Viruses don’t just attack weaknesses in the human body; they also exploit weaknesses in human society. The inequality with widening gap between the rich and the poor, discriminatory health and education system, populist policy of government at the cost of sustainable development and religious intolerance are among many factors that feed the viruses to its pandemic sizes.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s appeal to all to observe Janata Curfew, a self-imposed curfew by the public, for the public, on March 22 and also to clap hands or ring bells at 5 pm on the same day to applaud the selfless work of essential services personnel received a huge response from the people across the country. There was also a rumour that viruses go away when people collectively make scaring sounds.
With the increasing influence of metaphysics packaged with resurgent Hindutva, such superstitious beliefs gain ground in society. Given that the coronavirus has no cure yet, the Prime Minister thinks the only way to stay safe is to stay indoors. Although Modi did not mention any particular ‘scientific’ logic behind the 14-hour long Janata Curfew, there was no dearth of so-called scientific explanations on social media, including breaking the cycle of the coronavirus.
The first case of Covid-19 was reported on January 30 in India. As of March 25, the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare confirmed 606 cases and 10 deaths in the country. However, even after 50 days of the outbreak, the Modi government has not provided any details of budgetary packages, allocations or measures to deal with the pandemic and with its the economic fallout in the public domain. Seemingly, the Centre did nothing during this over one-and-a-half months since the detection of the first corona infection in the country in preparing the health sector to cope with the outbreak.
On the contrary, there are reports that a section of private hospitals had refused to admit coronavirus-infected patients in their hospitals. The government has also failed to check the prices of hand sanitisers and masks, prices of which are increasing manifold. However, it is also an opportunity for Modi and his government as they are facing people’s ire on multiple fronts: Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA), unprecedented economic crisis, rising unemployment, etc.
The Chief Minister of India’s most populous State, Uttar Pradesh, initially repeatedly ignored calls from health authorities to cancel the ‘Ram Navami Mela’ scheduled from March 25 to April 2, which attracts millions of devotees every year. The mela was cancelled only on March 21 when India was about to enter the critical third stage of Covid-19. On the other hand, Modi did not address the issue of dubious miracle cures (such as drinking of gomutra, using of cow dung etc) advocated by some of his party members.
US President Donald Trump is being widely criticised in his country for inadequately handling the situation. Over January and February, as thousands were infected and died in Asia, Trump dismissed and joked about the issue. He variously called it a “hoax”, predicted “it will disappear” or that it would be “close to zero” in days, and lashed out at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention following its warning that the outbreak could turn into a pandemic.
As on March 24, there were over 53,000 confirmed cases in the US and death toll rose to over 700. Anger is mounting in the US over the failure of Trump’s administration to test for Covid-19 on a scale that could contain the outbreak and mitigate its most devastating impacts. Instead of taking serious initiatives to tackle the crisis, Trump is now making immigration responsible for the outbreak. He tweeted “we need the wall more than ever!” Other nationalists and rightists leaders of the world lost no time to capitalise on the outbreak for the furtherance of their divisive agenda.
The rightwing ‘xenophobic’ Lega party leader Matteo Salvini of Italy baselessly linked the country’s outbreak to a government decision to let a migrant rescue a ship docked in Sicily. France’s rightist National Rally party’s leader Le Pen blames “the religion of borderlessness” for the virus’ outbreak. Hungarian Prime Minister and nationalist leader Viktor Orbán has declared universities virus-prone as “there are lots of foreigners there”, Spain’s far-right Vox party leader Santiago Abascal has accused the country’s leaders of being “too caught up in removing borders to take basic common sense measures”. Alice Weidel, the Alternative for Germany party’s co-leader, has also attacked “the dogma of open borders” for the disaster.
The worldwide outbreak of the coronavirus is eventually turning out to be a historic opportunity for democratic and semi-democratic nationalist and populist leaders. They are focused on aligning the emerging situation with their narrative. Such politicians have common and discernible ideological traits – not least when it comes to their instincts on illness, medicine, science, crisis and global governance.
We should know that Covid-19 knows no borders, physical, cultural, ethnic, national or otherwise. Nor for that matter does it recognise the distinction between the poor and the rich. “What’s true of all evils in the world is true of plague as well. It helps men to rise above themselves,” wrote Albert Camus. People unite together and rise above personal interests for their survival and common good in such a situation.
What does a pandemic that knows no borders reveal more starkly than common humanity, a “people” defined not by borders or national or cultural distinctions but by shared vulnerabilities? What matters now is to stop it—and stopping an epidemic is never just a fight with nature. It is also a fight with culture. Hope this planet will successfully combat this unprecedented crisis.
(The author is a senior journalist based in Assam)
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