Politics of Fear and the Covid-19 Pandemic

In the past two months, we have seen many odd things happening around us. Things no sane person would imagine in his wildest rumination. Shops and malls are empty, schools and colleges are shut for months, tourism has come to a halt, travel has been limited, the hustling sound of airplanes are no more to be heard, animals have come to roam the empty roads and the most surprising of all, the humans have locked themselves up in homes, willingly. The earth seems to be breathing afresh as skies have cleared, pollution levels dropped and animals have got a new lease of life. How strange it might seem, this is not just the case with India, but almost all other countries in the world. Covid-19 has long gone global killing thousands, bringing down to knees countries with world-class health infrastructure and changing the lifestyle of humans in a manner unpredicted before.

Today, with whole cities locked down, if we look out of our balconies a weird silence prevails over the streets. It is indeed peaceful but we don’t rejoice it, as all of us are well aware of the insidious killer out there. We keep ourselves confined to our houses and maintain our distance with close ones.

Behind all this, lies an emotion of ours, which has made us adapt to such difficult times. It is “fear”. Fear is a basic human emotion and prompts instant behavioural change when felt. Fear is also sensitive, just like love and it can make us respond undesirably to certain situations when invoked. It can make us take steps and positions that might not be morally correct and it can also be used to make us follow the herd if used as a tool to intimidate. As an extreme emotion, it can garner extreme reactions. On one side, fear can cause distrust and on the other make us place blind trust on leaders & godmen.

This is where politics steps in. The politics of fear to be specific- where the authority controls its subjects like a Kathputli (a string puppet theatre in India) with strings of fear attached to the citizens. A terrified crowd is always a helpful asset in the hands of a leader for it will obey more and question less. Thus, when Donald Trump thought injecting disinfectant might kill the coronavirus inside a person’s body, a large number of doctors and medical associations had to step in to condemn his statement and warn people against doing it. The necessity of criticizing a ridiculous statement like that? Some people might actually resort to it out of fear when dreadful coronavirus lingers over them incessantly. A perfect example of how extreme fear can beget extreme reactions. This was a unique case and fortunately, we didn’t see people actually injecting disinfectants in their body to cure themselves of the Covid-19.

Fear is actively used by many governments and leaders as a policy of administration, to control the masses and at times to advance their propaganda of hate. In the US, a recent poll result published by Quinnipiac University showed almost two-third of the Republicans said they don’t believe coronavirus can be a cause of significant disruption in their day to day lives. The Democrats think otherwise. This shows that the downplaying of the fear of the coronavirus by Donald Trump actually had an effect on how the Americans conceived the threat and reacted it. On the other hand, in China or even democratic countries like UK, the government invoked the possibility of the coronavirus spreading exponentially if a lockdown was not imposed and unlike the US, British people didn’t went out on the streets to protest against it. This is an instance of using fear to bring popular support for the lockdown, which can be deemed a good cause.

Using fear as a policy of administration is still fine, until it helps promote the welfare of the people and is not used otherwise. But in certain places, fear has been employed in a different manner. Leaders and politicians, many of them deliberately, linked the coronavirus to the certain communities instigating acts of boycott. Some media houses labelled them as intentional spreaders, some right-wing politicians termed it as a veiled conspiracy, while some government officials created an altogether different classification, such as “Chinese virus” due to its origins from China and “Markaz related” for the Nizamuddin outbreak in New Delhi. While it’s true the religious congregation that was held on 13th March in the Nizamuddin Markaz could end up as being the biggest hotspot of the Covid-19 outbreak in India(6), offering a religious angle to the case certainly is no help, except for some politicians who might use it to sway the attention of the majority of public from significant matters.

The case of India is not unique and often in some countries, ‘keep the virus out’ slogan becomes synonymous with keep the immigrants out or the spreaders out. In the US, cases of abuse and violence against the Chinese Americans apparently grew after coronavirus outbreak. Also, the terming of coronavirus as ‘Chinese Virus’ by President Trump was used as a justification by Republicans to oppose immigration into America and subsequently the immigration policy was also revised temporarily suspending immigration for 60 days. In Delhi too, a woman from northeast India was spit at and called ‘coronavirus’. Several more such racist incidents were reported against the people from north-east India. From America to Asia to Europe, far-right politicians everywhere have tried to take advantage of the crisis. Even some terrorist groups stepped in to capitalise on the outbreak and one of them. For instance, the ISIS recently urged it’s jihadists to spread misinformation and sow mistrust against the governments by claiming that the actual number of infections are being hidden, in an attempt to further add confusion and fear in the minds of people, something that would help them recruit new followers.

The state of affairs is similar in many countries and while to expect of politicians and leaders devoid of any humanitarian values to suddenly become messiahs would be too much to bargain for, we as citizens of the world can surely overcome our differences and ignore our borders, in times of such crisis and put humanitarian interests over and above other political and nationalistic interests, for we are after all a single race. In this regard, we can take a leaf out of countries like New Zealand and Canada.

On the other hand, we as dutiful citizens, shouldn’t fall prey to the politics of fear by being well informed and full aware of facts and figures about Covid-19. Being an informed citizen is necessary to identify the right from the wrong. When fear is used as a method to control people and lead them in a wrong way, it is not just important but our duty to stand up and lead our fellow citizens aright. The Covid-19 is a pandemic of scale that had never happened after the Spanish Flu in 1918. When the whole world is affected by a common enemy, there cannot be a better moment for us to forget our differences and stand united. Using politics to invoke unnecessary fear should be the last thing that politicians should resort to.

-Ali Ibrahim (One of the winners of the Covid-19 Article Writing Competition in the 18-24 years age group)

Picture Credits: ft.com

1. https://www.bbc.com/news/world-us-canada-52407177
2. https://www.nytimes.com/2020/03/13/us/politics/coronavirus-trump-polling.html
3. https://www.bbc.com/news/uk-52568698
4. https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2020/may/18/lockdown-protests-spread-coronavirus-cellphone-data
5. https://www.aljazeera.com/indepth/opinion/coronavirus-outbreak-india-blamed-muslims-200418143252362.html
6. https://www.livemint.com/news/india/nizamuddin-could-end-up-as-biggest-coronavirus-hotspot-11585679242418.html
7. https://theconversation.com/donald-trumps-chinese-virus-the-politics-of-naming-136796
8. https://www.washingtonpost.com/immigration/coronavirus-trump-immigration-suspension/2020/04/22/4f0efdb8-84c1-11ea-ae26-989cfce1c7c7_story.html
9. https://www.ndtv.com/india-news/delhi-man-arrested-for-spitting-at-woman-calling-her-coronavirus-2200741
10. https://www.justsecurity.org/69508/how-terrorist-groups-will-try-to-capitalize-on-the-coronavirus-crisis/

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