“The world is at your doorstep, but please do not step out”
The world has been turned topsy-turvy, caught within the clutches of a pandemic – COVID ’19 which has made this fast moving world grind to a halt. Eerie silence on the roads, deserted public spaces, restricted social interactions, no public gatherings, no religious worship – lockdown has been the strategy to handle this pandemic.
This time of lockdown has brought out the fractures and real fissures in our social setup. The lockdown has shown us the stark black and white of our social class – the divide between the rich and the upper middle class who have the option of ‘work from home’, who have the safety of the edict ‘stay home, stay safe’ and to practice ‘social distancing’. Most of them have been able to stock up provisions, replenish their groceries and vegetable shelves in spite of the astronomical rising prices. They are keeping themselves busy with online culinary experiments, webinars and the onslaught of movies on OTT platforms. The lament of this privileged section of our society has been the non possibility of exercise and travel, the difficulty of engaging children at home and the “boredom” that prevails!!
This is the section of society that the Government of India has thought of – the section that was kept in mind when the lockdown was announced within a few hours of its initiation.
But, what about the impoverished millions? The poor, the homeless, the itinerant communities, the migrant workers and the daily wage labourers, the destitutes – the larger section of marginalized – ‘Stay home’, they were told. “Where is our home?”, they ask. ‘Keep safe’, they were told. “How do we keep safe without access to food, to shelter, to water?”, is their cry.
These two distinct realities show the dark fissure in our social fabric – the glaring socio-economic cultural chasm that is still the reality of India today.
Sociology studies society as a complex, interconnected world of social institutions and their functions. Our significant social institutions – the family, education, religion, the economy and the State are all flustering in response to COVID ’19.
Families are home, together, spending the dire needed quality time, cementing stronger bonds of affection and understanding. But this is just the cream on the top layer. The lockdown has allowed the unleashing of increased instances of domestic violence and it has been an uphill task to reach out to these victims.
The education sector has closed its face to face interactions. It is said that 98% of the world’s education institutions have had to close their physical spaces. Schools, colleges and universities are closed and the resumption of normal schedules are predicted to be much later this year. But the field of education is witnessing a surge of online education. The norm of webinars, Zoom meetings and online classes is catching on and educationists are envisioning a new dynamic education platform for the coming year. It has its own hiccups too – internet connectivity issues, reach to students without access to technology and the miss of “human connect” between teacher and student.
The world economy has suffered severe backlashes. Trade and commerce are misnomers and nobody knows when and how the business sector will limp back to normalcy.
Religion has had to find new ways to reinforce its hold on people with worship and religious gatherings not possible in lockdown times. Online worship modes and virtual religious gatherings are the new norms. But the pandemic has also led to the questioning of beliefs held dear and the emergence of newer versions of faith and worship.
The most important social institution in these times is the State – the magnified role of rulers, Governments, legislators and bureaucrats across the world is critical. The Preamble to the Constitution of India describes the nation as a Socialist, Democratic country. The concept of Welfare State is the cornerstone of Indian polity. A Government that takes up major responsibility for the socio-economic development of all of its citizens is the succinct meaning of the term Welfare State. India still professes the concept but over the years the political elite have reduced Welfare state to largely populist policies and schemes providing freebies and on the other hand we have witnessed a distinct slowdown to the effectiveness of our Government sectors of health, education and welfare. Compromise in quality, inertia for effectiveness and a blind eye to quality enhacement has eroded these sectors coupled with paltry budgetary allocations and a blind eye to corruption. This eroding Welfare state has now had to handle a pandemic of magnificent proportions – here lies the problem.
The UN Office for Disaster Risk Reduction (UNDRR) explains a disaster as “a serious disruption of the functioning of a community or society involving widespread human, material, economic and environmental losses or impacts which exceed the ability of the affected community or society to cope with using its own resources”. The Disaster Risk Management cycle consists of Preparedness, Response, Rehabilitation and Recovery and Prevention and Mitigation. In the light of COVID ’19, the disaster is not just the virus and its health implications but also the disastrous effects on the economic and social situation of the world. But is this the way taken by the State? Were we prepared? Have we worked towards mitigation? Protection?
Instead of the true democratic polity that needs to be in place in the spirit of the Constitution of India what we are seeing is the legislative and executive branch of our State issuing orders and edicts with no regard for people centered participative governance further compounded by a seemingly blindfolded judiciary which is deafeningly silent!!!
Questions plague us as to the origin of this COVID ’19 – is it a bio-war? Is it to herald this as World War III? What is China’s role in the whole scenario? Or is it a more sinister form of the neo-capitalist globalized entities of the world?
Biomedical research evidence rampant on social media point us in different directions but we are nowhere closer to the answers we desperately need – a cure for the virus, a stop to the spread and the way towards a resumption of normalcy. Fast forwarding a few more months, it is astounding to think of the statistics of mortality and morbidity that we will see … Staggering!!!
What has been the response of the ‘common man’? Here too, we have shown two sides – the vibrant, helpful scions who have reached out to volunteer, help and work in the midst of the risks and the other stoic side of civilians protesting the burial of a doctor, blaming a particular minority community for no fault of theirs and clutching to the mythification of this virus to be chased away by pots clanging and diyas burning!!
Serious reflection and a lot of sustained efforts to mitigate the effects of this pandemic for the poor and marginalized, the ability of our polity and also civil society to rise up above caste, religion, language and class divisions to reach out to those who need help. The clarion call is for a people centered, rights based approach to both the health side and the human side of this disaster – the need to be prepared for the aftermath of the lockdown – to provide for the millions in need of a human approach to aid – not just decorative efforts at solidarity – but a concerted, democratic welfare state approach.
The pandemic has wakened us up to a ‘new renaissance’ – where we go back to nature and find new avenues of living a more connected, more humane, more meaningful life – a move away from the ‘blinding fast paced globetrotting’ life styles of recent past to a more engaged snail paced enthralling lifestyle in tune with Mother Nature and the people around us.
Will we ever be able to return to “normal”? Do we want to return to “normal”? What will be the “new normal”? Maybe this is our opportunity to revisit some of our existing normal and only take forward some parts of our existing normal into the future normal and change some others – a chance of the cleansing of our hearts, minds, lives and societies!!!! Let’s look at this as our ‘Bogi Pongal’ – a chance to evict negativity, give up discriminatory practices, fling out prejudices and false pretenses and hang on only to our strong value systems of humanity. This upheaval has brought us all together – as true global citizens, we have faced the fury, battled on the sidelines across national boundaries and we will triumph –strengthened by our cleaner skies, safer environment and revitalized Mother Nature!
Dr Anita Christine Tiphagne teaches Sociology at the Department of Social Sciences, Lady Doak College, Madurai