Essentials: to be or not to be?

We all know how it went: first the Janta Curfew, then the 21 days national lockdown and, of course, the marathon run to any shop that was open and buy anything and everything that was available. If one shop did not have it all or did not have enough, we had the relay run to other shops! Run, run, run we did (well most of us did) as we were not sure whether all the shops will be open for the coming few weeks. While many did panic buying, others had panic attacks when they saw empty aisles, one after the other. As the government continued to reassure people that essential services will be there even during the lockdown, we nevertheless continued running. It appears that many of us did not trust the government enough and decided to carry on with our survival of the fittest action-moves at many shops and services. Essentially, most of us did not know what essential services are and essentially, most things in our eyes were essential!

In the wake of the lockdown, recently the Ministry of Home Affairs issued a consolidated guideline on the measures to be taken by Ministries/ Departments of Government of India, State/Union Territory Governments and State/ Union Territory Authorities.  The guideline has a list about the services, establishments and offices that are exempted from being non-functional during this lockdown. It does bring some clarity, however, it also leaves many things to the public to wonder whether X is essential or Y is not essential. One must also note down that this guideline underwent modifications on two different dates, within a span of 4 days since its first notification on 24 March 2020. 

At Hidden Pockets, we have been left in a quandary, as many of our clients continue to reach out to us through our Careline services amidst the lockdown and we have little options to help them out because many listed services are in fact non-functional at the ground level. It is a major setback to the sexual and reproductive health and rights (SRHR) of an individual. Even if one were to rationalize that during pandemics such rights can be suspended in light of the larger and pressing issues like making sure food and provisions reach out to the people, one cannot help wonder in bemusement at the skyrocketing sales of condoms during the same pandemic times. Looks like people, after all, take their SRHR very seriously even if establishments and service providers are playing coy to ensure SRHR matters need not be upheld during a pandemic. However, not all preventive or even curative measures are within the ambit of an individual, and hence the government need to make sure that services in health systems pertaining to SRHR too continue to be fully functional and shall not be sidelined citing the gravity of the pandemic. 

In the immediate days of the lockdown, there was a shortage of sanitary napkins as there was no clarity whether it is an essential commodity or not and the supply chains in turn thus got affected. Even though the Telangana and Karnataka governments had already listed sanitary napkins and many other basic hygiene products as essential goods, it took a few more days for the Central Government to issue a notice stating that sanitary napkins are also essential goods and it is this notice which is reflected in the recently modified guideline. One cannot help observe wryly that, after all the big hoo haa in news and social media around the movie Padman and its “deserved” win of the National Film Award for Best Film on Other Social Issues, it was, in fact, a virus that made government acknowledge that sanitary napkin is indeed essential! A big round of applause for Corona please and some reloaded break-the taboo social media challenge endorsed by celebrities with hashtag #wowessentialpads #dinknow #whatwasithinking ! 

As the ambiguities continue to remain about many other goods and services being essential or not, it is interesting to note that different countries have responded differently about what should go in the goody bag of essentials. States within countries too diverge about what are essential goods and services. It seems guns and viruses can get along well in many states of the United States of America. According to a memo from the U.S. Department of Homeland, the security employees of gun stores and gun manufacturers are to be seen as “essential” workers. Although the memo is advisory in nature and not a federal directive or standard, the message is loud and clear that the gun industry can be considered essential in the United States and shall not bite the bullet even during a pandemic. Shoot down the virus perhaps with all the guns? Anything is possible in the Trump land after all!

The liquor store is another “of course we need it! / what? Absolutely not in these health emergency time!” issue that is debated in many circles. Even as most countries have imposed a strict liquor ban, some states within countries have permitted the sale of alcohol. The state of Ontario in Canada has liquor stores as an essential service and explains the necessity too to have it as an essential service. The Indian state of Kerala, which has the highest per capita liquor consumption in the country, had no liquor ban even amidst the pandemic until recently. And now it has emerged that the suicide rate is increasing in Kerala due to alcohol withdrawal symptoms. The state government is approaching the issue with an order that alcohol can be prescribed by doctors for those who have withdrawal symptoms. The medical bodies have however opposed the order stating that it is unscientific and other measures such as de-addiction centres should be considered for addressing the problem. 

Essentially, the list varies from state to state and countries to countries. We still continue to see empty aisles in grocery stores, we still continue to see tonnes of tomatoes & fish destroyed by exasperated farmers and fishing communities, we still continue to see trucks with supplies stopped at many state borders, we still continue to see people walking triumphantly from shady corners of the streets with newspaper-wrapped parcels in their hands and well, now we have started to see hoards of migrants walking hundreds of kilometres under the April sun, for days and days, without food and water, just to wrap themselves in the safety of their home towns. Makes one want to think what is essential and for whom, and what is the government doing about it all. But of course, before all that, must get out soon and do the marathon run to buy oil-wicks-diyas to light up for the Sunday night 9 PM show! Hope that won’t go out of stock soon!

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