A multi faceted muddle
As COVID-19 cases across India rise, the only thing keeping pace with the contagion is the virus of hate and divisiveness
Scientists and researchers across the world have been studying viruses that cause diseases and make us sick. Our recent explorations have informed us that there are dozens of unrecognised viruses that lie hidden within our systems and that some viral infections are good as they develop our immune system in the long run, some cause disease that can be treated, while still others like COVID-19 have no immediate cure and must be prevented. All this aside, my focal point here is a social virus – the hate virus which shares at least three characteristics with its COVID-19 counterpart. One is its magnitude; the other is the speed with which it has infected the social fabric even in a crisis-ridden situation that we are currently in and finally that it seems incurable. The obvious difference between the two is that we are only too well acquainted with the hate virus as it surfaces with abrupt regularity in India.
Hate crimes, mob lynching, violence and stigmatisation of minorities is a routine matter. Anti-minority bias and propaganda have more or less gotten normalised, so much so that verbal and physical assaults, media bashing, boycotts, riots and innumerable other forms of discrimination that occur daily are hardly cause for despair with these targeted groups consigning themselves to the idea that this grim reality is an unavoidable aspect of our socio-political existence. Unlike bodily viruses that lurk within our systems, such defenceless acceptance of the hate virus by the vulnerable is both frightening and distressing particularly at a time when deep-rooted animosities, stigmas and prejudices are only getting sharpened and reinforced in ways that will have future consequences.
A public health expert, Nicole A Errett at the University of Washington, referring to the consequences of inequality during the present pandemic commented that "Pre-existing social vulnerabilities only get worse following a disaster and this is such a perfect example of that." While a common interpretation of this view would be that the old or those with underlying health conditions or the poor with little access to healthcare, housing and sanitation are more susceptible to being infected, the unfortunate reality as it unfolds in India lends a new leaf to this view. Newspaper reports at the time of writing this article stated that separate wards for COVID-19 patients have been created for Muslims and Hindus in Gujarat. So far, one was aware of treatment based on severity, age or sex-related factors. When did faith become a criterion for singling out patients? Are two viruses at work simultaneously?
Consider for example the otherwise justifiable outrage against the Tablighi Jamaat gathering in Delhi's Nizamuddin area in March attended by thousands of Muslims from India and abroad. Since the news first broke out, Islamophobic hashtags such as #CoronaJihad, #NizamuddinIdiots, #COVID-786 began trending on Twitter, exposing religious fault lines in a deeply polarised society. Playing on the word 'Markaz' which means centre, television news channels referred to the event as the 'epicentre' of the virus in India, unabashedly referring to the attendees as 'warriors of COVID-19', 'suicide bombers', 'Corona bombs', etc., to name a few. Religious tensions, already at a high in the wake of nationwide protests against the CAA and the recent Delhi riots got a fresh fillip with the arrival of the virus. Islamophobia in India was now for everyone to see.
Billy Perrigo in an article notes that: "Since March 28, tweets with the hashtag #CoronaJihad have appeared nearly 3,00,000 times and have potentially been seen by 165 million people on Twitter, according to data shared with TIME by Equality Labs, a digital human rights group. Equality Labs activists say that many of the posts are in clear violation of Twitter's rules on hate speech and Coronavirus but have yet to be taken down." Hatred and anti-Muslim sentiment were further fuelled by dissemination of fake news spreading religious bigotry in an attempt to demonise the entire community. Fake news ranging from a Muslim vendor spitting on fruits; to Muslims licking utensils; to Muslims sneezing in unison and Muslims spitting on cooked food to spread the virus showed how communal hate was brought to a boil with fabricated information being circulated at a rampant rate.
The Tablighi Jamaat gathering regarded as the 'super spreader' of the virus in India should have been suspended. But then again, the same applies to similar gatherings that were being held in Delhi and elsewhere in the country in defiance of social distancing norms. From political leaders hosting weddings in mid-March to recent birthday celebrations of a Karnataka MLA with hundreds of supporters on a day when states were recommending an extension of the national lockdown, is a matter of serious concern for all of us. Imprudence and negligence clearly transcend religious, ideological, regional and class barriers. From Punjab to Bhilwara in Rajasthan to Monera in Madhya Pradesh, thousands of people have tested positive and have been subjected to home quarantine.
The big question is, can a community be blamed for the spread of COVID-19 in different spots in India? Why did these cases happen? What was the transmission loop? Where, how and at what levels did negligence take place? These are questions that require unbiased investigation and not piling up blame on an individual or an entire community. Neither can communities be stigmatised nor can the state be held solely responsible for ensuring protection against a virus whose theatrics keep us on our toes daily. One must indeed be thankful for the civic sense of millions of people across the country who acknowledged the impending threat and acted with complete responsibility.
We are uncertain about the course COVID-19 will take in the next few days. Outcomes will depend on our responses. In the same vein, what happens to the hate virus? Science tells us that the less pathogenic a virus is, the lower will be the percentage of infected people getting sick. Both the viruses are attacking us very hard at the moment. The results of the hate virus are already showing with members of the Muslim community facing deliberate economic marginalisation and various forms of boycott and even violence. Exact numbers are not to be found but numbers are not always important. For those recovering from the disease, there is a new phase of public shaming and culpability that they are being subjected to. For the time being, we can only be optimistic that these viruses will not outpace our immune responses.