Welcomed then, stigmatised now

India must ensure that messaging and reporting on COVID-19 doesn’t stigmatise foreigners

April 01, 2020 12:15 am | Updated 02:01 am IST

Over a fortnight ago, an Italian tourist at Wagamon, a beautiful hill town in Kerala’s Idukki district, reportedly had to spend a night in a cemetery attached to a church. The reason? He had been denied a room in all the hotels and resorts in the area. At the time, government authorities had told hoteliers not to let in foreigners, particularly those from high-risk countries such as Italy, France, China and Iran. If they did, the hotels/ resorts were told to keep the tourists in isolation for a fortnight.

In another town, Munnar, in the same district, a British tourist tested positive for COVID-19 on March 15. In a moment of high drama, the individual, along with a group of British tourists, “escaped” from the Munnar resort and boarded a plane at Kochi that was bound for Dubai. The ‘positive’ result came as the tourist was boarding the plane. The authorities got all the passengers offloaded, the flight’s departure was delayed by a few hours, and the British tourist group was kept isolated in a hotel. Briefly, there was even talk of shutting down the airport for fear of a virus outbreak.

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Viewed with suspicion

Shocked by the news, Munnar imposed a lockdown the following day. The people in the town, which attracts thousands of foreigners during the tourist season, started to view every foreigner with suspicion. In Kochi, a foreign couple was turned out of a restaurant by fellow diners. In Kannur district, a French-Italian pair had to starve for a couple of days as restaurants refused to serve them. The same story played out in many places in Kerala, a State which otherwise prides itself on being extremely tourist-friendly.

Such incidents were reported from other parts of the country as well. A Venezuelan tourist operator, Ma Dagnino, said: “All over India, foreigners began to be seen as a threat.” She said over a WhatsApp message: “If guests are treated like outcastes, and refused the most basic of courtesies, it is India itself that will be the most profoundly hurt.”

COVID-19 is a huge threat to India and it’s natural that people will panic. But governments and the media need to be mindful that their decisions and reports, respectively, don’t evoke knee-jerk reactions from the people. Creating panic might serve to keep people on their toes in the initial stages, but this only becomes counterproductive later. When there is hype and panic, people view foreigners as enemies of the people and want them out of the country. In tourism-reliant States like Kerala, the economic cost of this kind of behaviour will be massive.

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The government’s steps against the virus should not lead to the kind of scare and stigma that were the outcomes of the anti-HIV/AIDS campaign during the early stages of the epidemic in India. Back then, some doctors refused to examine HIV/AIDS patients, and paramedics sent the afflicted people out of hospitals. The infection caused extensive social stigma and ostracism.

For a sensitive campaign

While working for this newspaper, I had reported an incident which showed how society viewed HIV/AIDS once. In 1996, in a village in Kerala’s Malappuram district, a group of men led by a school headmaster rounded up two young women claiming that they had been “spreading AIDS” in the village. The group thrashed the women and got their heads shaved. It was a campaign focusing on infusing fear and loathing against AIDS patients that resulted in such a response. The incident created immediate reactions and caused a drastic rethink on the way the anti-HIV campaign was being run in Kerala.

“Please stop infusing fear among your citizens,” was Ma Dagnino's message to the government. “Don’t trash your own country by exchanging kindness for fear.”

K.P.M. Basheer, a former journalist with The Hindu, is the CEO of a resort at Munnar

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