Coronavirus, the ‘great leveller’.
The very thought could perhaps be revolting at best and nauseating at worst.
However, speaking in an Indian context, let’s just keep aside the thought of the pandemic as a scourge in medical and health terms and look at what it has already done and could perhaps do further to a society that has for centuries been known to have considered its caste divisions as concomitant to its social identity to a large extent.
Talking about the caste system, it is not just essential to remember how the practice of untouchability had once scoured India’s soul, but do also spare a thought for all those households in many cities and towns across the country where even to this day there exists that separate passageway or entry-exit point that is meant ‘only’ for use by the domestic help or the sweeper.
Just as a tycoon is worried that his sense of health or hygiene is no guarantee of immunity against the virus, a slum-dweller too cannot ignore the dangers, thinking that this can only be contracted by the globe-trotters
In other words, talking of untouchability in an Indian context, it is not just enough to see the phenomenon merely as sepia-toned slides belonging to some bygone era, but see it also in terms of today’s condominiums and gated communities with their so-called ‘servants’ quarters’ and ‘maid rooms’.
An all-pervasive virus
Now, in such a scenario enters a pandemic that’s just a breath away, literally, from not just the nanny tending to the infant at home, but also the person on the couch next to you at the club in your residential complex.
This is precisely where the threat of the virus emerges as all-pervasive. It will take months before the world can come to an agreement on the extent of damage inflicted by COVID-19 in sheer financial terms.
But the one significant phenomenon that this pandemic has triggered, albeit by default, is its ‘ability’ to bring a prince and a pauper on a level-playing field.
About two-and-a-half months ago, when the world was gradually immersing itself into a stay-home regimen and social distancing was being increasingly looked upon as the new normal in dealing with the threat of a virus that had spread its tentacles from America to Australia, eminent Indian social-psychologist Ashis Nandy made an interesting observation.
During a conversation with Gulf News, Nandy had said that this was one crisis that made people feel insecure about their immediate surroundings perhaps like never before.
More on India and COVID-19
And this sense of fear or uncertainty cuts across the socio-economic divide, particularly in a country like India where even today, caste-centric ideologies and identities hold much sway.
“Just as a tycoon is worried that his sense of health or hygiene is no guarantee of immunity against the virus, a slum-dweller too cannot ignore the dangers, thinking that this can only be contracted by the globe-trotters,” Nandy said, further explaining the point.
This has much relevance in India where diseases, especially infectious diseases, almost always have a social stigma attached to them. Most infections that run the danger of a community spread are almost always associated with lack of personal hygiene and limited access to health-care facilities.
In a country where 8.1 million children are out of school, where 80 per cent of the workforce even today comprises daily wage earners in the unorganised sector, where 5 per cent of the population still lives in extreme poverty and where 160 million people do not have access to clean water, the question of poverty and personal hygiene are intertwined.
For someone earning less than $2 a day, remaining sufficiently stocked-up on soaps and hand sanitisers is only a secondary concern as every effort primarily goes into ensuring two square meals a day.
And that’s a classic scenario of a vicious cycle of lack of education-poverty-poor health-poor disease control, leading to more health issues and further poverty. The social stigma of infectious diseases, that almost always has its umbilical chord attached to the issue of poverty and lack of education, has been the bugbear of ‘untouchability’ and caste-based social identity as seen in an Indian context.
Given the unequal distribution of wealth between urban and rural India, with the picture skewed heavily in favour of big cities and towns, this social stigma of a communicable disease almost always finds traction even in terms of an urban-rural divide.
An overhaul of sorts
However, now, with the outbreak of coronavirus — that has seen some of the economic nerve-centres of the world, like London and New York, reel from its impact – the biggest levelling of a hitherto uneven playing field has happened in terms of making a prince and a pauper feel insecure in equal measure!
The urban-rural, upper caste-lower caste, rich-poor divide that is endemic to India’s collective social consciousness has been given an overhaul of sorts by a micro-organism that’s no wider than one-thousandth of a strand of human hair.
It is indeed ironical that in spite of all their resources and infrastructure, Mumbai and New Delhi – India’s economic and political seats of power, respectively -- are among the worst-hit by coronavirus in the world’s second-most populous nation.
The urban-rural, rich-poor, upper caste-lower caste dialectics that have hobbled the world’s fifth-largest economy for centuries seem to have been pushed to the backburner for the time being as raw survival instincts get the better of one’s sense of inherited social identity built on a casteist bias or a sense of financial entitlement or the absence of both. The extent to which this emerging trend holds out in the months ahead will be interesting.