Covid-19 shows us up as a callous people

Jinoy Jose P | Updated on: Apr 10, 2020

The pandemic has led to a legitimisation of Social Darwinistic behaviour — of the strong trampling the weak. The state and civil society must be more compassionate

Pandemics offer few choices. Hard decisions are taken by governments and individuals, to prevent the disease from spreading. Isolations hold the key to survival. The sick are quarantined and the weak kept at bay. Covid-19 is no exception either.

The 21-day lockdown announced by the Centre on March 24, a mammoth exercise in social isolation aiming to check the spread of the coronavirus in the country, has forced more than 1.3 billion people to stay away from each other fearing that, as data projections suggest, if such drastic measures are not followed country-wide, 3-4 crore Indians could be infected by Covid-19 in a couple of months.

But in this war against one of the most immediate and alarming epidemics of recent times, the first casualty seems to be compassion, a value that makes us human. A few incidents, reported from across the globe, stand alarming testimony to this concern. Among them, the most important one is how the Centre announced the lockdown.

Orphaned workers

Within minutes after Prime Minister Modi declared on national television that the country would shut down for the next 21 days, the hungry middle-class set off a race for resource-grab in almost all the towns of India, leaving pretty much nothing for the lesser mortals to buy or borrow.

As supermarkets and kirana stores started drying up, and with public distribution systems thrown into utter chaos owing to imminent supply shortage and the concerns around the nitty-gritty of food distribution under the new scheme of things, the country’s nearly 14-16 crore migrant workers — unofficial estimates place the number way above the official count — felt they had been abandoned to the wolves, as it were.

The lockdown was a death warrant for many migrant families living in the shanties of metropolises and other towns, as most of them were not enjoying social security benefits or tickets to welfare doles (bank accounts, Aadhaar cards or even ration cards).

This triggered a mass migrant exodus, unprecedented in the history of independent India. Equally disturbing was the response such incidents elicited on social media and elsewhere. On Twitter, while a minority lamented the lack of care for the bottom of the social ladder which was reflected in the way the government introduced the lockdown on March 24, several groups started equating the moving migrants with “virus reservoirs” and “human bombs” and called for their forced removal from areas where they could pose the threat of spreading the coronavirus.

Social ironies galore

Soon, social media was abuzz with hatred towards “misbehaving” migrants who paid scant regard to government diktats and brought global shame to the country through their “shameless” actions. This toxic social psychology, indeed, was spreading faster than the virus and reports started pouring in from faraway corners of the country where police personnel drove back many migrants, denying them basic amenities such as food and water.

Sparing some localities where local people came down to the highways to offer the fleeing migrants food and water, the exodus has not seen any proactive intervention from governments or civic bodies. This apathy was evident in the incidents that followed the long march of migrants. In Uttar Pradesh’s Bareilly, arriving migrant workers were forced to take an open bath in chlorinated disinfectant water. They were humiliated in a way that stood out in contrast to the civil treatment meted out to those walking out of the ‘international arrivals’ section of airports.

There is not much data available now on the whereabouts and physical and mental well-being of these migrants that have reached (or missed) their villages. Unlike other social calamities, Covid-19 so far has been circling around the urbanscape. Most of its initial victims at least have been the affluent class, starting from the middle class. But ironically, those at the lowest strata of the society seem to have borne the brunt of economic loss and social humiliation. An irony indeed, that the rich should infect the poor at the beginning of the pandemic, and then choose to keep them at a ‘social distance’!

Policy bias

The response to the coronavirus in many countries, including India, has exposed the middle-class, elitist biases in policy-making. Many cite the multi-crore revival package the government has announced to pep up the ailing economy and help alleviate the socio-economic impact of Covid-19. But there is consensus around the fact that it does not help the stranded urban poor, who have been pushed to the margins of social welfare. This is not least due to the stinginess in the Centre’s social sector spends.

Just last year, major social sector schemes such as the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee saw a cut in Budget allocation for fiscal 2020-21 over revised estimates of the last fiscal. An expenditure reduction in view of a revenue shortfall may impact social welfare further. The proposed ₹1.7-lakh crore stimulus, some of which is a rehash of already announced plans, is likely to bypass the urban poor and migrants.

In this grim scenario, the vulnerable sections of society are staring at a major crisis. Considering that they hold zero lobbying power to influence policy-making or attract corporate sympathy, they need government support. As a society, we must remember that we just cannot let the weak and meek languish in times of a crisis. A pandemic cannot be used to power our social-Darwinian biases (of the strong keeping the weak under their thumb) and treat this calamity as a natural correction. If we don’t do so, we will annul all the benefits we have created over the years as a civil society anchored around compassion.

Published on April 10, 2020
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