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Home / Columns / Covid-19 will deepen divisions in society

Covid-19 will deepen divisions in society

Citizens are torn between paralysing fear and desperate hope. This will only get reinforced

columns Updated: Jun 20, 2020 19:10 IST
A health worker collects a swab sample from a man to test for Covid-19, Pune, June 19, 2020
A health worker collects a swab sample from a man to test for Covid-19, Pune, June 19, 2020(Pratham Gokhale / Hindustan Times)

What does learning to live with the virus actually amount to? Until a vaccine protects us, that’s the unavoidable challenge we face. Now that we’ve entered Unlock 1.0, it’s an interesting question primarily because I detect two broad and different answers. Let’s see if you agree.

There are those who have the luxury to stay put at home. They sequestered behind closed doors at the end of March and that’s how they’ve continued to remain. Unlock permits them to venture outdoors wearing a mask and maintaining the required two-metre distance but they’ve chosen not to.

They’re safe. Of that I have only a niggling doubt. But is this learning to “live” with the virus? Frankly, if you convert your home into your jail, it’s a very different life that you lead. Actually, you could say they’re living with the fear of the world outside their closed front doors.

It’s that fear that explains calls by resident welfare associations not to permit domestic staff. At the very least this is ironic. The well-off, who travel abroad, brought the virus to India but, now that it’s spread, they view the poor and disadvantaged compatriots as threats to their safety. So, for them, it’s become two Indias — the supposedly special one at home, where no one is permitted, and the wider one outdoors, where everyone is feared and the poor are avoided.

The other answer to living with the virus is illustrated by those who are attempting a normal life. With masks and even face shields and a conscious attempt to maintain the advised two-metre distance, they’re confronting the virus in the hope it won’t attack them. But is that hope realistic?

Masks and face shields are relatively easy to enforce but the two-metre distance is not. Once life resumes, keeping a distance, though important, is often impossible. Whether in office or at bus stops, at the grocery or in a taxi, buying vegetables from a street vendor or picking up the newspaper, we’re often just a foot apart. So, to use a beloved colloquial phrase, these people are learning to live Ram bharose or Allah rakha.

Now, pause and consider if you’ve spotted the obvious link between the two answers? Fear is the other side of God. They’re two faces of the same coin. In the first case, fear ensures some refuse to venture out. Of course, they can only do this because they can afford to stay home and not suffer a crippling loss of income. Economic good fortune undoubtedly reinforces their sense of fear. The second lot has no alternative but to go back to work. Remaining at home is not an alternative. Neither their incomes nor the size of their homes will permit it. They bear the risk they face in the hope it won’t happen to them. That’s another term for God.

Unfortunately, epidemiological projections will only reinforce the paralysing fear or the desperate hope that determines the response to the virus. India is already third largest in term of daily increases, fourth largest both in terms of total cases and the number of registered daily deaths, and ninth-largest in terms of total fatalities. There are even experts who say we could have 200 million infections by September
and the peak will only be reached
in mid-November.

So, I ask myself, could we end up divided between those who live with fear and those who live in hope? I know the vast majority is in the latter category — probably over 90% — but, even so, could we end up two different countries?

We’re already divided by religion, region, caste, cuisine, ethnicity and colour. Now, will the coronavirus virus divide us by the way we choose to live with it? Between the rich who bolt their doors and keep the rest of the country outside and those who have no choice but to mingle and adjust, praying all the while God will protect them?

Karan Thapar is the author of Devil’s Advocate: The Untold Story
The views expressed are personal
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