The social impact of COVID-19 on India

While nearly 95 per cent of the citizenry are co-operating with the country's guidelines, the rest are creating a threat to the efforts and measures to contain this pandemic and are responsible for the collapse of the whole system.
A long queue during the lockdown in India
A long queue during the lockdown in India

The COVID-19 pandemic has overwhelmed the entire world, and India also has borne the brunt of the same. The spread was so colossal that the World Health Organization (WHO) had to declare it as a pandemic. The only way to control and defeat this mammoth pandemic was to make people follow social distancing and also to restrain them from moving out to avoid social connect. 

To effectively achieve this objective, the entire country had to be shut, and all activities had to be stopped with minimal human interaction. Hence, inevitably the country had to be brought under lockdown. In this regard, the Indian government started taking a strong stand against this pandemic attack in the mid of March. By the last week of March, India sealed all internal and external borders. From March 22, the whole country is under lockdown phase that has now been extended till May 3, 2020.

The masses have stood by the government during this lockdown, and a great response is observed throughout the country. Yet there are certain exceptions which are a challenge. While nearly 95 per cent of the citizenry are co-operating, the rest are creating a threat to the efforts and measures to contain this pandemic and are responsible for the collapse of the whole system.

In this context, we must mention the reference of a book titled ‘Collapse’ authored by Jared Diamond. This book identifies five factors that contribute to the collapse of complex societies. These are:

Hostile neighbours
Environmental problems
The collapse of essential trading partners
The society's response to the foregoing four factors.
The author refers to historical societies which were far less complex than today’s complex international system of nations. In today’s situation, the first three factors are viable threats to our nation. The COVID-19 crisis can be the trigger for the fourth factor of failing trade due to a weakened economy. Looking at these theoretical threat indicators mentioned in the book, we will find that the society actions and attitude and approach of people resonate into these threat indicators.

Focusing on the point of ‘Hostile Neighbours’, listed in the book, let us emphasis upon the hostility faced by common people from their neighbours in the society. The basic reasons of such hostility lie in the comparative behaviour or attitude of the people in many small instances such as purchasing of small grocery items, vegetables, petrol and getting official permission to go out for essential/emergency reasons.

Cases of Hostility can be observed in housing societies regarding residents having recent travel history from other countries. Such residents responded adversely when requested by the fellow society neighbours to get themselves tested for COVID-19 or to get self-isolated. Instead, such individuals misunderstood, misbehaved and even reacted aggressively by getting into a fight with their neighbours. On the other hand, some citizens have not disclosed their travel history even to the government officials owing to fear of being thrust out from their homes and societies. Such cases have been observed in affluent class or upper-middle-class societies.

Surprisingly, such hostility has been observed even against the Corona Warriors like Doctors, Nurses, Health Professionals, Police, and such other people residing in the housing societies or neighbourhood. Several cases of these warriors who are at the forefront of this battle against COVID are being shunned by others for fear of being infected. Instead of showing respect and gratitude towards them, they and their families are treated with suspicion and not supported by the society members in the wake of this undue fear in their minds. This includes the threat of being evicted from their apartments and general ostracism. Many doctors and health workers have been asked to vacate their rented homes by landlords as they believe their stay may make them more susceptible to COVID-19. 

It has been widely observed that most of the doctors who run private clinics are not permitted to open them by the residents of private societies and apartments. Several instances of attack on doctors and police have also been reported. Even misconduct and harassment of doctors and health workers have been reported. Medical associations have requested support from the government for the safety and security of their members. It is an Irony that those who are our lifesavers are facing the threat of their lives.

Analysing the scenario in lower class or slum areas, a similar mentality is seen; only the problem is different. Let us take an example of getting grocery on ration or free food packets. Amidst free distribution of food and essential items to the needy and poor, people were seen fighting amongst themselves in the race to get there first and even to the extent of snatching it from others. Members of the NGO's and social organisations engaged in community service during these times were also hackled and abused.

Another aspect is that of Panic Buying, which has been largely observed in all parts of the country during this lockdown. Everyone tries to procure as much as they can, with least botheration or concern about their neighbours. Unwarranted purchasing and stocking of grocery and other essential items by people, without considering the resultant shortage problem which may affect other people in the society shows the unreceptive nature of people.

This creates disharmony and jealousy, which ultimately leads to weakening of bonding between the neighbours. Though it may be a temporary phase, its implications are long-lasting.

We can also collate the current situation of rising of COVID-19 cases in Pune, Maharashtra with the threat indicators mentioned by Jared Diamond. 

Due to rising cases in Pune during the first week of April 2020, the densely populated areas in which the number of COVID-19 positive cases is reported to be high such as Kondhwa, Dias plot, Maharshrinagar and core city areas like Bhavani Peth, Kasba Peth, Rasta Peth, Somwar Peth, Mangalwar Peth, Budhwar Peth, Guruvar Peth, Shukravar Peth, Nana Peth and Ravivar Peth have been completely sealed. 

Other areas in the city have also been sealed as precautionary measures. The main reason behind this rise is those five per cent people, as mentioned before, who are causing a threat to the efforts and measures to contain this pandemic. The callous approach and ill faith of such few people have ultimately proven to be the biggest obstacle in controlling the spread of this disease. 

Looking at the broader picture within the country, a handful of people are pushing the entire country in great crisis by not cooperating and not complying to the government regulations.

Such instances strongly point out that nations are complex societies with socio-economic structures which are susceptible to collapse because complexity increases vulnerability. It is inevitable that when large or small areas are locked down or people are kept in isolation or quarantined, normal social and economic life is affected. There is restricted movement of people with reduced consumption of all sorts of goods and services, except certain essential commodities and services.

Moreover, it has caused the small proprietor-partnership businesses, travel/tourism and other service sectors to wind down. Such a situation poses a serious threat to the survival of daily-wage workers, roadside vendors, petty traders, etc. because of no cash in hand.

People cannot carry on with their usual jobs or occupations. The existing situation of unemployment worsens. Incomes fall or cease. Economically better-off people manage with varying degrees of difficulty, but people from the lower economic sections become almost destitute. With very less or no money-in-hand people are on the verge of starving. Their weakened physical condition increases their susceptibility to disease. 

With the weakening of the socio-economic system, a large number of people losing their livelihood are in danger of irreversible impoverishment. They will need immediate concrete help in terms of both food and money and not just a promise of better tomorrow.

This is the crucial period and call for everyone to act socially more responsible and adhere to our duties as a part of our society. Society, acting through elected governments, needs to address the threats with proper, sufficient and timely measures to eliminate the risk of socio-economic breakdown beyond the point of restoration. Responsibility for this help rests firmly with the central and state governments for targeted social, economic and fiscal aid devoid of any corruption.

The Indian government led by PM Narendra Modi has taken numerous measures to minimise the risk of socio-economic breakdown along with its continuous measures to control the spread of coronavirus. Prime Minister Modi urged people to assume that there is a 'Lakshman Rekha' outside their houses and not to put a step outside their homes. During his second address to the nation on the COVID-19 outbreak, PM Modi said that several people had used their time in lockdown in the past few days to create innovative placards. He mentioned one particular placard which described ‘कोरोना’ as a phonetic acronym for 'Koi Road Par Na Nikle'. 

On Prime Minister’s appeal, the entire country showed a sense of solidarity and respect towards the doctors, nurses and other medical staff, sanitation and health workers, police force and all those who are tirelessly working in this fight against corona. Also, millions of Indians turned off their lights. They lit up balconies and doorsteps with lamps, candles and flashlights on Sunday, April 5, in response to Prime Minister Narendra Modi's appeal to "challenge the darkness" spread by the coronavirus crisis. Thus, he has unified the country like never before.

Most of the world leaders including US President Donald Trump and UK PM Boris Johnson praised Narendra Modi for his innovative and independent leadership during these times of crisis. They hailed his sincere efforts and commendable work for the wellbeing of his people. 

WHO also appreciated PM Modi's efforts to contain coronavirus; and said 'India can do it'. Thus, PM Narendra Modi has made an all-out effort to instil the spirit of nationality and humanity in the minds of the people of this country.

Humanity dictates that affluent sections of civil society and voluntary organisations contribute generously in cash and kind to lighten the economic impact and burden on weaker sections. In the fight against such viruses, humanity needs to guard borders closely. The border separating the virus-sphere from the human world passes inside the body of every human being. If a dangerous virus manages to penetrate this border, it puts the whole human species in danger. Hence not the borders between territories but, humanity needs to guard the border between the human world and the virus-sphere. 

The bottom line here is that we must all act responsibly and support each other to prevent the collapse of socio-economic wellbeing of our society.

The Indian tradition has always underlined the importance of physical as well as mental health and wellbeing. Whatever may be the danger, you will be able to face it only with a healthy body and a strong mind.

Referring to the Sanskrit shloka below, everyone must keep in mind that wealth, a friend, a wife and a kingdom may be regained but when this body is lost may never be acquired again.

पूनर्वित्तं पुनर्मित्रं पुनर्भार्या पुनर्महि l
एतत्सर्वं पुनर्लभ्यं न शरीरं पुनः पुनः ll

(Dr.Prachee Javadekar is a renowned Educationalist & Researcher. 
Dr. Harshada Vaidya-Kunnur is a Research Analyst & Professional in Natural Product Chemistry)

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