Will hierarchy matter?

Social life in post-Covid19 India

Dipak K Midya

Human society is now facing perhaps the toughest challenge in the last 100 years with the spread of SARS-CoV-2 virus causing Covid-19 pandemic. Scientists have confirmed that the virus is the modified version of SARS-CoV which emerged on the earth about 17 years ago (Drosten et al., 2003; Hamming et al., 2004). The virus has been able to cross the species barriers to infect humans in December, 2019 in its present form of novel coronavirus (Gorbalenya et al., 2020; Jiang et al., 2020; Zhou et al., 2020). It causes Covid-19 with influenza like symptoms ranging from mild fever to severe lung damage and multi-organ failure, eventually leading to death, specially in older patients having other co-morbidities (Guan et al., 2020; Huang et al., 2020; Wang et al., 2020).  Within a very short span of time, the disease has become so critical globally that the World Health Organization declared Covid-19 a Public Health Emergency of International Concern (PHEIC) on 30 January, 2020 and later a global pandemic on 11 March, 2020 (WHO, 2020a).  The Covid-19 has created a global crisis, with more than 4.9 M confirmed cases and more than 321K confirmed deaths across the world as on 19 May, 2020. About 213 countries have reported confirmed cases so far, with USA and Europe having recorded about 70 percent of the total deaths in the world and alarming number of cases being reported every day from Brazil, Russia, and many Asian and African countries.

India is also heading towards the largest public health catastrophe in her history of post-independent period, with more than 101K confirmed cases and more than 3K confirmed deaths as on 19 May, 2020. Number of both types of cases is exponentially increasing, with the number of confirmed cases becoming double in every 11 days at the current stage as per the Government of India data on 19 May, 2020.  Of the 11 types of corona virus detected so far in India, the A2a is reported to be the most dangerous and causing havoc, according to Parth P. Majumdar and N. K. Biswas (ABP Live on 29 April, 2020). This is no wonder that scientists all over the world are now sleepless to find out a sustainable public health control measure. The leading pharma companies are investing huge amount to come out with effective drugs and are in hurry to occupy the global market.

With lack of any prophylactic drug or vaccine all over the world at current stage, two most prominent public health control strategies that have emerged all over the world in response to Covid-19 pandemic are mitigation and suppression of new infections (Cheney, 2020). While both the strategies aim at reducing infections by limiting human-to-human interactions, mitigation focuses upon slowing down the spread of the novel coronavirus and suppression upon reversing epidemic growth. Mitigation allows a controlled outbreak to occur, with the objective of preventing significant overloads on healthcare systems and gradually allowing the population to develop ‘herd immunity’, as was thought of in UK and USA. On the other hand, suppression seeks to keep cases to an absolute minimum for as long as possible through social distancing. New Zealand is reported to have successfully implemented this strategy (James et al., 2020). Both strategies have their own limitations. In a country like India, with 1369 M population and awfully inadequate healthcare infrastructure, mitigation may invite a public health calamity beyond the extent UK is witnessing at present. Quite naturally, India has opted the second strategy by creating social distancing through various mechanisms like home isolation, quarantine, containment and complete lockdown in different parts.

Under this backdrop, the present article is an attempt to address the issues involved in the social distancing mechanism of the strategy of suppression from an anthropological point of view. The globally used term ‘social distancing’ refers in fact to the physical distancing that denies person-to-person interactions in order to break the chain of infection.

In India the mechanism of so-called social distancing is successful and, at the same time, a failure one. This is successful in view of the fact that the rates of increase of the confirmed cases and deaths are comparatively much less than those in the so-called developed countries. This is successful not because that the people have become very much aware about the epidemiology of Covid-19 or that the administration is very vigilant on implementation of the mechanism, but because that the Indian society has inherent attributes of social hierarchy which automatically limits man-to-man social interactions. On the other hand, this is a failure because this has awakened the sleeping giant of social hierarchy, which has gradually been weak over the last few decades, at least in some parts of the country, with the coming of universal suffrage, land reform, and various constitutional and legal provisions against inequality in rights. Let me clarify my point in the following discussion.

Indian society is basically stratified in terms of not only caste, but also of class, place of origin (tribal-rural-urban) and religion. We cannot also deny the existence of the Weberian criteria of status group and party. For Luis Dumont, stratification comes into effect in a societal system on the basis of three principles, viz., hierarchy, separation and independence (Dumont, 1970). Dumont’s scheme entails a single structured opposition of the concepts of ‘pure’ and ‘impure’ underlying these three principles. The impure status has historically been assigned to the lower castes (‘untouchables’). Social stratification always involves unequal distribution of goods and services, rights and obligations, power and prestige. These are all attributes of position, not of individuals, as argues by James Littlejohn (1972: 9). The Covi-19 pandemic has clearly shown the unequal distribution, thereby social inequality among peoples occupying different strata in the society. The so-called social distancing is again contributing towards furthering the social distance among various strata, with each having its own, what the sociologist Talcott Parsons said, standard of common value system (Parsons, 1945). An early indication of such distancing can be traced everywhere through the facts like, for example, rural people are trying to keep distance with those having urban connection, tribals are becoming scary about the non-tribals, relatively upper class keeping distance with the slum dwellers, the landed villagers doing the same with the landless labourers who use to migrate to different places of the country in search of earning or the Hindus keeping distance with the Muslims. Such categorization are getting prominence particularly in view of the fact that the political actors are in fray to exploit the situation.

As this is evident that the infection has come from the western connections through the non-resident Indians or through the people having the so-called ‘Nizamuddin connection’ (also called as Tablighi connection), the traditional notion of hierarchy is being changed. Some interesting phenomena are appearing in Indian society. Firstly: Indian mindset has a colonial hangover, which usually assigns a higher position to those who have settled abroad or have a degree from abroad. Now it appears that the common people are trying to keep a distance with or undermine the social position of the persons having western connection. Secondly: the Muslims who have attended the Nizamuddin gathering at Delhi have witnessed comparatively higher frequency of Covid-19 infection. Furthermore, the Muslims usually practise salutation by means of moyanika (hugging) or mosafa (handsake) - as found in the western culture - a practice having higher susceptibility of infection. This may lead to a situation where the Muslim community is relegated to a lower position in the society in general. The early symptom of the phenomenon is already evident. Thirdly: the post-Covid19 India, like in other countries, will witness a situation of ‘job crunch’. Under such a situation, the reservation policy will be under scrutiny, with thousands of hundreds jobless people of all castes. The issue seems to be more significant in view of fact that among the Scheduled Tribes and Scheduled Castes there are only small advantaged sections who are actually enjoying benefits of the policy for generations, leaving aside the larger masses belonging to the same categories. The latter is either not aware about the reservation policy or not in a position to avail the benefit. Interestingly, there is no official statistics available, which shows tribe-or caste-wise per centage of families who have been benefitted by the policy. So, the policy of reservation may be reconsidered in the light of present context. Fourthly: as the urban areas have been more affected compared to the rural or tribal belt, a ‘look village’ attitude may generate. A process of reverse migration towards villages may generate. This may result in more competition over resources and job opportunity in rural areas. Social hierarchy may be a decisive factor in accessing the resources available in rural areas. Fifth: the traditional units of society, i.e, family, caste, village that are interconnected within a wider framework (Marriott, 1955) may be segregated. All these factors may increase the gaps among the various social strata in the social hierarchy, which in turn will raise social inequality. Thus, in Indian society social hierarchy which has gradually become weak now may regain its earlier form with rigidity, isolation and dependence. The migrants from urban areas and the Muslims may be subjected to deprivation of health care and other rights.

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Dr. Dipak K Midya, Professor, Department of Anthropology, Vidyasagar University, Midnapore – 721 102, West Bengal, India.

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May 23, 2020

Dr. Dipak K Midya

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