Covid 19 Focus Front Page Global Affairs

Stigma – An Untold Side of COVID-19

Experiencing a series of intensified racism, religious atrocities, social phobia, and discriminatory behaviors in India in times of pandemic

COVID-19 is Fueling Racism, Religious Atrocities, Social Phobia, and Discriminatory Behaviours in India

By Nawaz Sarif

The strewed COVID-19 caused by the SARS-CoV-2 has unprecedentedly havoc the public healthcare systems across the world. It has brought a terrible catastrophe to human life that resulted in the death of 842,499 people out of the total 24,996,456 infected cases as of August 30(1). The World Health Organization (WHO) has declared this contagious outbreak as the ‘Public Health Emergency of International Concerns’(2). The government of India has also identified it as ‘Notified Disaster’(3) and enforced a nation-wide lockdown and urged social distancing as a precautionary measure to prevent the virus from further spreading. However, the steady failure to unravel the ways-out in terms of demystifying the origin and transmission of the virus has left the general public vulnerable to the various forms of social stereotypes and stigmas. Due to the rapid spread of the virus as well as the misconceptions about the disease transmission, people panicked and started maligning a certain race, community, medical professionals as carriers of the spread of the virus in the country.

According to Tedros Adhanom, Director-General of the WHO, stigma is more dangerous than the virus. It is a silent killer that must be considered as the greatest enemy of every human society(4). This statement of Tedros Adhanom seems to be realistic if we introspect the on-going chaotic social environments in India. The fear drives and rhetorically maligns certain communities as the virus has created a topsy-turvy situation in different states. It has also been observed that stigma is being used as a proxy for other types of xenophobia and racial discriminations in different parts of India. The cases were reported where stigmatized people have been publicly ostracized, shunned, and scorned socially. The steady surge in COVID-19 cases has thus, prompted social uproars causing stigmatization of the people from Manipur, in the North-East of India to the Muslim community, and healthcare workers in general.

Illustration by Dhrupadi Ghosh

COVID-19 and Heightened Racism 

In India, there is a certain level of intolerance and lack of understanding towards the people of north-eastern states like Nagaland, Manipur, Mizoram, and so on. This part of India is considered to be a very distant region both geographically as well as socio-culturally from the rest of the country. The people from this region repeatedly experience ignorance and discriminations despite the legislative and the Constitutional validations. Many from so-called “mainland” India often attack and target these people at different workplaces, educational institutions, and resident colonies. On the national level, the country also often shows its failure to take steps to protect these people who are often treated as ‘outsiders or lesser citizens’. The current pandemic has triggered several forms of such discriminatory behaviors against these people. Several cases of public harassments and abuses over northeastern ethnic groups have been reported in different parts of India. On March 23 a Manipuri woman, Rameshwori(5) who is pursuing her M.Phil from Delhi University was racially abused in the public and spate gutkha (chewing tobacco) on her t-shirt, calling her ‘coronavirus’ in North Delhi. The girl had stepped out of her house with a friend to buy groceries in Vijay Nagar area then a man riding a scooty made some racial slurs, spat on her and called her ‘corona’. In reaction to the incident, the girl said that:

“he didn’t just spit on me because I’m a woman. I was attacked because I’m a ‘north-eastern’ woman from Manipur with Mongoloid features”(6)

Similarly, Anna from the same state of Manipur was on her way to Sarojini Nagar in Delhi with her friends then a group of men called her ‘gandi virus’. Her sister, Linda, who works as a nurse at a local hospital told to the News18 that such comments they receive are usual amid the coronavirus outbreak. While sharing her experience in the city she said:

“When we try to take autos, the drivers ask us whether we are from China and if we have the virus. We have to convince them that we are Indians to be allowed to ride”(7).

In reacting to the aforesaid racial incidents, many activists(8) from the region of northeast are expressing concerns over the COVID-19 and its associated cases of racial discriminations. Suhas Chakma of a Delhi-based rights group, the Rights and Risks Analysis Group (RRAG) said:

“apart from being called ‘Corona’, ‘Chinese’, ‘Chinki’, India’s Mongoloid looking people were spat on and called ‘coronavirus’, forcibly quarantined despite showing no COVID-19 symptoms because of their looks, denied entry into the apartment complex, forced to leave the apartment, threatened with eviction from their apartment, forced to leave a restaurant to make others comfortable, none wanting to share transport with them.”(9)

The pandemic thus, has changed the frame of racism and propelled a new way-out for the proxy racial discriminations. The people from the northeastern region are now living realities of various forms of verbal abuses and violences amid the pandemic that raises a new concern for their personal safety, health, and social inclusion.

COVID-19 and Religious Atrocities

The prejudices and social stigmas lead to a greater damage to the Muslim community especially in India in fighting against the COVID-19. The stigmatization of the community leads to surge in the incidents of abuse, harassment, discrimination, and atrocity against them. The outburst of COVID-19 cases over the congregation of Tablighi Jamaat in Delhi Nizamuddin Markaz, that led to hike in the active cases across the different states of India, had led to another very pertinent instance of stigma amidst the battle against the COVID-19. The congregation of more than 4500 people10 that took place between March 12 to March 22 perilously victimised the whole Jamaat members in particular and the whole Muslim community, in general. irrespective of whether they were involved in the congregation. The Hindutva supporters had attempted to fuel communal tendencies resulting into the various forms of discriminatory behaviors and attacks on the Muslim community in different parts of India. As such, on April 10 a Muslim man(11) was beaten in Delhi for allegedly having connection with the Tablighi Jamaat congregation in Bhopal. The provocations like shooting down the Tablighi people and threatening for the deprivation of medical healthcare facilities were also screamed by the mainstream politicians. The instance like separating wards(12) for Hindu and Muslim patients in the government hospital in Gujarat had reflected on how the COVID-19 stigma had to rise the cases of social outrage against the community.

Moreover, the viral effect of this stigma also stretches to daily wage vendors especially in the states like Uttar Pradesh, Himachal Pradesh, and Bihar. For instance, in Himachal Pradesh, a group of people were seen to invigilate the street vendors to filter out the people from the Muslim community. In a village of Uttar Pradesh, a man was caught selling vegetables by changing his Muslim name to Hindu over the fear of losing customers as customers do not buy vegetables from Muslim vendors over the stigmatization of the community with the spread of coronavirus in the country. Such incidents are clearly indicating towards how people from the Muslim community are unfairly treated and marginalized in the informal economic sectors. It seems that the virus has become a proxy for the communal sentiments, hates, angers, and discriminations against the whole community. In this connection, Hilal Ahmad, associate professor at Centre for Study of Developing Societies said in a tweet that if the communal propaganda on the virus continues like this then we might see HINDU WATER and MUSLIM WATER shops very soon(13).

Illustration by Dhrupadi Ghosh

COVID-19 and Social Anxiety 

The COVID-19 has intensified social phobia in common people. The fear of being negatively looked at and the fear of the unknown have created social anxiety among the general population. On March 19, a case of public abuse(14) was reported in Mumbai where a man was publicly beaten due to sneezing in the public without covering his mouth and accusing him of spreading the coronavirus. Due to the overgrowing social fear, a man was shot dead(15) on April 15 by his friend when he coughed while playing Ludo, saying ‘corona dega kya’ (do you want to give corona?). These two incidents are explicitly reflecting on how people are irrationally becoming fearful and anxious over being contracted with the virus. Besides, an incident of a man from Himachal Pradesh Una(16) also draws attention towards how social stigma and the subsequent social boycotting leads people towards commiting suicide despite being tested negative for the coronavirus.

COVID-19 and Discriminatory Behavior against Healthcare Workers 

The current pandemic has imprinted its layer of stigma linking with the healthcare workers including doctors, nurses, and sanitization workers who are on the limelight tirelessly fighting against the COVID-19. Several cases have been reported where doctors, nurses, and other healthcare workers were being abused, harassed, and assaulted in the public. In many instances, they have been treated as the enemy to the people as they come to see and take suspected people back to the hospitals. The cases of abuses and discriminatory behavior were reported from different parts of India including Indore, Mumbai, Moradabad, Hyderabad, and Kolkata. As such, on April 2, a medical team was attacked(17) by a mob of a hundred people with stones in Indore city of Madhya Pradesh. The people abused and cursed doctors and questioned why they want to take information and quarantine them. Similarly, on April 15, a case of stone-pelting(18) over the doctors and police personnel was also reported in Moradabad where the team was inspecting to locate people suspected to have COVID-19.

Further, the doctors are also being forced to restrain from public places including the markets. They are even evicted from the lodges or residential colonies due to fear of getting infected being around the health workers. As such, in the last week of March, many cases of doctors’ eviction from rented houses were reported in several cities including Mumbai(19), Warangal(20), New Delhi(21), and Kolkata(22) over the allegation that the doctors were spreading the virus in the residential colonies. Besides, a case of atrocity(23) against two residential doctors was reported on April 9 in the National Capital that clearly directed towards how the COVID-19 stigma has created chaotic situations turning people hostile towards doctors. The doctors were scolded and slapped by a 42 year old man on their way to buy fruits and said they should not come to the market as they are allegedly caused to spread the virus. These incidents, showing people’s hostile sentiments and irrational perceptions about the medical professionals have not only raised concerns for doctors’ safety and mental health but impairing their tireless dedication in curbing the virus. 

Lessons from History of Disease Stigma 

The social stigma associated with a virus is not a new phenomenon. The history of human epidemiology has a long jaw-dropping witness of several forms of discriminatory behavior and stigma against a certain community, race, and profession that havoc the fighting strength in containing the various contagious diseases. As such, like the present COVID-19 stigma and its alleged association with the Muslims in India, a similar stigma was observed during the outbreak of the deadly bubonic plague or Black Death that caused the death between 30 and 60% of the Europe population between 1347 and 1351(24). At that time, European Jews were suspected for poisoning wells, causing the spread of the virus. The situation was so terrifying that it had gone out of the administrative control resulted in the murder of thousands of the Jews over a public rumor. Again, during the Spanish Influenza, the whole Spanish community was stigmatized with the virus and as a consequence, the people from the community had been targeted and discriminated against in different parts of the world. Similarly, during the Zika virus outbreak, women specifically, the pregnant women had been in the spotlight. At that time, women were being attacked, shunned, and humiliated in the infected countries like the Federal States of Micronesia, Polynesia, and Brazil. Apart from, the foreign healthcare workers, who had been in those infected countries during the outbreak were also being attacked in their respective countries. 

Further, during the Ebola outbreak a similar pattern of stigma had also been observed especially in the countries grappled with the virus including Liberia, Sierra Leone, Nigeria, Mali, and the USA. At that time, the outbreak had paved off social stigma targeting people of African descent. These stigmatized people were not only allegedly blamed for spreading the virus but also ostracized and shunned in the non-African countries. Besides, over the fear of being contracted with the virus the people like tourists, businessmen, and healthcare workers of non-African descent, who had been in those infected countries had also faced stigma and discriminatory behavior in their respective countries. Again, such stereotype was also attached to Russian Flu to SARS virus to modern cholera and HIVS where the people of Asian descent, the people dwelling in ‘urban slum’, and the homosexuals had been targeted and attacked for spreading the concern virus respectively. 

It is thus observed that as a consequence of ignorance and misinformation every disease or outbreak in the past, right from the bubonic plague to modern day’s SARS and HIVS, certain groups of people have been targeted and unfairly treated. The same patterns of stereotypes, social anxiety, racism, religious atrocities, and discriminatory behaviors have also been noticed during the on-going pandemic. This is very unfortunate that we have learnt nothing much from the past and are still continuing the persistent expressions of stigma while coping with the current pandemic.

Painting by Dhrupadi Ghosh

Mitigation Measures 

The stigma has emerged as a social phenomenon in India amidst the on-going pandemic. It has become the most dangerous social barrier in battling against the virus. This negative force of fear and over panic have caused catastrophe across the country. The stigma invokes discriminatory behaviours and harmful stereotypes against the people from the North-East India, Muslim community, and medical professionals. Such discriminatory behaviours are not only undermining the social cohesion and prompting social segregation, rejection, and violence but also blurring the hope in controlling the strewed spread of the virus. The intensified stigma can also result in subjugating the stigmatized communities that subsequently hinders the fight in curbing the virus. According to Dr. Randeep Guleria(25), head of the All India Institute of Medical Science in Delhi, the stigma causes an unusual spike in coronavirus death in the country. He said:

“it is actually causing increasing morbidity and mortality. Because of the stigma that is happening, many patients who have COVID-19 or who have flu-like symptoms are not coming forward.”

Thus, the COVID-19 stigma seriously weakens the country’s fight in preventing the contagious disease. The factors that are causing COVID-19 associated stigma needs to be controlled to restrain from further stigmatizing the targeted communities with the virus. In this connection, the World Health Organization (WHO) has explicitly asserted that the COVID-19 disease does not see any race, ethnic group, and religion before attacking. It is affecting people across different religions, races, and countries. Besides, the history of disease stigma also alerts that stigmatizing any community or race with the virus will only shatter the united efforts to battle against the such pandemic. So, the Central government and the state governments should strictly deal with the incidents of prejudices and biased sentiments against any community in the country. The government must heighten its management strategies to tackle racism in the country too. The section 153 (A) of the Indian Penal Code (IPC) now needs to be taken forward to punish those promoting disharmony, enmity or feelings of hatred between religious, racial, language or regional groups(26).

Further, it has been noted that the misinformation and fake news about the COVID-19 disseminated by the digital media has unprecedentedly instigated the communal sentiments among people. It was also frequently seen that the media stigmatize the coronavirus with the Muslims in their daily programmes and repeatedly use the demeaning terms such as ‘Corona Jihadi’ and ‘Tablighi Virus’. Such type of staged propagation is argued to have helped in triggering anti-Muslim sentiments in the country. It fuels religious hatred against the whole community. The governments thereby, must work against all these forms of acts and sentiments that have the potential to prompt violence and hate towards Muslims. Inappropriate language and the dissemination of fake news staggering communal sentiments among the people must be checked with the Constitutional yardsticks. 

Additionally, the governments must strengthen its coordination with medical staff, police personnel, and local communities to combat the disease stigma. People should be encouraged to co-operate with the medical personals and to extend necessary helping hands to fight against the virus and its associative forms of social stereotypes in the community. The responsibility has to be shared by the government authorities and the community leaders to inflate the awareness of COVID-19 and to develop an apt understanding about the transmission of the virus. Besides, the government also needs to build a multistage and multilingual influence strategy(27) encouraging film stars to religious leaders to promote empathy and self care among people. Their voices can also be used to create a sense of responsibility and to amplify the important messages in the general population. 

Footnotes 

1. The Times of India. (2020, July 30): COVID-19 cases.

2. The World Health Organization. (2020, Feb. 12): COVID-19 public health emergency of international concern (PHEIC). Global research and innovation forum.

3. The Economic Times. (2020, March 14): India declares COVID-19 a ‘Notified Disaster’.

4. The World Health Organization. (2020, March 2): WHO press conference on COVID-19.

5. The Print (2020, March 23). Krishnakutty, P.: Eyes were burning from the paan, says Manipuri girl called ‘corona’ by Delhi man who spat on her.

6. News18India. (2020, March 25): ‘He spat and called me corona’: Racism against North East Indians feeds off coronavirus panic.

7. Ibid. 

8. India TV News. (2020, March 23): Manipur women ‘racially abused’ in North Delhi, called ‘corona’.

9. Deccan Herald (2020, March 26). Karmakar, S.: Coronavirus outbreak has increased racial attacks on people from the Northeast. NGO report.

10. The Hindu. (2020, April 11). Trivedi, S.: The story of India’s largest COVID-19 cluster.

11. The Logical Indian. (2020, April 10). Sen, S.: Delhi – Muslim man thrashed on suspicion of ‘spreading coronavirus’.

12. Outlook Web Bureau. (2020, April 15): Gujarat govt. hospital segregates coronavirus wards on basis of religion.

13. The Print (2020, April 9). Ali, A.: COVID-19 an excuse to push Indian Muslims out of informal sector jobs. Apartheid the next step.

14. NDTV News. (2020, March 19): Coronavirus – Man beaten up for sneezing in public in Maharashtra.

15. Deccan Herald (2020, April 15). Pandey, S.: Uttar Pradesh man coughs during ludo, gets shot.

[16] News18India. (2020, April 5): Facing ‘social boycott’, Himachal man hangs self day after testing negative for coronavirus.

17. The Print (2020, April 3). Pandey, N.: Indore doctor returns for coronavirus screening day after mob attack, says I’m not afraid.

18. The New Indian Express. (2020, April 15): Stones pelted at medicos, police in UP’s Moradabad.

19. Hindustan Times (2020, March 27). Gangan, S. P.: Face strict action if you evict doctors or health workers: Maharashtra government on coronavirus outbreak.

20. The Quint. (2020, March 25): Fearing coronavirus, landlords evicting us: Doctors in Warangal.

21. Cable News Network (2020, March 25). Yeung, J. and Gupta, S.: Doctors evicted from their homes in India as fear spreads amid coronavirus lockdown.

22. India Today (2020, March 25). Datta, R.: Kolkata landlords evict medical professionals, resident doctor’s association steps in.

23. Outlook Web Bureau. (2020, April 9): Two Safdarjung hospital doctors, out to buy fruits, assaulted for ‘spreading coronavirus’.

24. Beyond Headlines (2020, July 15). Sarif, N.: Bubonic plague in China: Is the world going to face another potential threat amid COVID-19 pandemic?

25. The Gulf News. (2020, April 25): COVID-19: Indian Muslims face stigma, blame for surge in infections.

26. Feminism in India (2020, April 8). Deori, S.: COVID-19 and multiple racist attacks against North-East Indians.

27. Scroll (2020, April 7). Mehra, C.: Covid-19 stigma is a major roadblock in India’s path to recovery. Here’s how to beat it.

Illustrations and paintings by Dhrupadi Ghosh.


About the Author

Nawaz Sarif is a Ph.D. scholar and a UGC fellow at the School of Education, North-Eastern Hill University (NEHU), Shillong, India. He has completed his master’s degree at Banaras Hindu University (BHU), Varanasi, India. Presently, he works on ‘the development of psychological capital in the young population’. Along with the research, he writes short articles on contemporary issues. 

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