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COVID-19 Response Too Has to be Sanitized and Rationalized: Overreaction is as Dangerous as Underreaction

[avatar user=”Amarjit” size=”thumbnail” align=”left” link=”file” target=”_blank”]G. AMARJIT SHARMA[/avatar]

A few weeks ago, a senior doctor at Ganga Ram Hospital, Delhi, spoke with NDTV and urged people to ‘overreact’ to contain the spread of coronavirus disease (COVID-19) and prevent the likely explosion of mass infection in India. As the number of confirmed and reported cases of positive COVID-19 person rise in India, the primary methods suggested to contain the spread of such virus are to practice social distancing, sanitization of our hands regularly, lockdown, and to stay at home. The doctor raises the concern that we have not taken the virus seriously enough, and there is widespread non-compliance to government and medical expert’s advice and regulations.

For a few moments, I felt such a suggestion for overreaction seems to be a suitable method. But how do we overreact is a serious question, although we understand what it minimally means to be on alert, remain safe, and not give the chance of the virus spreading from one to another. The medical expert’s view, however, appears to be losing its ground and applicability once we start thinking more into the concept of reaction vis-à-vis the reality. There is a much more severe issue than the issue of non-compliance and unruly people. Certain developments arising in front of us may suggest the problematic nature of such overtures.

In the few days times from the day such remark of a senior doctor was heard, (not causally related to the suggestion of the doctor), we also listened to a series of unfortunate developments. We heard that few people from northeastern states, staying in certain localities in Kolkata and Delhi, were racially abused and assaulted, referring to them abusively as ‘Coronavirus.’ We are also reminded of another interview in BBC India, telecast at the beginning of March when the COVID 19 cases in India were low. In the interview, one of the panelists from China spoke of her experience of visiting an Indian family. The Indian family took her presence as an instance of how China is trying to destroy India by sending her. The fact that a large number of Chinese companies are working in India and many Indian companies depend on Chinese resources has not stopped such racial othering.

Then we heard of viral Whatsapp message in the last week that shows a list of people arrived in Manipur sometimes in January 2020 (although the report was unconfirmed). The list of people shows 21st January 2020 as the reported date of arrival of these persons. The record became viral on the Facebook page. This viral record, officially unconfirmed, suddenly sparks lots of speculating remarks and a panic situation, of the likelihood of confirmed and COVID-19 positive people already arrived in Manipur.

Incidentally, the list contains the name of a person who arrived from Italy and stayed with one of my students at Jawaharlal Nehru University, Delhi. My student urgently came out with a criticism of the way people circulated unconfirmed information and clarified that her friend was non-affected, and have timely reported to the concerned health departments. I remembered that my student had already informed me (before her clarification on Facebook) that she had a friend with a travel history but not a positive case. Fortunately, things settled down as many informed people question the authenticity of the list and the way people circulated fake news and information without any investigation and verification. Thanks to self-quarantining and out of what sounds like the panicking fourteen days.

But then, one evening, we got a viral message of a person in Jorhat reportedly positive with the COVID-19. A letter that looks like a doctor’s testing report was viral without any official confirmation whether the person was positive or negative. But some of the online media reportages already announced the case as the first positive case in Northeast India. Fortunately, later people came up with another report on Facebook and Whatsapp that the information was not right, and the second test taken showed that the person was negative.

Now, however, we heard the first officially confirmed case of coronavirus of a person recently returning to Manipur from London. This time the panic is real and justified, but the reaction is more concerning than the virus. People are angry about why she did not quarantine at the airport and why she did not inform in times. The speculation and reaction are high, and there is more circulation of the unconfirmed information stigmatizing her in Facebook pages and Whatsapp. People started enquiring about the list of people who likely traveled with the confirmed person. There is a situation, as a result, in the social media platforms in which people are tracing information about those people who arrived in Imphal with the person on 21th March, like the hunting of criminals and culprits.

One thing is sure by this time. COVID-19 is here in the region, not just about the globe and nation, but in our area with its regional, health, and social ramifications. The circulation of a series of unconfirmed information plays an unsafe role in our digital reality. Digital circulation of non-verified information that the person came by bus from Guwahati to Imphal to avoid check at Imphal airport (and fellow travelers inside the bus might be affected) and commandos have cordoned the entire area around the residence of the person reflect a completely different non-sanitized approach of our digital society. It is not a response that suggests how to contain the virus and limiting the spread by quarantining the person.

What is the problem with our response? Three kinds of problems in our response as human beings, citizens, leaders, and government can be identified. One problem is, we are confronting each other, giving the color of racism, xenophobia, and stigmatization instead of giving an effective and collectively shared response to the virus. The reported news of racial remark given to northeasterners staying in Delhi and Kolkata is a case in point. The locals call the northeasterners as ‘coronavirus.’ This incident is another reproduction of racial othering of the people in the region as those ‘whose affinity with the Mongoloid stock of people and whose loyalty to India is suspected.’ However, beyond racial overtones is the presence of xenophobic tendency of hating outsiders, foreign to our society. It happens even to the members of the same ethnic group of people. A viral video in social media shows some people in Manipur fencing community areas, saying that ‘we don’t want foreigners.’ A seeming hatred of the other and outsider. A stigmatization of the infected person also manifests in these actions, although concern to contain the virus is understandable. One can also see on global scale instance of racial othering and xenophobic tendency in the remark of US President Donald Trump, who termed COVID-19 as ‘Chinese Virus.’

Further to this problem, of what I call non sanitized response (unconfirmed, unverified, and uncheck influence in the context of social media), a class dimension can be seen. Call for homestay, although an effective method, sounds like a much-needed holiday for a class of people who regularly travel across the world and states for various works, and an opportunity provided for them by the virus. But, as the public opinion slowly raises as a serious concern, the street vendors and daily wage earners cannot afford to be at home and staying away from the regular sources of livelihood. The images and stories of Bollywood stars, political leaders, business persons, etc. clapping and banging utensils while there are a large number of daily wage earners struggling on the street show unequal capacities of people to respond to the situation unfolded due to COVID-19. Thanks to some of the new initiatives seen taken in the states in India for the unorganized workers and daily wage earners.

Secondly, in our response to COVID-19, citizens are least discussing the history of failed state capacity on health infrastructure, delivery and accessibility of health care services, and the absence of adequate and decentralized health administration. A brief perusal of the situation in India can give a sense. India’s GDP for health is reportedly less than 1.5 percent and is one of the lowest in the world.  A Parliamentary Standing Committee Report, Government of India on drug pricing (February 2019), has reported that the government has failed to check the increasing cost of essential medicines. Rural Health Statistics 2017 has shown that India would need more than 20 lakhs doctors by 2030, and the sub-centers and Primary Health Centre (PHCs) are short by more than 10,000 Auxiliary nurse midwives (ANMS) and 99,000 male health workers. According to an article published in IndiaSpend (6th September 2018), there are both high cases of death due to poor-quality health care and insufficient access to health care. A report quoted in the same article shows that inadequate access to health care caused a significant share of deaths from cancer (89%), mental and neurological conditions (85%), and chronic respiratory conditions (76%).
A study on health infrastructure in Northeast India (Farhat Hossain, 2019) also shows high deficit health care institutions such sub-centers (SCs), primary health centers (PHCs), and community health centers (CHCs), high deficiency of specialized doctors especially CHCs and a high burden on the para-medical staffs. While there is a growth of unaffordable private hospitals and clinics in urban areas, there is mostly deficient health care institutions and health workforce in rural areas.

Thirdly, we are least problematizing the nature of the neoliberal economy. Neoliberal economy while financing economic growth, it does not focus on the primary health sector. If one looks into the externally assisted development projects in India, mainly increasing in the last ten to fifteen years funded by developed donor countries and International Financial Institutions (IFIs), the health sector is primarily excluded. Neoliberal developmental projects, on the one hand, exclude people in terms of effects that projects do to them, and complete ignorance of necessity to the health infrastructure of India’s still significant percentage of rural people, on the other. It is a small picture of a more substantial problem. On the other hand, the growth of e-commerce companies during the lockdown period and the digital apps and unregulated social media platform pandemic COVID-19 has exposed the growth of digital capitalism in times of coronavirus. It is reported that the Indian eCommerce Sector has become a heavyweight sector with a $50 billion market size. It is projected that in five years, this figure will also grow more than three times to reach a market size of $188 billion. In the backdrop of such development, capitalism is announced as a failed project because it cannot prevent a pandemic. However, to us, the current situation exposes the fact that the growth of capitalism in our times has left little to defend ourselves against the pandemic. David Harvey, a Marxist thinker, rightly says that forty years of neoliberalism has left us totally ill prepared to counter a public health crisis on the scale of coronavirus.

Overreaction if germinated from such types of ordinary, unequal, racial, stigmatic response, and the capitalist economy that has the least care for health infrastructure, will be exceptionally problematic and, as a result, unsanitized. An active overreaction (response) requires addressing such structural problems of our society and economy, unprepared health infrastructure, and deficiency health care institutions and the workforce in our society state. Otherwise, overreaction remains merely emotional and could also be merely populistic in nature. Redirecting our developmental priorities, particularly to the health infrastructure and making health care systems accessible, accountable, and transparent can adequately prepare our society to counter the novelty of COVID-19.

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