Covid-19: Social tensions, privacy concerns add to woes of those suspected of exposure

A 26-year-old businessman and his family of four from New Delhi went into self quarantine after a doctor he had visited this month tested positive for Covid-19.

Even though the businessmen himself tested negative, his misery had just started. Gates to his home in the colony were sealed soon after the “home under quarantine” notice by the district authorities went up. By the next morning, street vendors stopped selling fruits and vegetables to them. Their cleaning staff stopped coming. Photographs of the notice and rumours about how he may have been infected started to circulate on the colony’s WhatsApp groups.

“We could not order anything online and have had no choice but to just eat the grains that we had. Khichri is on the menu most days,” he said. Scores of Indians have been subjected to highhandedness, aggressive behaviour from neighbours, community-based coercion and discrimination due to the paranoia surrounding Covid-19. Gratuitous discrimination against those under quarantine or those who have returned from overseas has also increased.

“I’ve had no peace of mind since I came back,” said a 25-year-old graduate student who returned to Kerala from Italy two weeks ago. “The people here are an even bigger virus than Covid-19. They threatened to file a case saying I had been roaming outside… Maybe they’re doing it out of jealousy because I study in Europe. Some are saying it to settle past scores.”

Another student from Italy, currently in a quarantine camp in New Delhi, said he started receiving messages from friends and relatives asking if he was one of the Indians on an evacuation flight. A WhatsApp image portrayed these people – mostly students – as “terrorists who are spreadingcoronavirus” andreturningonthe “government’s money.”

“Within a matter of minutes, something like this spreads on WhatsApp – it’s not correct,” the 26-year-old student said. “They don’t know what it was actually like over there. We didn’t have any option, that’s why we came back.” Back from the Caribbean, a 27-year-old lady from Mumbai was accused of not having informed the authorities about her return, even though she had.

“Some neighbours accused me of not following precautions while using the lift as well,” she added. “This is a time when any amount of power can get used, misused and amplified. People are arrogating to themselves certain powers and rights,” said social commentator Santosh Desai.

Arguments and conflicts are going viral on social media, leading to compromised privacyandlastingrancour. Numerous reports have also come in of doctors getting harassed and assaulted by neighbours.

Recently, a video of a lady trying to leave her colony to pick up her domestic help went viral on Twitter. The lady was vilified on social media as an exemplar of entitled behaviour.

Last week, a couple in their early 30s in Bengaluru was stunned by a slew of messages they received on WhatsApp at about 2 am. To their horror, their names had – mistakenly – found their way on to a state website, which mentioned they had recently travelled to the UK. The couple started to receive calls the next day from neighbours asking about where they had been and whether they were in quarantine.

“There is a major xenophobia angle here because we are not from Bengaluru,” they said. “We were treated with hostility even though we shouldn’t have been. We had to clarify to everyone that we did not travel and that this was the address an old tenant used to obtain their passport.”

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