[Throughout history epidemics have served as excellent windows into social and cultural beliefs and norms. While this contagion-catalyzed uncovering of a society’s thought processes helps historians understand past societies in better ways, for present societies it can potentially be utilized as a way to understand our hidden biases, prejudices, and even kindnesses. Besides, epidemics could make our anti-intellectual society finally start listening to intellectuals, activists, and academics who have always tried to drive our attention to fault-lines that we don’t take seriously before a crisis (like COVID-19) ultimately bares them open for all to see. My attempt here is to collate different media and personal narratives from the COVID-19 epidemic in India that throw light on the social and cultural aspects of how we have reacted (and will continue to react) to this crisis. There are a lot of lessons we can learn and implement, but whether we do that or not is, again, dependent upon what general direction our sociocultural norms take as the epidemic progresses and dies down.]
Recent days have seen a pretty furious and raging debate in India on the appropriateness of the current stringent lockdown. A nationwide measure taken ostensibly to save lives seems to be preferring some lives over others. Many people have died not of the ailment (Covid) but of the cure (the lockdown). There is a strong opinion that probably the lockdown was “implemented in too much haste: given the human tragedy that unfolded in the days following the lockdown with epic numbers of migrants trying to get back home, evoking memories of Partition.” Harvard professor and mental health expert Vikram Patel wrote a detailed piece analyzing these effects of a stringent lockdown [I use the word ‘stringent’ on purpose: unfortunately many experts think that criticizing India’s lockdown equates to criticizing the time-tested public health approaches of social distancing, containment, etc – but no, a lot of commentators in India have criticized not the lockdown per se, but the nature of the lockdown]:
Some argue that the true impact of Covid-19 would have been much worse without a lockdown. Of course they are right. But if saving lives is the sole goal of a lockdown, then this begs the question why the country should not also consider similar lockdowns to reduce road traffic accidents and air pollution mortality. India has for many years now secured the leading place in the global ranking of mortality due to these two causes. The impacts would be even more dramatic and in all probability result in much larger numbers of lives saved. Yet, we seem to have shown no urgency at all to deal with these known, avoidable, and deadly factors. This is because such stringent policies have unwanted adverse impacts. We are forced to consider all the possible scenarios and options, ultimately choosing a policy with the least likelihood of harm.
Furthermore, preemptive strikes in medicine are rarely justified. For example, consider the surgical removal of both breasts when a woman’s genetic code suggests a very high risk of developing a rare form of breast cancer. One does not want the cure to be worse than the disease for the many people who would never have developed the cancer in the first place. When one balances the vast uncertainties about Covid-19 when the lockdown was imposed—at a time when there were just 10 deaths in the entire country—with the absolute certainty that such a lockdown would massively disrupt the lives and well-being of most of our population, it is hard to conclude that such a preemptive strike was justified.
Economist Jean Dreze has done an immense service to the people of India by employing his tremendous experience with the rural and underprivileged communities of the country to suggest ways out of the many adverse effects of the lockdown. Below are excerpts from his 21st April article ‘Excess Rice For Hand Sanitizers – But Not The Starving’:
To see these issues from another angle, consider Jharkhand. Millions of people there live on the margin at the best of times, and are now exposed to hunger and starvation. Eight lakh households have applied for a ration card, and chances are that most of them are poor households – one often meets them in the villages, sadly clinging to their crumpled application receipts. The Jharkhand government, however, is reluctant to issue ration cards beyond what the central government provides for – its finances are in bad shape and tax revenue is likely to crash this year. Covering all these households for a year or two, as an emergency measure, would make just a tiny dent in the FCI’s food stocks. The Jharkhand government recently sent a request for additional foodgrain to the Food Ministry, but it was turned down.
The situation resembles what economists call a “chicken game”: the states want extra grain for free, the centre wants to charge them some Rs 21-22 per kg, and both sides are digging their heels in the hope that the other side will budge. The poor are paying the price of this stalemate. Logic and fairness are on the side of the states: it would be quite hard for them to pay, while the central government would save money by releasing excess stocks that are expensive to maintain. This is not the time to squeeze the states – the centre should act in people’s best interest and open the godowns.
In other words, it is becoming more and more difficult for authorities and others in India to claim that the lockdown was a ‘necessary evil’. The ‘evil’ part is of course out there for all to see, but the ‘necessity’ is clear only if we are callous enough to ignore the gargantuan pain its sudden announcement and unscientific stringency have caused.
Below are excerpts from an interview with historian Indira Chowdhury on the role of the humanities in understanding and dealing with the current pandemic:
The biggest intellectual puzzle for me has to do with memory – what remains in collective memory about disasters and epidemics of the past? Do we forget because the epidemics of the past were very different and so far back in the past that they are “erased” from public memory? In the context of India, I can say that memories of epidemics and pandemics of the past remain in collective memory in different forms – the cemetery in Park Street, Calcutta, now Kolkata is full of graves from colonial times that are of children, women and men who died of influenza. In Bangalore, we have a temple to “Plague-Amma” – goddess of plague. The area called Malleswaram was built as a planned suburb in British India after the Great Plague of 1898. Local stories that we have encountered in the course of oral history projects undertaken in Malleshwaram, mention how households would write on their doors in Kannada, words addressed to the Plague Amma, “Plague Amma! Nale ba” – “ Plague Goddess! Come tomorrow” – meaning, do not come to our house today. The next day, the Plague Goddess would encounter the same words and would thus eternally defer her attack! These are apocryphal stories but give us an insight into what has remained with the community after a hundred years.