More than champions

The date was not as dramatic as a writer would have liked it to be. Nevertheless, for dramatic effect, it was (almost) on the Ides of May.

Having finished fourth under manager Jurgen Klopp and a chance to compete in the Champions League- the Mecca of European footballing glory -as a Liverpool fan thousands of miles from the city of the football club I have loved and supported since I was 14, I was hopeful that glory beckoned us; that next season we will begin a serious mount to challenge the trophy that had eluded us for 29 years and what Manchester City’s owners had been able to crudely claim in a handful of years.

With money pumping in into the English Premier League, the amounts of which had never been witnessed before, the top prize in the English game was no longer holy but it was still the grail to aim for.

On the 12th of May 2019, on a visit to a once-familiar city- New Delhi -at a friend’s home, I wept like a little child when Manchester City slotted in one goal after another to secure 98 points- one more than Liverpool -to lift the trophy once more.

I was, in one hyphenated word, heart-broken.

The club had come so close to claim its first Premier League and domestic top-flight championship after almost 30 years that you could almost smell it, touch it, see it.

But it was not to be.

The 2017-18 season was one that was a footballing master class demonstrated by two teams of world-class players who were perhaps only bested by their own managers.

Having had success in the top European leagues, I will run out of pages singing praises of Pep Guardiola and his managerial acumen. He is, as the English say, a top, top manager.

Claiming not just the league title for two consecutive years in style by breaking points records, the Spaniard is bound to go down in history as one of the best.

Because we are judged against those whom we compete against, a certain German in the form of Jurgen Klopp is not far behind.

Since the time that Klopp took over the managerial reins of the Red part of Merseyside, confidence in him amongst supporters has grown exponentially, far and wide.

After clinching the Champions League trophy last season, the Premier League seemed like a foregone conclusion. And I say this despite of hearing the repeated clichés of “if Liverpool don’t win it this year, they won’t for a long time”.

I heard it in the 2014 title chase when Mr Liverpool, Captain Fantastic, Steven Gerrard himself slipped in the game against Chelsea, effectively handing over the trophy to Manchester City that season.

In fact, I heard the all-too-familiar line again last season when after just one defeat we still did not manage to lift the domestic trophy as City went on to claim another.

Yet, here we are.

As a journalist, I must admit that I’ve repeatedly made and read the clichéd headlines in my head:  A STORY THREE DECADES IN THE MAKING; 30 YEARS A WAIT; etc.

Perhaps some part of me almost wanted things to be this way; that a headline saying a 29-year wait comes to an end doesn’t sound as good as a three decades’ one.

One of the first rules of journalism is to ensure that you never write the headline first because if you do, your story will take the narrative accordingly.

For once, I had to disagree.

This past year in the English Premier League, the script and the headline began writing itself three months in.

When Klopp came in, he said that it was his plan to change Liverpool supporters into believers. Three years into his five years, that belief was only grew from strength to strength, victory after victory.

One could write pages and pages waxing eloquence about the tactical mastermind of the manager or the mad resolve of the players on the pitch wearing that red jersey as was evident in the second leg of the Champions League semi-final against Barcelona.

This is not about that; it is not about stating the obvious; that the Liverpool squad has reached the heights of greatness is for everyone to see. No one can take it away from them and they deserve every bit of the praise that comes their way.

This is not even about singing praises about my personal love affair with the club or finding an excuse to put myself on a pedestal of fandom (that’s already been done here).

In a strange year where a pandemic has made everything around us feel surreal, it is about finding the joys of life in the smallest of things we do. It is about digging deep and finding inspiration when it seems like there is none to be found.

This is about understanding that life is fragile and that we must take the pleasures of life as and when they come in whatever small measure- like Manchester United fans gloating about their points tally after the restart of the league.

With the Community Shield officially marking the start of the new football season, it is a time of reflection of the months lost this year, and the days that remain. Covid has taught us that while we must remain in isolation and socially distant from one another, to fight the good fight we must stand together; that as human beings, You’ll Never Walk Alone.

Drinking during lockdown

It was around 9.30 pm when the phone call came.

“Dodum sir, police ka danda khake leke aya hain saman ko hum (I was thrashed by the cops but I got the stuff),” the voice on the other end of the line in his Assamese-accented Arunachali Hindi said. I knew instantly who it was (mostly because his number was saved on my phone), and what it was that he had brought (only because it could not be anything else).

By any standards a phone call from your local liquor guy, let us call him ‘Tom’, post-nine pm hardly seems like an urgent one. In a town with just about one lakh people in a state in India’s north-eastern corner during a COVID-induced national lockdown, it feels a tad unnecessary.

Yet, here I am, 11 minutes past three in the morning writing about that very phone call with a shot of what is clearly a knocked down version of a more famous coconut-flavoured rum.

Since the national lockdown began, which now seems like two decades ago, a slow realisation of the things we really need has begun to sink in.

Slowly, we’ve realised that we can live without that pair of Adidas Originals sneakers that a few months back we thought we just ‘had to have’, or that a two-year-old Chinese-branded phone with a 2,000-megapixel phone can take similarly high-resolution photos that the iPhone 48 can and be bought at one-fourth of its price.

And so far, in all honesty, alcohol has not been much of a casualty in Arunachal Pradesh.

When the lockdown was announced to begin on March 25, few paid heed or even cared about how long it would last. Groceries aside, most of us in the state knew that our tippling needs will be taken good care of, and so far it has.

Yes, liquor stores have officially been closed for a month now but who in the state can honestly say that they have been deprived of their need for alcohol. Liquor stores continue to operate, handing out booze to those patiently stalking the side entrance of their stores and signal to their ‘man’ to sneakily sneak out that bottle of whisky or the now over-priced beer cans.

It’s all happening, and we all know it.

‘Tom’ knows it; the driver of that government-issued Toyota Fortuner whom I saw less than a week back buying a large consignment of alcohol for his boss knows it. Who are we kidding?

Around two weeks back at a press conference, I asked our chief secretary if alcohol stores will be allowed to sell their wares.

Not wanting to seem frivolous, I carefully said that this may seem like a trivial question but it was one I wanted to ask.

His response was one that seemed wholly reasonable as he said that it was not a trivial question since the state government does earn a lot of revenue from it.

And he is right.

Arunachal Pradesh has one of the highest documented per capita spending on alcohol across the country. Two years back, the state government earned close to Rs 1,600 crore in revenue from alcohol sales alone. So don’t tell me it’s a matter of less importance.

Until I received that phone call from ‘Tom’, I hadn’t given much thought to how his business will handle the lockdown. By all accounts, I had been told that the liquor warehouses and those with licensed bonds to sell alcohol had enough stock to keep the state’s citizens tipsy for two months at the least.

But with ‘people’s movement’ restricted, it was not going to be an easy task to keep the business flowing, so to speak. That realisation hit me more recently when Tom told me that he’d have to sell cans of beer to me, one of his (I am assuming) favourite patrons, over and above the MRP.

It’s at that moment when it hit me that the lockdown, while necessary, will affect us in ways that we in smaller towns and areas have not even begun to fathom.

Pro-prohibition activists will probably rejoice at the fact that selling alcohol has become more difficult than ever now. They have a reason to celebrate, and in some cases, rightly so. Perhaps they lost someone dear to them to alcohol abuse (meaning someone who would get withdrawal symptoms when not drinking or someone would wake up and rinse their mouth with brandy instead of waiting till the sun sets). Those people have a right to promote anti-alcohol advocacy.

But since the law, in normal times, does not prohibit the sale of alcohol, how do people who have solely sold it for 15 years cope with a sudden ban?

Anti-alcohol activists often argue that those selling alcohol can easily move their trade to some other business. Perhaps they could but does something of that nature happen overnight?

Do you ask someone in the hydropower sector to suddenly shift to the cotton industry? Bad example. Let me try to be more ‘local’.

Say there’s this aunty next door who has been married to this good-for-nothing-constantly-playing-rummy-or-carrom husband for the past 20 years. The only way that she has been able to earn enough money to provide her children with formal education has been through twice a month trips to Dimapur, loading up five-XL black airbags of gaudy clothes and shoes to be sold at villages and small towns, and making the night-super bus ride a living hell for her co-passengers.

Are you going to tell her to till the farm, earn the same amount of money by selling cabbages and local patta as she did selling those god-awful clothes?

No, you’ll give her time; perhaps train her in some other vocation so she can settle into a new trade. In the meantime, what about those clothes manufacturers, the shipping people who bring those clothes in, the wholesalers who paid for those clothes?

It’s easy to make a judgement or even make a judgement call by subtracting the collateral impact of things.

Unfortunately, events in this global economy do not take place in isolation.

As another set of examples, what happens to those in the gig economy where freelance work and short-term contracts is the norm? How are those who are dependent on events in times of social distancing supposed to take care of themselves and their families since it is considered non-essential?

Travel is not necessarily considered ‘essential’ (although I would disagree) and is probably not advisable at this juncture. Even if the scenario does improve in the near future, will it still be advisable to travel? What happens to the tourism sector and places dependent on it to run its local economy?

To ensure that the pandemic and the resultant lockdown do not bring about unforeseen damages, governments around the world will have to ultimately provide economic stimulus packages for sectors considered non-essential.

And in an era of WhatsApp forwards, Twitter re-tweets, and Facebook shares that reach a massive audience, will journalism still be considered a non-essential service? I am not sure. But till the time Tom keeps my ethanol needs satiated, I will keep writing.

‘Meating’ people’s cravings during Covid

As India entered the 21-day period of lockdown to curb the spread of Covid19, in Arunachal Pradesh two divergent developments took place.
The nationwide lockdown began on March 25 following the March 22 janata curfew announced by Prime Minister Narendra Modi. But even before the prime minister’s announcement, the states of Nagaland and Mizoram had already decided to extend the curfew. The state government here had announced the continuation of the janata curfew from the evening of March 23 till March 31 which has since been extended.
With shop timings being regulated, the scramble for groceries began as people had a hard time sticking to social distancing measures. While the administration got strict with the implementation of the curfew, online delivery services swooped in to fulfill the shopping needs of residents of Capital Complex.
Doni Riba began his ‘Hungryji’ food delivery service in February of last year, filling in an area that Zomato specializes in. Having gained experience from Hungryji, he started flirting with the idea of a delivery service to cater to the town’s population.
While the development of the idea began in April last year, the Dukandada app was officially launched on March 10, just days before the country entered the lockdown period.
Since then, he and his team have been kept busy.

Doni Riba and his Dukandada team Pic sent by Doni

Doni Riba and his Dukandada team

Even before Dukandada though, 30-year-old Epie Jamoh had launched her online delivery service for Itanagar and its adjoining towns.
In January last year, U Tell Us was officially announced (think small-town Urban Clap). What started with a staff of 17, in one year’s time the company now has 37 employees providing various services including ambulances for hire.
Its CEO, Dhananjay Morang, said that since the lockdown began, they have seen a surge in orders.
“Earlier we used to get around 50 calls a day but now there are around 500 calls coming in daily,” Morang said.
Even though calls have increased, the relatively small staff means that they are able to fulfill only around 200-plus orders on a daily basis.
He said that the endorsement from chief minister Pema Khandu certainly played a role in bringing publicity to online services like U Tell Us and Dukandada.
The overwhelming response from the people meant that Riba had to close orders in the Dukandada app by 2 pm.
“We were getting around 300 orders at first but had to limit the number to ensure we are able to meet the demands,” said Riba.
In smaller towns where panic and rumours spread fast, Riba faced a unique problem when a number of his delivery staff stopped coming in to work.
“We had 15 delivery boys but most of them are not being allowed to leave their homes by their families,” he said.
Riba had to make rapid hirings to continue the service.
And while the businesses are doing well, they’ve had their own share of issues.
The services may have received the chief minister’s endorsement but on the ground, the constant stopping by police at checkpoints is hindering timely delivery.
Riba said that there seems to be a lack of coordination between the administration and the police.
“The police don’t seem to be aware of the administration’s orders regarding the lockdown,” he said, adding that things will get more confusing with the implementation of section 144 of the CrPc starting today.
The U Tell Us’ CEO is even more miffed with the police.
“In our meeting with the administration, we were told to ensure that the staff wears their uniform including the cap with the company logo. Even then the police stop us,” Morang said.
He alleged that recently two of the company’s female staff were stopped and ‘harassed’ by the cops.

Epie Jamoh of U Tell Us Pic from Facebook page

Epie Jamoh, the woman behind U Tell Us

Elsewhere in smaller towns and rural areas of the state, lockdown appears to have been better accepted.
In the Adi tribal areas, local residents began implementing the traditional lockdown system called ‘Pator/Motor’ a day before the national curfew.
In areas where the Galo people live, the villagers implemented the Ali-Ternam prohibiting the entry and exit of people into and from the villages two days after it begins.
In both cases, the lockdown begins with the reading of the liver of chickens- a ritual called haruspicy in Latin that was also practiced in ancient Rome and Greece- by a shaman.
These traditional lockdowns involve barricading villages with bamboo gates and the sacrificing of certain animals.
Ayem Modi, a local youth leader in Lower Dibang Valley district’s Dambuk town, and his friends have been taking turns on sentry duty since March 23.
“We have two teams of five people on roster guarding the gates,” he said.
The ancient pator ritual also involves the sacrificing of an animal- in this case, a dog -which is then hanged at the gates.
The fact that a dead dog was left to hang and rot in public space did not go down well with the district administration and the deputy commissioner had to issue an official order prohibiting it.
That has done little to deter villagers though.
“We don’t do this for celebrations. This ritual is done in times of calamities including epidemics that inflict animals,” Modi explained.
In Kamki village in West Siang district, no dogs were harmed but at least five chickens and one pig was sacrificed to keep the disease at bay.

Kamki Village Pic by Bomdo Kamki

The gate to Kamki village. (Pic by Bomdo Kamki)

Bomdo Kamki from the eponymous village had to cancel his plans to visit Itanagar when the Ali-Ternam was implemented. He is with 300 of his clansmen and women currently under the lockdown.
Both he and Modi said that these are not new to their tribes and that these traditions have been in place for generations. The belief is that the ritual keeps the bad spirits in abeyance and stops it from harming the villagers.
The ‘bad spirit’ in this case is the coronavirus.
As for their ration needs, the villages are better equipped considering that most families grow their own grains and vegetables. Many even keep chicken, pigs, and the bovine mithun which can feed the meaty desires.
“We only need to make sure that the supply of salt does not stop,” Kamki said.

COVID, community and challenges ahead

With the country stepping up efforts to deal with the COVID-19 pandemic, and Prime Minister Narendra Modi calling for a nationwide lockdown, it has become imperative that the ramifications of not practicing self-quarantine is made clear to everyone.

Tuesday marked the first full day of the state-wide partial lockdown that was invoked by the Arunachal Pradesh state government. And while the government had advised the public to exercise caution, those appeals have landed on deaf ears with hordes of people choosing the mostly-empty roads of the capital to go on joy rides.

Most businesses in the capital did stay close but with government offices still officially remaining open, police and security personnel had a difficult time trying to convince people to put on their masks and stay home.

At the naka point at Ganga near the non-functioning clock tower, police had to stop several people (mostly young men and women in two-wheelers) and actually advise them to wear their masks even as all of them apparently had some urgent work somewhere or the other.

IMG_20200324_142539

In fact, in the morning hours, there were actually traffic jams across various places in the Capital Complex as people made a beeline to buy groceries and other commodities despite assurances from the government that they should refrain from hoarding. One source said that a prominent businessman from the capital had bought enough rice and other items to last an entire year.

The question to ask at this time is, are we as a state ready to deal with an invisible adversary?

INFRASTRUCTURAL CHALLENGES

Let’s face it, as far as our health infrastructure goes, the state is simply not equipped to deal with a possible outbreak. Given the fact that there has not been a single positive case reported from the state, we are not even dealing with the issue of containment of an outbreak but rather the reporting of a possibility of an outbreak.

From reports from the ground, at the various check gates, a normal temperature reading is enough to enter the state and go home. Although the state has been placed under a lockdown, i.e. no new ILPs are being issued, students and those who were travelling before the announcement have been allowed to return.

Given the fact that many students studying outside the state have been told to vacate their hostels and rented accommodation, it would be harsh to turn them away too. But given that young students are more likely to have stronger immune systems and be asymptomatic, a simple thermal reading of their temperature does not necessarily mean that they are not carrying the SARS-COV-2 virus that is responsible for the disease.

It is a very real possibility that even those not showing any visible symptoms may very well be carrying the virus. Even if those returning are responsible citizens and exercise self-quarantine, they are putting their family members at risk of being exposed to the virus, especially the elderly who have been found to be most prone to fatalities from the disease.

The ideal course of action in such scenarios will be to put everyone coming back under quarantine in isolation wards/centres and put under observation for 14 to 21 days- the incubation period of the disease.

However, is that a possibility in the real world?

Speaking with doctors and health department officials reveals that the state is definitely not equipped to cater to such demands.

Since screening began, over 21,000 people have entered or returned to the state. It’s a figure that state health machinery is simply not equipped to deal with.

So far, since people have been asked to exercise home-quarantine, isolation centres that have been identified by the state government have no dedicated staff to look after the possible inmates.

We have been fortunate that there have no positive cases yet. But in the case that even one person is tested positive, how will they be treated?

In the wake of this pandemic, a shocking revelation to come out was the fact that the state does not have a single functioning intensive care unit in any of its hospitals.

One senior doctor said that although the Tomo Riba Institute of Health & Medical Sciences does have a unit, it is devoid of any useful equipment.

CONFUSION IN COMMUNITY

One of the key steps that the state government had taken following the Janata Curfew of March 22 was to announce a partial lockdown to curb the unnecessary movement of people.

In a functioning democracy like India’s, invoking a full-on lockdown can never be a real possibility. At the end of the day, we have to rely on common sense. Unfortunately, common sense is a commodity hard to come by.

The morning after the state government issued the notification about the partial lockdown, the expected panic-purchasing began.

Even though it was stated that essential commodities including groceries and fuel will be available, it did little to deter residents from flocking to shops and piling up on a year’s supply of food. By Monday evening, the petrol stations had been exhausted.

IMG_20200324_141618

This happened despite a specific plea from the chief minister to not rush to petrol stations and the fact that people have been advised not to venture out of their homes. Even after being actively told not to go out, people still thought it necessary to fuel up their cars. It is unclear as to where they plan on travelling.

However, it must be pointed out that the government order left things a little ambiguous as well.

While it said that no public transportation will be permitted, the directive on the movement of private vehicles was unclear.

Since security personnel were asked to restrict the movement of private vehicles, they did as they had been told to. And as government offices remained open, it meant that several government employees had to stop and explain that they had to report to work.

The order had only said that commuting to hospitals and entry points would be permitted but was not clear on other vehicular movement.

More clarity on this front is required.

SEEKING SOLUTIONS

In the face of these challenges, it is important that all stakeholders are consulted by the government and all efforts are made to work out steps to ensure the disease does not have an outbreak in the state.

The first step that needs to be taken is for the government to allocate at least two sites in each district for isolation to place all those who are returning to the state, regardless of whether they show symptoms or not.

The samples of the people need to be taken and sent for testing; it’s a task easier said than done though.

For one, there simply aren’t enough kits available in the state to take 21,000 tongue swabs.

Secondly, health workers who are working putting themselves on the line need proper protection.

It has already been reported that there is a major scarcity of Personal Protection Equipments across hospitals in the state and it must be ensured that the gap is met sooner rather than later. After all, if we are asking doctors and nurses to protect us, they should be provided with a fighting chance to do so.

The identifying of isolation centres and providing protective equipment go hand-in-hand.

It must be ensured that doctors, nurses, and all auxiliary staff working in these isolation centres will also have to remain in quarantine to avert the risk of them returning to their homes and possibly infecting their families. For them, the quarantine will remain in effect long after the pandemic has died down.

Another area that the government has to look into is ensuring that the state does not fall into a state of complete chaos. Unfortunately, if past experiences are anything to go by, that is an eventuality we must all be prepared for.

So, how does the government ensure that people are able to buy their groceries without a riot-like situation arising outside of grocery stores?

Regulating the timing of markets will only mean that more people will gather for limited periods of time to stock up on supplies that they do not require.

In the absence of household data even inserting a provision that only one person per household will be permitted to step out of their homes, will not help.

Again, one can only hope that civic sense prevails.

Apart from these challenges, what happens to the daily wage-earners who are dependent on hard cash for their day-to-day survival? Of course, they can be provided with a stipend but that will only benefit those registered with the labour board. What happens to the thousands who are not?

They will probably die of hunger alone.