Us vs Them: COVID-19 Conquers as Stigma Divides

Can we reduce the stigma associated with COVID-19 and support each other?

COVID-19 stigma

Give in to your worst fears for a moment. Picture COVID-19 as a monster out to get everybody. You know the kind that looks like a ball with spooky things sticking out. How would this play out? What would most people do?

I can visualise my friendly neighbourhood aunties and uncles in PPE, with sanitisers as their weapon of choice, frantically spraying till the monster drops dead. A collective hurrah goes up and they beam at each other. Proud that they could keep their society safe. 

The scene playing in my head doesn’t end there. Before the warriors turn back, they all look ahead and spot someone’s maid walking down the path the monster walked. They imagine corona cooties all over her and rush with their sprays ready for another battle.

This movie can play in a loop with the same villain in many avatars. But, what happens when this farce plays out in the real world?

“Are maids allowed in your society?” 

Cooperative Housing Societies banned maids during COVID-19 lockdown but partied without social distancing.

This was one of the top questions on everyone’s mind after Lockdown 1.0  Or, was it Unlock 2.0? Frankly, I have lost track. I just remember it being a common concern as memes of people doing household chores floated all over social media.  

Most cooperative housing societies follow their own safety protocols to fight the pandemic. The managing committee members decide who is safe and what is dangerous. Some societies either ban or impose safety guidelines for people who come from slums and low-income housing, which they perceive is unhygienic and unsafe. That is why they demand a COVID certificate from their security guards, househelp and drivers. 

All other “visitors” including those who come for pest control, repairing appliances, electricians, plumbers, carpenters and other service providers are expected to wear masks and follow “proper” safety rules. From santisers at the gate to full body germicidal sprays, different societies are considering how to protect the residents from the germs that “those” people bring. 

But, the very same societies are completely okay with members inviting their friends and family over. Just because they live in similar apartment buildings, does it mean that coronavirus skips them? 

“They are so professional na!”

Salon staff using PPE while handling customer's hair

Do those who extol the virtue of having salon staff and other such personnel arriving at their home in PPE realise that the gear isn’t meant to protect them? Gloves are meant to protect the wearer’s hands. Bodysuits shield the wearer from contamination and not the other way round!

Also, if masks and gloves were all it took to stay safe, then why are so many doctors falling prey to the disease? Is it continued exposure or lack of social distancing or aerosols? Or, is the system to blame for not providing doctors with the kit? Whatever is happening to healthcare workers, apparently, does not seem to set off any alarm bells among those armed with 70% alcohol disinfectants, triple-layer face masks, face shields and gloves. They act as if their corona prevention measures, which include every supplement known to boost immunity, makes them impervious to the virus. 

That is why some people, who live in these very safe societies, go out to enjoy the empty roads, social distancing be damned! They visit family, party with friends and celebrate festivals. Their neighbours like their Facebook posts and sportingly acknowledge how they deserve a break from the situation. 

When these members take a hiatus from the pandemic and visit people in other cities or other parts of the city, they are corona proof. But migrant labour is responsible for spreading the disease?

“I don’t want my society to find out about it…”

Too many social stigmas and taboos

I have heard this sentiment over and over in the last few weeks from people who call me and describe their symptoms. Having been a health writer with over a decade of experience, I am used to them seeking my advice and usually following it. But, when I suggest that they should get tested for COVID-19, their first concern is that someone will find out.

Nobody wants their neighbours to know they have lost their job due to the COVID situation. Nobody wants to be perceived as weak because the pandemic is triggering their anxiety or depression. 

After all, one’s social standing depends on belonging to a good family where such things don’t happen. Not like those filmy kids who fall prey to drugs or commit suicides. Not like the drunkards who beat up their wives. Not like certain minority communities who live in dirty and unhygienic homes. Not like those “foreign return” families who brought coronavirus to India. 

Just be the average urban middle class family. As long as you live in a happy home where everyone exercises, whips up yummy goodies, works from home efficiently or attends online classes diligently, everyone wants to engage with you. 

That is why when a 40-year old family man who works as an executive contracts the disease, it is sad because he got it despite all preventive measures. But, a child in a single parent household might have contracted it due to neglect?

“We are not like those slum people or those hi-fi societies!”

Caste and class divide

Pop culture references of the average middle class family have drawn heavily from cinematic tropes like the bai who carries gossip, the aunty who borrows sugar, the watchman who screams jagte raho and so on. 

But can the patina of nostalgia continue to shield the dark underbelly of our society? It may be nicer to think of the aunty who borrows something as quirky, but what if it masks someone with financial woes?

It may be easier to indulge in frivolous gossip than to interfere with another family’s internal matters—a euphemism for domestic abuse? But, does it mean that it is okay to act as if nothing is happening? Even the CM, Uddhav Thackery, had to concede that there is a rise in instances violence against women in Maharashtra, though he said he believed that such things don’t happen in cultured families.

Taking more than a quick peek into a neighbour’s issues exposes one’s own family to uncomfortable scrutiny. It also forces people to acknowledge that the urban middle class is no longer about goody goody stereotypes. After all, the chatty bai has given way to the no-nonsense house help. The security guard monitors the society on a CCTV camera. And there is no need to borrow anything because everything gets delivered within half an hour. 

Stigma is a potent reason to want to be a part of the urban middle-class legend.

Given the ostracism of those who are different, who wouldn’t claim to be part of a society where people live in harmony with their neighbours? Families, who are just as safe and just as hygienic. 

That is why when people repeat the often chanted mantra, “Let’s keep each other safe,” what they are actually saying is, “Let’s protect our own.”

But it seems somebody forgot to tell COVID-19. The pandemic doesn’t discriminate. It also doesn’t care about your need to pretend that all is well.

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  • Last updated on December 6th at 10:18am