There has been an understandable desire to identify the result of these Covid-19 dark moments in global history when much of the world has entered into a grim era of social confinement and drastic economic decline. The need to view the pandemic in particular as an opportunity to ignite a sort of ‘reset’ social, economic, and political, reinstating a nostalgic image of a simpler, more community-focused period. The challenge of conjuring up the ‘imagined society’ that Benedict Anderson, the Chinese-born Irish political scientist, and historian, sponsored has become more complicated as our communities have become more complex in every sense and more motivated.
Over recent years, new identities have emerged and assumed an astonishing degree of power and influence, with societies polarizing around generational, socio-economic, educational, regional, and gender lines. Over the past five years, policy-makers and researchers worldwide have frequently discussed how an effective invocation of the community underpinning ‘the nation’ could provide the key to softening some of these seemingly insurmountable barriers – repairing the atomizing effects of our late-stage capitalist, digital era lives.
Distinctly, the social fabric of India thrives on interdependence, both emotional and economic, within families, relatives, and friends. Close physical interactions like living in crowded housing and other places, pushing and jostling are extremely common and are deterrent to ‘social distancing’ as dictated during this pandemic. Despite the lockdown, crowding has been observed in religious places, during travel (e.g. ‘herds’ of migrants on buses), or even while purchasing liquor at the shops. While ‘vertical distancing’ is the cause of inequalities in India, the ‘horizontal distancing’ put in place in the wake of COVID19 has further exacerbated these inequalities.
There was a considerable desire amongst citizens, too, to believe in the crisis alchemy of social trust. At the outbreak of the crisis, media news highlighted the ‘panic buying’ of essential items by the public -almost unduly drying up every grocery and stationery store. There have been huge worries among a section of the public on ‘alcohol availability and rationing – to the extent certain states witnessed suicide cases on alcohol issues. The pandemic has also made painfully clear the socio-economic differences in society. Sociologists have ascribed it to how much one can act on our fears and apprehensions depends on where the individual is placed in the social hierarchy; and the pandemic has made it amply clear.
The Covid-19 pandemic has substantially brought out some of the best characteristics of the people of India, a country that is proud of its ‘unity in diversity’. Nevertheless, it can not come as a surprise that demanding conditions that encourage a degree of competitiveness around access to scarce resources do not always contribute to the full expression of the immense capacities of human nature. Many other types of disruptive social activity that may apparently be less noticeable and more disturbing, whether lockdown woos, migrants’ haplessness while walking back home, frontline health workers facing ostracism- have unduly flared up.
There has been nothing endemic in this crisis that naturally suggests that populism in India will fall by the wayside in its aftermath – even despite the overwhelming responses to the Prime Minister’s appeal of “Junta Curfew”, ‘Clapping for medical professionals battling Covid-19’ and “9 minutes at 9 PM; it appeared that any sense of national unity the pandemic inspires is vulnerable to erosion as we over-compensate for our confinement in the transition, and in the face of the acceleration of social conflict and competition seething beneath the surface of this collective test. At the heart of this pandemic is in fact a very unevenly experienced situation.
While SARS Cov-2 began as the ‘globalists’ disease’ with the denizens bearing the brunt of hospitalizations, and indeed deaths with underlying medical and health conditions. Conditions that often reflect deep structural inequalities – including the higher rates of diabetes, high blood pressure, obesity, smoking, and respiratory illness – affecting citizens from lower socio-economic backgrounds. Those in cities are especially vulnerable, with air pollution linked to a higher propensity for complications and even death. As are those with mental health conditions. The trauma of another economic recession of this nature will be collectively shared, yet ultimately, the personal financial impacts of this pandemic will also be asymmetrical. While governments are offering unprecedented interventions to help shield citizens from the brunt of the disruption, but those efforts were yet to come good. There are obviously socio-cultural challenges stemming from the lack of proper provision of safety nets (e.g. food safety) for those hit the hardest in this pandemic situation due to the enormous scale of the problem when government schemes are likely to remain vastly inadequate. The impact of health, prevalent diseases, and National Programs could also be considerably felt.
The daily experience of this allegedly unifying crisis is also deeply subject to personal circumstances. While we all must undertake social distancing, limiting many of the pleasures of life –the environment in which we live through this ‘social distancing’ varies tremendously. The large majority of citizens living in crowded cities and slums hold very few choices to make to safeguard themselves and their near ones. The elderly have lost many of the activities and support services. Children are forced to confront the dark sides of the world previously unbeknownst to their innocent minds. Those who rely on medical support and interventions are treading water, and those with undiagnosed conditions may now only discover their illnesses at a dangerous moment in their spread.
The cost to society, and the economy, is rising day after day. Worryingly, those most susceptible to political disengagement are many of the groups overwhelmingly impacted in a negative way by the economic, social, and everyday experiences of the crisis. If there is an inevitable outcry from this crisis, it could theoretically intensify and embed disenfranchisement in some social classes, remembering the ‘lag’ on influencing political actions can be relatively long.
Amidst the obvious stresses, parents are given the chance of a modern lifetime to bond with their children. There will be tremendous opportunities for third sector organizations to have their work more visible and valued, and to build on the momentum of charitable and community acts compelled by the pandemic’s swift hand. There will be increased public pressure to reduce the pernicious environmental impacts of industry and transport. The pandemic has already compelled a surge in public sector innovation and an unprecedented degree of speed in policy responses and enacted changes to the welfare state that will be difficult to reverse.
Ultimately, administration and policymakers will need to ponder as to why is it unacceptable for citizens to experience acute poverty or social deprivation during a pandemic, endured at other times? Why must social media organizations intervene to combat conspiracy theories about the coronavirus, but are allowed to wash their hands of the harmful proliferation of conspiracy theories that work daily to undermine social and political trust? Why poor migrant workers will be left to fend for themselves the pandemic induced lockdown and loss of earning? Why front-line health workers, who risk their lives to protect people afflicted with Covid-19, should be subjected to stigma and ostracism in the community? Is it because the circumstances conjured by the pandemic are seen as so outside of reasonable individual agency? In asking ourselves these questions, we may well begin to expand our common societal understanding of what is ‘beyond a person’s control’, and in doing so, find ourselves willing to look with fresh and frank eyes at some of the more enduring structural barriers that have persisted in plain sight.
COVID-19 has to be fought at various levels. These strategies also have to evolve with time as new social and scientific evidence is reported. The social policy concerning COVID-19 also needs to encompass the most vulnerable sections of the population. Probably, the British economist and liberal politician William Henry Beveridge’s assertions hold good at this juncture i.e. investing in the rich endowment of social capital created by the crisis, by rethinking and rebuilding the institutional immune system that is our social sector. Committed leaders of the country can rise to this tremendous challenge, to thwart many simmering tensions and conflicts and inequalities. Perhaps the trauma and jolt of this fast-moving, wide-reaching pandemic will provide the grist to the mill to support this in a manner that was not possible before its emergence.
The views and opinions expressed in this opinion article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of The Eastern Herald.