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Dhaka Tribune

Social distancing to fight Covid-19

Experiences from different peri-urban communities

Update : 10 May 2020, 08:15 PM

How is the culturally “alien” concept of social/physical distancing faring in the peri-urban areas of Bangladesh?

The government instruction for social/physical distancing first came to the communities directly from outside, ie mainly from the central government, as a top-down process; people learnt it mainly through TV and later from police and officials who were trying to enforce it. It was not communicated to the community by the local representatives or community leaders, at least not in the beginning, and the instructions had to be implemented immediately.

Under normal circumstances, “developmental messages” go through necessary cultural transformation or customization, whereby these local leaders play a critical role as cultural interlocutors. This did not happen in the case of Covid-19 communication.

The lockdown was also initially communicated to people as part of a government holiday, and therefore the concrete message of the clinical logic of social/physical distancing was lost on them. Also, the formal Bangla lingo “shamajik durotto” did not help either in easing the communication process first as a linguistic barrier and then for violating one of the core principles of our largely communitarian society -- social bonding, especially in the face of crisis.

However, these “alien” notions became relatively clear when people heard regular official media announcements of “stay at home” (understood mainly as staying off the roads or bazaars). But stay at home does not necessarily imply strict physical distancing while at home. It is still fine to be together -- mingling with friends and neighbours in the courtyards or corridors beside or surrounded by clusters of houses -- a standard feature of peri-urban communities’ lifestyle.  

In reality, the responsibility to enforce physical distancing (and lockdown in some places) fell on the local representatives (as well as on local political leaders) but they are still enjoying active help from the police, UNO, and army. Many community members preferred the army to play a bigger role since, they believe, it commands greater trust/respect of the community.

In fact, some community members observed that law enforcers were too lenient this time around.

To what extent coercive monitoring by the external agents is working is difficult to gauge. People tend to play cat and mouse games with the law enforcers. It is also very difficult for law enforcers to efficiently monitor rule breakers since the former can only do so on main roads and not the inner lanes, where people tend to flock perhaps as a strategy to evade law enforcers.

The celebrated author of Robinson Crusoe, Daniel Defoe, observed in his A Journal of the Plague Year (describing another pandemic -- the great plague of London in 1665), “This put the people upon all manner of stratagem in order, if possible, to get out; and it would fill a little volume to set down the arts used by the people of such houses to shut the eyes of the watchmen who were employed, to deceive them, and to escape.”

Daniel Defoe would have remarked the same if he could have visited our research sites. Still, increasing hard forms of enforcement is working in some communities. The media’s portrayal of the spread of infections and increasing number of deaths is also contributing to people’s growing compliance to the rules.

Community engagement

Collective action from below to enforce social/physical distancing emerged quite soon. Although not seen across all communities, local councilors and political leaders quickly became pro-active in enforcing social/physical distancing. Committees, consisting of local representatives and social elites (school teachers), were also formed, in some communities, to make people aware of the spread of the virus.

Imams of mosques have played important roles in awareness campaigns. It seems organized monitoring by local volunteers (usually led by politicians and local representatives) has been more effective in identifying and “lockdowning” individuals who have just arrived from cities. In some places one can also witness a certain degree of collective action in terms clearing crowds in the lanes.

Unfortunately not all forms of community engagement are positive. There are instances of what can be termed as cruel forms of collective action. Community reactions to Covid-19 patients (actual or suspected) in some cases have been quite negative. Real or distorted portrayals of Covid-19, particularly on Facebook, have created an atmosphere of extreme fear and panic in communities.

As a result, individuals being suspected of catching the virus have been ostracized (akghore kore rakha) along with their family members. People who have returned from abroad are suspected automatically and kept under social monitoring mostly by mob vigilante. One unintended consequence of this is that people now have strong incentives for not reporting cold/fever-related ailments. 

In general, people’s responses to state-imposed rules of social/physical distancing and lockdown tend to vary based on their class/income, status, and group dynamics. Educated middle-class populations are generally found to observe rules. They are a small section of the community and the most important reason that they can afford to observe rules is that they have food in their houses.

Better awareness (being educated and more exposure to media) about Covid-19 is another reason. Unfortunately, since these individuals are staying inside, they are not able to make other people aware of the necessity of physical distancing -- thereby preventing awareness related spillover in the larger community.

Response from low-income groups

Poor people (labourers, rickshaw/van pullers, etc) tend not to follow rules for two reasons -- a) they have no food in their houses so they need to work or go out to look for sources where food is given for free, and b) religious convictions also seem to be at play here -- belief that they are very industrious people so they will not be affected by the virus and Allah will also protect them.  We have also observed religious fatalism in a few cases.

For the poor, instead of enforcing distancing or lockdown, the government should give them food. Such predicaments of the poor seem to have global resonance. When asked, the two greatest public intellectuals of our time -- Noam Chomsky and Slavoj Zizek -- replied that they are both in self-isolation but they quickly pointed out that this is a luxury only very few can afford in this extremely unequal world.

A large section of youth groups tend to not follow rules. They seem to ignore rules in a cavalier fashion and hang around tea stalls and other gossip spots. Some kind of perverse group dynamics tend to dictate their behaviour. Even elite members of the community do not dare tell them to follow rules since they hang around in groups.

Slow, but steady

In general, people’s lifestyles (culture of people mingling, blurred separation line between private and the public spheres) tend to militate against social/physical distancing -- a new norm which will take some time to be internalized by the communities, although observations by many of our respondents tend to suggest that such norms are being followed by their communities slowly, but steadily.

A mix of coercive norms of enforcement (by external actors) and evolving self-enforcing community norms (as a reaction to the rising number of deaths) seems to be at play as determinants of collective norm-shifting.

Dr Mirza Hassan is a senior researcher and a faculty member at BRAC Institute of Governance and Development, Brac University. He can be reached at [email protected]. Mahan Ul Hoque is a senior programme associate at BRAC Institute of Governance and Development, Brac University. He can be reached at [email protected].

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