Compassion in the time of Covid-19

A few days ago, it was reported that the President of Nepal expressed concern about the Nepalis in the U.S. in her conversation with the Nepali Ambassador, as she did with other envoys in countries with large numbers of Nepalis. A lot of “progressive Nepalis,” including a few friends, jumped on her for not caring about the migrant workers stuck at the Indian border and only caring about those in the affluent country. Indeed, it is important to remind the President and the entire government about the plight of migrant workers who are stuck at the border (not just when they are stuck at the border, but let’s talk about it another day). But is compassion in such short supply that we cannot care about both communities?

After all, Nepalis in the U.S. are seeing the crisis unfold in front of their eyes. What is still hypothetical in Nepal has been a reality in the U.S. for a while now. A Nepali man has died, most likely infected while working. A recent New York Times coverage of the crisis opened with his story. His wife and two of their children have also tested positive. Hundreds of Nepalis are infected, and thousands of Nepalis have lost their livelihoods, maybe permanently, and are staring at an uncertain future. The Jackson Heights-Elmhurst neighborhood of Queens, which has been the epicenter of the Covid-19 crisis in New York, in the country, and perhaps the world, is also home to a large number of Nepalis. The area has more than twice the rate of infection compared to other parts of the city and almost five times as much as the nation.

I see my former colleagues at Adhikaar working nonstop, day after day. I hear about the volunteer efforts of many Nepali brothers and sisters, alongside the medical professionals of Nepali origin. There are many thousands of families in Nepal — not all affluent — who are living in fear for the lives of their loved ones in New York and elsewhere in the U.S. I realize that not everyone has the experience and luxury of comparative lives, but the people who are commenting on social media certainly have access to international news.

Closer to home, when the local governments in Kathmandu started distributing food for people who had lost their livelihoods due to the lockdown, many people complained that “undeserving” people were getting it. They complained that people wearing nice clothes, carrying mobile phones, were lining up — as if poor people do not deserve to have nice things. Because of the sudden lockdown, people have been caught without an opportunity to make alternative arrangements. People who may not be living in abject poverty are also faced with loss of income — taxi drivers, small shop owners, craftspeople. Some of them may have homes and even fields ripe for harvesting outside Kathmandu, but right now with the lockdown, they are of no use. In a crisis, isn’t our goal to make sure no one goes hungry, instead of worrying about a handful who might be double-dipping? Is compassion really in such short supply?

Maybe it is because the pandemic is still theoretical for many in Nepal. My social media feeds are filled with stories of friends and their loved ones affected by the virus, not just Nepalis and not only in New York. However, with only a handful of confirmed cases, most people in Kathmandu do not personally know anyone who is suffering. While people are using the crisis language and peddling doomsday scenarios, most of our lives have remained untouched. Lockdown is a bit of a bother, but we are enjoying the cleaner air. We can get most things we need, even delivered to our door. Some are organizing cookouts and playing cards. There is more time to spend online, and more time to complain.

When I see the negativity, I feel despair creeping in. But then I think about my many friends and all the others, across the city and around the country, who have not wasted their time complaining online, but jumped right in to supplement the efforts of the local governments. I think cash transfers are better as it allows the recipients to choose food items that best suit their need, and also supports local shops. But I understand this needs a longer conversation, and in the midst of a crisis, I am happy to see the volunteers distributing food items as well. Some have made sure to partner with small farmers and dairy producers who have lost access to markets. Others are distributing cooked food. Some are volunteering their vehicles for emergency hospital visits. Others are making masks and face shields. Some translated documents into other languages to make sure people without Nepali language proficiency are getting informed. Some are thinking long term and working on policy solutions or creating educational platforms. Two lawyers have taken legal action to bring home the migrant workers stuck at the border, and the Supreme Court has issued an interim order in their support.

If the virus spreads in Nepal — I hope it doesn’t — I wish there will be more people jumping into action, and fewer people complaining. Even if people do not jump into action, I hope they will at least think about how our lives are intertwined and practice compassion.

organizer at heart. strategy consultant by trade. mostly prose with occasional forays into poetry.