote villages with difficult terrain subjected to years of underdevelopment.
Despite these denials and dispossessions for decades, the communities have been at the forefront in combating the pandemic.
In fact, even before the government roped in communities in COVID-19 crisis management, civil societies, churches, and villages have organized themselves into COVID management teams and volunteers; spreading awareness and enforcing safety protocols and now shoulders the responsibilities of managing and running the quarantine centres across the state.
Despite these efforts, the support system built around this crisis management is overwhelmed and already collapsing and it tells us of a deeper malaise which has been festering like an untreated wound. The virus is opening those wounds of chronic underdevelopment in the hill districts and the apathy of the state government, no matter which party comes to power. This spans across all the important sectors, be it health or education or roads and communication.
If we are to diagnose the reasons for the years of political turmoil in the state, we know that most of it stems from this unequal distribution of resources and power and deliberate exclusion from economic and political processes. Today, the virus is exposing these inequalities yet again. Any voice or attempt to correct the wrong is quickly dismissed in the form of strong and often violent hostility. A case in point is the delimitation process that offers the chance to rectify these inequalities and unfairness; is being stalled, challenged, and strongly opposed.
It brings to public consciousness once again; the deep divide that exists between the tribes and non-tribes, the hills and the valley despite the wedge within tribes. We must recognize that the flaw in power-sharing of 40:20 in the state assembly where all political decisions to govern are taken, perpetuates this inequality. This cannot go on forever.
The virus will stay and we will have to continue dealing with the emergencies till we have the vaccines or the cure but surely we can address these man-made inequalities.
Let us harness this health and economic crisis and use these unprecedented times to build equal rights and opportunities. The virus reminds us that there is no choice but to unchain and empower the disadvantaged and grow together.
Tungshang Ningreichon is from Ukhrul and lives in Delhi.