Tomorrow will mark one year since the Indian government abrogated Articles 370 and 35A of the constitution, which had provided a loose form of legal autonomy to Jammu and Kashmir. Democratically elected Kashmiri leaders were arrested, 30,000 additional troops deployed, and a total communications shutdown imposed, cutting residents of the valley off from one another and the outside world. Jammu and Kashmir were divided into separate union territories. Months passed without any internet or telephone access. A weak 2G connection has now been made available, but it is unstable and often suspended.
Quarantine has always been a political tool, imposed on citizens by governments. In 1631, Charles I received a report from one of his physicians, Théodore de Mayerne. The king had asked Mayerne to look into how England’s quarantine procedures, especially in London, could be updated to meet current standards in the more civilised cities of France and Italy. Mayerne pulled no punches. People infected with plague in London should no longer be isolated either with their families at home or in makeshift sheds elsewhere. There should be new hospitals for the sick and separate ones for their contacts. Above all, Mayerne called for the creation of a metropolitan board of health, properly funded and with ‘absolute power’ in time of infection. Only that could guarantee ‘order’, the ‘soul and life of all things’, and so safeguard ‘the public health of all’.
The Life in the UK handbook boasts that Britain ‘became the largest empire the world has ever seen’ with railways ‘built throughout’, producing ‘more than half of the world’s iron, coal and cotton cloth’ (nothing on who provided the labour and who died doing so, or where the cotton came from) while reformers ‘led movements to improve conditions of life for the poor’. It goes on to say that ‘some people began to question whether the Empire could continue’ but gives no information on colonial resistance or movements for independence, or the work of Black abolitionists such as Olaudah Equiano, Joseph Knight and Samuel Sharpe (or if anyone questioned whether it should continue).
As the city began to shut down in March, I decided to stay indoors. I had rice in one pot, tomato stew in another, mangoes in a bowl, carrots in a small bucket, garri in a black nylon sack, more tomatoes in the freezer, and more rice in a bag. I would survive the apocalypse, and if I didn’t, I would go out on a full stomach. When the lockdown was announced, the naira slipped further against the dollar, prices of commodities went up, and Lagosians thronged the markets for last-minute supplies. I went out to buy fish but there wasn’t any. I bought turkey parts instead. There was a preacher on the road near the market, bible in hand. He returned the next day with a translator. He spoke English and she echoed his words in Yoruba. He reminded us that the coronavirus was not as severe as the hellfire waiting for sinners.
Pharmacopoeia raiders are busy, looking for Covid-19 remedies that might be hiding in the long list of tried, tested and safe drugs. I did this for smallpox a long time ago, when it was discovered that the antibiotic rifampicin blocked its growth. It turned out that the effective dose was far too high to be useful. The smallpox strain I used in this work was called Butler. It had been isolated in Rochdale during a big outbreak in 1952. Most of the 138 cases had never been vaccinated. Nobody died, because the causative virus was variola minor, very closely related genetically to classical smallpox – variola major – but very different in its clinical effects: v. minor with a case fatality rate in the unvaccinated of less than 1 per cent and v. major with a rate higher than 20 per cent.
Since Narendra Modi announced a nationwide Covid-19 lockdown on 24 March, violators of the rules in India have been fined, abused, arrested and killed. Across the board, working-class people have received harsher penalties than the more affluent. People who work in essential services were exempt from the lockdown even during the first and most stringent phase, but the sudden nature of Modi’s announcement led to confusion among citizens and local government officials alike. A lack of communication between government and law enforcement meant that several key workers – including doctors, as well as people delivering and selling food – were subject to harsh treatment from the police.
There is a box file marked ‘Jenny Diski (Simmonds) School and other early’ next to my desk. It’s been sitting here for a couple of years, and, just as in childhood when I would flick through the contents to fill an hour on an empty Sunday, I’ve left it largely untouched. On those Sundays the thing that drew my attention was an onion-thin letter, worn with rereading, in which Doris Lessing offers my mum a room, and an alternative existence.