City City Bang Bang, Columns

Divided by Fear?

This is by far, the biggest crisis of its kind in living memory. No other event comes close in terms of scale and sweep of its embrace in the last 100 years. At one level, all of humanity should be united in such a profound moment of crisis. To the virus, the human body is simply a potential host, and it uses its very limited arsenal of tricks to devastating effect in hijacking the mechanisms of the human body against itself. A threat of this kind does not appear to discriminate between the labels that divide us. All nations are equally at risk; what is today’s tragedy in Italy or Spain could be tomorrow’s story elsewhere. Yet, just as the world struggles to react as one, old divisions are deepening and new ones are springing up.

The most visible divide is the one between the affluent who can afford to hide and the poor that have no choice but to take chances. The current exodus of migrants caused by the sudden announcement of a lockdown illustrates just how asymmetrical the effects of any action deemed to be protective can be. For those who do not have the luxury of a fixed salary and guaranteed employment, the idea of a lockdown without any means to support oneself is a threat far more immediate than the virus itself. In such a situation, rushing back home is both a primal instinct and a reasonable response. That this act of self-protection can be the principal trigger for getting infected is a function of poor planning by the state certainly, but at a more fundamental level, it is a structural consequence of being poor. The poor are far too many in number, and they simply do not have the means to do what is needed at a time when speed and resources are of the essence. They need to live in cramped quarters with poor sanitation, use crowded public transport, and lack the luxury of being able to stock up and lock themselves down because they have worry about earning a living every day. Lockdowns might protect us as a collective but it exposes the vulnerable to great economic misery, which in turn compromises their ability to protect themselves and as a consequence protect the larger collective. And so far, we are still in the early days of the transmission; the stark difference in access to critical healthcare has still not got exposed. 

The other divide that opens out is the one between the locals and those who come in from the outside, be it international travelers, domestic visitors from other parts of the country and even returning locals. The fear of importing contamination creates a sense of suspicion and hostility, as we try our hardest to barricade ourselves in.

This hostility extends to even those engaged in providing critical services that are otherwise so valorized. One would expect that given the critical role that these people play, there should be nothing but empathy and admiration from everyone else. While this is true certainly in thought, indeed we have seen enough instances where healthcare providers have been evicted from their homes by landlords and cases where the police have harassed, even beaten up those providing essential services. We want our doctors in our hospitals, but not near our homes, it would seem.

Another potential fault-line created by the virus is the one between the young and the old. The asymmetrical impact of the virus on the older victims creates two very different perspectives. The collective price that needs to be paid to try and keep the virus in check feels too high for the group that believes (not quite accurately, as more recent data is showing) that the worst that can happen to them is a minor flu-like episode. As the weeks of social distancing stretch into months of some kind of control, as is likely, this division might well become pronounced.

Then there are the more everyday divisions between the cautious and the indifferent, the rule followers and the rule breakers. Different human beings process threats, particularly those that are invisible and located in the future very differently. This is particularly true in this case where the nature of exponential growth is such that a perfectly manageable situation today can crumble into a raging crisis in a matter of a week or two. There are those that are fearful and extremely cautious, taking every care so as to protect themselves. And there are those simply cannot see what the fuss is about. Married to a larger belief system which views all dire warnings about the future of humanity with deep skepticism, the panic generated feels overblown and in the view of some, even manufactured. 

As the numbers increase, and if the current situation continues much longer, another kind of division is likely to emerge. Between those who have recovered and have immunity (to whatever degree) and those that are still at risk. Imagine a situation where the lockdown continues in one form or another for a few months and the mental state of those that are trapped thus. On the other hand, for those who have emerged on the other side, the restrictions that are being placed on everyone will feel utterly redundant and they will be eager to resume their earlier lives. This is going to make the idea of a lockdown that much more difficult for those cooped up for what will then seem like eternity.

The more we are encouraged to think of ourselves first, to retreat into our little cocoons, the more we start fearing any possible threat from the outside world. And yet, the only way that we can overcome this threat is by acting in the larger, collective interest. Any vulnerability in any part of society will eventually make everyone more vulnerable.  We may try to live in isolation, but today, more than ever before, we exist as a single, highly interconnected system. 

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