Script of unity: On coronavirus and social prejudices

The virus knows no caste or creed, but it is feeding existing social prejudices

Updated - April 23, 2020 12:57 am IST

Published - April 23, 2020 12:02 am IST

Prime Minister  Narendra Modi’s reminder that COVID-19 does not recognise “race, religion, colour, caste, creed, language or border” before striking, was axiomatic but essential. The pandemic has fanned the flames of communalism instead of dousing them, as it has compounded economic woes. The Prime Minister has recognised the calamitous rage of the virus when he called for “response and conduct” that “should attach primacy to unity and brotherhood”. He cannot be more right about the fact that countries and societies can no longer afford to face off with one another and the future can be secured only through togetherness and resilience. He spoke against the backdrop of criticism of the apparent communal strand in the response of some sections to the COVID-19 challenge. The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom and the UN expressed concern over stigmatisation, in India, of a particular community. India sought to reject these concerns as external interference, which they were. But then, as he noted, the virus threat has made borders irrelevant. There have been reports of religious discrimination towards patients. The situation was aggravated when a vocal section of the Indian diaspora, often touted as proponents of India’s interests in their host countries, was seen as Islamophobic in the UAE.

Such odious digital behaviour routinely goes unquestioned in India, but in the UAE, the response has been quick. Many have lost their jobs for posting hateful content and this culture of diatribe now looms over a critical bilateral relationship that Mr. Modi has personally nurtured. The Indian Ambassador to the UAE reminded expatriates that discrimination was against “our moral fabric and the rule of law”. Indeed. The narrative of the pandemic as a communal conspiracy against the nation began to take shape immediately after a Tablighi Jamaat congregation in Delhi in March turned out to be a prodigious source of the contagion. The Centre and the Delhi government appeared to be using the unfortunate episode scripted by an irresponsible and ignorant group to fend off scrutiny of their own shortcomings. A section of the media continues to play a dishonourable role in amplifying it. In an environment that is already rife with fear and uncertainty, the official communications strategy must focus on building trust and offering reassurance. The extremely inadequate messaging has led to stigmatisation of patients and their families, and despicable incivility towards even the bodies of unfortunate victims. All this makes the Prime Minister’s statement timely. His call for unity in the face of this calamity must be translated into firm action, and a good place to begin is the government’s own messaging.

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