Covid-19 · Culture & Life · Medicine & Doctors · Public health

COVID-19 in India – Society and Culture – March 19 Diary

For the previous post in this series, see here.

[Throughout history epidemics have served as excellent windows into social and cultural beliefs and norms. While this contagion-catalyzed uncovering of a society’s implicit and explicit thought processes helps historians understand past societies in better ways, for present societies it can potentially be utilized as a way to understand our hidden biases, prejudices, and even kindnesses. Besides, epidemics could make our anti-intellectual society finally start listening to intellectuals, activists, and academics who have always tried to drive our attention to fault-lines that we don’t take seriously before a crisis (like COVID-19) ultimately bares them open for all to see. My attempt here is to collate different media and personal narratives from the COVID-19 epidemic in India that throw light on the social and cultural aspects of how we have reacted (and will continue to react) to this crisis. There are a lot of lessons we can learn and implement, but whether we do that or not is, again, dependent upon what general direction our sociocultural norms take as the epidemic progresses and dies down.]

There have been several good reports on the impossibility of social distancing for most Indians except the elite. Below are excerpts from a few.

Report by Meghnad Bose for The Quint:

“We too feel scared of the virus. We know we are at a greater risk of contracting it because we are working here and travelling in crowded trains.” On the other hand, she counters, “But if we don’t work, how will we feed our families? I have a husband and three daughters. As it is, already, fewer people are coming to buy vegetables here since the last four to five days, we’ve been selling half our usual quantities.” I probe her about the dilemma she has described. About the health risks on one side, and the financial risks on the other. Should the markets be closed for a few days then, I ask? “From how I see it, they should continue working. From our perspective. For our stomachs.”

Report by Aarefa Johari for Scroll:

Raju Kamble has not heard the phrase “social distancing”, but he is aware of the government and media advisories urging people to work from home, avoid crowds and maintain a safe distance from others to prevent the spread of the novel coronavirus. Ask him if he practices any of it, and Kamble merely laughs. “I am a safai karmachari, my job is to pick up other people’s garbage,” said Kamble, a sanitation worker in suburban Mumbai. “How can people like us work from home?” With another sardonic laugh, he brings up the caste identity shared by thousands of garbage collectors, sweepers and sewage cleaners across the city. “All of us in this line of work are Dalit, so people have always kept their distance from us,” he declared.

Nipun Malhotra directed our attention to something that most of us had not been thinking about: the disproportionately adverse impact of the pandemic on persons with disabilities.

Let’s start with the biggest “DO” to avoid Coronavirus, regularly washing your hands. Well, many Persons with Disabilities like myself cannot independently wash our hands without getting into physical contact with our attendants and/or caretakers as we are physically incapable of it. Besides, it is much tougher to regularly wash our hands in public due to the lack of toilets for Persons with Disabilities.

Ankur Pathak reported for HuffPost about the lives of Bollywood’s daily wage workers as the film-making industry too has been rendered inactive for now.

Indian politicians are known to consider themselves to be above the general public. A politician from Goa recently traveled in a flight one passenger of which was later found to have the novel coronavirus. When advised by authorities to go into quarantine, he refused: “They came with ambulances to quarantine me. How can I have had coronavirus when I was in the fourth row of the flight and there was no passenger for five rows around me.”

In Kerala, some members of an apartment building decided to be ‘quarantine police‘: they sealed the door of a couple’s flat with tape so as to monitor if they were leaving the flat. The couple had just returned from Saudi Arabia and the tenants of the apartment building reasoned that they could have the novel coronavirus and hence needed to be quarantined (despite the couple being cleared by authorities at the airport where they landed).

India had its first (reported) coronavirus cases in late January. These were students from Wuhan University who had returned to India. Dhanya Rajendran and Sreedevi Jayarajan reported on the experiences of the two students during their February quarantine days.

A man was arrested for “organising a cow urine consumption event, claiming that it will protect people from coronavirus or cure those already infected, leading to a civic volunteer falling ill after drinking it.” A leading satirist decided to create a Knock knock joke out of it:


Mitra Sharafi, who is a legal historian of modern South Asia at University of Wisconsin-Madison, uploaded an interesting post on her website recently. The post carried excerpts from memoirs of two people working in courts of law during the 1896 Bombay plague. See the post here.

It was found difficult to dispose of even the dead. Many a family passed away wholesale and many orphans were left behind. The High Court Judges had no work to do. The value of immoveable property had gone down. [The] whole of…trade was paralysed. Our office had to find its way through such hard times.” Many of Wadia Ghandy’s clerks and servants fled—and had their pay stopped. Macleod noted that clients and pleaders either disappeared to their ancestral villages or died. With little to do in Bombay, the High Court judges were sent on circuit to inspect the subordinate courts in the rest of Bombay Presidency.

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