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Prejudice in the time of a pandemic

Looking for a scapegoat during an infectious disease outbreak is not new
Last Updated : 22 December 2021, 09:36 IST
Last Updated : 22 December 2021, 09:36 IST

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Nearly two years into the Coronavirus pandemic, it is glaringly obvious that pandemics do not heal societal prejudices; they reveal them. It is equally clear that we are continuing to pay a very high price for such prejudice.

Looking for a scapegoat during an infectious disease outbreak is not new. In the 14th Century, Jewish citizens were blamed for spreading the plague and accused of poisoning water supplies. In recent times, the spread of the Ebola virus triggered a spike in anti-African racism in many European countries, an essay in the International Journal of Social Psychiatry reminds us. The advent of the Omicron variant of the Coronavirus also brought out the deep-seated prejudice towards Africa. There are many more such examples.

What fuels such prejudice?

An infectious disease is "seen as a threat and therefore attempts are made to 'other' this threat," the authors note. "These attempts at 'othering' are commonly reinforced by a desire to assign blame and responsibility for the disease, in efforts to make sense of such adversity… Combined, this often manifests as xenophobic tendencies at a societal level, such as the blaming of 'out-groups' and increased 'in-group' protectiveness."

During the ongoing pandemic, we see India wrestling with the same prejudice. "Within countries, and across countries, there has been targetting or scapegoating of certain groups blamed for the spread of the virus or for causing the restrictive lockdowns. In India, there was a scapegoating of Muslims, particularly as a result of the spread of infections at a gathering. In some countries where there is great social and economic inequality, there has been scapegoating of the poor who live in crowded conditions for spreading the virus," says Sridhar Venkatapuram, Associate Professor, Global Health & Philosophy, King's College London and Chair, Independent Resource Group for Global Health Justice.

In the United States, for example, crimes targeting Asian-Americans have shot up dramatically since the beginning of the Coronavirus pandemic. According to Stop AAPI Hate, a coalition that tracks incidents of violence and harassment against Asian-Americans and Pacific Islanders in the US, there have been nearly 3,800 instances of discrimination against Asians between March 19, 2020, to February 28, 2021.

In India, one telling illustration of prejudice has its origin in events that happened in Delhi's Nizamuddin area with the gathering of people from the Muslim organisation Tablighi Jamaat. The Tablighi Jamaat event, held in mid-March, turned out to be one of the hotspots of the infection, with travellers from the event possibly infecting many others around the country. Thereafter, it became fodder for malicious rumours in the social media about Muslims spreading the disease.

"This led to discrimination against Muslim vendors and hawkers, who were attacked in many parts of the country. ...such rumour-spreading has negative labour supply effects amongst Hindus who have Muslim co-workers. This could have economic consequences as India exits the lockdown," wrote Arkadev Ghosh, a scholar affiliated to the University of British Columbia, in a report in the portal Ideas for India in May 2020. Ghosh conducted a phone survey with 500 workers at a factory in India the previous month.

In a landmark judgement in August 2020, the Bombay High Court quashed three FIRs against 35 petitioners – 29 of them foreign nationals – who had attended the Tablighi Jamaat congregation and travelled from there to different parts of India. "A political government tries to find the scapegoat when there is pandemic or calamity, and the circumstances show that there is (the) probability that these foreigners were chosen to make them scapegoats," the court observed.

But the damage had been done. The rumour mill deepened pre-existing prejudices against minorities.

As is now clear, prejudice in the time of a pandemic is not just a human rights issue; it also extracts a steep cost from the perspective of public health.

Prejudice fuels stigma. And stigmatising specific communities has serious repercussions during all times but especially, during a pandemic, points out Dr Khan Amir Maroof, Professor of Community Medicine, University College of Medical Sciences, Delhi.

"Following the Tablighi Jamaat religious congregation that took place in Delhi's Nizamuddin Markaz Mosque in early March 2020, there was an attempt by certain political parties and others to give the impression that Muslims alone were responsible for being super spreaders. This vilification continued for months. This had an adverse impact on Covid-related health interventions - specifically early detection of suspected cases and contract tracing. There is also anecdotal evidence that this fear also led to the collapse of trust and led to pockets of vaccine hesitancy in some areas in the early days."

The stigma and discrimination in India during the pandemic is now a subject engaging many researchers.

"Sensationalised and inaccurate reporting, like showing doctored videos of Jamaat members spitting on others, has contributed to public hysteria and widespread negative perception of the Muslim community. The consequence was the surge in hostility, segregation, and violence projected toward the whole Muslim community (123) and Twitter hashtags saying 'corona jihad'," notes a January 2021 article in Frontiers in Public Health.

A new report by Oxfam India, based on two rapid surveys, provides more evidence. The report (Securing Rights of Patients in India: Lessons from rapid surveys on peoples' experiences of Patient's Rights Charter and the Covid-19 vaccination drive) reveals that a third of Muslim respondents reported that they felt being discriminated against on the grounds of their religion in a hospital or by a healthcare professional.

At the same time, 22 per cent of people belonging to the Scheduled Tribes (STs) and 21 per cent belonging to the Scheduled Castes (SCs) said that they have been discriminated against by healthcare providers or in a hospital setting due to their tribal identity/caste. Fifteen per cent of people belonging to the Other Backward Classes (OBCs) also said they felt discriminated against because of their caste. These findings come from two rapid surveys conducted between February and April 2021 and August and September 2021.

Health outcomes are consistently lower for Dalits, Adivasis and Muslim minority communities. "The pandemic has further deepened the systemic Islamophobia within the country's health system," says the Oxfam report referring to reports in the media about hospitals refusing to admit Muslim patients. This led to the Supreme Court stepping in and the Union Health Ministry eventually issuing a revised national policy for admission of Covid patients to various categories of Covid facilities in May this year.

Pandemic policies are more likely to be designed with the situation of the majority or those in power in mind. They are unlikely to factor in groups hit hardest by prejudice. This must change. Prejudice is real. It is directly harmful to those targeted as well as in containing epidemics and pandemics, as Venkatapuram points out. As the New Year inches closer, it is vital to address this inconvenient truth.

(The author is an independent journalist and columnist)

Disclaimer: The views expressed above are the author's own. They do not necessarily reflect the views of DH.

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Published 22 December 2021, 09:36 IST

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