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Responding to the pandemic of 21st century : Dynamics of power, intersections and the ‘Imagined Corona’ in India

The current times have seen a surge of concern around the soaring cases of the global pandemic of COVID 19. The novel nature of the virus has pitted several countries including India in flux, to understand the nature of transmission, virulence, and the case-fatality of the disease. To contain the spread, stringent measures like lockdown(s) and social distancing have been imposed. In light of the recent turn of the events, the reactions to the disease and the government responses to it have been varied.

The current health system of India (with the lowest investment in South-east Asia) is being pushed to its limits to combat the pandemic in the country. On 25 March, 2020 India entered a nationwide lockdown that brought the 1.3 billion to a standstill. It brought along a tide, derailing economies and instigating fears and anxieties as spinoffs of necessary precautions against the disease. The response to COVID-19 has been variegated given the socio-cultural, ethnic and economic diversity, political allegiance of the populace and different perceptions around the disease. The onslaught of information communicated through different media and channels has informed the diverse perceptions and reactions. To gauge the complexity of the responses, it becomes imperative to look into the power structures and the social positions that have fed into, and shaped the reactions, using a standpoint epistemology approach. In the same vein, this article assesses the immediate response to the COVID-19 situation from the perspectives of the lived reality, or the standpoints of the most marginalised strata of the society.

Two hands wearing blue plastic gloves hold a vial labelled COVID-19 Positive.

COVID-19 test kit being used for confirming positive cases. Image Source: Shutterstock.com

Lockdown: The sides of a coin

The lockdown, seen as a necessary step to contain the transmission, had implications like the two unreconciled sides of a coin. It was seen as essential for protection by a significant proportion of urban middle and upper class. However, its repercussions translated into insecurities and further deprivations for the underprivileged communities. These myriad implications of one uniform measure across the country speak of how socio-economic standpoints have shaped outcomes during the epidemic. Self-sustained households stocked with sanitisers and food can ‘afford’ a lockdown and therefore endorse and advocate for it as a necessity for protection or at the most see it as a situation creating boredom. The accounts on the other side of the coin paint a different and grave picture. This sudden and stringent measure taken with urgency and low preparedness, reduced the several million low-income households, the migrant poor, informal labour, the homeless, and their current deprivation and marginalisation into ‘collateral damage’ in the fight against Corona. As a Panchayat(administrative body) member* from a village shares, “when will all this end? People need to go out and work. Otherwise, they will die of hunger, even before corona strikes”. The stimulus relief packages announced later by the Finance Minister are at the best inadequate. Moreover, given the several supply chain glitches, poor access to bank facilities for the rural, remote BPL families or informal labour who are deprived of essential documents, it does become exclusionary as well. These families faced with loss of income, food scarcity and several other health crises are therefore being pushed to further vulnerability in the long term. Within these communities, access to timely healthcare -especially for pregnant women, chronically ill and malnourished, elderly – were further compromised with absence of conveyance, shutdown of anganwadis and health centres being out of the scope of walkable distance.

Migrant workers in India, during COVID-19 lockdown period  walking back from the cities on foot in the absence of any public transport, to reach to their villages in different states.

Image: Migrant workers walking on foot towards their native places. Image Source: Reuters

Who blames whom?

In India, class, ethnicity, and caste have intermingled in the discourse of COVID-19 in ways that have spurred narratives of hatred and stigmatisation. The recent events in New Delhi,  of the Tablighi Jamaat congregation and the mass movement of migrants, sparked widespread outrage across the country, for one apparent reason – “they’ are responsible for the transmission of the disease”. Dissecting both events, one sees how deep-seated prejudices surface in the wake of fear induced by a crisis. Firstly, the movement of migrants, in different pockets of the country, was questioned as unplanned and was seen to pose the threat of mass transmission. The narratives clearly missed on the representation of voices from the migrant communities who were caught off guard in the crisis. Deprived of their daily livelihoods, a large section of the migrant workers had to flee to their native places, crammed in jam-packed buses, or even on foot, walking hundreds and thousands of miles.

The Tablighi Jamaat, an Islamic congregation in Delhi’s Nizammudin area, bringing together thousands of Muslims from different parts of the country was organised on the 13th March, a week before the announcement of lockdown. The event was selectively portrayed as the ‘prime cause of the rise in COVID-19’. Very soon, it assumed violent communal overtones of ‘#Corona jihad’ across media and heresy, once contact tracing across states revealed over 647 attendees as COVID positive cases. The blame very swiftly seeped into the shaming of the religious community that has already been subjected to systematic, communal violence for many months now. Similarly, instances of racist and gendered discrimination came to the fore against women from north-east India who were scathingly shamed in the national capital, branded as ‘carriers of Corona’.

Within the blame-game endorsed by the privileged and the majoritarian section, the already marginalised communities are afflicted by a double bind. They have come to bear the burden of socio-economic deprivation as well as blame-shifting and value judgments, laden with cultural stereotypes.

Demonising the ‘corona positive’ in popular imagination

Who is ‘corona positive’? The imagination of the disease created through popular channels of communication is one of a  ‘deadly’, ‘unsparing’ one. A member suspected with symptoms and/ or travel history within the close-knit circle or the community being recommended for home quarantine, comes to be seen as an abomination, the ‘other’. A community member* from a village in the state of Rajasthan shares, “while a person with the disease passes by a lane, anyone who happens to follow, they will also get the disease”. A resident of a society in an urban town*  shares, “I am not letting my next-door family member buy me vegetables. What if ‘those hands’ have the virus that transmits into the vegetable I eat?

Breach of protocols pertaining to confidentiality and wide dissemination of the patient identity has only sparked further fears. The tonality and language of messages widely shared on social media, “ xxx person, age yyy, hailing from so and so town. If anyone finds the person, please report to the police”, implicates the individual as a criminal being hunted down, rather than a patient that needs medical care. The language has seeped into everyday conversations to the point that anonymous lists of names of possible suspects who might have come in contact with a positive patient are being widely shared as ‘the disease on the loose’. This Foucaultian ‘medical gaze’ has dehumanised and more so created a spectre out of a human, who is meted out with discrimination instead of care and empathy. This further seeps into class discrimination, where anecdotes of rumours* across villages highlight, “corona being created by the rich to wipe out the poor”. Insidious remarks are being made among the ‘well-offs’* around members providing labour: “I have asked my maid not to come. Cannot trust the hygiene levels, they are the prime cause of the virus.” The police force has also been re-oriented as a vigilante institution for hunting down suspected cases of Coronavirus. With all kinds of institutions, thus focussed on one health issue, several other critical needs of a society reeling in crisis take a back seat.

The need to believe, obscuring logic

Logic has been throttled under the deluge of falsified information. Apocalyptic representation of the ‘world after COVID 19’ has confounded reality and imagination in a way that ‘lighting a diya(oillamp)’ has been widely disseminated as the astrological way of combating the disease that has not yet found its cure. This narrative has reverberated and is being advocated across communities to a point that villages* hold mass gatherings around temples every Sunday or evening , “The bhopa (faith healer) in our village asks us to gather and light diyaas, it will ward away the virus”. The need to believe runs deep in the face of a crisis, so much that alternate medicine, remedies, and practices have found prominence, in the absence of more concrete sources of information and cure. These responses may be equated as ignorance or lack of knowledge about the disease, in the ‘rational’ scheme of things. However, Wynne(1994) argues that these seemingly ‘irrational’ responses are actually negotiations aimed at meaning-making in the face of uncertain situations such as the pandemic. This uncertainty is only compounded by the conditions created by black boxed expert systems, such as the absence of clear lines of communication about the nature of the disease, its spread, prevention measures such as the use of masks and self-quarantine, containment measures, testing strategies, availability of cure, and so on.

Image: Households light oil lamps on 5th April. Image Source: Whine-Yard:Twitter

A photograph of a street at night lit by candle light and people seated along the edges and walking.

Erased memories of a collective and the standalone individual

The effect of the pandemic has been huge, stirring imbalance and uncertainties in the economy. Its spread has led to the erosion of shared memories of solidarity and erasure of collective voices. An anecdotal example is the erasure of a shared memory of resistance against the center’s decision of the Citizenship Amendment Act (three months ago) in the wake of the pandemic. The lockdown as a response to the pandemic has created a more individualistic need to assure a sense of security. It escalated to the point of emergence of hoarding markets and stocking of masks and sanitizers. Contrary to there being a sense of solidarity and a collective need to build resilience against the disaster, societies have instead fragmented into individuals locked in homes, safeguarding health and priorities. This, similarly, has had negative repercussions on communities that have limited access. Amplified interpretations of social-distancing have convoluted with social boycotting and a sense of suspicion around ‘the infected roaming’ everywhere and anywhere. The individualisation of ‘risk’ associated with the disease, also shifts the burden of containment of the disease to individual behaviour, away from the domain of state responsibility.

The encounters with COVID-19 have been shaped more by one’s own socio-cultural and economic situatedness than being based solely on scientific measures of containment. The outcome is a sense of mistrust, uncertainty and increasing fissures within the society, dividing us and the ‘other’. The predominant narrative that equates COVID-19 to a ‘holocaust’ reinstates measures that deeply hurt the economy and society. The current measures, which stem from a top-down approach to the ways of ‘knowing’ and combating the disease, have been directed at glossing over these fissures that stem from the precarious nature of the epidemic and the lockdown. In the light of uncertainties, a top-down authoritarian tone of the State’s response has gained currency underplaying the need for an empirical assessment of the disease epidemiology within the country. This also slides under the carpet, the inadequacies of the public health system and the state’s inability to respond to the needs of the marginalized.

A contagious disease in its spread and a stringent lockdown, both are pulling out the deep-seated fissures in the society. Besides, dynamics of space and division of domestic labour remain overlooked in the narratives of nation’s welfare. This has serious implications on women, leading to an excessive burden of work, meeting family needs in an atmosphere of uncertainty and frustration which often culminates into domestic violence, prevalent across class divide, and aggravated with socio-economic adversities. Response to COVID requires leveraging the standpoint epistemology of the marginalised strata, their ways of knowing and meaning-making, their understandings of social isolation, contagion, and needs at an individual and community level. These could prove as valuable resources to inform the strategy design for an effective frontline response. Questioning underlying structures that shape one’s reactions and response to the disease, and more importantly, experiences of the worst affected in the crisis are essential to instill trust, empathy and also to build a collective resilience against the disease and combat the hysteria surrounding it.


References

Foucault, M. (1975). The birth of the clinic: An archaeology of medical perception. New York: Vintage Books.

Haraway, D. (1988). Situated knowledges: The science question in feminism and the privilege of partial perspective. Feminist studies14(3), 575-599.

Wynne, B. (1994). May the Sheep Safely Graze? A Reflexive View of the Expert-LayKnowledge Divide in Lash, S. Bronislaw, S. and Wynne, B.(eds) Risk Environment and Modernity: Towards a New Ecology

*All anecdotal quotes from the village community members are based on insights gained through consultations conducted by the author under a telephonic counseling service on COVID-19 launched by Basic Healthcare Services, a not-for-profit primary healthcare organisation . The authors acknowledge the organisation for the insights.
**The insights from urban communities are based on personal communication of the authors

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