COVID-19: Dealing With An Untamable Virus

coronavirus 13

COVID-19, a virus of disease and death, has affected the world since the beginning of 2020. Dealing against it is becoming increasingly difficult for the governments, across the world, because each one has different priorities. More so, in India, the fight against this virus becomes more challenging because of persisting difficulties such as extensive socio-economic inequalities, less value of life being accorded to those on margins and the apathetic response of the government. Also, otherwise corona virus is defiant and untamable. It is not afraid of mighty governments, wealth of rich, modern technologies, war arsenals, nuclear weapons, strict laws, or police brutalities. So, who will win, the people or the virus? Ultimately, science may find the cure, but meanwhile, the deadly virus is endangering democracies while destroying the economies, jobs and businesses, destructing the health, the emotional and social well-being and killing thousands more on the planet because of fear or starvation besides taking toll due to dearth of medical facilities. A silver lining behind the dark clouds, is that epidemics in past have made profound effects on the way people live, so probably, this time too, this pandemic may transform the way people interact with each other and with the eco system that surrounds them, but meanwhile, the poor, women and those on margins are paying the price with their lives.

COVID-19 is creating havoc across the world. It has affected 14,36,841 people as on 08.04.2020 and 82,421 have died as per the official figures. The pandemic has affected continents across USA, Europe, China, India and many other countries. The deadly virus has inflicted lockdown at many places. People are being compelled by the tyrant governments world over to cage themselves within their homes. The virus has detached people from their former life, painfully isolated them and put them under the situation of exile. Or as Camus in his famous work `The Plague’ wrote, “No longer there are individual destinies; only a collective destiny, made of plague and emotions shared by all”. The world has come to standstill with recession and economy is severely affected. Many people have lost their jobs and are dying due to starvation or fear or due to dearth of medical facilities including human resources and paraphernalia ranging from ventilators and masks to medicines.

Different Countries Different Responses

COVID-19 is an unwelcomed guest everywhere. It has invaded both developed and underdeveloped countries. In response, almost all countries have imposed lockdown, used police power, banned public assembly, suspended elections, shuttered courts, intrusive violence, curbed dissent and closed borders. Just as autocratic leaders abuse their power, the corona virus creates a furor. The deadly virus has posted a guard at the gates of every home, every locality, every city and every country. Peoples’ mobility is restricted as they are locked in their own households for a crime which is unknown and for the period which is undetermined. While many adapted to confinement, others could not. However, amidst such mayhem, there are empathetic leaders who with their class crisis leadership are enabling people to cope with change.

Yet, the fact remains that no amount of wealth can save rich. The difference lies in response to the pandemic. Social engineering is majorly guided by various factors. Many countries are investing in diagnostic testing, medical equipment, construction of hospitals, treatment, recovery, prevention, research, vaccine development, setting up isolation facilities, mitigation efforts, providing support to unemployed, supporting small businesses, covering salaries of workers, cash stipend to vulnerable, compensation to affected, cash transfer to poor, increased social security benefits, subsidized loans, controlling inflation and prices of essential commodities, community funds and various related activities. For instance, New Zealand has initiated a Wage Subsidy Scheme  to ensure job security during the lockdown. Australia has announced economy stimulus packages to support household and businesses. Canada has launched economic support programs to help people in need. Pakistan has announced cash transfer to low income families, relief to daily wage workers, and other packages. United Kingdom has taken steps to strengthen social security network and the USA has initiated a Families First virus response, Corona virus Aid Relief, and Economic Security Act to extended unemployment insurance, food assistance, incentives to maintain employees on payrolls, loan and grants for businesses besides funding for health.

India has announced 150 billion Rupees package (0.1 percent of GDP) to invest in health infrastructure. Steps have been announced to ease tax burden and to postpone filing of taxes and other compliances. The Ministry of Labour has issued advisory to all states/UTs to use Cess funds for welfare of construction workers.  Kerala has announced a package of Rs 200 billion (2.5 percent of State’s GDP which include direct transfer to poor household.

The response to pandemic differs as the rich and poor countries differ and points out to the existing inequalities. In poor countries, majority of people are living on streets, are homeless and could not find a roof enough to practice social distancing. Also, most tragic picture emerged in South Asia in India and Bangladesh, where millions of informal migrant workers working in the cities, without worrying about the spread of virus, walked many hundred miles without food or water, to reach their homes knowing that they would be starving back there too. Several faced police brutalities. Some could not complete their tiring and exhausting journey and died on their way.

The Deadly Virus Could Not Be Killed or Contained

One of the most worrying factors is that the countries which boast of their military powers, missiles, nuclear bombs, submarines, jets, tankers, fighter planes and latest technologies worth billions of dollars could not match the power of an invisible virus. Entire paraphernalia made to fight wars, to kill the enemies and destruct other nations has failed to fight an infinitesimal unseen creature. No nuclear bombs, guns, rifles, or inventory of arms could tame the virus. It cannot be arrested, censored or outlawed.

In fact, the deadly virus has halted the big businesses, large industries, powerful stock markets and trade, shops, farms, manufacturing of goods, services, banks, capital, national or international transactions while locking the cities to prevent the spread of disease. Unemployment surged while the virus has once again disclosed the ugly face of capitalism riven by social inequalities.

All religious prophets and congregations practiced across the world, have failed to find cure to treat patients and were compelled to give up before the power of a miniscule creature.

The tough immigration and citizenship laws or well fenced boundaries could not prevent the virus from spreading out. Rather, globalization has increased the chances of spread of virus as persons who travelled across the boundaries carrying the deadly infections along with them leading to widespread outbreak.

The media moguls over the world who boast of their power to divert the reality using weapons of fake news astonishingly watched the pandemic being spread in horror as the virus is no dictator or a political leader who can be made to rise or fall through a continuous propaganda machinery. The statistics could not be faked even if some try to hide or downplay the true data.

The digital technology, big data analysis, biometrics, digital surveillance all failed to control a tiny creature from roaming around making all power structures to compel them to bow before it and to hang their head in shame.

The science is equipped to find cure in terms of biological treatment or social behavior. But, over the period, it is being downplayed as the countries over the world are investing less money and resources in research, training and investigation. Much of the resources are diverted from science to the spending for fighting wars, buying missiles, jets and nuclear weapons.

Investment in the social sciences though essential to understand human behavior, has further been reduced over the years, as it is not deemed relevant to modern commercialized, capitalized, privatized education. Knowledge in commercialized world is reduced to a commodity and being sold to obtain profits. Universities are not providing education and are becoming machines to produce robots who could think alike rather than temples of education which promote an intuitive research aptitude or the attitude of innovation. Curriculum-based, credit-oriented education has lost its meaning in the commercialized world. Therefore, any research on understanding social and cultural behavior is not a priority and investing on complexities of virus linked transmission behavior is accorded a least urgency.

The investment in health sector that could contain or kill virus is dwindling. Not only in terms of underpaid overworked doctors and nurses, with little or no equipment to fight not only the deadly virus but also the stigma surrounding it, all have taken the tolls across countries from America to of course India, which invests little on health sector. The difference also lies in the fact that when the doctors in USA or Italy are stuck in basic ethical questions such as Euthanasia or which patients should be left to die, the doctors in India are struggling to debate as to how to treat patients without risking their own lives in dearth of basic protective gears or even masks.

Further, the virus provoked the world leaders to use the language of retaliation and revenge rather than the grammar of appeal and request. The US President Trump threatened India to export chloroquine medicine. He also tried to evade his responsibilities by calling COVID 19 as ` Chinese Virus’, nonetheless, the blame game or the racist slur could not help to reduce the expansion of pandemic in the United States. This is because the virus knows no race, religion or country. It does not discriminate. In India, Muslim community is being made a scapegoat for causing the disease and death by the mainstream media. Rather than actually targeting the virus, the politicians and the media used the discriminatory measures that exacerbate the vulnerabilities.

In fact, the world failed to predict the enormity of the pandemic and in India when President Trump visited on 24.02.2020, one lakh people came to welcome him. This is when the WHO declared COVID 19 as public health emergency on 30.01.2020 and as a pandemic on 11.03.2020.

Corona Virus and Challenges in India

Ruled by feudal and nationalist government stuck in between capitalism, caste and class barriers, caught in between religious and inequality divide, India lost the precious time to prepare to fight COVID-19. Since January, 2020, India remained busy with other priorities that it could hardly find time to minutely examine the unseen virulent virus. From the Delhi Elections to violence in Delhi to commotion in Madhya Pradesh remained issues of priority instead.

The Indian health Minister on 13.03.2020 claimed that Corona is not a health emergency and it is only on 19.03.2020 that the Prime Minister addressed the nation for the first time about COVID-19. He imposed a one-day `Janta curfew’ on 22.03.2020 and asked people to ring pots and plates in their balconies to salute health workers. Majority responded enthusiastically without questioning about the further plans to fight the pandemic. Some danced, while other hold rallies and processions banging pots and pans. While at the same time, there are those who stigmatized doctors, evicted them, pelted stones and made them to face inhumane behavior. No specific plans were made to fight the virus.

On 24.03.2020 that the PM addressed the nation to impose abrupt lockdown for 21 days and mentioned the term social distancing though he didn’t share the plans as to what the country would be doing to tackle the pandemic. He made emotional appeal while declaring the lockdown to lock 1.3 billion with four-hours notice with nil preparations. Though health care workers repeatedly pointed out the low supply of the protective gears, yet the government lost five weeks in the production capacity of the PPEs. On 04.04.2020, PM once again addressed the nation. This time he appealed the people to switch off their lights at 9 pm for 9 minutes and to light candles in their balconies to dispel darkness. Many middle class Indians lightened up their balconies, lit firecrackers, shouted nationalist slogans, cheered and some do chanted `Go corona go’ creating a scene reminiscent of Diwali festival. At many places, people broke the social distancing rule.

A new PMCARE Fund is created overriding the existing PM Relief Care fund and packed food was distributed with the picture of the Prime Minister over those packets. He further shared his videos doing yoga and asana to allure middle and upper middle classes and poor obviously remained absent from this narcissist display. The PM further asked women to donate their jewelery and savings to fight corona.

Many health professionals applauded the lockdown move and theoretically, it may have helped in observing `social distancing’ or isolation but the manner in which it was implemented led to calamity. The brutal wide socio-economic inequalities suddenly surfaced in a horrible manner as the lockdown affected different groups of people in different manner. The logistic obstacles and other social and cultural challenges in implementing the lockdown imposed with the short notice in the country with the huge population and diverse cultural background has been recognized by the UN Human Rights Chief.

The callous indifference becomes visible when the middle class finds itself painfully locked in the gated buildings whereas the millions of migrant workers who have been toiling in cities, suddenly find themselves in traumatic situation. But, the middle class were able to stock sanitizer, food and other items before they portrayed their vulgar nationalism on the balconies as well as on social media while posting their pictures banging thalis and lightening diyas.

On the other hand, the poor battling poverty with no food, little money, no roof over their head, and with no soaps water, or toilet facilities, living in clustered houses or in open, were shocked. Many were thrown out of the houses by the landlords while others were rendered jobless as the small businesses, eateries, shops, factories, construction site, transport sector, wherever they were working came to stand still. Those pulling rickshaws, vegetable vendors, rag pickers, street hawkers and others in similar situations found themselves unprepared for such a calamity. For them, this lockdown is punitive and added to their miseries.

In his work titled The Plague’ <a href="">Camus elaborated</a> that “All a man could win in conflict between plague and life was knowledge and memories”. In the fight against the COVID-19, one thing that is haunting ismemories’ – memories of lockdown, of images of thousands of migrant workers walking miles after miles with their children, without food and water, facing police brutalities and humiliation. Young, old, men and women with children, sick and disabled, suddenly got uprooted because of lockdown. With no public transport available and no social security mechanism in place, people starved for days. Millions walked hundreds of miles in desperation to reach their homes. Facing police brutalities and humiliations, driven by poverty, with no roof to support them, many were compelled to choose between death due to disease or death by hunger. Almost, 22 have reported to die as of 31.03.2020 while walking. They probably knew that they are moving back to their native places where nothing but starvation awaits them, and probably, they may be carrying the infection with them, but they longed for shelter, for the love of the family and dignity. India hardly had a robust universal basic income program in place and thus right to life with dignity is being easily assaulted.

Article 21 of the constitution guarantees right to life with dignity. However, in Bareilly, chemical was sprayed as a group of people including men, women and children, were made to sit together to be subjected to forceful treatment assaulting their personhood.  The government sealed border even for those who were walking and those walking were forced to return to camps in cities. Some got struck and compelled to face starvation. In Mumbai, 300 migrant workers were stacked in the container truck so they could reach home. The welfare state, the constitutional laws, social policies, human right paradigm, all failed to protect millions of people. As the matter went to the Supreme Court and the Chief Justice asked “Why wages are required when the meals are being provided by the government?”. The advocate appearing on the behalf of the petitioners arguing pointed out that meals are provided in shelter house and not all migrant workers are residing there, however, the fundamental freedoms are being crushed once again.

The Virus Suppressed Those on Margins

The virus affected the rich and poor differently. For rich, working from home and many similar schemes have been initiated while many connected with their friends through digital and social media. This is despite the fact that constant digital surveillance invited greater dangers to privacy worldwide while greater restrictions were imposed in the garb of the lockdown. The online platforms are vulnerable to political manipulations and the mainstream media further used the platform provided by the lockdown to intensify their hatred agenda.

For poor the problems are completely different. They suffered thinking about the ways to arrange for their next meal. Starvation deaths are increasing. Those who lost their jobs are not sure when they will get another one and the homeless were further distressed with nothing to survive. ILO reported that COVID-19 crisis can push 40 crores informal sector workers deeper into poverty with lockdown and containment measures affecting jobs and earnings.

Also, social distancing is a prerogative for rich. Further, most of the Indians residing in shanties, slums, crowded places and in small houses, where population density remains high, observing social distancing is a privilege. They faced the major brunt. By the end of March 2020, those living in famous Dharavi slum contracted the disease. The police and municipalities took brutal and violent actions against the poor.

The vocabulary of COVID-19 is new to many Indians. Terms such as social distancing’,quarantine’, isolation’,sanitizer’ have been rarely heard by the masses, and `social distancing’ was much confused with caste-based discrimination or untouchability as practiced in the feudal land. Rather the pandemic fuelled several prejudices against people in North East and against Muslim community. Not only common people, but at many places, doctors too were stigmatized.

The world ridden with superstitions where rationality has been down played, many took to drinking cow urine and jumped into barrels of cow dung, when some fell sick, others died.

Also, India has only 0.5 beds per 1000 population and spend just 3.6 percent GDP on health. Eighty percent of people work in unorganized informal sector getting hardly enough to sustain themselves and their families, expecting them to maintain social distancing is a mirage.

Because of dearth of health facilities and resources, those infected with the virus were stamped on the hands depicting that they are under quarantine and were send back to their homes to ensure that they stay within. This branding and labeling added to the stigma and many were beaten by the self-appointed vigilant mob.

More specifically, in India, much less resources are being spend on testing. When South Korea is testing 5,500 tests per million population, Italy’s figure is 2,500, UK 1,500, India is testing only 10 per million people.

The vast majority of already malnourished and anemic population which was already facing a crisis because of scarcity of health facilities are further being pushed into disaster. Those afflicted with diarrhea, tuberculosis, cancer and other such diseases could not receive treatment as COVID-19 swayed all manpower and resources. The All India Institute of Medical Sciences and other hospitals closed their doors for all other patients and those who have been stranded outside it were driven like cattle.

The virus took toll on women who are stuck with violent partners. Many countries such as US, UK, China and elsewhere have reported a rise in domestic violence incidents over past few weeks with strong link observed between quarantine and domestic violence. Even otherwise, in a patriarchal society, it is the women who carry the increased burden at homes in the middle-class homes. For the poor women situation is much worse, when they could not find anything to feed their kids and in the conditions of scarcity it is the women and girls who eat last and least.

The Virus of Polarization

The civil society, the religious organizations, the NGOs, students, trade unions, private citizens and several such groups do provide positive examples by arranging for community kitchens, distributing food and ration while helping poor and needy.

However, the corporate mainstream media continue to spew venom and hatred with their toxic anti-Muslim agenda and generated fake news as the case of Talibaghi Jamaat which hold its meeting in Delhi was highlighted. This is used by the special IT cells to stigmatize and demonize the Muslim community as the prejudice against them is further intensified. The situation is worsened to the extent that a petition is being filed in the Supreme Court seeking action against media to communalize the Nizamuddin Markaz issue. The WHO suggested the government of India to refrain from giving state wise distribution on the basis of religion.

The corona virus along with the communal virus polarized the society like never before. Blaming the entire Muslim community on the social media and otherwise further widened the divide along the religious lines. Social media is used to disseminate vicious hateful messages. Despite the fact that Article 14 of the constitution guarantees the right to equality, Muslim community is being attacked and demonized. The consequences of this vilification leads to situation where hospitals refused to admit or treat Muslim patients and people committed suicide because of social boycott.

COVID-19 Has Larger Implications

The virus will be eradicated, science will find a treatment to cure it, but how can the economy be revived? The German Finance Minister committed suicide as he was deeply worried over the ways to cope with the economic fallout of virus. India took $1 billion – the largest chunk of emergency loan from the World Bank to fight corona. Will this loan be sufficient enough to fight COVID 19, providing medical equipment to hospitals to cure patients and also to cure the dwindling and crushed economy? A report says that unemployment rate in urban India has risen to 30.9 percent whereas overall rate is 23.4 percent due to virus.

The pandemic has acted to undermine democracy. The discourse regarding re-engineering health system, augmenting the infra structure, creating social safety nets, all are suppressed and replaced by the coercive law enforcement using police brutalities. All this in undesirable because social calamity requires participatory governance and the informed public opinion. Also, more important is the restoration of normalcy in social, emotional, cultural and political terms. The entrenched hatred, the prejudices, the inequalities and vulnerabilities, all have been exposed and rather intensified by a miniscule virus. Can these be cured? Poor have been made to pay the huge price of unplanned actions. Is there any way to compensate their losses?

Tackling Virus

Epidemics in past have changed the way people live. Public health emergencies have forced people to think and adapt to their surroundings in innovative ways from finding cures, developing vaccines to changing habits, focus on urban planning, sanitation, introducing the concept of social medicine, data collection, developing accountability, putting pressure on societies to even launching revolution. Pandemic is a social problem and not an individual one.

This time too, this seemingly uncontrollable virus may bring transformation in the manner in which people interact with their surroundings and the eco system. Epidemic outbreaks in past have changed the old order and replaced it with the new world order. As Camus wrote, “What is true of all the evils in the world is true to plague as well. It helps men to rise above themselves. All the same when you see the miseries it brings, you’d need to be a madman, or a coward, or stone blind, to give in tamely to the plague”. The solitude and confinement have helped individuals to understand that `men could do without men’ or could bring in empathy and solidarity with social distance.

In today’s modern globalized world which is more connected than ever before, development is linked to epidemics. When a deadly virus is manufacturing deaths at a larger pace, fighting and eradicating against it is a collective concern. It is this concern of the humanity to take care and to ensure that dignity to all is available. Developing global solidarity, sharing reliable scientific information and developing trust and cooperation are some of the values that can be learned from an epidemic and be applied in the current situation to build coalitions at the international level.

The fight is between the virus and the humanity which requires global cooperation, unity and trust among humans and if the humans succeed in building solidarity, the humanity will win not only against corona virus but against all future pathogens. The global health policy experts need to find solutions in situations where resources are limited. Excluding half the population surviving in poverty is not an answer to fight the pandemic. The situation calls for frugal, innovative solutions while restoring the dignity to life and death. In the world threatened by hate and disintegration, the peace, truth and liberty need to be restored and established. Camus in his novel `The Plague’ writes, “… what we learned in this time of pestilence: that there are more things to admire in men than to despise”. May be this is true. The uncertainty in the struggle against corona virus may once again teach us the grammar of common decency of rising above oneself, respecting human rights, of solidarity and resistance.

The author is an advocate and a researcher practicing and advocating for human rights, gender and governance issues. She is associated with human rights and women’s organizations and has written several books, research papers and articles. Her recent book is titled as Women and Domestic Violence in India: A Quest for Justice.  She is a co-author of The Founding Mothers: 15 Women Architects of Indian Constitution. She is publishing regularly. Some of her writings are available here and here.



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