On March 11, when the World Health Organisation declared Covid-19 epidemic a pandemic, the reclassification was widely seen as an acknowledgement of the outbreak’s geographic reach. A new narrative emerged on the internet. Covid-19 is “the great equaliser”: it hurts the rich and the poor, the powerful and the powerless, and everyone in between. The message even found place in a speech by New York State Governor Andrew Cuomo and a monologue delivered by Madonna from a rose-filled bathtub.
In the past few weeks, though, reports from around the world have quashed the idea. Covid-19 is not the great equaliser. It’s true nobody is immune to it, but it’s also true that some communities suffer more because of it.
In the US, the pandemic is killing Black and Latino Americans at “disproportionately high rates”. In the UK, BAME groups – Black, Asian and minority ethnic – have been hit the hardest. And in India, although its spread has not proven to be race or class specific, its collateral impact has certainly been class-based and racialised. A sea of migrants walked out of cities towards their hometowns after a lockdown was imposed in March. Muslims are being blamed by Hindutva supporters for the spread of the virus, based on deeply biased reporting on religious gatherings. And North Easterners are being attacked in mainland India by racists who are linking them to a pandemic that originated in China.
While racial discrimination against North Easterners in the mainland is constant, the chain of events in recent weeks bears an added dimension. Independent social media posts report a range of encounters, including North Easterners being spat on, denied entry into shops, called coronavirus and expelled from rented apartments. Faced with this bald prejudice, university students in some cities chose to return home en masse in fear and panic.
“Corona” and “coronavirus” have replaced “chinki” in the Indian racist lexicon, and with them comes not only the ignorant association with China and “Mongoloidism”, but also the extra charge of disease and infectiousness. There have admittedly been similar incidents of East Asians being targeted and blamed for the disease. But what makes the episodes in India different is that North Easterners are being insulted by neighbours and landlords who are well aware of their nationality. The pandemic has reignited the collective fear and disgust for “the North Eastern other”, and by virtue of being a health crisis, has been seen to validate racist suspicions, attitudes and behaviour. Far from being “the great equaliser” and a cause for unity, Covid-19 has bared the fragility of Indians’ tolerance of difference.
Among the many displays of racism against North Easterners, spitting on them has become revoltingly familiar during the pandemic. Delhi and Mumbai witnessed such cases. Perhaps other cities did, too. Now, how do we examine this trend at a time when the government is encouraging social distancing to control a virus that primarily spreads through droplets generated from coughing or sneezing? Without trying to explore the racist rationale behind such acts too deeply, I would merely place the spat-upon North Eastern body in the history of its racialised construction in the colonial and postcolonial contexts.
Articulation of power
Concepts of savagery and backwardness, replete in the colonial discourse on the North East, have survived not only in the Indian state’s administrative and militaristic responses to the region, but also in social relations in the mainland. Countless instances of physical assaults, humiliation and sexual violence in Indian cities speak of a sustained refusal to understand, accept and live with the North Easterner. Even when attempts have been made to address this prejudice, they have been unthinking. In 2014, the Delhi Police created a North East cell to stem the hate crimes against North Easterners, but soon senior members of the cell routinely began urging young people from the region to assimilate and be less distinctive. I personally recall receiving a message from the police advising us to participate in Hindu festivals in the neighbourhood. Even in the eyes of those assigned to “protect” it, the North Eastern body is expected to perform its way into palatable Indianness.
The emergence of the spat-upon North Eastern body in the Covid-19 era is a slight perversion of what has existed. If spitting is the discharging of unwanted things, in this case, it becomes the discharging of one unwanted thing over another. Moreover, at the crux of it is the imagination of the North Eastern body as disease and threat, one which must not contaminate the attacker’s personal and national space. Thus, spitting is not only an expression of repulsion, but also an articulation of power – material and immaterial. Needless to say, this display of physical power over people from the North East is a faint continuity of the power that defines the relationship between the Indian state and the North East.
The Covid-19 pandemic is threatening countries, industries and people alike. But that should not be interpreted as an equalising force. The routes the virus takes, and the social realities it exists in, are determined by structures of power and privilege. And in India, these structures are deeper, confounding the North Eastern person’s quest for belonging and a dignified life.
Gertrude Lamare is a graduate student in anthropology at the London School of Economics.