Photo courtesy of Read Photos

There are photographs being shared on social media of charitable visits that are being made to elders’ homes. Some of the visitors are not wearing masks, an omission constituting criminal negligence during the ongoing pandemic.

This is what we saw in the photographs: little old women with no hair dressed in mass produced, bright floral print dresses lying on metal camp beds lined up in dormitory style in a large, white room.

One woman on a bed had both her hands stretched out towards a woman wearing no mask, dressed in a shirt dress and designer sunglasses, who was standing about a metre away from her with her hands by her sides, not reciprocating or mirroring the old woman’s gesture, her own body language closed and aloof.

It was a sad picture. We wondered why the old women all had their hair shaved off. They were all bald – like aliens, like children, like light bulbs, like inmates of concentration camps. The contrast between their faces and their brightly coloured clothes was striking.

They were interchangeable. All their individual, defining traits had been erased by the dehumanizing process of institutionalization. Why shave their hair off? To make it easier for the staff so there’s no field for lice to breed and no need for hairbrushes or combs or shampoo.

Were they asked if they preferred to have their hair or was the decision made for them, already decided like their menus without any input from them? Beggars cannot be choosers.

It did not look like compassionate outreach. It did not look respectful of the dignity or the vulnerability of the recipients of the generosity of the visitors. It looked like Performative Charity. It reminded us of the difference between The Capitol and the Districts in The Hunger Games.

It made us think of Wilfred Owen’s poem Anthem For Doomed Youth. ‘What passing bells for these who die as cattle?…No mockeries now for them; no prayers nor bells’.

We have been seeing parallels between the coronavirus pandemic and WW1 for a while from videos of people falling down in the street in Wuhan to footage of other people being forcibly locked and sealed in their homes. People protesting about having their individual rights and choices eroded and erased. Marching in the streets of privileged cities. But those whose rights and dignities are routinely dismissed have no voice at all.

It’s the dehumanization that is most visible: the use of military metaphors like ‘front line workers’. The ‘battle’ for vaccines. The clashes between the individualists, the dissenters, the conscientious objectors and the compliant. The recruiters. The shaming. The threats. The calls to patriotism.

The lack of critical thought. This is the real poverty. The misinformation. The disinformation. This is what is transmitted. The assertion of individualism. The fear. Terms like ‘herd immunity’ being normalized. And who are the herd? Those who live as cattle.

The public parks being turned into mass gravesites. The crematoriums not being able to certify that the remains of the previous occupant are not mixed in with the next.

The dumbing down and use of acronyms and euphemisms calling the vaccines, only approved for emergency usage and not tested extensively, the jabs to normalize them. People with purchasing power creating designer masks with aesthetically pleasing patterns printed or even embossed on them.

The poor elders lining up for their Rs. 5,000 relief money from the government. The visitors coming in designer dresses to generate Insta-gratitude.

Perhaps the visitors could rethink their attire and wear a simple skirt and top without jewellery or blingy accessories? We don’t think about the fact that Western style clothes like shirt dresses are not something familiar or really approved of by elders from the rural areas where people are more traditional and conservative and to whose eyes these privileged women look partially clothed. Yummy mummies naturally want to show off their yoga toned limbs but a sense of audience might be a good asset for them to develop.

Low cut clothes, skin tight clothes, clothes cut away to show our arms and necklines are not really appropriate when visiting the poor. It emphasizes the social differences between givers and receivers. A lot of the photos are taken for social media value signalling in any case and it won’t be the poor who see them as they don’t have smart phones. But a guide would be to dress simply and with the intention of not emphasizing our privilege when visiting people who are so much poorer and in such a destitute condition.

The generic defense for when the affluent are questioned about their approach to charity centers on outrage, resorting to claiming victimhood and accusing the questioning party as either being ‘jealous’ or ‘jobless’; this strategy generally works, with critics backing down because nobody wants to be the bad guy in this scenario.

What needs to be understood is that when people raise genuine questions about one’s approach to charity, it is generally to question not the intention but rather the execution of the exercise of giving. Giving is objectively noble but in the process dignifying the recipient should be a rule of thumb. It was indeed so before social media became a metric for gauging morality.

CBS recently announced a new reality show called The Activist of which the format is unclear but that will be featuring three celebrity activists – Juliana Hough, Usher and Priyanka Chopra – competing for the title. The upside to mainstreaming, making a literal competition out of charity, is that many will benefit from it; the downside is that it will serve to glamorize (performative) giving to the point of absurdity, going against everything humanity has hitherto upheld as etiquette pertaining to charity borrowed from various belief systems that has shaped and defined our civilizations.

It must be accepted that it takes less effort to be a cynic than a philanthrope. The objective here is not to discourage charity, which is needed today more than ever before, but rather to encourage mindful and purposeful giving that is beneficial and truly rewarding for all parties involved.