City City Bang Bang, Columns

Of Covidiots & other barriers to social distancing

A crisis like Coronavirus brings to the fore many heroes, people going out of their way to help others selflessly. It also brings to the surface many people who choose not to act in the larger interests of society. We see them in our newspaper headlines, in public spaces and in our own neighbourhoods. Some of their behaviour is silly, but a lot of it is downright dangerous, not just to themselves but to everyone else. The explosion in cases brought about by reckless behaviour of members of the Tableeghi Jamaat is a graphic pointer to potentially devastating effect of such actions. And this is by no means the only example; there are many other cases of reckless behaviour on part of a few that ends up endangering the well-being of many.

Religious faith can certainly act as an enabler of this kind of behaviour. Across countries and faiths, there have been scattered instances of large public gatherings that flout social distancing norms and become hotspots for spreading infection. The faithful accord a presumptively high value to what they see as the imperatives of their faith and this helps them overcome any anxieties that might otherwise have stopped them from engaging in risky behaviour. Religion privileges the idea of transcendence, of rising above the material located in the here-and-now, and focusing on ‘higher’ goals. This gives some religious leaders an apparently limitless belief in the righteousness of their actions, no matter how much they might go up against the inviolable and unforgiving principles of science. The power of religion comes in part from its ability to wrest people away from their more pressing everyday concerns, to subordinate their narrow interests in the belief that something larger and more rewarding is at hand. 

The other catalyst that encourages people to ignore or defy the restrictions that have been put in place comes from a need to follow familiar social norms. Weddings, funerals and celebrations have been a significant source for the spread of the infection. Here again, the risk-reward ratio in engaging in potentially dangerous behaviour gets warped. The emotional exigencies of playing a designated social role overrides the need for caution. There is false comfort that is derived from being part of a large group, ignoring the fact that this is precisely the source of danger.

Politics is another arena which can trigger a similar reaction. We have seen many instances of politicians continuing to flout the rules set by their own ilk, when a political opportunity presents itself. This cuts across parties, with even the leaders of ruling party seeing no problem in public gatherings and sundry ceremonies. The proximate opportunity scores over the possible future danger, and the sense of invincibility that comes with power adds to the tendency to take chances. The benefit is overvalued and the cost underestimated. When a Shivraj Chouhan celebrates his return to power with a large group of supporters, he is clearly placing the need to make a public statement over the risk of contracting a dangerous disease, not just for himself but for his followers. 

Then of course, we have the so-called Covidiots, those who act with inexplicable lack of regard for themselves and others as they go about flouting rules and engaging in reckless behaviour. While, some are genuinely unable to process the ideas of asymptomatic transmission, and the need for social distancing, for others, such behaviour comes from a place of ingrained indifference. They instinctively put themselves first, harbour a sense of entitlement and believe that rules are for others, and that every system exists so that it can be gamed. Many people in positions of power simply cannot accept that their designation or wealth gives them no special privileges, something that they have otherwise come to take for granted. The number of senior bureaucrats across different states, who have been remiss in reporting the illnesses of themselves and their families underlines this trait. 

Then there are the conspiracy-theorists who rebel against any restrictions in the firm knowledge that this is nothing but a vast global plot hatched to target them personally. Their view comes from an ingrained distrust of anything that smacks of an ‘establishment’ view and an aggressive and utterly misplaced belief in an alternative truth, that is seen to be a more authentic version of reality. 

The fear of the invisible can affect people in dramatically different ways. It puts some in a heightened state of wariness, making them suspicious of any contact with any external element. Invisibility translates into the ubiquity of the threat- who knows what might be a source of infection. The urge to protect, distance, disinfect, hide is paramount. The line with caution and paranoia can blur and irrational and hostile reactions against real and imagined threats can go out of hand. We have seen enough examples of this- victims of the disease being ostracised, doctors and healthcare staff being discriminated against, even attacked physically, members of certain communities and ethnicities being singled out and vigilante actions taken by neighbours in an apparent effort to protect themselves better. External invisibility preys on internal fears, magnifying them, legitimising them.

On the other hand, there are those who equate invisibility with inconsequence. It is difficult to take what they cannot see seriously. The force of habit then holds sway, for being perennially on one’s guard against nameless enemies feels like an exhausting exertion. Token nods are made in the general direction of the steps that are recommended, but one lapses quickly into earlier more unself-conscious modes of behaviour. 

A big challenge to lifting the lockdown in degrees will come from the many ways in which people find reason to subvert what is asked of them. Some lessons will have been learnt, but the real question is whether everyone can be trusted to act responsibly, for without that, the road to recovery is going to be a slippery one.

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