A(nother) proposal to stop exploiting POC pain

Yes, we know India is burning. Stop poverty/disaster porn, find a way to help instead.

(TLDR;)

Dear World,

This is a call to stop poverty porn in the face of crisis. India is suffering from a Covid-19 situation of unspeakable proportions, but that’s not a reason for you to blindly share sensationalist videos about it to assuage your own guilt. Instead of exploiting POC pain to fill your news feed, vet your sources, find a way to motivate people watching/reading to contribute to the situation, and call out institutions to do their part to make a change.

What’s going on in India? (From the perspective of an Indian abroad)

Skip ahead if you already know.

Every time I have opened Instagram for the last few months, I am surrounded by an increasing number of messages from people in New Delhi asking for help. Leads for hospital beds, therapeutics like Remdesivir and, Tocilizumab, plasma donations, and oxygen. My grandfather tells me thousands of people camping outside of hospitals on the chance that they will be taken in. Everyone and someone they know is looking for a way out — for hope, for something to take them out of the horror show India is going through right now.

When the pandemic began, we heard of a case here and there in our circle of family and friends in India who had gotten Covid-19 and was self-isolating. Now, it seems like someone in our locus of social knowledge is being hit by the virus. In my extended family, all the (vaccinated) adults are isolating in the same house because one of them had a week-long cough and fever.

The chips are falling faster (and closer) all the time.

It’s no longer the disease of a year ago, either. This new variant has infected as many people (10 million) since January as it had in nine months prior. This means charts with sudden, terrifying peaks. It means people dying every week: friends’ parents, second-uncles, grandparents, one dying and the other in recovery. It means media spirals reporting that the new variant is affecting vaccinated people and younger generations (It isn’t). It’s this bombardment of sources every day. Every time I open a social app.

So I know what’s going on, thank you. I feel the loss deeply. I am surrounded by it. I am so far away from my country right now, and that hurts on a whole different level, but in this year of remote everything, it’s right here.

See something, DO something

News media has crowded on the situation in India like vultures (what’s new?), burning drone footage of overflowing cremation grounds onto our retinae. Social media contacts I didn’t know to care about anything much are spouting random bouts of concerned activism by sharing triggering videos of an overburdened healthcare system in one of the world’s most populated countries. Videos of very sick people and their relatives on the street are this week’s uninvited guests on social media, shared not so much by Indians themselves anymore but by ‘helpful foreigners’ asserting their worldliness on the global stage.

Thanks, but for the love of your POC friends, stop with the performative activism. A nation in grief trying to find solutions during a very tough time is no place for you to plant your activist flag and wave it perfunctorily without taking any further action. There are actual things you can do! More on this below, but roughly:

  1. Share to raise awareness, call for transparency and accountability, and to evoke a sense of responsibility to help, not to sensationalise, show off your wokeness, or feel good you shared something
  2. Drive your audience (and yes, you have an audience) to actually do something: donate, sign petitions, search for more ways to help, and oh, did I mention donate?

I feel like I’m repeating the same arguments we’ve been hearing for the past year. Resharing and hyper-elevating poverty porn for the sake of seeming woke is akin to memeifying the pain of a population group, a meagre response to a very serious problem. Is that the only thing we have in our toolkit to generate a response to problems faced by marginalised communities? Are people of colour not allowed to grieve in private without their pain being exploited to assuage white guilt? “Look, we shared a video about your country. We care.” Ok, then what? Did you share it to raise awareness and channel donations towards people in need? Did you share it to perpetuate the myth of the broken third world? Or did you share it because you felt helpless and didn’t know what else to do? (If you chose this option, I have a proposition for you!)

A proposition

We need to learn new ways to develop empathy for those in need. We need to find ways to rebuild narratives around POC and their countries that don’t involve depicting them at their most vulnerable moments or as pawns of corrupt governments. We need to learn to see people of colour not as props or products of broken systems that are their own fault anyway (as the privileged person’s argument goes), but as human beings who deserve the same level of individual dignity as those in economically better off countries.

We need to show our worldliness and awareness of the world not by sensationalising POC pain, but by driving actionable change — donations, vaccines, and maybe even staying home, especially if vaccinated, out of respect but also perhaps to prevent an echoing of the same situation in your country in the near future.

We need to hold responsible governments that continue to perpetuate and support systemic inequality by restricting vaccine raw materials, upholding patent restrictions until it is too little too late, and making face value donations to countries as a way to bandaid their persisting wrongs. We’ve seen that public outcry, among other things, has put pressure on the US (and now EU) to call for waiving patents on crucial Covid-19 vaccines at the WTO.

In the same vein, we need to raise awareness about political leaders that refuse to take action to protect the interests of their people. Modi, Bolsonaro, Duque, to name a few. This is a call to have more conversations on these issues with sensitivity, not stigma.

I strongly believe sharing on social media can be more about raising awareness in this way than about the sensationalisation of poverty porn without a call to action.

Colonialism and white privilege are still an issue

India and so-called third world countries have long suffered from the sleights of foreigners on their cultures. Colonialism manifested in a hundred ways, a few of which include:

1) Traditional forms of colonialism, including but not limited to: genocide; white disease for population control; ripping away land from those that were living on it / stealing children from their parents; divide and rule policies; sending 17-year-old missionaries to ‘volunteer’ in Africa/Asia on gap years; and coca-colonialisation

2) Structural reforms in the disguise of ‘aid’ (Bill Gates’ African Green Revolution, anyone?)

3) Shifting manufacturing to emerging economics and at the same time:

*a) Taxing these new powerhouses for their carbon emissions and
*b) Having low wages and terrible working conditions for daily wage workers and outsourced firms to ensure low prices for the final customer
*c) Maintaining real executive decision-making power within white echelons and forcing POC to adjust culturally instead

4) Keeping a tight fist on vaccine patents and raw materials in the time of an international pandemic (You again, Bill?), even though the world’s largest vaccine producer and donor is India, not the USA, where the patent is held

5) And then, the lip service of reparations (in the US, not even that) to mitigate white guilt over centuries of systemic injustice.

The same old, tired power structures remain firmly in place.

Why does it take photos of people dying, suffering, in our countries to make the news? Why is the West so glued to poverty porn that when I ask you to picture a child in Africa, it is most likely you see a shriveled child in a hospital bed dying from an incurable disease or benefiting from a donation?

A friend mentioned recently that we don’t see newspapers showing the mass Covid-19 graves in Staten Island out of respect for the dead and their families. So remind me why it is ok to show ours repeatedly then, just for that doomscroll endorphin (or as I like to say, down-dorphin) hit.

So why is it allowed for the media to take and publish photos of people in vulnerable situations in countries like mine, without consent, using drones that wouldn’t be allowed in the States or in other parts of the world for privacy reasons?

(On a tangent, but the same, why are privileged white people publishing articles about going to Mexico because it has lax Covid-19 entry restrictions and at the same time a deterrent enough reputation of high crime, while ignoring the millions of locals without proximate access to healthcare that they have been continuously exposing at high levels of risk over the past year? What kind of world do we live in that still allows this level of hypocrisy where you can abuse and profit from the same set of people you have been for centuries? I work on anti-poverty projects, so maybe I am just hopeful (or naive) that a different world can exist.)

Oxfam guidelines don’t allow poverty porn photos. Maybe the rest of the media world should take note.

Final words

You’re a thinking, breathing, caring-for-your-fellow-human being. Make your actions count. Let’s shift the narrative.

If the media needs bad news to make news (they don’t, but let’s go with it for a second), put the power-wielding tactics of wealthy nations in the spotlight instead. Use news to bring about justice rather than to create sensationalism. Share verified sources of information to educate, motivate and bring about real, positive change. This holds true for you sharing on your social media as well!

There are schools of journalism focused on positive news, but also on objective, fact-forward reporting that holds institutions and individuals accountable for their actions and demands change. Use those sources, share them, verify their information, hold them accountable for holding us accountable.

And here’s an idea, put forward the amount of money you would spend on your next night out, or even better, your Covid-comeback vacation, and send it to GiveIndia or Ketto or organisations like the Hemkunt Foundation instead. These are real people doing real work in increasingly sensitive and difficult situations, without making a huge fuss about it. And they could use the help.

A big thank you to Ryan, Lyle, Michael and Nikki for their help editing this piece!