A pandemic literally means a disease that stalks all people, but it has visibly unequal effects. The virus exploits our bodily and social vulnerabilities. It reveals our structures of division and our levels of social trust.
The response to Covid-19 prompts a basic question – how do we imagine other people? Are they a problem to be managed with threats and watchful squads, a herd to be corralled, are they “human bombs” of infection? That justifies an authoritarian vision – where states surveille people without their consent, beat them back on the streets without hearing them out, hose tired migrant workers with bleach, suppress information. The aim there is to efficiently control potential mayhem.
A more democratic way is to inform and involve people, respect their intelligence and harness their abilities. We are not mindless “Covidiots” or “go-Corona-go” cheerleaders, we are people with a stake in our own wellbeing. Nobody wants to wilfully endanger others. Listening to the actual constraints faced by various groups is the best way for administrations to ally with them – provide food and supplies, make room for patients, provide hand washing facilities or whatever is necessary.
Our basic storylines matter. If we are repeatedly told that other humans are untrustworthy, that shapes our reality. In her book about the aftermath of fires, earthquakes, epidemics and the surprising generosity that people show, writer Rebecca Solnit popularised the term ‘elite panic’, used by disaster sociologists. Everyone panics in a disaster, but when fear grips elites and they overreact with all the resources and power at their command, it can dramatically distort the situation.
The worst behaviour, says Solnit, comes from those who expect chaos and viciousness, and act accordingly in advance. Elite panic is fed by the idea that people are selfish and stupid, held in check only by power. That’s what the movies show us too: in a disaster, it takes a few heroes, cops, scientists, to swoop in and save the city which was collapsing in pandemonium. That’s what leads officials to treat people like children, assume they can’t handle full information, tell them what’s strictly necessary, leave the police to command and control.
Solnit describes a smallpox epidemic in 19th century Milwaukee, where the upper and middle class was allowed to quarantine itself while the poor immigrants on the south side, those the newspapers called the ‘scum of Milwaukee’ were forcibly hauled into isolation hospitals. The immigrants cowered in their homes, didn’t report their illness and felt no stake in the city’s welfare. Meanwhile, in New York in 1947, where officials took a friendly, open tack, people showed up voluntarily to be vaccinated against smallpox.
If you don’t trust people, they won’t trust you. If the state creates an adversarial dynamic, if they criminalise the disease and the media runs with scaremongering stories and communal hashtags like Coronajihad, then people might hide to protect themselves. Some might even prefer to take their chances with Covid if they fear harm to their families and communities.
Coercion and suspicion of others on the basis of religion or appearance destroys social trust, the magic potion of basic goodwill and cooperation that makes societies work. Covid shows us that our fates are linked – a middle class family in a gated colony that travelled abroad is a threat to a domestic worker, and her immiseration in a jhuggi without reliable access to water is a threat to that family too. Protecting oneself has to mean consideration for others.
Kerala is relatively resilient not because they have superheroes – with all due applause for its CM and health minister – but because the state has better capacities and a tradition of collective action. Its public healthcare is better than most, its grassroots institutions work, its communities are a strong weave. Social groups do not live in ghettos for fear of each other. Solidarity in a crisis like a pandemic or a flood is a natural response.
And so, despite its exposure to the outside world through migrant and tourist flows, Kerala is better equipped to look after itself when a catastrophe like Covid strikes. It took early action, sealed borders and thoroughly screened contacts, but also used media to show where infected people had gone, so others knew if they were in danger and could ask for tests themselves.
Social trust makes everything easier, even when the state has to mastermind logistics in a pandemic situation – look at South Korea’s success. It also helps to remember that people are generally kind in times of misfortune. Fellow feeling is natural, especially in moments when we see how fragile our lives are. Recently, a real-time study of the Covid lockdown conducted by Lady Shri Ram College revealed that the main distress felt by many middle class Indians was about the pain of others, the daily wage and migrant workers, and the economic trouble to follow.
There has also been an explosion of private giving, religious institutions have stepped up to serve. In my neighbourhood, restaurants have turned into community kitchens, people are organising help. That ad hoc altruism was clear to see even after the recent communal violence in Delhi, when civil society spontaneously stepped in, much before the state government moved.
The impulse for mutual care is at least as true as all the bad news we hear today. The state should nurture faith in people, and so should the rest of us.