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Dhaka Tribune

Blame games and Covid-19

Update : 04 Dec 2021, 01:43 AM

It is not an innovative idea to blame victims. Historically speaking, this stigmatization gets worse amidst epidemics and often invokes nothing but pure racist hatred -- as in the case of the term “Spanish flu.” This name commonly refers to an influenza outbreak in 1918. Though naming an epidemic with a specific country is not ipso facto stigmatization, it could impose negative impacts on its inhabitants. 

A century later, we encountered the same situation when former US President Donald Trump named Covid-19 a “Chinese Virus.” Recent graphs show that the Covid-19 infection rate is declining across the globe but the wounds created by such stigmatization won’t be cured soon. During the high-rate infection of Covid, in most parts of the world, the minorities were stigmatized and blamed for spreading Covid. We argue that in Bangladesh, quite interestingly, the common people, irrespective of being majority or minority, were blamed. Though many aspects of Covid-19 and impacts of it on economics, society, and many more things are explored, the stigmatization upon the lower economic class majority people remains unnoticed.  

According to a Professor of History, refugees and immigrants have been accused of being “carriers of the disease.” However, because they live in overcrowded places, their living conditions are a major factor in contracting the disease. But the question of why the immigrants and refugees have to live in such conditions is unanswered. WHO surveyed the impacts of Covid-19 on refugees. At least 30% of the respondents felt that they were treated less well because of their “origin.”

The situation was similar in India, where a group of Tablighi Jamaat was accused and dubbed “super-spreaders of the virus.” Tablighi Jamaat had organized its congregation more than a week before the Indian government imposed a country-wide lockdown. Instead of accusing the government of not taking prompt measures, right-wing Hindutva activists vilified Tabligh Jamaat by terming Covid-19 as a “Tablighi Virus,” and strangely, the pandemic turned out to be an Islamophobic outpouring, in which the whole Muslim community was blamed for the disease’s spread, and this was further propagated by the mainstream media as if the virus had a religion. 

Bangladesh witnessed a slightly different scenario. Despite the government’s best efforts, such as the lockdown of local regions and the closure of offices (both public and private), the question as to how the day-labourers and low-income individuals would live during this critical period remained. Furthermore, there were few healthcare facilities and no appropriate guidelines, including no certainty of receiving food, medication, or other necessities during the lockdown period for the poor and marginalized people. Besides, a limited number of tests, human resources, research funds, lack of oxygen supply, and ICU beds were evident.  

Low-income individuals were blamed for going out in search of livelihood, and many were detained, penalized, and humiliated on social media for not maintaining social distance and Covid-guidelines.  Some instances must be addressed in this regard to understand the gravity of such stigmatization. During the onset of Covid, a burqa-clad boy went viral on both media and social media and was introduced by mainstream media as a lockdown breaker for recreational purposes. It was later discovered that he was traveling from Savar to Jatrabari on foot to join a job and he dressed up in such a way to avoid police-lynching. An executive magistrate “punished” two elderly men -- a vegetable vendor and a van driver -- by asking them to hold their ears with their hands in public for not wearing masks. What was more derogatory is that she captured the incident through her phone. 

After a social media outcry, the said officer was suspended. Questions may arise whether the executive couldn’t force the public to stay at home and maintain health guidelines. The answer is not a simple yes or no. Before punishing someone for not being at home, policymakers must look out for the economic condition of that person. Moreover, even if the economic condition is good, the British Police observed four E’s, and the last resort was to enforce a fine, not humiliation. 

It cannot be denied that some people went outside just for recreational purposes. But the vast majority was looking for their daily meals, not entertainment. During a pandemic, scape-goating and blaming marginalized people would cause psychological harm to them, which does not go away like a virus. This blame game encourages “othering,” which eventually leads to discrimination. 

Ummul Khayer Fatema is a student of anthropology. Saleh Uddin Sifat is a student of law. 

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