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Discrimination and stereotyping in COVID-19 responses

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By: Dr Showkat Ahmad Lone

Too much of fear is the main constituent on which a number of social evils like racism, xenophobia and psychopathy, etc. thrive. The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has exposed once again the social, political and religious fissures within and among communities, having disproportionately larger impact on the marginalized people.

History bears testimony to the fact that spread of infectious diseases have always been associated with ‘othering’, without people realizing what their roles and responsibilities are. For example, one of the deadliest known pandemics in human history is that of the ‘Spanish flu’, giving an impression that the disease either originated or was most prevalent in Spain, either of which are not true. It was a combined effect of censorship by the key players, Germany, UK, France and the USA and, the free press in neutral Spain during the World War I, which created a false impression that Spain was hard hit.

Similarly, following the spread of SARS-COV-2 from China in the late 2019, the discrimination against the Chinese people has increased tremendously, which include sporadic individual acts of violence against the Chinese or the ones who look like Chinese people and widespread acts of barring Chinese people from public places including from the grocery stores.

Acts of discrimination can have ethnic, historical, political and religious contexts, and whatever be the reason discrimination is detrimental to the social fabric of any country. There have been instances of embezzlement of COVID-19 crisis by the political leaders to stiffen racial discrimination, and to provoke antimigrant rhetoric with the former Italian deputy prime minister wrongly linking the rise of COVID-19 cases in Italy to African asylum seekers and calling for closure of borders.

Similarly, the US president linked the COVID threat to foreign policy and trade by calling it a “Chinese virus”. Various media outlets have also been equally irresponsible in trying to side with the government directives without realizing their responsibilities, especially in countries which never leave a chance to flaunt their democratic values.

 “Corona Jihad” an eye catcher

One of the most misunderstood terms which at times is wrongly associated with Islam –Jihad- sends chills down every right thinking Muslim’s spine and this time the term has been used more irrationally than ever. It has been associated with a rather dovish Islamic organization, known for their near neutral political views; who are always entangled in the ways to purify their souls and improve their relationship with Almighty without paying much heed to what is happening around.

Yes, you guessed it right, I am talking about the Tablighi Jamaat, a largely non-political, Islamic organization with loose structure in their organization, who have been linked to the spread of Covid-19 in India and the Southeast Asia.

A big religious gathering at Hazrat Nizamuddin Markaz (centre) was organized in mid-March by Tablighi Jamaat which became a hotspot for the transmission of SARS-Cov-2 in India, and till date more than 5,000 people linked to the congregation (directly or indirectly) belonging to 20 different states tested positive and many of them have already died. The gathering attains more significance as it included people from more than 10 countries, some of which had already reported clusters of SARS-Cov-2 infections in February 2020, and people of almost every state of the country participated in this gathering, having the potential to spread throughout the country and beyond.

No doubt the gathering began before India declared SARS-Cov-2 a public health emergency, the commencement of the gathering by the organizers is reflective of sheer negligence if not total ignorance and could have well been avoided, particularly when the organization knew that a similar gathering by its members in Malaysia led to the sudden spike in Covid-19 cases there. Even the organizers could have hidden their ignorance by gauging the severity of the situation looking at the closure of the two of the holiest Islamic sites in Mecca and Madina.

But what followed was equally disheartening, a sudden spurt in abuse by the hatemongers and Islamophobes, both on the social media and on many primetime news shows, bashing the organizers and the attendees for days together as if it would kill the virus. Even the community the Tablighis belong to (Muslims) was not spared. Some prime-time anchors went on to label the gathering as “conspiracy against India”, others calling it “corona jihad”, which is at least laughable if not shameless.

Since the attendees were not able to leave the mosque after the nationwide lockdown was announced they were labelled as “fugitives” evading law for staying in the mosque. Although these media trials dented the image of otherwise diverse organization with cosmopolitan distribution, it has also given undue media coverage to a lesser known organization with limited publicity interests.

Pertinently, the cosmetic measures taken by the central government in banning some of the foreign attendees of the congregation was too late too little and leaves a number of questions unanswered, like why did the government issue visas in the first place? Despite cases being reported from such countries and even if visas were issued long before the event, why were the visas not revoked? Or, do we have to believe that the authorities did not know where (in India) such large number of people from abroad were heading to?

Lockdown and the gatherings

The proponents of the Nizamuddin congregation argue that the restrictions on the religious assembly of people were not in place when the congregation commenced on March 13th, 2020 and were announced only along with the national lockdown on March 19, 2020. Even a press release by Join Secretary Health Ministry on March 13th is quoted which reads that “There is no health emergency, no need to panic.”

The religious gatherings continued to take place at various religious places of different faiths across the country including the Jamia Masjid, Golden temple, Thirupathi Balaji, Siddhivinayak temple, Mahakaleshwar temple, Vaishno Devi, Kashi Vishwanath, Shirdi Sai Baba and many more which were closed for public on or after March 16th, 2020. One must also not forget the visit of Uttar Pradesh CM to Ayodhya along with a sizeable number of people (on March 25th), swearing in ceremony of Madhya Pradesh Chief minister and the celebrations (on March 23rd) that followed, and the ocean of migrant workers along with their families who assembled at various railway and bus stations in order to leave for their native places. All this happened when the national lockdown was already in place.

Although, all these incidents and statements cannot be used as an excuse to justify a totally avoidable gathering that took place at Markaz in West Delhi, because two (or more) wrongs do not make a right, and doing so could turn out to be a monumental error in containing the spread of SARS-Cov-2 virus. All these gatherings are likely to have seeded virus into the population, which due to timely action could have been prevented.

What is painful to see is the discriminatory response to all these events by the Islamophobes, pseudo-journalists and sycophant media, who disproportionately target the marginalized groups with little or no representation in the system — the Tablighi Jamaat in this case. The media trails were so biased that except for the Markaz event, there was not even a word of admonition or warning issued about all other gatherings and the threat they carried was just brushed aside.

I must say that both the government’s and the organizers’ response towards prevention of the Markaz gathering was lackadaisical. Being aware that some religious congregations in countries like South Korea, Italy, Spain and Singapore were responsible for large clusters of cases in those countries, this congregation could have easily been cancelled. In fact, the central and the Delhi state governments woke up only when the first fatality associated with the Markaz congregation was reported from Kashmir on March 26th, 2020.

The attendees of the Markaz event are now taking the unsolicited media coverage as a blessing in disguise because all the attendees and their contacts are being screened for the Covid-19 while the fate of other congregations and gatherings at various places across India remains unknown.

Our responsibilities

Now, what has happened has happened, it is time to think and act South Korea way — that is (3Ts) — trace, test and treat. The states who have already cases linked to the Markaz event, should do extensive tracing of the people who attended the event and their contacts, expand the spectrum of testing and isolate the infected from the rest. The responsibility on part of the attendees is to voluntarily and fearlessly come forward and report to the health authorities, irrespective of whether they are symptomatic or not. The organizers can help the state governments by providing the list of people across all states who attended the congregation so that the tracing can be done without further loss of time.

Pandemics undoubtedly place enormous pressure on both the national resources and the socio-economic system of a country and this is more relevant in developing economies like India. Apart from well-organized healthcare system with broad coverage, social inclusion and solidarity are the two other essential factors on which an effective health protection system depends. In the absence of these factors, inequalities are multiplied and stereotyping persists with discrimination becoming a permanent feature.

In these testing times everyone should do their bit to fight the enemy (SARS-Cov-2), without stigmatizing people for their, nationality, region, religion, color, caste and creed because the virus is on rampage and is infecting people without caring for all these. Moreover, it is still easier to contain the biological virus and almost impossible to stop communal virus as the latter can have far-reaching consequences.


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