Vulnerability in the times of Corona
When a pandemic strikes, it pushes the burden on the weakest in an unequal society.
25 Mar 2020
Image: Muffinn, Flickr Commons

Disasters have the ability to disrupt everyday life. However, it is not often that we probe about what constitutes a disaster? How do we define it? Well, a disaster varies in definition for different agencies. As professionals, we have found various answers to what constitutes a disaster and its typology, based on the severity, nature and frequency of an event. But, we are yet to identify an ideal approach to manage a disaster. The ideal type of management in turn depends on the context of the disaster.

The 'contextualisation of disaster' is one of the factors, which steers us clear of typifying an approach to disaster management uniformly across the globe. In the times of a panic-struck health emergency, this contextualisation is crucial to ensure efficient response, in contrast to inducing anxiety by spreading unverified information in the public domain.

On 12th March 2020, the World Health Organization declared COVID-19, a pandemic. COVID-19 or the coronavirus disease has brought the world to a systemic halt, threatening the lives of billions of people around the globe.

Observed first in Wuhan city in China, COVID-19 has already travelled to 196 countries and territories as on 23rd March, 2020. With its widespread nature and the lack of a cure, the virus has caused panic and fear amongst the masses worldwide, leading to lockdowns across countries and within cities.

The pandemic has emphasised the differential nature of vulnerability, underlining the heightened impacts of a disaster on the socio-economically weaker sections of the society.

Impact of lockdown on those living hand-to-mouth

Brick kiln labourers form a large portion of workers in the informal sector in India (Image: Kannan, Flickr Commons)As the cities and the countries are under a lockdown, it is important to ask ourselves pivotal questions such as, how does a vegetable vendor work from home? Or, can a daily wage labourer sit at home and socially isolate oneself without compromising his or her means of survival? The class disparity has intensified itself in the times of corona and has presented us with a reality we were hesitant to look at in the first place.

The most intriguing aspect of this debate is our response to the pandemic. India, a developing nation has far greater challenges ahead to stop the virus from spreading. The nation has to parallely strengthen its public health infrastructure, fight through the class-based social structure and encourage collective action to successfully deal with these extreme circumstances.

As the national and international agencies gear up to battle these challenges, we cannot ignore the inequality deeply manifested within our social structure, which makes our response fragmented. The mere fact that the choice to socially isolate, or follow preventive measures, or even, not fall prey to the misinformation resides with the elite. It is inherently challenging for those without a choice, to be able to consume, access, and act without threatening their survival.

At the time of a lockdown, when moral judgment has become blurry, who would ever hoard their cup-boards with snacks? That section of the community, which has been facing food insecurity and struggle for their rights, or those discriminated on the basis of their social status?

It is time we face the reality behind these structures. Additionally, the consequential impacts of the disease on the poor, in the aftermath of it all, would break down their normal to an even worse condition. As the global economy experiences a turmoil, it weakens their means of living, and pushes the vulnerable to the struggles of fighting for the ‘everyday’.

Is correct information accessible to all?

While the authorities are putting in efforts to tackle this pandemic with constant updates and engagement with the world, what remains untouched is the concept of vulnerability, which affects every effort to tackle the situation. Differentially, we're all vulnerable! Vulnerable due to our daily interaction with our phones and the television.

A valid part of the Indian Disaster Management Act, 2005, states the role of media in managing a disaster throughout its phases, both preventive and responsive. Transferring information to more than a billion people is not possible without the cooperation of mass-media platforms such as television and social media.

The missing link is the understanding of whether there is enough awareness. If yes, are we spreading the right kind of information to everybody irrespective of their social status? Passing on information, and generating awareness regarding safe practices is a crucial component of our response, but so is the passing on of 'correct information'. 

Lacking respect for human lives, citizens often share unverified information and spread 'panic' instead of caution. A health emergency has always been able to gain its fair share of fear and panic amongst the masses. The real fear is the lack of logical thinking and tendency to spread misinformation. Now, with the morning cup of coffee, and the usual good morning WhatsApp forward, a cure to virus is attached.

How we consume content is also a crucial element in dictating our actions and roles. It is observed that most people are not equipped to differentiate the valid from the invalid!

The knowledge gap and the lack of scientific temper function in a loop, and feed it till it reaches a catastrophic end.

 Though, a pandemic is a global challenge, individual action is equally critical. Precautionary measures do not only include physical activity or steps one could take in order to prevent oneself from catching a virus, it also involves taking measures to read the right thing, ask people around to not believe everything they hear, and not fall prey to anxiety inducing news!

We will have to engage in practices which progressively disintegrate the barrier of accessibility, and move towards a strengthened social system.

In order to strengthen all, and eradicate financial constraints, we need to take individual measures and promote growth of those around us. It is in the hands of the influential to ensure that accurate information passes down to the lowest rungs of the society.

Humans need to be compassionate beings, and in order to form a resilient society, it is necessary that we encourage equitable growth.


Baljeet Kaur works as a Fellow under The Hans Foundation Fellowship Program (2019-2020) with tribal communities in Dahod, Gujarat. She has a Master’s degree in Disaster Management from the Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai.

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author/s and do not necessarily reflect the policy or position of India Water Portal.



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