To make sense of the pandemic, look at the cultural construction of disease
Do times of crisis bring people together? Many will answer: Yes.
After the Covid-19 outbreak, many people voluntarily helped the needy and doctors are risking themselves to provide health care. But poignantly, history shows, pandemics generally drive people apart. Pandemics of contagious diseases overthrow the human bonds of affection as David Brooks in The New York Times recently argued.
The outbreak of Covid-19 in Bangladesh has evoked widespread panic among the people.
Consequently, we are witnessing an increase in stigmatization of people with symptoms of Covid-19. Widespread fears about the disease are causing people to behave inhumanely. On March 28, local inhabitants of Tejgaon vandalized the construction site of a proposed temporary hospital which would treat Covid-19 patients.
A few weeks back, the news of a makeshift hospital construction in Wuhan was appreciated by all, but when something similar was supposed to happen in Dhaka, the locals perceived it differently.
There was fear among the locals that the hospital could be a site of contamination and would possibly infect them all. Similar protest was seen in Uttara when the government planned to operate a quarantine centre in Diyabari.
Robert Packman in the book Empires of Panic suggested that acts of protests are instigated by a form of panic -- a psychological state or an emotionally charged group response. The basis of the current Covid-19 panic is irrational or imagined -- a kind of hysterical belief that prompts a collective fight as Neil Smelser has argued in the book Theory of Collective Behaviour. As the Covid-19 affects Bangladesh, we find traces of collective outbursts and stigmatization.
Fear of possible infection has created a novel form of stigmatization. A few days back, we saw a banner on the entrance of a graveyard in Khilgaon. Through the banner, local inhabitants expressed their unwillingness to let anyone be buried there if they died of Covid-19.
They also requested the government authorities to take necessary measures so that everyone in the area remains safe. In Bogura, police had to face a lot of protests during burying a person who had died due to Covid-19 complications. Nowadays, people are so worried about possible contagion that people having any flu symptoms are stigmatized for implicating others.
If we investigate the issues that are causing panic about Covid-19, a need for eradicating misinformation becomes evident. There is a lot of incorrect information in circulation. To mention a few: People wrongly consider any flu symptoms as signs of Covid-19; it is mistakenly believed that the virus will kill every infected person, or that Covid-19 is an airborne disease.
Consequently, the locals claim that a hospital for treating Covid-19 patients will pose threats to the residents. However, the panic and stigmatization will not be eliminated through better communication of information only. We will need an analysis of the socio-economic conditions that are conducive for such panic and stigmatization.
The existing perception about the disease, influenced by the widespread reports claiming that the state authorities do not have the capacity for controlling a pandemic, generated a sense of powerlessness among the masses.
This feeling is engraved by the recent panic buying of masks, medicines, and daily necessary goods by many.
Thus, residents of Tejgaon might have perceived the establishment of a hospital as something only for benefiting the rich at their expense.
The fear is not only about the possible physical consequences of an affected person, it is also about surviving the post-crisis time. The overall shutdown of the country has contributed to this mass panic situation.
From the early to mid-19th century, scholars considered mass panic as a primitive form of emotion. On the contrary, Gustave Le Bon regarded panic as a corollary of modernity. Le Bon, in the book The Crowd, observed: “Ideas, sentiments, emotions, and beliefs possess in crowds a contagious power as intense as that of microbes.”
Hence, we are experiencing a spread of the mass panic and consequent stigmatization in different parts of the country.
Panic and stigmatization centring Covid-19 are producing various anxieties. Perhaps the newness and mysteriousnesss are causing extreme insecurity. It is fuelled by the infection control techniques such as quarantine and isolation.
The process that generated panic and associated stigma could be easily traceable if we analyze the general perception of the sources of infection and the government initiatives.
During January and February, general people usually avoided Chinese looking persons. Some government strategies contributed to build this attitude.
For instance: Health screening of inbound travellers was mandatory only if they were travelling from China. Moreover, many Chinese workers of government construction projects were sent on leave.
Henceforth, people were fearful or suspicious of all people who looked Chinese regardless of their nationality or actual risk factors. Even in many schools, some parents were worried about the presence of Chinese students on campus.
Later, as the government started health check-ups of every inbound passenger, the stigma of being a possible source of virus included all coming from abroad. At present, people do not want to meet or greet anyone who has come from abroad even after they have passed 14 days quarantine.
Recently, in many parts of the country, local state officials are marking houses of foreign returnees with red flags. Such action is likely to cause stigma and marginalization at a large scale.
The panic of contamination has raised so much that seasonal flu symptoms are considered as Covid-19. This might pose serious consequences.
Fear of being socially stigmatized may cause people to deny early symptoms, hence causing more infections. Previous research on SARS diseases reveal that, to contain panic, the risk of stigmatization must be reduced.
Every pandemic in history did not cause widespread panic. The plague epidemic of 1899-98 caused around 8.5-10 million deaths whereas the influenza pandemic of 1918-19 killed 12 million people in India.
The plague epidemic triggered panic -- sparking rumours and riots; however, the influenza epidemic, despite having caused more deaths, passed without any apparent crisis.
Thus, to make sense of any pandemic related issues, we need to focus on the cultural construction of the disease, how the government authorities and health experts responded, and overall socio-economic conditions.
Mohammad Tareq Hasan is an anthropologist, and teaches at the University of Dhaka.