SOAS University of London

Covid-19 in India

10 April 2020

Avinash Paliwal and Edward Simpson

‘You are on mute’ and ‘Once all this is over’, phrases of the pandemic. We learn to do business over the internet, and look to the future as if it were as innocent as the past. These words typify transformations - big and small – in the way we live our lives. Lockdowns, curfews and social distancing have been brought in to restrict the spread of a virus that has shown more powerfully than any social science how the world works, how we are connected, and how we are differentiated and counted.

Lockdowns have made us all aware of our daily freedoms through their partial curtailment. To be seen, but to be on mute is a simple enactment, parody almost, of the condition of those without voice, those who are not planned for, and who are not the normative figures for whom a lockdown is imagined. Marginality highlighted by lockdown.

No wonder there are questions, if not answers, about how the world might look like ‘once all this is over’. Such questions, and the strong expectation of impending change, themselves mark a shift, both in people’s minds and in global realities. There is ample evidence of such shifts: the desperation of economically developed countries to import ventilators, in the coalescing of online support groups, in the competition to develop a vaccine, and in the challenges to global supply chains during lockdown.

At SOAS, we have been following the interaction of the pandemic with states, systems, and societies the world over. Our particular focus here is on India, which has produced a mix of surreal, scary, and heart-warming stories and images over past weeks. 

At 8.30 PM on March 24, in an address to the nation, Indian prime minister Narendra Modi announced a three-week national lockdown beginning 12AM. With the number of positive cases and deaths still low, the lockdown would help contain the spread of the ‘maha-maari’ (pandemic). The start of a historic experiment.

The announcement triggered events that will have a critical impact on India’s social, political, and economic make-up ‘once all this is over’. Planned only to the extent that people were asked to observe a fourteen-hour ‘Janata curfew’ (people’s curfew) before the actual lockdown, Modi’s announcement caused a late-night rush for essentials (he later ‘Tweeted’ that people must not panic and all essential stores will remain open).

Over the next few days, instead of being locked down in their homes (India also has a huge homeless population), hundreds of thousands of daily-wage labourers began an exodus from Delhi and other metropolitan cities. Unable to earn money and pay rent, many decided to walk home (often hundreds of kilometres away) given limited transport. 

A single measure to contain the pandemic brought sharp relief upon India’s class divisions. As thousands of people walked on empty expressways, it became clear that the lockdown was unfriendly to the poor. Relief measures followed, but poverty is still probably a greater risk than Covid-19 for those for whom the lockdown was not imagined.

Like other moments of crisis, the pandemic has reminded us of the nature of the social contract in India, with people looking to the state for answers and protection. At the same time, films have circulated of police using sticks to beat people and overturn the vegetable carts of those defying the curfew. Old habits have taken on new meanings, discrimination against those who look ‘different’, domestic violence and communalism take on pandemic forms.

To be clear, one did not require Covid-19 to know that communal bigotry is on a steep and violent rise in India. It’s an old issue, and if one had forgotten its salience then the recent Delhi riots during US president Donald Trump’s visit to India, made its endurance horrifically apparent. But the rage around a public event (of around two thousand people) held by the Tablighi Jamaat, a Muslim missionary movement, in Delhi’s Nizamuddin Markaz on March 13-15 introduced the communal vector in India’s fight against Covid-19.

The Tablighis were forewarned by the police and senior government functionaries to not hold the event, but they went ahead, nonetheless. As some people began showing symptoms, it became clear that the gathering had become a hotspot for transmission. What paced faster, however, was the communalisation of the pandemic. Media commentators blamed Muslims for anti-nationalism as #CoronaJihad began to trend on social media. The fact that various other gatherings, including religious Hindu events, also went ahead (sometimes in the middle of the lockdown) remained largely ignored, if not totally unnoticed. 

Yesterday, 6,237 cases, deaths 186, and 569 recoveries; today, 6,771 cases, deaths 228 and 635 recoveries. There is much debate and (geo)politics over data, statistics, and ‘flattening the curve’ on Covid-19. Numbers from China, for instance, are being openly challenged, even if it is clear that neither a democracy nor an autocracy is better-suited to respond to a pandemic. Battling a virus with statistics when it also has asymptomatic manifestations is a distraction at best and a game at worst – but one the world is competitively playing. The epidemiology is complicated, the numbers of hospital beds in India low, the lockdown was a bold move, but surely only the opening one in a much longer game.

For every video of police brutality, there are others of police showing kindness to those in need. For the homeless, there are good Samaritans. For every racist comment and communal slur, there is community pushback and support. For every doctor who’s being harassed for doing their job, there are others who have come out against such mindlessness and offered support (and PPE protection). People have stepped up to help each other in innovative ways and with a strong sense of social unity and responsibility (that often comes with a crisis of such a scale). Many are working behind-the-scenes without fuss or publicity to support the marginalised. They are doing this without racial, communal, caste, and gender biases. The cacophony of hate-filled populist media might make one believe that India’s societal cleavages are more pronounced than the tissues that bind the country together. But it is these unsung, unheroic, acts of resistance to both the Coronavirus and social malice that instil faith in India’s resilience as a state and society. 

The lockdown itself, however inconvenient, has not yet bogged down people’s spirits. For those lucky enough to be with family or loved ones (and are stocked up with supplies), being at home has offered an opportunity to celebrate togetherness, have fun, and reflect. Friends in Gujarat and Odisha are at home making their favourite dishes, teaching their husbands how to cook and telling the stories to their children they had always dreamed of telling. Others are bored.

Albert Camus wrote in The Plague (1947): ‘ … the only way to fight the plague is with decency’. For, once all this is over, the strength of Indian society to withstand the onslaught of a pandemic will be counted less in numbers of deaths and social vitriol, and more in the countless compassionate gestures shown by one towards another.