In mid-March, a 63-year old man succumbed to coronavirus in Mumbai. But not before he was treated to a spate of abuse and mistreatment by some neighbours and relatives. He faced abuse on social media and received messages of his own death. And this, in a middle-class suburb in the normally tolerant financial capital of the country.
The coronavirus is a metaphorical ticking time bomb. An ill-planned lockdown, the country’s poor medical infrastructure, and societal callousness means that this is a problem that will not disappear anytime soon, despite what cow-urine peddlers or Whatsapp forwards might say.
My fear is, in that time, coronavirus will act as an amplifier for several of the ills in society today – adding timely fuel to what is already a cinder block of hatred and bigotry. Why, we have already got a trailer of this. Christians in Kerala are being blamed for the spread of the virus.
It hasn’t stopped at that. What of the North-East, a region whose very presence seems to give the rest of the country a reason to flex its racism muscles? There have been several instances of name-calling since the pandemic started spreading panic in the country. The most shocking probably being a 74-year-old cancer patient being denied entry into his society (again, Mumbai) after being called “Chinese”, something that needed the Arunachal CM to intervene. Social media is flooded with stories of people from our northeastern states being called “corona”. Why, some of them even needed to come together to appeal to the country to stop calling them “coronavirus”, as a Delhi man spat on a Manipur girl last weekend.
Irrational incidents like this are becoming increasingly common, as mild concern over the pandemic has given way to paranoia. In such a situation, a society which has no qualms finding innocent scapegoats will continue to point fingers in any direction its bigotry allows it to. Already under immense strain, the marginalised sections of society – delivery personnel, domestic help, security guards – are being harassed and abused by an entitled Indian middle class who will let go of any sense of empathy. The video of a woman screaming at her building guard because he did not allow a maid to enter, keeping in mind the lockdown rules, is proof. In another viral video, a woman is seen almost running over a policeman, who is pleading with her to stay indoors.
Such irrational behaviour, where you can’t think beyond yourself, is only on the rise. The pandemic is bringing out the worst in people, turning them into bullies, making them almost inhuman. In Uttar Pradesh, migrant workers who have walked hundreds of kilometres to return from villages are sprayed in chemical solution, after being made to squat on the road, as if they were vermin.
In Mumbai, a man who returned from the US refused to give his 68-year-old househelp leave. He tested positive for Covid-19 and so did the woman, making her the first case in a Mumbai slum, where over 23,000 people are holed up in less than a square kilometre of land. In what seems like an escalation of paranoia, a 35-year-old man killed his younger brother for stepping out of the house during the lockdown.
The victims of such abuse are the most vulnerable. The ones who are unable to protect or fend for themselves. Those with less access to credible information, the inability to socially isolate given cramped living conditions, those who do not have the luxury to work from home, or the financial backing to take leave, the ones who don’t have the wherewithal to travel back home and be safe.
If we forget empathy amid this pandemic, we will lose a lot more than lives.
This depreciation of humanity is not restricted to India alone. It started with something that seemed less sinister – hoarding of toilet paper and other essentials. But it has led to physical brawls in supermarkets the world over. A woman in Australia reportedly pulled out a knife on a man over a toilet roll fight; in the US grocery stores had to reserve special hours for seniors because of panic-buying. There’s rampant Sinophobia in the US, UK and Italy. In China, 90 per cent of domestic abuse has been coronavirus-related and in New Zealand, after the first case was announced, people online began bullying the affected family.
Yes, coronavirus makes you sick with flu-like symptoms but it also sucks out all the decency out of you. A pandemic that threatens your life as much as it threatens that of others is all it takes for the facade of humanity to slip.
My fear for my own country is that the outbreak will just be used as an excuse to further agendas and manifest bigotry – harass the poor, bully the minorities. My worry is that, in India, some chasms will only widen, and perhaps can never be bridged. If we forget empathy amid this pandemic, we will lose a lot more than lives. If we in India needed another reason to stamp out this menace of a virus faster, we have it.
Deepak ‘Chuck’ Gopalakrishnan is a freelance writer and marketing guy who lives in Mumbai.
Stay updated with all the insights.
Navigate news, 1 email day.
Subscribe to Qrius