Understanding Covid 19 Pandemic in India as a Breaching Experiment: A Sociological Perspective

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Dr Adfer Rashid Shah 7 April 2020

The routine life has turned fragile and meanings have changed fast with the creation of a new set of meanings, essence and priorities. Covid19 Pandemic indeed is proving a breaching experiment which means a disruption has come that has changed patterned social practices and social order along with the culturally embedded assumptions including the way of life. Breaching experiment as a concept was developed by eminent American sociologist Harold Garfinkel (1917-2011) who is known as the father of ethnomethodology. Ethnomethodology is a sociological inquiry that seeks to understand how people make sense of their everyday world through social interaction and behaviour. Due to the pandemic the physical interaction undoubtedly has reduced but has increased virtually and a new society what I call the lockdown society with new preferences and priorities has emerged.

The Lockdown Society and Pandemic as a Breaching Experiment

The lockdown society is a society with a new commonsense as Covid 19 pandemic has set a new social order and is facilitating even a new world order. A new iteration has evolved with new engagements and with a new sense of social solidarity but at a social distance-what ideally should have been called physical distancing because every society in crises needs more social solidarity if not physical proximity.

Breaching experiment is simply a method of disruptions of people’s taken for granted everyday activities. Garfinkel sought to experiment with taken for granted or commonsensical assumptions. While explaining the concept of Breaching Experiment he argued that it is simply the breach or violation of common and taken for granted understanding and practices of life to better understand it. Covid19 pandemic in today’s era has certainly proved to be a breaching experiment that has challenged the taken for granted usual routine almost round the globe. It has its impact on every social, cultural, religious and economic institution. Now nothing is more important than one’s life as people are inside their homes. It has even defined healthy and unhealthy; those infected with Covid19 are ill and those without it are healthy. Right now the only preference everywhere in every hospital is the covid 19 infected and the other patients hardly get any attention. Such a scare and all out attention on  the pandemic has created other crises and lot many emergency surgeries, patients suffering from other diseases like cancer, diabetes, etc, who need immediate attention are suffering in many ways.

Home Relationships to Isolation

Pandemic has shifted us from relationships to isolations and a fear psychosis has set in among people leading to anxiety and other mental issues as well. Earlier it was fear of the unknown but the pandemic has introduced ‘fear of the known’. Almost everything has changed even the meaning of fundamental social institutions family, kinship, religion, economy, etc,. Every discussion and news is about the Corona virus and the pandemic. Even the lives of youth are changing fast. From their only online life to now spending a good time with their families has brought the age-old ethos of the traditional family back. Though the fact remains screen time has considerably increased during lockdown as people kill time online. There has been a tremendous increase in family interaction during this lockdown. The homes we live in have become our complete world.

Healthcare Infrastructure and Concerns

Given our poor spending on healthcare just 1.28% of country’s massive GDP and poor infrastructure (0.8 doctors per 1000 patients) still the existing healthcare as a social order was somehow taken for granted and rationalised by the state along with the masses who had somehow adjusted with the available facilities. The breaching experiment in the shape of the pandemic thus questioned these assumptions of normalcy by state and society both. The taken for granted health sector has been challenged by the pandemic and made us realise why healthcare development by every nation on the globe should have been the utmost priority rather than hoarding arms and artillery. Even the developed world feels helpless today realising that they need further improvement in their already sophisticated healthcare facilities as pandemics like Covid19 in future may pose many unknown challenges. The pandemic has given rise to a new thought process and calls for a chain of new and humane policies to be drafted. The pandemic has also exposed the reality of communist and totalitarian states and democracies given their handling and containing tactics of the pandemic.

On Planning

It is true that India has been so far successful in containing the community transmission as the lockdown is proving fruitful. However given the recent migrant labourers’ exodus amid lockdown from Delhi and other big cities and their barefoot march to their homes far off reflected our torn social fabric, lack of planning and empathy. Even the incidents of police beating the civilians, making the labourers hop like frogs, somewhere spraying of chemicals on them reflected lack of vision and our core ignorant and highly inhuman capitalistic mindset. The buses that were arranged to ferry these labourers after the hue and cry by masses had hardly any regard for social distancing not to talk of temperature check or screening which proved the administrative faults and negligence’s and poor planning. This is also a bitter lesson to be learned for future.

Corona Jihad-An Oxymoron Invented by Media

The much hyped Nizamuddin Markaz incident and its subsequent communalising and othering of Muslims by some sections of media and even labelling it as Corona Jihad-literally an oxymoron to labelling Tablighi jamaat as talabini Jamaat further reflected our lack of social solidarity and spreading islamophobia even when in adversity and grip of a pandemic and defined us as a fractured society of hate. Now even some incidents of attacking the health workers have also been reported from many states reflecting both ignorance and fear among masses. This is a chaos that needs to be tackled. Given the joblessness, survival difficulties, and life inside lockdown the divide in Indian society given its caste-class, community, race and enormous wealth inequality is becoming more visible. Even incidents of domestic violence are increasing under lockdown. One huge section is struggling for two square meals and the other is playing guitars in their sea view balconies, the media is busy with polarisation debates as usual.

Towards a Post Covid Era

While the fact remains that the pandemic is going to change a lot even define and redefine the concepts of democracy and dictatorship, the post Covid19 era will see lot many changes as the world may be never be like before. Given its catastrophic fallout on humans, I think it is a strong tussle of Biology versus Sociology. Now Cough is the new weapon and sneezing in public not less than a bomb. The fear is so much that humans see fellow humans as nothing but virus at the first place. May be lot of change to happen in post Covid era. It is certainly an eye opener calling for a serious development of healthcare infrastructure especially intensive care and speciality hospitals-a big concern than ever before. It also may lead to a new trend of procuring more medical equipment as a global priority (china selling a lot currently). Covid19 like pandemic and its global fallout may give further boost to Prime Minister’s Swachh Bharat Abhiyaan. A new may be serious approach to sanitation and cleanliness should be the future priority. Maybe the nation ought to even come up with a special national sanitation commission and a task force to monitor sanitation round the country. A new culture is in the offing as well where we may see a Shift from handshakes/hugs to virtual hugs/ hellos. Also the disciplines of Microbiology/virology science, infectious diseases departments probably need to get a boost in funding to enhance research and testing capabilities. Given the global use of sanitizers it will certainly lead to the rise in the demand of sanitizers and benefit their manufacturers. Of economy, many people have been talking even recession in Europe is talked much these days, but it has given a great blow to overall world economy which has its serious ramifications on jobs, production, etc,. Given the emerging issues of contact tracing and the technology in use in China and some other countries, it may indirectly lead to surveillance at its worst both over the skin and under the skin surveillance even forcing masses to choose health over their privacy. Also the need for development of technology to contain such pandemics in future by IIT’s is a good step though however  more than this the technology-society interface is important as masses still in our context need much education and training on the use of technology. Still majority of Indians even don’t know about internet banking even ATM use. Therefore the challenges are bigger than we perceive them.

Last Word

We have to ensure a collective approach with utmost solidarity, rationality and reason at the global level to tackle the pandemic rather than thinking on caste, community, race, religious or even national lines. It has to be a joint global effort with a greater sense of scientific spirit to achieve a new and safe world order. The Indian Society more precisely media is hell bent to capitalise on issues like Markaz (Tablighi Jamaat issue) rather than providing viable and practical strategies’ amid such an invisible killer. Also on the privatization front while some Private labs offered to assist the state in testing, etc, and government granted permissions to labs and hospitals to manufacture kits and do the treatment. The question is are private hospitals really doing any treatment? Are such hospitals contributing the nation anyway during this major health emergency and how is the government going to regulate scores of such private hospitals’ who returned patients in utmost crises times. Covid19 outbreak as a disruption thus teaches us to learn to make use of our huge private healthcare capacity in future besides using the package of 1.7 lakh crore announced by the Indian Government very carefully so that the pandemic is contained.

(Dr Adfer Rashid Shah is a George Greenia Research Fellow, Sociologist and Associate Editor at Eurasia Review. He works with SNCWS,Jamia Millia Islamia,New Delhi. Reach at [email protected]).