Physical distancing and isolation continue to be the most effective weapons in the fight against the novel coronavirus. But given the hardships and disruptions that such measures have caused to the people — particularly the socio-economically vulnerable among them — they also need to be accompanied by social solidarity and respect for the law. What is increasingly coming to the fore, however, is the opposite of that — there are unfortunate and troubling acts of exclusion, violence and mob justice, along new and pre-existing cleavages.
On Wednesday, the Delhi Police confirmed that a 22-year-old man who had returned to the city from Bhopal after attending a Tablighi Jamaat conference, and was brutally assaulted by his neighbours, died of his injuries. He had been tested for the disease earlier and released by the police. On Thursday, a man and his sister, both doctors, were beaten up in South Delhi while buying groceries, accused by their assailant of spreading the virus. In Haryana, in a village in Palwal, a family was assaulted by a mob for turning on their lights last Sunday during the prime minister’s “diya jalao” call, even though they switched them on after 9 pm. In Manesar, migrant workers were beaten up by a group of men appointed by the local panchayat to distribute rations to the locals. These attacks target the more vulnerable. Medical workers are most at risk of serious infection; migrants, largely daily wagers, have borne the brunt of the economic disruption. The violence against minorities, prompted in this case by a seemingly irrational fear and anger, can only exacerbate anxieties and insecurities that have built up over the last few years.
The coronavirus pandemic is an unprecedented challenge to both the state and society. For all the claim that it is flattening differences — posing a danger to all, across social and economic divides — it could also be deepening inequalities along class and communal and other faultlines. Prime Minister Narendra Modi called for applause for essential service providers during the “janata curfew” and for the lighting of lamps on another day — both were attempts to bring people together, reinforce solidarity. These must now be supplemented with a clear message that even in a crisis, the rule of law — not of fear or brute force — will prevail. Healthcare professionals, already at risk from the virus, need to feel secure as they do their job. Migrant workers deserve empathy and aid. Every Indian must be assured that the government and society stand with the public, not the mob.