Census in The Time of Covid

At the time of writing this piece at home in Goa, Covid-19 rages on in towns and cities across India and around the world. There are fresh cases here as well, and it is hard to keep track of the number of Covid-19 cases and deaths, as they accelerate with every passing day in India. In many other countries meanwhile, governments are busy declaring that they have flattened the curve, as economies get ready to reopen for business.

Developing countries such as India don’t really have much of a choice. We reopened for business on June 1, 2020, albeit in a phased manner, with many of our worst affected cities still in lockdown as containment zones. And on June 30, we will know the fate of the rest of the public spaces and businesses such as cinemas, malls, gyms, parks and others, although much has been left to the states to decide.

At such a time, it is hard to even imagine that the government of India is conducting the first phase of its census; it is believed to have begun in April and is meant to conclude by end September 2020. Of course, this is the housing/household census enumeration exercise – which takes stock of types of dwellings, and household amenities – that has begun, while the population enumeration will take place next year. Still, the absurdity of counting the living while hundreds die from Covid-19 each day is hard to ignore. And then, we also have the logistical challenges that millions of enumerators will have to face as they make their way through open zones, containment zones, and ready-to-open zones. Or worse still, open zones that are suddenly locked down because of a spike in cases in certain neighbourhoods.

Even at the best of times, census enumeration must be a mammoth task in a country of 1.3 billion people. However, I was surprised to find that India is not the only country whose census is due in 2020-21; there are several others that are scheduled to hold their census this year or the next, including China, US and UK. In fact, it wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say that almost half the countries of the world will be counting their living this year or the next.

Since this Census will be held during a pandemic, I wonder if we will be asking questions regarding the availability of proper healthcare in less advantaged areas of our towns and cities as also far-flung areas in the hinterland, whether people have health insurance or not, how many of our elder folk are in elder care homes, etc. It is taking a pandemic of epic proportions to make us realise how inadequate our healthcare systems are even in the big cities, and how fragile our work and employment scenario is, as well.

I am re-reading an old epic, in full this time, and I am constantly reminded of the importance of certain virtues such as patience, wisdom, foresight, caring for one’s people, etc. And because the edition I am reading has a Bible-style narration, the storytelling too is epic. Since we often refer to fighting Covid as a ‘war’, Homer’s Odyssey is perhaps a good way to look at how we will ever find our way home, when the world over, governments seem to be all at sea.

In many cultures, a ship leaving the shore is seen as a metaphor for death. It is the vessel that carries the soul away, if you will. And a ship returning home is often seen as a sign of victory, especially if it returns with all men on board.

In The Odyssey, Odysseus has no such luck. After the Trojan War, he and his men are out at sea for months and years on end, going from island to island in search of their way home to Ithaca. His wife, Penelope, and son, Telemachus, are slowly losing hope that he will ever return. It is even rumoured that he may have died at sea. Until one day, when Telemachus decides to go out in search of his father.

Odysseus fighting Polyphemus, the Cyclop by Arnold Bocklin; Image Wikimedia Commons

It is incumbent upon the young to care for the elderly, the frail and the infirm. I wonder if many of the old folk in elder care homes, especially numerous in the West, aren’t like Odysseus in many ways. If they aren’t living out the twilight years of their lives, after having waged several struggles and wars of their own in their heyday. Left alone to reminisce and to seek help, they are going from pillar to post in search of assistance only to discover that they have reached yet another island, yet another shoal, yet another eddying current in the waters.

They say Covid-19 particularly affects the old and they mostly live by themselves or in elder care homes in many countries. While we are busy counting the living, let us spare a thought for the number of old people who have already left us. Apparently in the early days of Covid-19, many of the old who had succumbed to the illness weren’t even counted or noticed in many countries.

In Sweden, that most egalitarian of countries, Covid-19 has taken its toll on the old and infirm who mostly lived in care homes. Why the country decided to take the disastrous step of keeping the economy open is bewildering to many like me, even if they were wise to see that Covid-19 is going to be with us for quite a long while.

While we talk about counting Covid-19 deaths, let us also look at why we need to count the living. And is the census merely a headcount, or more than that? I see the census as the occasion when a country takes stock of its people, their whereabouts, their welfare, and how they live, study, work and raise their families. Every ten years or so, countries decide it is time for them to assess their populations and how they live.

A census can tell us a lot about a country’s demographics. For example, that India is predominantly a young country with 65% of its population under the age of 35. It tells us about the population growth rate, lifespan of our people, mortality rates (especially child and maternal mortality rates in a poor and developing country such as ours), literacy and education levels, population density in rural and urban areas, rates of urbanisation, etc.

(Clockwise from top left): A US census enumerator using a Hollerith pantograph machine to punch census cards in 1920; census enumerator in the Netherlands counting travellers in a caravan; former Indian President Pratibha Patil receiving the Indian Census Report in 2011 at the Rashtrapati Bhavan, New Delhi; all images Wikimedia Commons

And while it is true that India might be fast losing its demographic dividend, with slowing rates of economic growth and not enough jobs for the 12 million youth who leave university each year, it is also true that as a country we are not employing enough women. Unemployment rate had shot up to 27% in April this year, which has since dropped to 17.6% in June 2020, but it is still at elevated levels. While women’s literacy and education has improved over the past decades, their labour force participation rate remains abysmally low and has fallen even lower in recent years. We continue to still discriminate against girl children, with even the educated middle classes practicing abhorrent female foeticide.

What’s more, we need to include new questions in our census, such as access to healthcare in the neighbourhood, quality of healthcare, access to healthcare insurance, availability of water, sanitation and electricity, etc. The census must be seen as an important input into policy-making. Unfortunately, it takes years in India for census findings to even be reported, by which time it might have lost some of its relevance, or a new government might be in place, having little bearing on policy. The 2020-21 census in India is supposed to be conducted digitally, and not on paper, which means compiling and analysis of findings should be much faster than in previous years. Hopefully, we will learn to let the census guide policy, the way the cool wisdom of Athena guides Odysseus and Telemachus through stormy seas.

While searching for his way home, Odysseus encounters Circe (she of the turning people into swine fame) and her advice to him is to visit Hades (the underworld in Greek mythology where people go after they die, often interpreted as hell by Christians). She asks him to perform certain rituals and animal sacrifices while in Hades, which will enable him to find his way home easily.

Odysseus and the Sirens, 2nd century AD, mosaic at the Bardo National Museum in Tunis; Image Wikimedia Commons

In Hades, Odysseus meets the souls and wandering spirits of many people he once knew, including King Agamemnon. He meets the ghost of his mother and asks her how she met her death: was it a slow disease or did Artemis the archer slay her? His mother replies that it was sheer grief and sorrow over her son’s whereabouts that caused her death:

“It was not the archer goddess of the keen sight, who slew me in my halls with the visitation of her gentle shafts, nor did any sickness come upon me, such as chiefly with a sad wasting draws the spirit from the limbs; nay, it was my sore longing for thee, and for thy counsels, great Odysseus, and for thy loving kindness, that reft me of sweet life.”

Reading this chapter of Odyssey reminded me of Dante’s Purgatory. As for Circe, Nirad Chaudhuri had written his book, Continent of Circe, likening India to the demon sorceress in the way it drained and sapped its people of their creative energies.

Just how will countries count their lost souls? More importantly, how will they improve life for the living, after the pandemic?

It is anybody’s guess how many more lives Covid-19 will claim, or even how long it will be in our midst. History doesn’t offer any answers except that the Black Death of the 14th century is widely acknowledged as having dramatically altered the demographics of Europe and set different regions of Europe on different growth trajectories.

Could it be that some countries’ populations will shrink sharply, changing their growth paths for the rest of this century? Could some countries suddenly lose their elderly populations, or their ethnic/racial minorities, affecting demand adversely? Since Covid-19 seems to affect men more than women, what will it do to sex ratios in countries? Besides, since Covid is mostly an urban phenomenon, and affects the poorer sections of urban populations, what does it mean for the way cities are planned in future?

The poor and vulnerable in particular are like Odysseus confronting Scylla and Charybdis. Caught between saving their lives and protecting their livelihoods in order to provide for their families, they are sucked into the whirlpool of debt, despair and death. Poor and developing countries too are in the same trap. With huge debt repayments coming up – that many have argued, should be forgiven or suspended – their leaders are in no better position.

Exhausted and depleted, Odysseus does reach Ithaca in the end, thanks to the kindness and wisdom of Athena and the Phaeacians. He also wins back his wife, Penelope, who at first doesn’t recognise him and he avenges her suffering at the hands of the wooers, by massacring all the men who imposed themselves on her in his absence.

What census 2020-21 will reveal when it reaches the shores next year is anybody’s guess. How many people will be on board and what tales they will have to tell is worth looking forward to. Hopefully, the fight against Covid will not be a ten-year war like the Trojan War. Equally, the search for a vaccine shouldn’t take ten years either, like Odysseus’ journey home.   

The featured image at the start of this post is a sculptural depiction of Menelaus and Meriones lifting Patroclus’ corpse onto a cart, while Odysseus looks on; Image by Jastrow on Wikimedia Commons

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