When EM Forster in his preface to ‘Untouchable’ observed that no one “however sympathetic, could have created the character of Bakha, because he would not have known enough about his troubles”, I am reminded of the troubles the international travelers are facing these days. The Canada government has introduced some stricter measures for the international travelers in order to curb the Covid-19 spike.
Travelers must provide a proof of a negative COVID-19 molecular test taken up to 72 hours before their scheduled departure time. Travelers, unless exempted, are required to reserve a government-authorized hotel for 3 nights prior to departure to Canada, take a COVID-19 molecular test on arrival in Canada, stay in the government-authorized hotel while awaiting the results of the COVID-19 molecular test taken on arrival, pay for the cost of the hotel stay, as well as all associated costs for food, security, transportation and infection prevention and control measures.
Travelers must present proof of having reserved and pre-paid for their accommodation through an app ‘ArriveCAN’.
So far so good.
I, as a matter of fact had to rush to India to see my ailing mother (80) who needed a hip replacement surgery. It was an emergency. On my journey back to Canada, I strictly followed the rules, got a negative COVID-19 molecular test 48 hours before my scheduled departure. Kept a face shield and mask on my face during the 14 hour non-stop flight from New Delhi to Vancouver. Upon arrival at around 9 am I was sent to a Vancouver hotel that charged $1566 and denied breakfast and lunch. I was helping a senior Punjabi couple with their logistics and both had diabetes but they were denied breakfast and lunch. After their long flight of 14 hours, 2 hours at the airport and now they are denied food for which they have spent hefty amount.
The menu is another interesting part of this story. For the vegetarians, they had 2 samosas with chickpeas in breakfast and only one item for the lunch and dinner to be repeated for the next two days. If the result of the COVID-19 molecular test taken on arrival comes after 10 hours or so, the passengers leave for their homes but the amount taken by the hotels is not refunded. They charge for the services they never provide. No hearing to this whatsoever.
During the stay in hotel, no employee enters the room for the cleanliness and change of sheets. They are treated as ‘untouchables’. The passengers board the planes with a proof of a negative COVID-19 molecular test, keep themselves behind masks every time during the flight, the crew has minimal contact with them, they are not allowed to walk in the isles of the plane; still they are treated as if they carried the Covid-19 virus. At the airport, the staff doesn’t speak, just signals to stay away.
When Mulk Raj Anand wrote ‘Untouchable’, he drew out the pain of a young sweeper. A high caste man asks the protagonist, Bakha, “Keep to the side of the road, you low-caste vermin! ‘Why don’t you call, you swine, and announce your approach! Do you know you have touched me and defiled me, you cockeyed son of a bow-legged scorpion! Now I will have to go and take a bath to purify myself. And it was a new dhoti and shirt I put on this morning!” (Page 89)
Every single person at the airport and at the hotel seemed high caste men and women who treated the passengers as such. In ‘Untouchable’, Bakha, the protagonist announces, “Posh keep away, posh, sweeper coming, posh, posh, sweeper coming, posh, posh, sweeper coming!” (Page 98), and we on the airport were seemingly announcing, “Posh keep away, posh, Corona coming, posh, posh, corona coming…!”
A young adult, on work permit in Canada told he had gone to attend the marriage of his only sister, another came back after the funeral of his father. A newly married lady was coming to unite with her family. None of them was a snowbird. None of them was carrying Covid-19, everyone was having a negative COVID-19 molecular test report. Yet, they were treated differently.
The questions raised above need answers. Will somebody come forward for that?