Confusion in the time of coronavirusThe impact of gross inequalities is harsh on the poor, especially during times of crisis.
Words don’t always mean the way they are commonly understood. According to lexicographers of the Oxford Dictionaries, confusion implies uncertainty about what is happening. Sometimes the term is used to describe a situation of panic or disorder. It can also indicate the state of being bewildered. Health professionals utilise the expression to identify symptoms of inability to think clearly. What happens when all these meanings coalesce together?
There is a reason concern over Covid-19—the formal name of the disease caused by the novel coronavirus—sends one into a state of near delirium. In addition to panic, pandemics ignite paranoia. The combination seems to make a person lose all sense of proportion.
How much hand sanitiser can one hoard? Apparently, up to 17,700 bottles, a feat that must have deprived many who needed the shield more. Panicky buyers reportedly emptied supermarket shelves of toilet paper in Hong Kong where tiny apartments hardly have much space to store everyday necessities.
Like most social scientists, economists, too, are notorious for coming up with convincing explanations after a phenomenon already occurs. But number crunchers are expected to make predictions. Nobody seems to have any clue about the impact that the pandemic would have on the global employment scene.
The so-called gig economy was supposed to free workers from the shackles of employers. Ironically, they are the ones that have to do the dirty, dangerous and difficult jobs in times of crises with little or no employment guarantee. The gig economy often works quite well for big money. The small fry have to risk their lives to make a living.
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi recently participated in a video conference with leaders of SAARC member countries. The amount India committed for the common fund to counter the pandemic is symbolic. His promise to assist with the rapid deployment of health care professionals is more encouraging.
The cynicism over Modi’s assurances, however, is so widespread that the video meeting failed to raise any hope about the revival of the dormant regional body. The exercise didn’t succeed in burnishing India’s international image which has been badly blackened with the soot of anti-Muslim violence in New Delhi.
The optics of the conference benefitted Prime Minister KP Sharma Oli personally. Premier Oli succeeded in showing his political constituency on home turf that he was capable of taking part in a long-distance confab with regional bigwigs even while convalescing from a major surgical procedure.
Perhaps taking a cue from Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan’s tweet, Oli claimed that he too was personally overseeing preparations to fight the pandemic. Unfortunately, even handlers and henchmen of the Nepal Communist Party (NCP) Supremo have stopped taking the utterances of their boss with any seriousness.
It’s not just politicos, there seems to be a palpable lack of trust in the expertise of medical professionals. The healthcare provision in Nepal is mostly in the hands of the profit sector. Frank M Snowden of Yale University has shown that pandemics entrench economic discrimination.
In the process of prioritising income over welfare, the pharmacists have lost much of their earlier prestige. It doesn’t augur well for public health when a significant section of one of the most populous countries in the world place more trust upon cow urine than taking precautions that the medical professionals prescribe.
There has been considerable erosion in the credibility of civil society and religious preachers. When pandemics strike, social activists and priests have to be at the frontlines to counsel, assure and provide succour to those in lingering doubt, actual pain and personal grief. The ‘NGOisation’ of public action has had the unintended consequence of making volunteerism suspect in the eyes of the masses.
The weakening of public institutions and the consequent loss of authority implies that the government’s assurances carry very little weight. In a bizarre piece of news, it was reported that the communist government was mulling tax rebate and subsidy to businesses hit by the virus rather than proposing relief to wage workers that have begun to lose jobs or returnees from abroad who have kept the economy of the country afloat with remittance inflows.
Social capital, when defined as the ‘network of relationships among people who live and work in a particular society, enabling that society to function effectively’ rather than the Bourdieuian sense of the expression, help the weak and the powerful alike in the times of crises. Modernisation implies a reduction in social capital everywhere.
The impact of gross inequalities upon traditional societies is harsher. The rich and powerful isolate themselves in luxurious ghettos with high walls and iron gates. The poor have to live in pitiable communities where concerns of sanitation are secondary to sheer survival. There is little water for daily needs, let alone to wash one’s hands multiple times a day with soap.
Even though disasters hit the poor harder, pandemics don’t always recognise class differences. Housemaids, chauffeurs and nannies can’t be constantly monitored or protected with the compulsive rubbing of hand sanitisers.
There may not have been much malice in calling the novel coronavirus the ‘Wuhan virus’, but it was certainly tactless to the point of being insensitive. It has given rise to xenophobic rise in anti-Asian racism in the West where East Asians had begun to establish themselves as the model minority after its fear of Islamism in the wake of the so-called ‘war on terror’ everywhere.
Analogous to the urge to scapegoat an entire race for the threat, pandemics sometimes give rise to ethnonational supremacism among those that haven’t yet been hit with the full ferocity of the virulent disease. Vegetarianism is a choice at best rather than a virtue.
No-touch greetings such as Namaste and Salam are definitely more hygienic, but it doesn’t have the same equalising force as that of a Bahun priest being compelled to shake the hands of a Dalit or an Ashraf landlord embracing a Hazza shoemaker, even for form’s sake. The adoption of no-touch greetings is a necessity of circumstance and has to be practised with personal humility rather than communal arrogance.
Naomi Klein’s ‘shock doctrine’ hypothesizes that people tend to put too much trust in those in power during crises, which makes the establishment push through policies that systematically deepen inequality, enrich elites, and undercut everyone else. Perhaps it’s necessary to revisit such a premise in the wake of the ‘deaths of despair’ and the emergence of populist, potent and polarising global leaders that inspire little confidence.
Political legitimacy is based on the shared belief in the rightness of the regime. That seems to be under stress everywhere as naked majoritarianism continues to triumph over political morality in country after country. Professional legitimacy is acquired through excellence in expertise that benefits everyone in society though in varying degrees. Despite its persistent allure among policymakers, free-market fundamentalism has badly shaken people’s faith the competence and willingness of professionals to alleviate human suffering.
In an effort to escape circumstances over which they had little control, a significant section of the population had begun to find solace in the virtual world of asocial media. During crises, unrestrained messages often confound the confusion. Perhaps perplexity is the human response of coping with the uncertainty of pandemics.
What do you think?
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