Lack of humanity will pull humanity apart

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During the grim and depersonalising period of lockdown and quarantine, there is a fresh need to hold on to empathy, whimsy, love, and all those values that form the core of our humanness.

Face of a tragedy: The photo of Rampukar Pandit weeping by a road in Delhi was widely shared across all media. | PTI

Pandemics are to be feared for the disease, the social and economic disruptions they engender and the annihilation they threaten humanity with. Over the last couple of months, we have also been hearing stories of sick people breaking state-mandated quarantine in preference of home and watching seas of inter-state workers trudging thousands of miles on foot in a bid to reach their native places. In both these cases (varying in degrees of privilege, and class) there is a yearning for undergoing the sickness in the comfort of one’s home, or at least away from institutional quarantines and hospitals, never mind the fear of the disease itself. Much reportage has focussed not just on inter-state labourers saying that they had to go back not just because of job losses, but also to cling to the redeeming comfort of being among kin, where they might not be treated as anonymous, faceless, patients.

For policymakers, struggling to deal with a highly infectious disease with an as-yet mysterious epidemiology, and a crumbling medical and public health infrastructure, this yearning for home, in defiance of official quarantine, may seem a wilful endangering of public health. Punitive and coercive measures follow soon.

It is easy in this scenario to stigmatise and blame the lakhs going home as callous people who do not care they may be spreading the disease. But that would be an injustice. Underlying this fear of dying away from home is the very real fact that what humans fear most in pandemics is the pathologisation of the body by the state.

There is enough by now in the public domain to tell you that once you contract the disease or are in the high-risk contact list, in most cases, what follows is stigma, institutionalisation, and the attendant alienation that the patient suffers from their kin and the state.

Social media is aflame with stories of unhygienic quarantine facilities, patients being denied treatment, bodies not being picked up by relatives for funerals, and hospitals being derelict in the way they treat those who have passed away.

The much-vaunted philosopher Michel Foucault (whom I first read as a wide-eyed 21-year-old) foresaw all this in his book The Birth of the Clinic, where he looks at the construction of modern medical science and the “medical gaze”.

He coined the term “medical gaze” to describe the almost dehumanising separation of the patient’s physiology from their own self, the way in which human beings are seen as a sum of their physical symptoms and parts, as separate from their humanness. Impersonal medical protocols, along with the state’s regimentation, have made this a real threat in India’s fight against COVID-19.

 

In this sort of situation, where lakhs of people would rather walk to a home thousands of miles away than submit to the medical gaze sans family and familiarity, it is all the more heartening to see instances of people retaining and displaying their humanity.

Footage of a school in Unnao, painted in bright colours by inter-state workers who had been in institutional quarantine there, left me teary-eyed. The messages they painted on the walls may have been of the cookie-cutter variety, including standard government advisory points on how to fight COVID-19, but the writing was embellished with paintings of mountains and rivers, forests and sunrises. An assertion of beauty and human whimsy within the institutional straitjackets.

The main debate with regard to the fight against COVID-19 has been whether to choose life over the economy or vice-versa. The way forward may lie embedded in the images at that Unnao school. To work harder to destigmatise COVID-19, as just a disease like so many others (albeit a more infectious one), to not forget the humanity of the patient in the frequently changing protocols of treatment. Not much is known about COVID-19, except that it is a major medical disruption that has hit the world a Century after the Spanish Flu. What we do know, however, is that while the disease has had a low fatality rate in India so far, the deracination of individuals from their social context can be far more lethal. We have to find a way to huddle together and push through this period of unnaturalness.

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