Anybody who has been keeping track of general sentiments aroused across different social classes around the country throughout the COVID-19 pandemic would be quick to note the illogical nature of our response to this situation as a country. Our fear of the virus, and of contracting it, has been inversely proportional to the number of cases. Those hit more significantly by the pandemic and lockdown are (understandably) more fearful of the financial burden it has placed on them, while the privileged are impatiently waiting for restrictions to be relaxed, as the virus continues to spread like wildfire. Perhaps another reason for people’s quickness to dismiss the virus and get on with their lives is the manner of consuming information in such a capitalist-driven society. From oversaturating the consumers of media with footage of COVID containment wings in hospitals through doctors and specialists discussing the intricacies of this complicated virus to an in-depth analysis of every aspect of this situation, the media has propagated the desensitization of the situation for some, while filling others with a fear bordering paranoia.
Originating in the wet markets of Wuhan, China in early December 2019, the novel Coronavirus had managed to effectively shut down most of Europe and the United States by February 2020. International travel ceased in an effort to contain the virus, which had already crossed the Indian border in the month of March. On 25th March, the Prime Minister addressed the nation and declared the world’s largest Coronavirus lockdown. At this time, the country had seen a mere 606 reported cases.
For the world’s second-most populous country, a mere 606 cases would usually be nothing significant, perhaps barely raising a few eyebrows. Sentiments varied regarding this lockdown: some believed it was an overreaction and compared the virus to diseases like tuberculosis which are also contagious and affect a lot of Indians, others felt India was smart to act early and not to follow in the example of other nations. The lockdown’s economic consequences also posed a concern; shutting down all activity except essential services threatened several livelihoods. However, the rules of social distancing were followed country-wide —people wearing masks and gloves, avoiding close contact with others, using elbows to press elevator buttons, etc. At least it would seem so on the surface.
Despite such drastic measures, the virus continued to spread throughout the country. Almost four months later, India is now the country with the third most cases of Coronavirus in the world, behind only Brazil and the United States, with no signs of the spread slowing down. However, what is interesting is how the same people who displayed extreme caution seem to behave as if the virus is all but gone: flaunting rules of social distancing, restaurants are opening up, shops allowing customers in without concern of a closed space, lesser and lesser people wearing masks on the streets.
Although the lockdown has been gradually opening up all over the country, as we hope to return to our lives in a new normal, if one were to go out on the street and observe the behaviour of people, some might even give you the impression that the virus is a thing of the past. This carefree attitude which seems to become more and more prominent as time passes and cases rise is a result of multiple factors, which can be traced back to the poor economic conditions of people affected by the pandemic and the implicit capitalist tendencies of our society.
For migrant workers and daily wage workers, the costs of a lockdown far outweigh the benefits. As non-essential services are halted, labourers lose their source of income. Having low income levels, and subsequently a high propensity to consume, savings are a luxury they cannot afford, which leaves them with no food in their mouths, and no roofs over their heads. The government’s response to their situation has been lacklustre in providing them with any kind of support. Such conditions have led to the migrant labour crisis, with thousands of migrant workers setting off on foot to reach their hometowns. Furthermore, from the point of view of curbing the spread of the virus, directing a stay-at-home order to the working class proved counterproductive as well. In cities like Mumbai, where migrant labourers often share accommodation and the system of chawls is prevalent, asking people to stay indoors often means foregoing norms of social distancing. In fact, if a positive case were to be found in such a cramped living environment, all residents would be at risk.
The plight of these workers makes it easy to understand why the novel Coronavirus is the least of their concerns. But a second segment of the Indian population is also beginning to disregard the threat posed by the coronavirus, and seemingly without any real reason. As mentioned previously, rules of social distancing are often ignored and violated, by people who have the privilege of being able to follow them. It would seem that people do not care about the virus; once the first lockdown was eased, to them it seems, the crisis has passed. A mask around the chin rather than covering the mouth or the nose seems to be a common uniform among their kind.
A possible reason for such a drastic change in the worries of people could be the media. The past four months have seen a constant stream of media coverage of various aspects of the pandemic. That is the bulk of what we have been exposed to lately, in short. This sort of exposure can often lead to desensitization of topics. In the age of information, we are constantly bombarded with all sorts of sensationalist news, adding in the mix that the economy is still relatively restricted, and people have a lot of free time on their hands to consume media. Daily updates on the virus and constant coverage of the troubles faced by different sections of society and before it comes to one’s notice, it is almost as if there is too much information to absorb.
A quick recap of the social and economic occurrences of the past four months ranges from the relief package, PM-CARES fund and the migrant worker crisis, to the border conflict with China, illegitimate arrests, police brutality, and the aftermath of the anti-CAA protests. With so many issues, and many more, constantly being thrown in our faces, it is no surprise that we have developed extremely short attention spans. An article by WebMD, along with others of its kind, alludes to the impact social media and media as a whole have on our attention spans. I feel the problem runs a little deeper than that. The commercialisation of information and the subsequent constant need for ‘sensational news’ has led to a situation wherein media sources feel the need to report anything and everything with the motive to get more clicks, more views, more likes. In the context of the pandemic, this has led to a unique situation because the virus had taken over the western world before India. As western media reported the situation on the virus, its consumption in India led to panic as well. As the number of cases in Europe began to fall, Indian cases were on a constant rise. However, sentiments in India followed the western pattern and began to weaken, owing to the bombardment of news.
Now, while the virus is showing no signs of slowing down, people are behaving as if it is a thing of the past. This is not the only way in which economic prospects have caused problems in the fight against Coronavirus. The health and pharmaceutical sector is also falling victim to the practice of sensationalism.
Over the course of the pandemic, claims to have found a vaccine for the virus have become commonplace. Almost daily, a group of scientists from somewhere on this globe move ahead with human testing for the vaccine or make headway in finding a cure. Of course, many of these are genuine reports from people who are trying to get the world out of this unfortunate slump, but this phenomenon has created opportunities for the easily persuaded consumers of the world to fall prey to false advertising. India is currently working on two major vaccines namely COVAXIN and Zydus Cadila COVID-19 vaccine. An ambitious target of 15th August has been set for a vaccine to be developed. While this, in and of itself, may seem like a sensational headline, other corporations have found that claiming to have found the cure to the virus is a very lucrative proposition.
The problem with this, although seemingly obvious, is that it is an untested claim about a medicine that raises serious moral concerns. Furthermore, it is also actively worsening the pandemic as people who believe such claims will use the medicine for immunity or as a cure and may stop taking precautions, putting others and themselves at a risk of contracting the virus. The case of Hydroxychloroquine is a good example of such an issue, although not a conscious effort to make financial gains.
The case of Baba Ramdev’s Patanjali Ayurveda Ltd. is a good example of such vulnerabilities in our economic system. After claiming to have found the cure to Coronavirus without the approval of the Ayush ministry, a First Incident Report (FIR) was filed against the company and several members, and they have been directed to stop advertising a cure. However, it highlights a major flaw in the world wherein the suffering of people is but an economic opportunity to be capitalised upon.
The world of COVID-19 is very different from the one before it. It has highlighted various faults in our healthcare and financial systems which seem to be failing, unable to cope with the pressures of a pandemic. The harsh reality of today is often unregistered in the minds of people owing to the constant sensationalization of news items. Behaviour that has been conditioned by capitalism to prioritise monetary gains is proving to be the biggest hindrance in the fight against the novel Coronavirus. Identifying such trends has, thus, become essential in the process of overcoming them.
Varun Upmanyu is a third year undergraduate pursuing Economics and Finance from Ashoka University.