A Pandemic of Prejudice
Publication Date: June 2020
By: Nitin Pai
Pluralism is often an early casualty in a pandemic
The radical uncertainty created by an epidemic becomes a justification for expressions of hatred, discrimination and violence.
In his history of epidemics and society, Frank M. Snowden notes that social responses to disease outbreaks “include stigmatization and scapegoating, flight and mass hysteria, riots, and upsurges in religiosity.” It has been common for individuals and groups to be excommunicated, ostracised, expelled and killed in the wake of diseases.
While advances in science have been able to identify what causes epidemics, how they spread and how they might be contained, these advances have not been successful in ridding the popular mind of ignorance, superstition and misunderstanding. As we see from public responses to the Covid-19 pandemic around the world, this holds in rich countries as in poor, in cities as in the countryside and among the educated as among the uneducated. The viral pandemic is also accompanied by a pandemic of prejudice.
Exigencies of fighting the pandemic must not overrule the social contract
Even societies that normally respect diversity and uphold pluralism can be tempted to allow these values to be overshadowed by exigencies of fighting the pandemic. We not only acquiesce to emergency modifications of the social contract that places extraordinary power in the hands of the state and the community, but allow them to operate outside due process, without checks and balances.
Private apartment complexes in Indian cities, for instance, have imposed many restrictions on residents and service staff that are more easily explained by social prejudices than by public health considerations. There have been numerous reports of discrimination along religious and ethnic lines in public places, even in healthcare facilities. Even two months after it became clear that millions of migrant workers were left stranded and unemployed because of the national lockdown, India’s Union and State governments have yet to evolve a sensitive, humane response to their situation.
What is happening in India is not unique. The threat to pluralism is global. The question is whether it will remain so in the post-pandemic future. It is by no means a foregone conclusion that the post-pandemic world will be one of increasingly authoritarian governments, shrinking liberty and receding pluralism. It is within human capabilities to shape the future we desire.
The pandemic offers us opportunities to shape new social equilibriums
Some of these are bottom-up. Many Indian cities for instance, have discovered that “staggered working hours, reduction of waste, e-commerce, contactless delivery, attention to public hygiene and direct charity to help needy people in our local communities are all good habits that can transform the way we live.” Sustaining these preferences would be an improvement over the old normal.
As I have argued recently, “Some things will change in the post-pandemic world: supply chains, travel norms, concern for hygiene, internet use, consumption patterns and so on. But many other things will remain the same: family, food, drinks, shelter, education, transport, stimulants, intoxicants, sex, spirituality, personal vanity, the desire for status, recognition and community. There will be better equilibrium points at the intersection of change and constance. We will have to find them.”
There are opportunities to create better global and national equilibriums, as well. Part of the reason why the United Nations has been increasingly ineffective over the past two decades is because it is wired to solve the problems of the previous century. The challenges of the post-Second World War era were inter-national while those of the post-pandemic era are global, as in they affect the planet as a whole. You cannot fix the pandemic or climate change by using military force to punish the aggressor. Covid-19 underlines the need for ‘we are all in this together’ thinking at a global level, and perhaps new international institutions to fulfill such a mandate.
At a national level, electorates in most democracies are hopefully coming to realise that populism is not a substitute for sound economic reasoning and administrative capacity. The pandemic would have been a lot less painful and costly had national political leaders not rejected science, reason and good counsel. These are opportunities for politicians and parties to change the populist narrative.
Back in 1947, after the vicious riots of Partition set aflame old religious prejudices, few would have thought it was possible for India to be a secular state. When both the West and the Soviet bloc were propping up autocrats, few would have thought it possible for liberal democracy to survive in a poor, populous and highly diverse country. Yet, the Republic of India was born as a secular state and liberal democracy. India enlarged the boundaries of pluralism more than ever before in its history. For advocates of pluralism, the Indian Republic is both inspiring and worth defending.
History never proceeds in a linear fashion after extraordinary events. Those committed to creating better social equilibriums might well move the needle on a pluralist world.