Corona phobia exposes fragility of society

Zahid Kadri and other officials at Ganj Shohda Kabristan

Mahesh Trivedi,

Novel Coronavirus is on the prowl here, there and everywhere but with the dread of this potentially fatal disease is an added threat of social stigma and ostracism. Incidents of sporadic attacks on health workers and other ‘potential carriers’ of the virus have already surfaced social media and it can be now said with precision that protests by locals during burial or cremation of Corona victims might soon become the order of the day.

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Only last week, when the body of a 45-year-old COVID victim was brought to a cemetery near her home in Ahmedabad, residents of the locality threw tantrums and raised hell, saying the corpse could spread the viral infection in their area. The police and municipal health officials spent as many as four hours allaying their fears by explaining the World Health Organization (WHO) approved scientific process but the residents refused to budge.The body was then taken to a distant graveyard where again angry crowds gathered and created noisy scenes but the Ganj Shohda Kabristan chairman Zahid Kadri prevailed upon them and the woman was finally laid to rest with police cordoning off the burial ground.

“I asked them what they would do if they were faced similar opposition when one of their own virus-stricken family members was brought here for burial”, said Kadri describing how he managed to silence the protesting crowds.

Soon after, a similar incident took place in Kolkata where scores of people residing near a crematorium closed its gates in order to block entry of the hearse carrying the body of a 57-year-old man, West Bengal’s first COVID-19 fatality. A ruckus was created among the locals till a huge police force descended on the ground and dispersed them after collaring 16 men and women. In Gujarat’s Surendranagar, ‘corona phobics’ forced relatives of a 46-year-old woman to perform her last rites only on the outskirts of the town instead of a riverside crematorium in the vicinity of her home.

“Love is only a word for them,” says Dr Ronak Gandhi, CEO of Ahmedabad-based Loving Center for Transformation, a meditation and Zen counselling centre. Dr Ronak opines that these fears are unfounded and indeed “COVID has revealed the fragility of the Indian society.”

A municipal doctor outside a quarantined home after examining inmates

For anyone sensible, it is heartbreaking that a time like this when humanity should come together through empathy and understanding, grief-stricken families are not being able to give even a decent farewell to their departed ones. What adds insult to injury is that some authorities decided to name and shame those affected, through name plates outside quarantined houses. In many cities, including Ahmedabad, the decision of the municipal corporation to paste red, stay-away notices outside quarantined homes, and also making their names and addresses public through media has left residents fretting and fuming. Many housing societies, fearing spread of the deadly virus, have even put up barricades at the entrance of their complexes, fueling clashes with vegetable sellers, newspaper delivery boys, dog owners and morning walkers as well as other hawkers and daily wage earners.

“Displaying names of coronavirus suspects publicly is an arbitrary and reactionary measure that does not serve the purpose and will instead cause fear, isolation and stigmatization,” opines social worker Salim Shaikh.

Doctors, nurses and other paramedical personnel have been risking their lives by working round the clock with COVID patients but, unfortunately, are no better off. Reports of doctors being stigmatized and assaulted by those refusing to undergo medical tests are everyday. While a nurse was suddenly evicted by her corona phobic landlord in Surat, neighbors ransacked an Ahmedabad landlord’s home and even attacked him for not throwing out his tenants put in quarantine. Police commissioner Ashish Bhatia says, “the fact that a record 40,000 desperate people called the dedicated helpline within three days in Ahmedabad has proven that coronavirus has struck terror among the weak-hearted, gullible citizens.”

While this highly-contagious pathogen has made the last journey of the departed tortuous in these trying times, the plight of quarantined suspects is no less painful. Isolated in their homes for possible symptoms after one of their family members tested coronavirus-positive, many people cannot have even a glimpse of their deceased kin when the body is taken away for final rites packed as it is in an opaque zip bag as per health guidelines.

COVID suspects being taken to an isolation hospital

Amid painful incidents like the above, however, Muslim neighbors in Mumbai and Malda (West Bengal) came to the rescue of lonely Hindu men for carrying the body of their elderly relative to a crematorium and completing all the formalities. Following a meeting with chief ministers of states it has been decided by the Centre that most states will opt for an extension of lockdown. In painful times like these, it is little relieving to see local police swing into action and give the stick to those boycotting people who have been cured of COVID or have tested negative. Also being taken to task are social media group administrators for spreading frightening rumors about the viral infection.

As Gujarat reaches 493 coronavirus cases and 23 deaths on April 12,   general secretary of Gujarat chapter of the All-India Milli Council, Abdul Hafiz Lakhani, feels that “It is the government’s responsibility to make people aware about the pandemic and its consequences, and panic and fear must be removed by taking some innovative efforts.”