By Bidisha Chattopadhyay*, Sudeshna Roy**
Little did Pandora know while opening the box that she would be the harbinger of diseases and misery. The recorded history of mankind has been dotted with deadly diseases such as plague, cholera, smallpox, leprosy, polio and various pandemic influenza, one of the worst being the ongoing Covid-19 in the recent times. These diseases owing to their contagious nature spread fast leaving no section of the society untouched. These have wreaked havoc killing and disabling people, turning systems upside down. But then all men are created equal, but some are more equal than others; these diseases have affected the marginalised sections of the society relatively more gravely. Historically, the poor, diseased and certain discriminated sections of society have suffered, but more so during the epidemics. The façade of a modern, humane society has been challenged in the present ongoing pandemic as well. The circumstances of the past have been mirrored to a large extent in the current pandemic, albeit with a modern twist.
There have been instances in the history when extreme measures have been taken to control the spread of diseases that has been harsher for the downtrodden. One such case was during the Black Death (Plague) (1347-1352). During this time, some European city-states stopped outsiders from entering their city, particularly merchants, people from minority community such as Jews and lepers. The transit routes were also cordoned off by armed guards (Tognotti, 2013). In the great plague of 1665, the worst since Black Death, London’s poor areas got severely affected owing to unsanitary conditions in these areas. When a family member was affected by plague, the whole house would be sealed off thus condemning the entire household to the disease and in most cases death. The doors of such houses were painted with a red cross with the words “Lord have mercy on us”. The rich and those who could afford it fled the city leaving the poor behind to suffer. This was similar to the present Covid-19 situation when in Delhi, houses with quarantining members were marked with stickers and were avoided and stigmatised in the initial days of the pandemic. In this case though, it was the poor who left the city as it became increasingly unaffordable and difficult for them to live in the city with job losses. The disturbing images of stranded migrant labourers at bus and railway terminals sans sanitation and basic essentials during the lockdown period is a stark reminder of the plight of these severely vulnerable population groups who though, critical in providing services for cities are conveniently overlooked in policy and planning.
Another dark era that comes to mind is the spread of Cholera in the 1800s. Cholera, a disease completely new to Europe, reached the continent in 1830, people who had come in touch with sick were quarantined. Measures were adopted to isolate the sick and possible carriers of the contagion were identified. In Naples (1836), prostitutes and beggars were considered to be carriers and not allowed free movement. At that time, cholera was blamed on “Miasma”-noxious air emitted from rotting organic matter (Tognotti, 2013). Cholera epidemic of 1863 was racialized in the West and came to be associated with religious places. The West believed it to spread through the Haj pilgrims going to Mecca from India. The Kumbh mela at Haridwar in 1867 was also indicted for spreading the disease in northern India (Kumbhar, 2020), similar to instances of racializing Covid-19. Cases of racial discrimination have streamed in from different continents where residents of Chinese origin have reported discrimination and abuse (Xu. Et al, 2021). In India, the Markaz event, where Muslim believers from all over the world congregated in the initial days of Covid-19 outbreak, was highlighted as a super-spreader event and the community was squarely blamed for the spread of the disease in India. The fervour of blaming a community for spread of Covid-19 in 2020 was matched only with the Indians being blamed for spread of cholera in the 1800s. The Kumbh Mela at Haridwar was again back in the news in 2021 for arguably, being a super-spreader event, but this time the anti-community din was lower compared to the Markaz event in 2020, a testimony to the socio-political climate of the country.
The year 2021 has seen the resurgence of Covid with a vengeance with its multiple strains turning cities into mass graves. The first wave of Covid-19 in India took away livelihood and pushed crores of Indians deeper into poverty. The second wave has been catastrophic, destroying families of the deceased and increasing debt burden of the recovered. It has swept through the cities taking with it the young and the able-bodied this time. The great Indian Middle class has been left gasping for oxygen and beds and we don’t even know the impact on the poor yet. The light at the end of the tunnel- Vaccination against Covid-19 has hit a massive roadblock with insufficient number of vaccines and add to it the way it is being administered; digital literacy and knowledge of English being an important criterion leaving out the teeming millions. It is time to sit back and retrospect on our systems, attitude and behaviour. Who suffers? Who is made the scapegoat? Who benefits? How is that not much has changed in the last hundred years? But, not all is gloomy, there are many positive takeaways as well. Despite all the suffering, strangers have come out to help each other, people have arranged food and clothes for the needy and we may have become more compassionate, not taking things for granted. It seems that it is that one thing that did not escape Pandora’s box that has kept all of us, irrespective of class, creed, caste, race and gender alive- HOPE.
*School of Planning and Architecture, New Delhi, India; **Independent Researcher, India
- Kumbhar, K (2020). India’s Tumultuous History of Epidemics, Religion and Public Health Policy. Retrieved from https://thewire.in/health/india-epidemics-religion-public-health-policy
- Tognotti, E. (2013). Lessons from the history of quarantine, from plague to influenza A. Emerging infectious diseases, 19(2), 254–259. https://doi.org/10.3201/eid1902.120312
- Xu, J., Sun, G., Cao, W. (2021). Stigma, Discrimination, and Hate Crimes in Chinese-Speaking World amid Covid-19 Pandemic. Asian J Criminol 16, 51–74. https://doi.org/10.1007/s11417-020-09339-8