The Covid-19 crisis is not just about the death toll
The outbreak of the Covid-19 virus in Bangladesh has forced the government to shut down all private and public offices except the emergency service providers.
The shutdown will start from March 26 and continue up to April 4. The measure of shutting down the country has come after indications of community transmission of the virus was found. As of March 24, the virus has affected 33 people and killed three persons in Bangladesh.
However, the pandemic has killed over 19,000 people worldwide since December 2019, and the numbers are increasing every day. Many countries around the world have completely locked down to control the spread.
Due to the population density, Bangladesh is vulnerable and can be seriously affected by the virus burst through community transmission. Many concurring incidences related to this pandemic are worth pondering.
People are stock-piling grocery items and not following health guidelines while the government is forcing people to institutional and/or home quarantine. Nonetheless, many people are urging for stricter health regulations unless we want fall into a more serious emergency.
Overall, everyone in the world is passing through a dire phase. It is indeed a time of crisis. Nevertheless, incidences that the virus outburst has espoused also reveal a lot about us, the communities we live in, our relationship with the state, and the global order.
In the contemporary times, many scholars have studied social history of crisis such as epidemics, natural disasters, ethnic conflicts, famines, etc. Such studies reveal the nature of power exercised by the state and the ways people respond. Moreover, we get insights about the social body and its dynamics. The modern state usually claims its sovereign authority for ensuring peace, progress, development, and health for all.
In pursuit of managing epidemics/pandemics, states claim authority over our bodies as well. Consequently, during times of epidemics, people produce differential understandings of the disease as opposed to the state.
For instance: During the late 19th century, in the Indian sub-continent, there were revolts against the plague policy of the government in Mumbai and other major cities. The cause, as we know now, was people’s lack of trust in the authorities. We find more or less a similar situation now.
As the first case of Covid-19 infection was confirmed in Bangladesh on March 8, the government has become strict in quarantining anyone coming into the country from affected places abroad. However, government has struggled to ensure self-isolation of the potentially affected persons, thus had to introduce monetary fines for violating quarantine.
Why are people are violating the health guidelines and risking their loved ones?
The answer is simple yet complex.
Many people do not trust what is being said about the possible effect of the virus in our country. This tendency is not novel. David Arnold and IJ Catanach in their studies on the Indian Plague of 1897-1898 revealed a similar distrust. Therefore, then British officials struggled to contain the spread of the disease. The affected people were forcefully admitted into hospitals, pilgrims’ movements were restricted, and travelling peoples’ health status were monitored.
People were dissatisfied with these policies then as many people now are frustrated about the policies requiring restricted movements.
The opposing perception of the people about the severity of Covid-19 can be illustrated by some incidences. One of the persons who travelled from Italy, the epicentre of Europe, was to be quarantined but he did not want to remain in the quarantine centre. He was seen arguing with the authorities in a viral video clip. He claimed the coronavirus does not affect Bangali people as we do not eat pork or drink alcohol. This kind of communal explanation was seen in religious descriptions of the virus and its possible cure through mass prayers, sanctified water, religious hymns, usage of cow dung and/or urine.
These contrasting opinions are flooding the social media at this moment. This attitude towards the virus is also reflected by the ways mass people are responding to the health guidelines. Even though it is advised that everyone should maintain social distance, huge gatherings were seen in different parts of the city.
Due to the suspension of classes at schools many families travelled to the touristic areas of the country. Moreover, many returnee migrants violated their self-quarantine and attended social events in many parts of the country. All these incidences indicate differences in perception about the pandemic, the nature of our social lives, and the “failure” of the concerned agencies to disseminate correct information to the people.
In Bangladesh, Covid-19 is perceived through a socio-religious lens. The origin of Covid-19 is arguably associated with the food habits of Chinese people but spread of the virus is treated by many as the outcome of the sins committed by the Chinese and the European states. China and Europe are suffering because China is treating the Uyghur Muslims inhumanely and Europe is accomplice of the massacre in Syria, Iraq, Yemen, and Palestine. Similar, communal and religious explanations of epidemics are not uncommon.
During the plague epidemic of 1898, when pilgrims were restricted, locals treated it as isolation policy that would restrict them from joining the Sultan’s army that would overthrow the British rule. Thus, it can be said that the time of a pandemic is also the time of rumours.
We can also identify how societies promote cohesion and form a social body during the times of crisis. Dipesh Chakrabarty argued, during the plague epidemic of late 19th century, the spreading disease wastreated as a community issue to be tackled by all. Different religious rites mentioned in the historical documents attest this claim.
It was believed that disease of any individual was a risk for the entire community. During the plague, Goddesses such as “mother of plague,” or “Baya,” was worshiped by the villagers. Similarly, “Mariamma” -- the goddess of smallpox -- was worshiped in South Indian villages during the 1920s. Even though there were internal divisions among the villagers, they surpassed such divisions during the times of crisis. However, this organic feeling was limited in nature. It did not spread normally beyond the boundaries of a village.
In 2020, panic hoarding of essential goods has become common, indicating a shift towards individuality. This is also a contrastof the organic feeling held by the people that generated an “us” -- the pious versus the “others” -- the non-believer/enemy lens to characterise Covid-19.
Overall, this depicts a duality in our nature as humans. Despite the apparent divisions, we can identify solidarity in the ways people are distributing hand sanitizers and daily essential goods among the poor, installing handwashing points across the city, or in the fact that students of the University of Dhaka came forward to suspend classes voluntarily to limit possibilities of virus transmission.
If we consider the effect of Covid-19 only in terms of the deaths it is causing, our understanding will gravely ignore the social, moral, religious, and political aspects that surfaced because of the crisis, intricately related with the spread of Covid-19 in our country.
During this dreadful time, when we are preparing to reduce the effects of the pandemic in Bangladesh, the importance of the social body should be assessed with more gravity. If we look to history, we find that the idea of contagious diseases has promoted the concept of personal hygiene and the discourse of public health supported by the abstract medical science is concerned with a collective of individual bodies.
But such ideas were not compatible with the pan-Indian societal ideas of purity-pollution, lineage, caste, and religion. During the colonial times, the medical science of the British was thus in conflict with the local ideas.
However, since colonialism ended, elites of the country -- motivated by the capitalist idea of workers -- did not find any reason to oppose the individualist approach of the medical interventions introduced by the British.
Yet, like in many parts of the world, we have socio-religious guidelines for food intake, marriage, social interactions, arranging and attending social events, and our familial and community responsibilities.
In 2020, the Covid-19 virus has proven that ideas of society and community are not obsolete. Even in the highly capitalized global order, health, body, and disease are conceived differentially and communally.
Mohammad Tareq Hasan is an anthropologist and teaches at the University of Dhaka.