COVID-19 in India: discrimination, displacement and disaster management
The COVID-19 pandemic has revealed people’s capacity for both misanthropy and social solidarity globally.
In the early days of the epidemic in Wuhan, China, when news about the emergence and spread of the novel coronavirus, SARS-CoV-2, started coming out, India, like many countries, saw a surge in racist incidents involving people who looked East and South-East Asian. The upsurge included some truly bizarre incidents in some major cities. People from the north-east of India, many of whom share phenotypic features with people of South-East Asian ethnicities (and, at the very least, can for the most part be distinguished from northern and southern Indians), experienced random acts of ‘opportunistic’ discrimination in the mainland. While harassing people perceived as Chinese is awful and despicable in any context, it is especially egregious in mainland India, which has a widely dispersed and arguably well-integrated population of north-easterners in the major metropolises. Here, any claims of ‘misidentification’ can only be described as disingenuous.
A woman from the north-eastern state of Nagaland was harassed when she visited a friend’s apartment in Mumbai – she was pursued aggressively by a resident of the building who filmed her while she waited for her friend to let her in. The woman and her friend had a fierce altercation with the other resident, whose explanation was that he thought they were from China. He demanded that they leave the building. Another woman, from the state of Manipur, was spat on and verbally abused in Delhi (in a neighbourhood that has a high proportion of students from the north-east) when she went out of her house to buy some food.
There is a video online that shows north-eastern students in Kolkata being manhandled by neighbours who allegedly wanted them evicted from their building and deported from the city. Another, allegedly filmed in Gujarat, shows a group of distressed north-eastern students being reassured by police after their landlords and neighbours harangued them for “bringing the coronavirus to India” and tried to forcibly evict them. In Gujarat, before the nation-wide lockdown was announced on 24 March, some north-eastern students were detained and ‘quarantined’ despite the fact that they had no history of overseas travel and no symptoms of illness. They were allegedly subjected to some vitriolic verbal abuse. A group of north-eastern students in Punjab took to social media to complain about being subjected to racially-charged verbal abuse and wanton evictions.
In Kolkata, members of the small and well-integrated Bengali-Chinese community faced verbal harassment on the streets. Some took to wearing t-shirts that said, in Bengali, “No, I am not the coronavirus. I was born in Kolkata and have never been to China.”
This was not aggression driven by panic. Yes, there is no doubt the outbreak has engendered widespread distress and panicked people – but these incidents are simply not examples of actions provoked by pandemic-related anxiety alone. In many cases, the outbreak has rekindled old fears, and precipitated an eruption of deep-seated prejudices. The people who harassed these strangers took advantage of the fearful atmosphere to act on their existing animosity and hostility. I doubt that their actions were driven entirely by COVID-19 paranoia. Rather, the paranoia was used as a springboard. This was opportunistic.
The fear that arises with emergencies can exacerbate existing animosities. It can, as seen in these cases, act as a catalyst for an outpouring of repressed anger and hostility. Those who have faced discrimination and lived with alienation in these places know that it does not take much for people to release their pent-up frustrations about having to live in close proximity to outsiders.
The often low-grade racial animus that exists in mainland India against people from the north-east has a long history. But India’s relationship with the north-east has another complex and critical dimension – that of institutionalised discrimination against mainland Indians in north-eastern states (or, more correctly, against those who do not belong to the dominant local ethnic groups in these states). Many states in the north-east have provisions preventing ‘outsiders’ from entering the state without permission, owning land and renting in the state, and working in the state. Violence against minority communities continues to this day. This is a complicated history. Its roots lie in India’s colonial past and the post-colonial nation-building project (which responded to secessionist struggles by allowing greater regional autonomy, with all its protectionist implications). When reports of discrimination against north-easterners in the mainland emerge, there is often a backlash that highlights ongoing institutionalised discrimination against mainlanders in the north-east. This impasse has reared its head in the COVID-19 social dissensus.
However, discrimination against north-easterners is not the only kind of discrimination that has appeared in India as a result of the COVID-19 outbreak. There have been reports of egregious discrimination against healthcare workers. Some doctors have taken to social media to complain about the callous behaviour of paranoid landlords. For example, a doctor I know revealed that his family have been threatened with eviction by their landlord, who was presumably motivated by a fear of having tenants (living separately) who may have a higher likelihood of being exposed to the coronavirus. The doctor wrote a distressed post on social media about the absurdity of the situation compounded with the difficulty of dealing with it in the midst of the crisis. Others have described the difficulty that many interns and trainees have faced in finding accommodation. Fear of contagion can manifest in many ways, and the wanton eviction of healthcare workers from their rented accommodation during this time is perhaps the most shocking manifestation of this fear yet.
These examples suggest that the there is a need for public health messaging in India that addresses unique social challenges. Mass hysteria born of irrational fears and racist attitudes can sometimes lead to physical violence and, in a situation such as this, it is necessary to contain the spread of anti-social behaviour. Whether the perpetrators are racists with an axe to grind or paranoid landlords, the government should expressly articulate its opposition to (and willingness to punish) violent and criminal behaviour.
One of the most significant crises India has faced during this pandemic has been the crisis affecting migrant workers in major cities, particularly Delhi. When the nation-wide lockdown was introduced, migrant workers in Delhi, many living precariously as daily-wage earners, found themselves completely stranded. Unable to work or continue living in Delhi without income, many tried desperately and failed to find transport back to their home towns and villages in the neighbouring states. Eventually, they decided to try and walk home. The lack of planning for migrant workers’ transit out of the major cities and return home precipitated a crisis of starvation, deprivation and ill health.
Arundhati Roy described this situation in an essay titled ‘The pandemic is a portal’:
The lockdown worked like a chemical experiment that suddenly illuminated hidden things. As shops, restaurants, factories and the construction industry shut down, as the wealthy and the middle classes enclosed themselves in gated colonies, our towns and megacities began to extrude their working-class citizens — their migrant workers — like so much unwanted accrual. Many driven out by their employers and landlords, millions of impoverished, hungry, thirsty people, young and old, men, women, children, sick people, blind people, disabled people, with nowhere else to go, with no public transport in sight, began a long march home to their villages. They walked for days, towards Badaun, Agra, Azamgarh, Aligarh, Lucknow, Gorakhpur — hundreds of kilometres away. Some died on the way.
The federal government has attempted to ameliorate this situation with commitments to additional food security for those who have access to food benefits. It has also introduced some interim quarantine measures but these have been criticised as impractical and inconsiderate. Faced with an unprecedented crisis, the government was not able to anticipate and meet the needs of the most vulnerable members of society.
Another bone of contention has been the media coverage of a religious gathering organised by an Islamic missionary group in Delhi. Many people who attended that event later tested positive for the virus, and some media outlets accused the organisers and attendees of having acted recklessly. Against the backdrop of recent Hindu-Muslim riots in Delhi, some of this media coverage was deemed inflammatory. There was some consensus, however, on the fact that local authorities should have intervened earlier to advise the organisers to cancel the event (and other mass events) given the risks involved and the eventual fallout.
Some reporters pointed out that the Hindu-nationalist government of the northern state of Uttar Pradesh had also allowed some Hindu religious events to go ahead just before and after the introduction of the nation-wide lockdown. Alarmingly, these reporters have had criminal charges filed against them for their reporting. The COVID-19 pandemic has unfortunately reignited communal tensions in India.
Charting India’s public health response is particularly challenging because health is mainly a state rather than federal responsibility. A major national issue has been an inadequate supply of personal protective equipment (PPE). While each state government has been organising its own supplies of PPE and ventilators for its public hospitals, the federal health ministry has had a role in determining the supply and managing the distribution of PPE. Overall, as in most countries, PPE has been scarce. By the time the government decided to ramp up stocks, the costs had escalated rapidly, leaving the government in a quandary. Many hospitals around the country have reported a shortage of PPE, which puts frontline health workers at risk. The federal government has promised to improve its supply but it’s clear that there are significant challenges ahead.
India is a major pharmaceutical manufacturing hub and a key global supplier of medicines. The federal government initially stopped exports of paracetamol, hydroxychloroquine and some pharmaceutical ingredients due to concerns about a shortfall in domestic supply. However, under pressure from the US government, it allowed companies to resume exporting their products, on the condition that domestic supply requirements are met first.
Overall, it can be argued that the federal and state governments have consolidated the public healthcare system and supported clinicians in hospitals while they plan for a surge in cases. How the pandemic will pan out in India is yet to be seen. Both my parents are doctors and work in a public hospital in the north-eastern state of Assam. My father is a surgeon and my mother is an anaesthetist. They have reported that the healthcare system there is preparing for a surge, and that the government has been supportive. Hospital clinicians, many of them young registrars likely facing a health crisis of this scale for the first time in their careers, are extending themselves to ensure that there is some surge capacity.
Reports about the crisis management situation in Kerala offer a glimmer of hope. The Kerala government’s approach to testing, contact tracing, quarantine and social welfare support (including counselling) has been the most advanced in India.
It’s important to acknowledge that the pandemic has also brought about an outpouring of charity in the community and boosted social solidarity in India. A group of people in Mumbai have got together to support people who may find themselves without food and essentials. A Sikh temple in Delhi has said that its premises can be used to set up isolation wards. Many other Sikh temples have boosted their charitable activities. A private company has spearheaded a campaign to feed people who have lost their livelihoods. The federal government has come up with a program to support daily-wage earners and other vulnerable people who may find themselves at risk of starvation due to the nation-wide lockdown and consequent collapse of the economy.
The COVID-19 pandemic has already caused a lot of devastation and will likely cause much more. It has revealed both the bad and the good, and both the irrational and pragmatic instincts, in societies everywhere. In every country that has been affected so far, the significance of strong public health messaging has emerged clearly. There are some shared challenges that all countries face, and some that are unique to each nation. India is a vast and complex country with significant social challenges and widespread poverty. Epidemics and pandemics have the ability to exacerbate existing crises and precipitate new ones. The public health infrastructure in India needs tremendous improvement, and the country’s political, bureaucratic and clinical leadership need to rethink how they communicate with the people, and to better understand and address their needs. Those living in an economically and socially precarious situation cannot suddenly transition to new arrangements without sufficient government support. Everywhere, the economic costs of the pandemic have been great, and will continue to escalate until the pandemic subsides and ‘normal life’ resumes. In India, an economic shutdown without adequate protection can lead to starvation and destitution. This is a reality that cannot be ignored.
India also has myriad social prejudices that, over aeons, have festered and continue to infect people’s thinking, sometimes exploding virulently into people’s consciousness and at other times percolating slowly and quietly in the collective unconscious. India is a country that likes its symbols and public displays of piety. While symbolic gestures do resonate widely, for most people, symbols alone are not enough. There is a great pragmatism and sense of practicality among Indians, and this is reflected in the salutary efforts of many governments, community groups and individuals. Many have adapted to the circumstances and have tried to meet the challenges the pandemic has presented head-on. Pragmatism, rational thinking and good planning can’t cure all ills, because many things are out of everyone’s control. But they can certainly help lessen the burden that this health crisis poses.