More carrot, less stick
Educating the ignorant on the dangers of the virus and the efforts undertaken to combat it is the responsibility of all ‘opinion leaders’ in society
For India, COVID-19 has come as yet another divisive force in a communally charged country. The pandemic came when the Muslim sentiments were at its prickly peak against India's Citizenship Amendment Act 2019 (CAA). Before that, there had been several issues which were seen as hurting the sensitivities of the Muslim community in India. The scrapping of Article 370 and changes in J&K administrative arrangements had set the ball rolling. But the issue remained confined in J&K only barring some community leaders joining the chorus of opposition. Enactment of 'triple talaq' as a penal offence was a hit to the Muslim male ego, though it gave much-needed relief to the women. The Ram Mandir judgment was another blow to the Muslim feelings. But none of these could merit the community taking to the streets and protesting. CAA acted as the trigger to let loose the pent up dissatisfaction of the community. COVID-19 came at a time when CAA protests were being planned for a fresh round of intensification post-Delhi riots, putting an end to them.
COVID-19 demands social distancing and is inherently against any religion or religious activity. The three major religions in India — Hinduism, Islam and Christianity — fell afoul of the strict adherence to the social distancing norms. It was not Muslims alone breaking the guidelines. Also, there had been many occasions of people assembling for celebrating birthdays, marriages or simply for marketing.
Two factors caused this behaviour. First, a lack of understanding of the seriousness of the virus and its effect, more so in a country densely populated with the ignorant, the superstitious and the gullible. Second, an illogical belief in their immunity to the deadly virus. The behaviour of certain minorities in India has its origin in both these factors.
The question is how should one approach the problem at hand, stopping the spread of the deadly virus through a strict lockdown and social distancing. Any administrator knows that one must use the policy of carrot and stick. Sadly, what we see now are sticks being freely used, that too after the event. When our frontline health workers — doctors, nurses and accompanying law enforcers — get brutally attacked by crowds, the administration has no option but to use the stick. But that is after the event. Can't a democratic society think ahead and take certain steps to assuage the feelings of people who are refusing treatment?
The point going amiss is that people resort to breaking the law when they feel provoked. In this case, there are too many rumours being floated among the poor and more so amongst religious minorities. Close to my housing complex, there is a village where migrant workers stay. They serve as household help and many of them are Bengali Muslim migrants. Some of them are worried since they have been told that the lockdown means they will be singled out and transported back to their native place. Read this rumor with what was circulated against CAA and the reason for these poor people believing such gossip will be clear. Unfortunately, we have no messages for these people who are worried about their next meal under lockdown and are burdened with this belief that this contagion is yet another instrument to send them out.
Sadly our administration, busy as it is with the daily struggle against the virus, has no time to assuage the illogical fearmongering of an important section of people whose service is a necessity. Thus, when a team goes in to treat Coronavirus affected household, it is easy to provoke these people to savagery. While falling prey to rumours is an offence, can we say that it is not our responsibility to assuage the frayed nerves of the marginalised? The instance cited, that of worried household help seeking advice was a clear enough indication of what needs to be done. Bashing lawlessness, punishing the unruly and taking stern measures all are steps for after the event. Before that, there is a responsibility to send clear messages to those who are perturbed that there is nothing to fear but the virus and for that certain steps are necessary.
When a large section of people feel that the measures adopted to prevent the virus are deadlier than the virus itself, then there must be something wrong in communication on the issue. Can we change their perception by only using rules and cracking whips? Clearly information of infection is being suppressed, patients are hiding and lax behaviour is aiding the spread of the virus. Unless the entire community realises the benefits of following a drill, the gains of the lockdown will go to waste. And such communication cannot be the responsibility of the administrative machinery.
It is never too late to launch a campaign to educate the people irrespective of their faith. This cannot be left to the local beat constable but must be thrust on all 'opinion leaders' who must now play the role of saving India from the deadly effect of the imported virus.
Views expressed are strictly personal