Societies have dealt with pandemics in various ways, blatantly reflecting the true nature of humans. The empty shelves are a sign, as are xenophobic attacks; because in times of pandemics, information and disinformation flow like the wind. We can only speculate in long-read pieces about how the current pandemic will change the world. Meanwhile, it is imperative to explore how we have dealt with them in the past and how much our reactions have changed, or rather, how little.
Blame may be targeted towards two groups of people, the first of which is those that are seen as feasibly complicit, that hold some kind of authority or power.
During the 1832 bout of cholera in Europe and on the American east coast, it was widely rumoured , that hospitals were in the business of killing people to get rid of the excess population. Physicians were assaulted in Europe, quarantine centres and hospitals attacked in New York. We have seen similar hostility in parts of India too. Five healthcare officials, two of which were doctors, were stoned in a locality in Indore, when they went to screen people there. Undeterred by the violence, the health officials returned to work the next day.
The second group contains all who already have little say in the society; religious minorities, migrant workers and the like. After a Muslim missionary group held an annual conference in New Delhi in mid-March, the Indian Muslim community was vilified on Twitter and Whatsapp groups. It didn’t matter, that only a meagre fraction of India’s 200 million Muslims follow the missionary group. False videos claiming that the members had spit on policemen quickly went viral. According to a news report based on data from Equity Labs, tweets with #CoronaJihad appeared nearly 300,000 times and has been potentially seen by 165 million people since the end of March.
The Fake News
During the 2009 Swine Flu pandemic, but around a month before it had hit Egypt, the Egyptian government ordered the culling of all domestic pigs. While the flu derived originally from a strain that lived in pigs, it wasn’t being transmitted from pigs. It was humans, that were transmitting the flu to other humans. According to estimates, more than 300,000 pigs were killed in Egypt in a span of a few days.
In India, in the first week of February, a message started spreading claiming, that COVID-19 had been found in chickens. As proof, two images of tattered-looking chickens accompanied it. The warnings against consuming chicken and eggs got dire day by day. On the 10th of February, Food Standards and Safety Authority of India even issued a clarification, stating that the predominant route of transmission of COVID-19 appears to be human to human, and that ‘consumption of poultry and poultry products may be considered safe’. Still, the damage was done. The wholesale price of chicken plummeted 70%. It left many without a steady source of income and the poultry sector in a state of ruin.
The attack on health workers mentioned above, is said to have been sparked by false videos. Videos claiming that healthy Muslims from neighbouring slums were being taken away by doctors and injected with the virus. Sentiments against Muslims were already running high in large parts of India after the Nizamuddin incident, the utterly ridiculous claims in these videos did nothing but aggravate them.
The Snake Oils
Snake oil is a euphemism used to denote any pseudo-medical remedy promoted as a cure for illnesses. Needless to say, the internet loves snake oil remedies, but some governments love it just as much.
In South Africa, the presidency of Thabo Mbeki (1999-2008) had a major impact on its AIDS containment efforts. Mbeki outrightly denied that HIV caused AIDS. He effectively banned the availability of antiretroviral drugs to AIDS patients. Mbeki described these drugs as ‘poisons’. Shortly after he was elected, he appointed Manto Tshabalala-Msimang as the health minister, who promoted the use of garlic, lemon juice and beetroot, giving her the name ‘Dr. Beetroot’. Hundreds of thousands died as a result of HIV denialism.
During the course of the current pandemic, various bits of information with varying degrees of truth have surfaced on the internet. Some suggest the use of rubbing alcohol on the skin, others suggest the use of garlic, as Dr. Beetroot did in South Africa. Some have also resorted to selling fake medicines. Two doctors in the Indian state of Maharashtra were booked last month for selling medicines claiming they cure coronavirus.
But the snake oil most in demand these days is hydroxychloroquine. After US President Donald Trump hailed it as a “game-changer”, the world has embraced the use of this antimalarial drug, despite little scientific evidence to back the claim. On 24th March, the Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR) issued an advisory recommending limited use of this drug stating that it has been “found to be effective against coronavirus in laboratory tests and in-vivo studies”. The advisory does not say how effective the drug was found to be in those tests, neither does it mention any human or animal trials.
As far back as the written history of politics goes, leaders have benefitted from extraordinary situations. 21st-century leaders have earned political dividends from 9/11, the 2008 financial crisis and the refugee crisis. In India, the Bharatiya Janata Party seems to have perfected this art. Mr. Modi’s cult has only grown in conditions resulting from the 2016 Demonetisation, the Pulwama attack, the consequent Balakot strike and now the COVID-19 outbreak.
One of the first democracies to fall victim to COVID-19 was Hungary. On 30th March, the Parliament voted with a two-thirds majority to give the government of PM Victor Orban the permit to rule by decree indefinitely. The law also gives the government power to imprison people up to 5 years for spreading ”false or harmful” information. This gave rise to fears that the government might try to suppress reporting on the scope of the outbreak in Hungary. Withdrawing this decree would also require a two-thirds majority, in addition to a presidential signature.
When President Trump declared emergencies on March 13 under both the Stafford Act and the National Emergencies Act, he boasted in classic Trumpian manner, “I have the right to do a lot of things that people don’t even know about.” Unfortunately, he is right. These powers derive themselves from documents that are classified, hence preventing us from truly knowing the ambit of these powers.
The legitimacy granted to such power-grab results from a desperate need for a sense of restoration of normalcy. It can be best summed up in a line from the 1995 film American President, where a character at one point says, “People want leadership, Mr. President, and in the absence of genuine leadership, they’ll listen to anyone who steps up to the microphone. They want leadership. They’re so thirsty for it they’ll crawl through the desert toward a mirage, and when they discover there’s no water, they’ll drink the sand”.
- Pandemic, Sonia Shah
- The Pandemic Century, Mark Honigsbaum
- Spillover, David Quammen
Tushar Kohli is a B.A.LLB student in Army Institute of Law. The views expressed are strictly personal