Written by Ipsita Sapra
Certain images haunt us for a lifetime. Thousands of desperate migrants assembling at Bandra Station in Mumbai to catch a train back to their villages. Groups of migrants walking hundreds of kilometers towards their villages with their meagre belongings. As the world deals with the Covid-19 pandemic, a picture of desperation is unfolding in India over the past few weeks.
Looking through a sociological lens, this article foregrounds some perturbing social and psychological consequences of the pandemic that needs serious engagement. Indeed, left unattended, this has the potential to shatter social stability as desperate people might soon refuse to accept norms that have moderated society in the pre-COVID era.
A significant number of migrant workers have experienced an abrupt breakdown of cash flows. Job losses, pay cuts have been commonplace, while basic expenses have remained, at best, unchanged. All of a sudden, a large number of migrant workers who worked hard, lived with dignity and were self sufficient for meeting their basic needs and also for sending remittances to their families back home, are facing abject economic deprivation. Their clamour for the basics of life is considered an unlawful act during the lockdown. In some places, they have been at the receiving end of police action for violation. Their dignity as self-reliant workers and breadwinners for the families back home is severely compromised.
As innate resilience gives way to desperation, there are chances of disintegration of the social order. The biopsychosocial model of health, a framework developed by George L. Engel in 1977, captures COVID-19 type situations from the lens of interactions between biological, psychological, and social factors that influence the outcome of disease. Given that COVID-19 is a public-health emergency with tremendous social and psychological manifestation, it is important to engage on these aspects with much greater attention than what has been done thus far.
The social fabric is going through a metamorphosis in the COVID-19 situation and we might see a tectonic shift in the way social and economic life is organised.
Way back in 1893, Emile Durkhiem, the renowned French sociologist, in his work, The Division of Labour in Society, had engaged with the ideas that kept society together. He had asserted that modern societies, characterised by differentiation and specialisation of roles, is kept together by the very dependence which individuals develop on each other.
Cut to modern day societies, this interdependence is taken for granted. It is not perfect, with some roles more rewarded, or more marginalised than others. For example, the real estate sector is totally dependent on the construction workers. However, distribution of wealth across the different players in the sector is very skewed. Even in such sectors, there is a semblance of equilibrium. It is this tentative stability of social solidarity through interdependence that holds society together.
COVID-19 seems to have altered this tremendously. The suddenness of the lockdown left no room for preparedness for many, especially the poor. The trauma and distress conjured up a picture of grave uncertainties. Not only are the migrants running out of food stock and cash reserves, with depleting resources and supplies, they are increasingly running out of patience. Worse, they are running out of hope.
Social solidarity is now very likely to hang by a thread. Are we heading towards, ‘anomie’, a state described by Durkhiem as that of normlessness that stems from a feeling of deep disconnect from the rules of a society? This often occurs during periods of drastic and rapid changes that disrupt the conventions that guided the social, economic, or political structures of society.
The accounts of migrants reflect a breakdown- the city is no longer the home. Home is only where intimate relations are. Home is where the small patch of land, the only semblance of an asset, remains. Home is the only address that the Public Distribution System (PDS) of the country recognises. This city is just a workspace – opaque, cruel and now, diseased. These narratives point to a sharp distinction between the pre and post pandemic world order. The norms that were accepted during the pre COVD-19 period might be challenged by the millions who have been pushed to the margin like never before, and who no longer find these valid.
The psychological consequences of the pandemic are also enormous. The focus on transmission of the infection does not allow sufficient public attention to psycho-social imprints on the affected individuals as well as in the general population. This is particularly true in a country like India where resources for mental health care are grossly inadequate. Emotional wellbeing is severely tested as migrant workers are now also unable to return to their families and social connections. This exacerbates existing mental health issues and creates newer ones. The likely manifestations of frustration could be self-harm or violence against partners and children. This may also lead to defiance of law and order, and attack on frontline police officials trying to enforce lockdown.
The larger consequence of this could be a civil unrest. In the age of social media, such news will travel swiftly and have a cascading effect across the country. Once out of hand, this can spell doom for all efforts at containment, while bringing enormous misery to all concerned.
Is there a solution to this looming crisis?
Two specific dimensions need to be considered.
The first is the welfare entitlements of the migrants. These should be a range of immediate measures that can address the heightened economic distress caused by the pandemic. This includes assured food supply, safe shelter, state transfers to cover basic expenses and access to any medical needs. These can be supported over the medium term with measures such as portable and universal Public Distribution System, a revamped MGNREGA with greater outreach.
The second is through timely and authentic communication. Even in uncertain times, clear and timely communication about the next meal or shelter and transport arrangements can go a long way in assuaging anxieties. Authentic information, such as preventive measures, disseminated in accessible format, such as short WhatsApp videos, can be reassuring. Ability to speak to loved ones without having to worry about the call expenses can replenish hope. This can be done through trained psychological counsellors and social workers.
All of these measures, social and psychological, are not to be seen as doles of a benevolent state or charity of civil society organisations. These have to be understood as basic components of social justice and as critical enablers of stability and solidarity in the extraordinary times of the pandemic.
Ipsita Sapra is Associate Professor, School of Public Policy and Governance, Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Hyderabad
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