Race, Caste, Capital in the times of the Coronavirus

If you look at all of this and take a look at the practice of untouchability, you cannot disregard the parallels.

Credit : PTI

- Amit Bhalerao

So the whole world is slowed down and the COVID 19 or the Coronavirus is on everyone's mind right now. Just a moment ago, I called a friend of mine and the first thing that I heard was the *cough cough* callertune and all those hygienic tips instead of his usual Bollywood music caller tune. All in all, it was the same छूत अछूत practice that our great ancestors taught us. Just think over these precautions. They all revolve around keeping the healthy and unhealthy away from each other. 

For any infectious disease whether a trivial common cold or a severe case of Tuberculosis, the first preventive measure is the isolation of the patient. The infected individual is advised to isolate himself at his home. He should reduce getting in contact with other people as much as possible. 

In case of an outbreak or an epidemic, healthy individuals are informed by the medical authorities to prevent communication and physical contact with the infected or 'the others'. The infected people are isolated or quarantined in a location that is not inhabited by healthy individuals. Anything touched by the infected individual should not be touched by the others.

Medical authorities of all the countries have advised their people to reduce making contact with each other as much as possible. This has resulted in the practice of the Wuhan shake or the namaste.  Newlywed married couples are kissing through the protective masks in the Philippines. People all over the world are now reluctant to travel on public transport. 

A kind of fear is formed in every individual where they think everyone except themselves could be an infected person and they better not get in touch with them, even if it's their significant other. We may justify this as psychological altruism but this is a prime example of psychological egoism.

Now, if you look at all of this and take a look at the practice of untouchability, you cannot disregard the parallels.

All the precautions taken or suggested are the practices of untouchability. For example, putting infected people on the other end of the cities or into secluded areas away from the healthy population parallels with the 'lower caste' communities being told to settle on the far end or edge of a village.

The same goes for not touching each other. From a psychological perspective, this can be seen as the fear of 'the other'. A healthy individual doesn't want his health to be affected by the presence or the touch of an infected population. Here, the healthy acts as an individual from the upper caste who has a fear of losing his own cultural or ethnic superiority because of the possible usurp of the lower castes.

If we take the same parallel in post 9/11 America we can draw similar parallels. Islamophobia and Xenophobia in the west or in the East for that matter works on the same fear of 'the other' and the toppling of the power. The healthy or 'the privileged' group of any population will always act on the basic instinct of the fear of the other or the unknown. 23-year-old Jonathan Mok from Singapore was beaten up by four people in London on the suspicion of infected with Coronavirus. But this suspicion was just an excuse to justify the beating of the 'Asian' kid. Asian American Mathew Lee was traveling from a train in New York City. He sneezed twice in a row due to nail polish allergy.  All the other people around him now looked at him in a humiliating way and distanced themselves from him. He called this fear in his article as 'Yellow peril'.

This fear of the epidemic actually legitimizes the practice of xenophobia and racism. Family of a Covid-19 patient from Pune has been boycotted in their town in Solapur on the grounds that the villagers don't want the disease to be spread in the village. 

There is one viral list from Pune which is said to be containing the names of the Covid 19 patients. Even a Marathi daily is looking for these names. Such behavior indicates that deep down we all are fascist wanting to retain our own social space and power and for that, we don't mind subjugating the existence of 'the other'.

But can the epidemic legitimize caste discrimination? Probably yes.

Let's see how.

Have you ever been to an open dumping site? Or have you ever interacted with sewage cleaners or the sweepers in MIDCs? If you have then do you know from what caste these people come from? Almost all of them come from lower castes. They are either Mahars or Matangs. Now, these people don't live in sophisticated or hygienic housing plus they are exposed to all sorts of infectious things that are thrown into the dustbins by the more civilized people. The workers face occupational as well as residential hazards which are mainly infectious diseases.

Forget about the Coronavirus, let there be any infection. Who will be targeted by it first or which part of the populace will contract such infection the most? If a certain group of people, in this case, the lower castes show a greater number of infection then it becomes easier to justify the cultural bias that already predominates the minds of everyone. The upper castes won't be infected except for a very small number because they don't do work such as cleaning the sewers or sweeping the streets.

Economically backward untouchables still live in slums or ghettos which are already treated as a quarantine zone by the upper castes. Once such an outbreak hits this specific group of people living in slums these areas will be legit quarantined. No one, even the middle-class or higher class untouchables will not want to go to these parts of the towns or cities even after the outbreak is over. Everyone wanting to keep their distance from such castes from the fear of infection will be the aftermath of such an outbreak or an epidemic.

Thus legitimizing the caste superiority and justifying the practice of untouchability. The same way the hatred for prostitutes and sex workers was justified after the rise of HIV AIDS.

Well, this isn't the case with Corona at least for now because it does not have any occupational origin in India. It has cultural and regional origins in China and that's why the phobia is targeted towards all the Asians whether residential or migrants to the West.

But epidemics are not confined by the borders or the social constructs set by humankind. They aren't targeting blacks, whites, queers, Taoists, Christians, Muslims, Hindus, rich or poor specifically. In this sense, epidemics are truly democratic.

Let's move to the class aspect of the epidemics. The epidemic or the practices such as xenophobia and untouchability are counterproductive to the capitalist structure. They cannot milk out the population enough if people are not willing to work with each other due to some fear. Because of this, many major IT industries have told their employees to work from home. The Saudi multi-billion dollar company Aramco, was seen creating 'moving hand sanitizer machines' out of their poor migrant workers so that they could go around the building dispensing hand sanitiser liquid for the 'business people'.



Capitalists always see an opportunity for profit in everything, even in epidemics. The capitalist structure and economies have always remained stable enough to function no matter what happened with the working class. In the past, it was because of the large availability of the laborers. In our times, this is partly due to the laborers and surge in automation in the production line.

Yet, the capitalist economy is facing crises all over the world. China's economy is flatlined right now and so will be other countries for a while. 


Well, the Marxists have been predicting the fall of capitalism and they have foretold that the system is so contradictory that it will the reason for its own demise.


Let's now take an example of automation. Automation was accelerated for producing more commodities in less time while saving the money 'wasted' on the laborers. This wasn't possible with human labor. Now time and money were saved and the profits skyrocketed. *happy capitalist noises* But, but, when hit with an epidemic, the people were told to take leave. Stay at home. Don't go outside. Netflix and chill. While the machines remained in the factories and kept producing the commodities effectively. These people, now partially unemployed, don't have enough money to buy these commodities.

Even if they have money, nobody wants to go outside their houses and countries like Italy are under lockdown. So the whole supply chain, as well as consumerism, is in shambles right now. Even giants like Apple Inc lost much of their Chinese revenue due to the epidemic.

While the State's or the capital's advise of staying at home does help to assure that no harm will be caused to the production line or the consumers; the untouchability or the xenophobia rooted in the human psyche also affects the consumerism.

Capitalists all over the world are afraid of the epidemic. Not because it will wipe a small part of the population but because it will affect their profits. Their companies could lag behind their competitors if the situation remains the same. These people are so over their heads that they really don't care about their consumers if they get their desired profits.

A fresh example will be BCCI not canceling or postponing the IPL 2020. In their case, forget about their consumers, the capitalists don't even care about the sustenance of their own products, the players.

Such an inhuman system cannot sustain on its own for a long. If the capitalists want to keep growing capital then they have to take a humanist approach towards their products and their consumers.  The distinction of humans as an independent entity needs to be understood by these people of profit. Because capital cannot exist without consumers and machines can never become consumers. If the capital fails to do so it will be doomed along with the humans.


(With inputs from Viplov Wingkar)