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Saturday, Jun 06, 2020 13:45 [IST]

Last Update: Saturday, Jun 06, 2020 08:03 [IST]

Covid-19 and Its Social Implication: From Racism to Social Stigma

Naresh Subba
The world has been witnessing a crisis ever since covid-19, it has killed million of people thereby infecting another millions of people across the world. Obviously, it has deteriorated the world's economy from zero to minus percent growth, fracturing the different sectors of economic activities across the leading economy. It has also changed the nature of political discourse across the world, where the big power has started the blame game in the origin of viruses. However, the less focus area is its social dimension, where the virus has a lot of negative implications, especially in the case of Indian context. Covid-19 has revived new form of racism, specially targeting the Northeast people in the mainland Indian states thereby calling them as ‘Coronavirus’, which can be equally seen as transition from “chinki” or “momo”, or Chinese or Nepali in older version before the outbreak of the virus. These issues hardly get any attention or no attention at all by the leading national media, partly because they feel less relevant to the Indian masses or it might be due to the agency of Northeast people in the larger social superstructure of Indian societies.
However, we have failed to understand the social implication of covid-19, which gave a new turn in mainstream Indian society thereby alienating the Northeast people by creating a situation of ‘self’ and ‘other’. This is mostly done with the ‘othering’ of Northeast people in other states that were largely prevalent while attacking them in a racial line. And I am pretty sure much of the Northeast people must have faced these forms of racism one way or the other in the other Indian states. But, what is more important to ponder upon in these circumstances is that the Indian society needs to improve the quality education thereby reforming the curriculum and also focusing on building on social consciousness among its people. This has also to deal with building a scientific temper among the general masses. The very idea of focusing on educational reforms is primarily because the rest of Indian states had failed to understand the Northeast states in general, which is primarily due to the exclusion of Northeast people’s history in the existing education system in India. To that end, the only way forward is to improve the education system in the country. So that it can control such kind of racism in the coming future.
Nevertheless, it is also true that the very idea of ‘self’ and ‘other’ discourse in Indian society is partly due to its complex historical past and also the failure Indian states to bridge those gaps, because the mainstream people might feel alienated in the Northeast society when they visit this region irrespective of their purpose and engagement. So, the reform in the education system and focusing on building scientific temper among the general masses can help India in both levels, one is to do with eradicating the social issues like racism and others are nation-building processes.
Another important social implication of covid-19 is that people are more active in social media and that engagement is equally good and bad in terms of its operation in the general masses. But, what I am more concerned about is that the very idea of narrative building by news (including print media) by calling the covid-19 as Chinese virus by so called educated elite in different sources and its further impact on Northeast people shows the emerging hyper nationalism in Indian societies with the ruling majoritarian at the centre. In this context, it has equally alienated those Northeast people who are coming home from other states and cities like Mumbai, Delhi, Chennai, etc., where social media has its negative and positive repercussions in the time of the covid-19 world. The positive side is obviously that it helps in sharing the ideas and knowledge among the different people across the world. Whereas, the negative impact is that the virus has created a fear psychosis among the common people across the societies. This issue is especially more prevalent while dealing with the Northeast society even though the positive cases of the covid-19 is very low. Thus, there is a clear demarcation of public fear among Northeast society; those who all are already there in their respective states and those who are coming from other states have to face the social stigma of the virus at the individual level. This has resulted in the ‘othering’ of own people thereby blaming them as the potential carrier of the virus to their own society.
The same kind of experience is going through in Sikkimese society and the level of social delusion among Sikkimese people has created a social stigma among its people. This is more prevalent after the state gets one positive case after a man returns from Delhi a few weeks back via bus along with other eleven members. This has shown the lack of scientific temper among our people. In many Indian states, people are taking viruses too lightly, which might be attributed by their survival as a first preference, where poor migrant workers are more vulnerable for their survival after they lost their jobs in the big cities. This has resulted in the daily wagers and many migrant workers find it difficult to return back their home in times of lockdown. However, the Sikkimese society has different responses where the government has been able to contain its people from virus until the 22nd May. In one sense, this is good news for state, but what we have witnessed is that the people in Sikkim are reacting too much with us, as if we all have carried the virus from where we are coming from, even though we are following the government guideline to maintain social distancing and further staying for 14 days in quarantine centre. The same kind of response we are getting way before in social media where people are blaming those returnees from the other states. This shows the poor mentality of our people, because blaming someone coming from outside is not the solution. This reflects the lack of scientific temper among our people while dealing with such pandemic situation, but rather this issue needs to be address by both the government and the civil society to educate our people to tackle with more preparedness in coming future, because there will always a kind a fear to deal with this virus until the vaccine gets develop.
The virus has reflected how vulnerable once life was in the time of pandemic. More importantly, it has also reflected how poorly we are equipped with our healthcare system while dealing with such viruses. This has also questions to reflect upon the priority of government spending on public health care across the country. In this context, Kerala has been able to tackle the virus properly, and other states should learn from it. Sikkim, on the other hand, has also dealt well by closing its border in time, so that they can be able to contain the virus from coming into the state. However, there is a lot of social stigma regarding the spread of virus among the general public of Sikkim. This has partly been attributed by the growing fear among the international community and also due to the increasing cases in the developed western nation and their inability to handle the situation over the virus. This has created a kind of fear psychosis because people are not experiencing the covid-19 case until 22nd May in the state, and they are just feeding with the news of fear. On the other hand, the social media has also created a kind of panic among the people, where we have seen the opposition of people and public opinion witnessed their reluctance to bring back those who are stranded outside Sikkim and willing to come home from other states. This has heightened after the state got one positive case, which came by bus from Delhi a few days back and has tested positive on 22nd May. This has followed by the furious comments on social media that people coming from other cities are bringing viruses into the state. The blame game starts in social media and we (those who are coming from other states) feel a sense of alienation while coming back to our own home, because people’s perspectives have changed with the toxic news they got through various means. To a certain extent, even the government has failed to understand the issue as we have witnessed that there is a sense of insecurity among the general public after the government is allowing its people to come back into the state.
While experiencing that kind of toxic response in the social media and also experiencing some kind of ‘otherness’ within our own society, I am often disappointed. Because we are called coronavirus in other states based on our appearance. It does not end there. The pace we wanted to run to also discounted our rights to exist. Being sandwiched between the mainland that calls us corona and the land where I could flee also considers us a potential carrier. Equality, where art thou? But, it is obvious that our society needs to learn many things from our daily experiences and strive for a better future. On the brighter side, this is the knight's move towards saving the chessboard rather than accepting a checkmate. A move towards a secure future with robust healthcare facilities. Because, we have witnessed the vulnerability of human cost in such times of pandemic, where we also observe that the government was lacking of testing facility, even though other states are testing thousands per day. This is the moment to retrospect our health care system in our state. Meanwhile, we need to appreciate the state government for putting up their efforts to bring back its people from across the country. But, the need of the hour is to tackle those social stigmas in our society. To that end, the government should reassure its people by saying that the government is there for the better health care of each and every Sikkimese in times of need.
The lockdown has taught enough lessons on the health care system of the world in general and our country in particular. And at the micro level, it has clearly reflected on how our society needs to change to deal with such kind of situation in future. This has also come as an eye opener to the larger community of the policy maker to reflect how important it is to build a scientific temper among its people in our day to day life. However, it is also the time to reflect upon ourselves, our society, people and the social system that we are living in 24x7. Thus, let’s hope for the early recovery of those who all are suffering from covid-19 and let’s fight this together rather than just blaming others thereby calling someone corona in the times of crisis. Because, the fact is that viruses don’t go away from this world, it is us who stay with viruses.
(The writer is the  Ph.D. Scholar,CEAS/SIS, JNU and can be reached at : nareshlimboo33@gmail.com)

Sikkim at a Glance

  • Area: 7096 Sq Kms
  • Capital: Gangtok
  • Altitude: 5,840 ft
  • Population: 6.10 Lakhs
  • Topography: Hilly terrain elevation from 600 to over 28,509 ft above sea level
  • Climate:
  • Summer: Min- 13°C - Max 21°C
  • Winter: Min- 0.48°C - Max 13°C
  • Rainfall: 325 cms per annum
  • Language Spoken: Nepali, Bhutia, Lepcha, Tibetan, English, Hindi