Coronavirus and Caste: Is Our Response to the Pandemic Casteist?

Coronavirus may have no religion and race, but it certainly will have caste in Indian context.

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Coronavirus may have no religion and race, but it certainly will have caste in Indian context.
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Coronavirus may go away, but there is no medicine which can cure the disease of caste. One can see it through the example of a hate tweet by a twitter handle Jyoti Sharma, who is ready to relate even coronavirus infection with caste-based reservation. The tweet can be loosely translated to mean that coronavirus should first affect the SCs and STs who are beneficiaries of caste-based reservation. This is but a small example of how hateful and inhuman a society we have become.

Coronavirus Has a Caste in India

Public debates around coronavirus are largely revolving around the claim that the pandemic knows no race and class. The intent behind such messages is to counter racist assumptions and discriminations. However, ignoring and glossing over the questions of how different levels of vulnerabilities are produced during this crisis and the sole emphasis on ‘social distancing’ and ‘self-isolation’ reveals the caste and class blind nature of our socio-epidemiological understandings.

The measure prescribed to contain the spread of the Covid-19 coronavirus is essentially isolating oneself by not going to crowded areas to shop, work or to indulge in leisure that requires the involvement of a group of people such as travel, going to a salon, or to a club, restaurant and so on.

Text messages from shopping complexes, departmental stores and app-based food delivery chains are assuring their customers that they do not have to move out of their home to avail these products and services.

Seeing ‘Social Distancing’ Through a Caste Lens

Narrating the experiences of caste and untouchability B. R. Ambedkar in his autobiographical note “Waiting for a Visa” describes the experience of an untouchable teacher whose wife had to be attended by a Hindu doctor: “The doctor came but on condition that he would examine them only outside the Harijan colony. I took my wife out of the colony together with her newly-born child. Then doctor gave his thermometer to a Muslim, he gave it to me and I gave it to my wife and then returned it by same process after he had been applied”.

Through this experience one can perhaps imagine India’s obsession with caste rules even in the time of coronavirus. Whether the psychology of pandemics will be understood during public health cannot be guaranteed, but its sociology of caste needs to be taken into consideration.

Coronavirus may have no religion and race, but it certainly will have caste in Indian context.

Aarefa Johari—drawing on coronavirus and the idea of social distancing—explores “several public healthcare professionals acknowledge that there is an unmistakable class and caste bias to India’s response to the coronavirus threat, particularly with respect to social distancing. Economically and socially disadvantaged groups, whether urban or rural, have never been in a position to practice social isolation or distancing, even before the Covid-19 outbreak.”

Johari elaborates this through her brief discussion with a safai karamchari, domestic worker and doctor’s projection of the idea of ‘social distancing’. In the context of India, idea of ‘social distancing’ generates through caste understanding by which people’s social-interaction is restricted, in the same manner their occupation is also allocated.

Urban Middle Class Mentality of Seeing Lower Caste Lifestyle as ‘Unhygienic’

The government must take all the necessary precautionary measures to control the effect and impact of the coronavirus, making sure people’s health will be taken care. But along with it, one must also have to think how health facilities are going to deal differently with different people, what are the measures taken for people who live in remote areas, manhole workers, cleaning staff, and wage labourers.

It is largely observed that the urban middle class, who can afford air-travel abroad and within the country, have primarily been the carriers of the coronavirus. However, their participation in distributing class-specific, self-righteous awareness messages in social media often reflects a mob mentality in condemning and othering the lower castes perceived to be living in ‘unhygienic’ conditions in the slums.

Instead of questioning the caste-bias of the ‘social-distancing’ method and acknowledging the practical difficulties in following this when one lives in a slum, or reflecting on why Indian patients are fleeing from the public hospitals, social media appears to be a tone-deaf platform.

(Prashant Ingole is a doctoral researcher in Humanities and Social Sciences at the Indian Institute of Technology Gandhinagar. Dyotana Banerjee is an adjunct faculty at Indian Institute of Technology Gandhinagar. This is a blog, and the views expressed above are the authors own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)

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