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Researcher Srividya Balasubramanian describes how she experienced the early phase of the Covid-19 Pandemic in the Indian city Ranchi where she was conducting fieldwork.

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Crowded Street in Mumbai, India

Crowded Street in Mumbai, Photo: PDPics/pixabay

My first reckoning of the spread of the novel Coronavirus (Covid-19) in India came from a trip to the one shopping mall in Ranchi, the capital city of the state I was conducting my PhD fieldwork in. After a week-long visit to a rural district, I was craving some ‘western’ food and comforts and therefore found myself in the only place in the city with a multistoried shopping experience, complete with escalators and the prospect for decent coffee. Only this time, I was greeted by three security guards who sprayed a watered down liquid disinfectant onto my hands and insisted that I rub my palms dry in front of them before entering. Inside, my eyes met a large poster that said “Don’t handshake… do the Namaste, India” and this was when I realized that the virus had become something more than a headline in the international news publications. The pandemic had slowly but surely arrived in the subcontinent.

Since my visit to the mall in mid-March, the exponential global spread and concomitant responses to the virus (and testing) are nothing short of drastic and unprecedented. While the number of cases and deaths keeps rising, it is interesting to observe the reflexive recourse that the freely moving virus has elicited in many countries and supranational entities. The virus’s main objective, after all, is proliferation and, unlike the flow of global capital, it needs the availability of globalized, mobilized host bodies to thrive and promulgate. Bodies which now have to be confined to their own homes, cities, and countries in response to the virus. Surveillance, controls, and restrictions that are now ramped up to curtail the movements of these bodies.

While the virus spreads without any sense of morality, we are forced to reflect on the systems of inequalities and apathies that are so deeply entrenched in our societies. Nowhere can the socio-economical fault lines of the pandemic be more clearly gauged than in India, where the events following the announcement of the 21-day COVID-19 containment lockdown have wreaked havoc, reinforced structural inequalities, and only further vitalized the spectre of communalism. To be clear, none of these factors came to existence solely following the virus outbreak. In fact, this year has been quite eventful in the country for having witnessed sustained mass uprisings against the controversial Citizenship Amendment Law (CAA)[1], followed by a streak of violence against protesters (including one in Jawaharlal Nehru University[2], the country’s leading public universities) in various cities, and a mob violence turned rogue in Delhi’s north-east[3], which resulted in the loss of several lives, cleaved community ties and sparked an uneasy stasis. It is in this time and space that the virus arrived - incubating and insidiously creeping into the nation’s imaginary – with facemasks and hand sanitizers becoming coveted commodities in an already scarred and polluted social terrain. Elsewhere, within the Hindu fundamentalist circles, cow urine elixirs and parties were gaining traction[4].

Less uncanny, of course, is also the brash mode in which the lockdown was announced by Prime Minister Narendra Modi on the night of March 24. From that midnight onwards, he announced, the nation of 1.38 billion would be on lockdown for 21 days. With a complete suspension of all non-essential and transport services (barring goods) and sealing of state borders, the unprecedented lockdown gave the population a mere four hours to prepare. For the poor, it served as just another grim reminder, much like the overnight Demonetization in 2016,[5]  that the national mode of planning – no matter how hurried and haphazard –would continue to be unconcerned and unapologetic to their suffering. But while the Demonetization demanded their participation in a propitious experiment towards a cashless economy, the lockdown is a prescient warning for the real cashlessness that is yet to come.

As the concept of ‘social distancing’ travelled to the quaint villages from the cities, so did the unwanted migrant labourers that were expunged in the throes of the lockdown. While the middle class households were able to swiftly appropriate “work from home,” shop for groceries online, and practice self-isolation, millions of hungry, thirsty, and ‘unemployable’ daily wage labourers and their families thronged in groups – huddled and holding each other - while they marched hundreds of kilometres home to their villages. For them, the prospect of unemployment, homelessness, and starvation were far more apparent than an imminent pandemic[6]. They fought their way through deserted highways, police hostility (in the form of baton-charges, squats, and sit-ups), and hunger towards a modicum of safety, dignity and familiarity. Even then, reports of villages closing borders to its own incoming residents started appearing. Out of fear of contracting the virus, they blocked access to roads and restricted who came in and who or what went out[7]. Here too, then, the concept of isolation and self-preservation takes precedence as villagers shun their own kin to protect themselves from the virus that could be introduced into their homes ‘from the city’. Crops that need to be harvested now stand infested with worms[8]. In a sense, the highways and the slums have become the real stage for the unfolding drama of the lockdown, throwing the irony of social distancing into sharp relief. For many working in the informal sector (including maids, casual labourers, cleaners, municipal workers), a physical distancing of their bodies from their higher-class, higher-caste employers was always the norm. And really, how is social distancing supposed to look like, when poorer families with ten members share a two-bedroom-shack?

Absurdly, even the token gesture of appreciation to health workers, entreated by the Prime Minister in the form of banging pots and pans from balconies and windows[9] seems to have faded into oblivion, as doctors and nurses fighting the virus are evicted from their homes by anxious landlords. The very frontline workers that are being celebrated and lauded in Europe, are ostracized in their own homes and societies. It is startling to note, time and again, how these distinct waves and impulses of “othering” become the dominant force structuring collective thought and personal convictions during exceptional times.

Distancing also happened to foreigners who found themselves in India as the situation escalated. As the virus was branded as “foreign”, tourists found themselves being discriminated against, socially shunned, and physically isolated in luxury hotels (the only places left that would allow them to stay)[10]. Most of them were advised to lay low and remain invisible for their own safety. As the uncertainty and hostility grew, they waited to be repatriated to their home countries. In Ranchi, after the first case of the virus was recorded at the end of March, foreign nationals found ‘hiding’ in the city’s mosque (Bari Masjid) were rounded up and arrested without reason and then put under quarantine and strict isolation. Even outside the bedroom window of my rented flat in Ranchi, a new, improvised “fence” was erected to restrict the movement of those from Hindpiri (the part of the city where the first case, and subsequently, those hiding in the mosque were found) into the neighbourhood. It was, so the general consensus seemed, time to take matters into one’s own hands. [See photo below article]

While class trumps religion in the case of the mass exodus of migrant workers from the cities, religion reclaims its lingering status as a formidable societal presence. After all, the wounds of the CAA-NRC[11] protests and the communal violence in Delhi are still fresh and untended. If deemed a ‘foreign virus’ or the ‘China virus’ elsewhere, here it was appropriated and anthropomorphized to become a ‘Muslim’ one. Tablighi Jamaat, a proselytizing Islamic movement, had held a convention in mid-March in Delhi’s Nizammudin area before the lockdown was announced. Attended by local as well as several international participants from countries with high Covid-19 infection rates, the event became a hotbed for cluster transmissions. The entire neighbourhood was cordoned off, members tracked down, booked for negligence and charged under the National Security Act. News and rumors around Muslim men spitting and coughing at healthcare workers started making the rounds in mainstream news and social media networks. Widespread use of terms like ‘Corona Jihad’ allowed the Hindu majority to insinuate an affinity between the deadly virus and the already stigmatized Muslim community[12].  “One of the key features of anti-Muslim sentiment in India for quite a long time has been the idea that Muslims themselves are a kind of infection in the body politic,” writes Arjun Appadurai[13]. “So there’s a kind of affinity between this long-standing image and the new anxieties surrounding coronavirus.” Ultimately, the virus may come and go, but it's exacerbation of communal prejudices will be protracted.

Over the last two weeks, alongside the news of an escalating pandemic and instances of inept global leadership, we have witnessed the heart-wrenching images of the migrant workers battling military style responses and being hosed down with industrial disinfectant, healthcare workers using improvised personal protective equipment, and makeshift shelters populated by the despaired. Indians, have been asked to pay attention to their distressed health systems, broken supply chains and weak security provisions to fend the neediest from hunger and poverty[14]. But while the pandemic is reshaping the contours of global geopolitics[15], within India, it continues to propagate along the social cleavages of class, caste and religion. Pandemics have always precipitated widespread panic[16],  but for a globalized, post-liberalized India, these ruptures reveal the fragility of its socio-economic fabric.

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[1] https://edition.cnn.com/2020/01/16/asia/modi-protests-india-analysis-intl-hnk/index.html

[2] https://time.com/5760597/what-happened-during-jnu-attack-india/

[3]https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/mar/01/india-delhi-after-hindu-mob-riot-religious-hatred-nationalists

[4]https://www.thehindu.com/news/national/coronavirus-group-hosts-cow-urine-party-says-covid-19-due-to-meat-eaters/article31070516.ece

[5] https://qz.com/india/1744667/three-years-after-demonetisation-what-indians-think-of-the-move/

[6]https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/mar/30/india-wracked-by-greatest-exodus-since-partition-due-to-coronavirus

[7]https://www.newindianexpress.com/states/odisha/2020/apr/05/villages-shut-down-for-outsiders-2125940.html

[8] https://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-india-52176564

[9]https://www.bbc.com/news/av/world-asia-india-51997699/coronavirus-indians-bang-pots-and-pans-to-support-fight

[10]https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2020/03/foreign-tourists-face-hostility-india-coronavirus-panic-200324083648362.html

[11] The Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) and the National Register of Citizens (NRC).

[12] https://time.com/5815264/coronavirus-india-islamophobia-coronajihad/

[13] ibid.

[14] https://www.newyorker.com/news/q-and-a/how-covid-19-will-hit-india

[15] https://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/2020-03-16/will-coronavirus-end-globalization-we-know-it

[16] David Arnold (2015) Disease, Rumor, and Panic in India’s Plague and Influenza Epidemics, 1896–1919 in Empires of Panic: Epidemics and Colonial Anxieties. Hong Kong University Press.

The fence outside my bedroom window in Ranchi made out of makeshift rods and bushes to restrict the movement of those coming in from the city. Photo: Srividya Balasubramanian