Is the pandemic revealing the worst in us?Besides causing global economic devastation and thousands of deaths, Covid-19 could fuel communal division and bigotry in Nepal.
After a sleepless night, stressed by the rapid outbreak of the coronavirus, I got up from my bed as the first rays of the morning sun screened through my window. It was the 15th day of the nation-wide lockdown. I went to the kitchen to see if we were low on food supplies. To my surprise, I saw the indicator on the water purifier blinking red while its motors were roaring out loud. After taking a quick look, I realised that the purifier wasn’t working. Immediately, panic hit.
Chances of getting a new purifier were slim so I went out to get a jar of water as an immediate backup. It wasn't 9 am yet, which meant a few shops around my locality would still be open, but I didn’t exactly know if they were supplying water. I stepped outside, onto the quiet streets of Mandikhatar. It was the first time I stepped outside the house in more than a month, ever since I returned from my school in the Netherlands.
Despite walking for about 15 minutes—cautiously trying to keep a social distance even from the dogs on the streets—I couldn’t find a single shop that was welcoming customers. Time was running out and being outside my house, exposed, made me feel anxious. My eyes then finally saw a small shop where a vendor was trying to sell vegetables. Blue-coloured jars were laid outside her shop.
I walked to the shop and asked if I could buy the water. She said, “Yes, sure. Are you from this locality? Never saw you around before.” I replied that I lived in the neighbouring street. Her next question was something that startled me. “Are you a Muslim?” she asked nervously.
I had never been asked about my religion for the 17 years of my life that I lived in Nepal. At such a time of crisis, why was she interested in my faith? I wanted to know, so I lied to her, “Umm… Yes, I am a Muslim.” What she did next was more shocking. She refused to take money for the jar of water. “You can keep it; I do not like to touch your money," she said.
I carried the jar of water home deep in thought, unable to comprehend what had just happened. Was ignorance and misinformation, amidst the uncertainty of our current situation, fanning the flames of anti-Muslim bigotry even in Nepal?
Just a day earlier, 13 men who had been living in a mosque in Udayapur had been tested positive for Covid-19. Many of them were Indian Muslims who had come to Nepal for a congregation and had been living in Nepal since February. The news was everywhere: on news channels, on print, even on social media. Days following this news, the news channels were showing how Muslims who were found to be infected with the virus were throwing money deliberately on the streets so that pedestrians who pick it would get infected. The feed on my Facebook after that was vicious: full of blame for Muslims, saying they would lead to the downfall of Nepal, as though the virus somehow chose to infect people on the basis of their religion.
All of this made no sense to me, for even though an argument could be put forward for legal proceedings to be taken against illegal immigrants and people trying intentionally to spread the virus, bringing religion into the conversation was preposterous—and dangerous.
The Covid-19 pandemic has induced fear in all of our lives, regardless of the religions we practice. The chances of it killing the people belonging to my religion is the same as the chances of it killing the people belonging to any other religion. Because of the uncertainty that revolves around the virus, people are becoming quick to put the blame on anybody—but such actions, often careless, and seeped in bigotry—says much about us as a people; it questions our morality. In fact, the form of communal divide people have been experiencing in the wake of the pandemic reflects where our society’s ideals stand.
Just because a few Muslim immigrants from India were tested positive does not mean they brought the virus to Nepal. Just because a few Muslims were infected, it does not mean Muslims living on rent have to be kicked out of their houses. When our entire country might already be underperforming in terms of economy and health, these types of actions will just aggravate the situation in an unprecedented way. A pandemic is already enough; the country cannot afford having a religious war within our communities.
In this age of misinformation, the general public should be more cautious about the news they consume. In the midst of baseless claims and news, we should be careful enough not to trigger any ethnic and religious divisions in our society, especially when the country is already reeling under a myriad of challenges.
In the face of such uncertainty, people should stay united—an act of respect and kindness is more than enough. While positive news of communities coming together to feed people has also been coming, such bigoted sentiments, like the one I witnessed, may taint any sign of humanity we have shown in such trying times. We may defeat the Covid-19 virus in the months ahead, but it will take much longer to overcome such a disturbing prejudice.