The COVID-19 pandemic is testing our society, even as uncertainty and misinformation are driving our interactions.

People sitting outside a station in Kanpur during COVIDImage for representation/PTI
Coronavirus Society Thursday, June 18, 2020 - 12:22

On June 13, Kumar, a farmer living in Kengeri Satellite Town in Karnataka, had stepped out to buy groceries. At the shop, he was allegedly stopped by a constable, Veerabhadraiah, who was in plain clothes but carrying a lathi and asked to wear his mask properly. When Kumar ignored him, the constable allegedly verbally abused Kumar, and eventually beat the farmer with the lathi, even after he had put the mask back on. A similar incident happened in Kolhapur in Maharashtra, where a man was allegedly thrashed by a couple in Gujari, when he sneezed near them and did not heed them on wearing a mask.  

Before these incidents, there were several reports of discrimination against healthcare workers, airline crew members who worked on flights repatriating stranded Indians, and others essential service providers in their residential areas; ostracization of COVID-19 patients even after they recover; and prejudice against domestic workers who come to work at personal risk among many others.

The pandemic has exacerbated fault lines with growing instances of fear, mistrust, and panic, fuelled further by misinformation. And in doing so, the coronavirus is testing our very social fabric.

Panic and uncertainty

The root of a lot of breakdown in relationships is rooted in panic and uncertainty, says Dr Vijayshri, a professor and dean of postgraduate studies in psychology at Bishop Cotton Women’s Christian College in Bengaluru.

“There is so much that is new and scary and so much that we don’t understand. And yet, we are consuming so much about it (coronavirus) all the time – through news, social media, and so on. The uncertainty induces panic. At such a time, the human instinct of self-preservation tends to trump all else,” she explains.

As a result, there is a visible strain on social relationships that we once took for granted – between neighbours, between service providers and consumers, and even with family in some cases. For instance, an 80-year-old woman who returned from Maharashtra to Telangana last month was denied entry to the home by her son over coronavirus fears.

This is something that the nurses and workers of Gandhi Hospital in Hyderabad have experienced too. A nurse, Kanaka Durga, had told TNM last month how the neighbours who would once talk to her, ask about her day when she returned from duty, that interaction and goodwill has ceased entirely now. “Even if they talk, they just complain that we are not leaving the locality and putting them at risk of COVID-19,” she had said.

“Irrespective of the services that healthcare or essential service workers provide, self-preservation and fear have made us become more selfish than anything,” Dr Vijayshri says.

Furthering existing divides

The pandemic has also made painfully clear the socio-economic differences in society. Pushpesh Kumar, a faculty of sociology at the University of Hyderabad says that how much we can act on our fears and apprehensions depends on where we are placed in the social hierarchy, and the pandemic has made it amply clear.

While on one hand states want to start online classes, they forget that not everyone has access. Cases in point are Devika, a class 10 Dalit student from Kerala, and Mansa, a 17-year-old daughter of a farm labourer from Punjab, who took their lives because they were unable to attend these virtual classes.

Similarly, while on one hand we have directions from authorities to “stay home”, there are those who simply cannot afford to do so, such as daily wage earners and domestic workers. The migrant worker crisis – where thousands were forced to undertake arduous, and in some cases, fatal journeys home, across states, on foot during the lockdown – is a testament to how the ability to practice physical distance and other safety measures is also a luxury.

“The poorer and marginalized are worried about livelihood and the basics of life. If they articulate similar fears, they cannot sustain life, at least in India. So, we need to ask whose fear is it, and who is ostracizing whom. Even when it comes to stigma, the privileged and well-connected can negotiate it better,” Pushpesh says.

This also means that existing prejudices and biases get strengthened further in a fearful environment. The Tablighi Jamaat discourse is reflective of the same – much of the reaction to the congregation and the spread of the virus through its attendees was steeped in Islamophobia.

The lasting effect on social fabric

One cannot simply assume that these social changes will get reversed when the pandemic is over, Pushpesh says. “It will impact human relations… social conduct such as in large gatherings and crowds; the way we interact. And while we may see an increase in online interactions, digital divide and digital literacy need to be taken seriously by the state,” he says. "The trauma that the poor have suffered of being left to fend for themselves, of walking hundreds of miles cannot simply be erased," he adds. 

He adds that this could also impact the future of social movements. For instance, the movement against the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) and National Register for Citizens (NRC) that was in full swing earlier this year came to a grinding halt as COVID-19 spread to India. Even Shaheen Bagh in Delhi, which had become a beacon of resistance in the anti-CAA, NRC movement was dismantled when it was declared a COVID-19 hotspot in March. More recently, the British Health Secretary Matt Hancock said that the Black Lives Matter protests risked increasing coronavirus cases. The BLM protests were triggered by the death of George Floyd at the hands of a white police officer kneeling on his neck in the United States. While Hancock may not be wrong, the question remains - could the pandemic be used as a pretext to curb dissent?

Pushpesh adds that historically, in situations of such fear and uncertainty, governments are known to become more authoritarian and increase surveillance. In India, there have already been concerns about surveillance with regard to the Aarogya Setu app.

What we can do

Dr Vidyashri says that at a time like this, remembering that we are part of a larger community and looking out for each other safely can actually be helpful – not just for one’s own mental health, but to allay some anxiety and fear.

“Acts of compassion and kindness such as buying groceries for elderly neighbours, ensuring that your domestic workers are safe, cared for, can give us a sense of community, that we are not alone. It makes the community stronger as well,” she says. "This is also a good time to teach our children compassion and kindness."

Read: Do right by your domestic workers in the lockdown: Here's how

Pushpesh adds that it is the responsibility of the state to educate and minimise biases against vulnerable sections of the society, and put in place measures to protect them. “The media also has a responsibility to give space to these issues, and stimulate discussion about the ethics of care and concern towards fellow citizens.”

Become a TNM Member for just Rs 999!
You can also support us with a one-time payment.