India’s fight against the pandemic leads to infodemic targeting
This story first appeared in The Soufan Center
The tackling of the Coronavirus pandemic in India — book-ended by the announcement of a stringent lockdown in March 2020, and now an ambitious nationwide vaccination plan in January 2021 — has laid bare social, economic, religious, and cultural fault-lines across the country. Fears and restrictions compounded pre-existing challenges in a country where an estimated 70 million people live in congested slums with little access to water, sanitation, and healthcare. For half of India’s population, ‘social distancing’ was a luxury they simply couldn’t afford. As a result, rumors and misinformation around their hygiene levels swirled in both real and virtual communities, feeding the vast Indian middle class’s apparent need for an enemy in the ‘war’ against COVID-19. Structural inequalities and institutional, inherent class biases fueled fear and stigma in India’s middle class against an ‘underclass.’
The number of domestic workers in India ranges from official estimates of 4.2 million people to unofficial figures of over 50 million, most of whom are women and girls. Largely illiterate, uneducated, and unskilled, domestic workers are completely dependent upon their employers and have no legal protections as workers under India’s labor laws. The National Domestic Workers Trust estimated that approximately 24 percent of Mumbai’s domestic workers lost their jobs permanently due to middle class India’s paranoia around their congested living conditions and assumptions around both hygiene standards and the rate of infection in their neighborhoods.
Under quarantine, as fears of COVID-19 skyrocketed, Mumbai’s sky-high apartment complexes and Delhi’s bungalowed neighborhoods shut their gates. Messages circulated in such wealthier communities on WhatsApp groups, questioning hygiene levels of domestic workers living in such slums – many of which were declared ‘containment zones’ and COVID-19 hotspots. Even kitchen appliance manufacturers added to the fear mongering. One such firm advertised a dough kneading machine on Instagram, suggesting that it could replace domestic workers who typically do this manually since their hands ‘may be infected.’ Public pressure forced the manufacturer to pull down the advertisement and apologize.
In the first serological surveys conducted to assess the spread of the Coronavirus in India, two facts emerged. First, even though COVID-19 arrived in India by airplane via wealthier Indians who could travel abroad, those who worked for them suffered the most. The second was that nearly 60% of slum populations had developed antibodies, and that most of the infected were younger, had little or no symptoms, and suffered significantly fewer fatalities than their wealthier employers. This actually brought down overall death rates from COVID-19 in cities like Mumbai.
The worst effects of COVID-19 were suffered by three specific layers of the population. Urban migrant workers were forced out of the city with the imposition of one of the world’s most stringent lockdowns, sprayed with disinfectant as they tried to return home. Domestic workers – cleaners, cooks, and drivers living in congested urban slums who form the backbone the informal employment sector – fell victim to community paranoia. Worst of all, deliberately crafted disinformation campaigns targeted India’s Muslim minorities, an already vulnerable group targeted by bigoted discourse on many levels in the state and community. Predominantly Hindu, upper caste, and upper class groups were largely insulated from these dynamics and able to take the necessary pandemic precautions without the same kinds of damage.
Referring to the residents of an upper middle class South Delhi neighborhood, Guddi, a domestic worker from Uttar Pradesh’s Kasganj district, says “They are being careless themselves. They are going out, traveling around the country; they are calling guests home.” Taking in the capital city’s warm winter sun after a morning of cooking and cleaning, she says, “That’s how the disease is spreading.” Lifelong victims of class and caste-based oppression in Indian society, street cleaners hired by the local government, who are also considered essential workers, were made to stand outside the gates during the summer’s blazing heat, even though the government began easing the March 2020 lockdown in stages. Rinku, who sweeps the streets for a daily wage, says things have improved slowly since 2020’s harsh summer, but the discrimination still continues. “They say they will get the disease [COVID-19] because of us. Everyone in the neighborhood said this.” Several Residents Associations banned all ‘outsiders’ – e-commerce delivery agents, vendors, and domestic workers – from entering their communities. Yet, these restrictions did not apply to those driving through the gates in a car, a ubiquitous symbol of wealth and upward mobility. In spite of eased restrictions that allowed people to return to work in the first phase of India’s re-opening, such associations formalized their own layer of controls. Private security guards, usually empowered to record visitor details, unleashed their newfound authority upon a host of workers coming to earn a day’s wages. “The guards told me I am not allowed to walk down the streets here because I may spread disease. I pleaded with them, but they didn’t listen. Finally, I was forced to call my employer from her home to come and talk to them, and allow me to go back to work,” says Anita, another domestic worker from Karimganj in Uttar Pradesh who works in Delhi.
The worst hit, however, have been those who lie at the intersection of caste, class, and creed – the Indian Muslim community. While insidious caste and class divides dominated rumors and restrictions, there was an ‘infodemic’ accusing Muslims of deliberately spreading a ‘corona jihad’. The Delhi government’s decision to segregate COVID-19 cases in the general public from ones directly linked to a gathering of the Tablighi Jamaat (a proselytizing Muslim religious group) in Delhi in early March 2020 fueled biased media coverage. It emerged that foreign participants from South East Asia were coronavirus carriers, and several other Indian delegates became infected and returned to their hometowns as carriers, unknowingly. Defying data, logic, and empathy all at once, right wing social media rhetoric and reportage around the so-called ‘super spreader’ event amplified the bigotry. Although the meeting had taken place with the knowledge of government and local law enforcement, Islamophobia fed generalizations blaming a single community for the spread of COVID-19.
Yasmin, from Uttar Pradesh’s Badayun district who cleans homes in Delhi, says even though her employers agreed to keep her on, her landlord protested when her poorer relatives came to live with her as the lockdown began. “He said there was no need for them to return. That they were spreading disease,” she says, lowering her voice. Similarly, Mohammed Shamim, a vegetable vendor in Uttar Pradesh’s Mahoba district, was forced to return money to his customers and flee after a group of men threatened him and accused him of deliberately spreading COVID-19 through the goods on his vegetable cart. In Uttar Pradesh, the north Indian state governed by one of the Hindu Nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party’s most strident leaders, the pandemic exacerbated everyday bigotry against Muslims.
Police officers who tackle everyday misinformation have limited tools at their disposal. Senior Indian Police Services (IPS) officer Rema Rajeswhari in her district of Mahbubnagar in the southern state of Telangana has made a name for herself by actively conducting ‘awareness’ campaigns through ‘town criers’ who debunk myths and rumors, digital literacy workshops to help citizens question what they receive and share on messaging platforms like WhatsApp, and enabling her team of officers to intervene where they feel it will make a difference. People like her, as well as journalists who run fact checking websites, did their best to address misinformation from unrelated or manipulated videos about Muslim vendors spitting on their wares, which spread quickly on social media. Prominent news networks, members of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party’s ‘IT Cell’ – which has often been accused of designing coordinated disinformation campaigns to target its critics – and many social media users were all complicit in the spread of such misinformation. Rajeshwari says her officers had no choice but to make their own videos to create awareness. Fuzail Ayubi, the Tablighi Jamaat’s lawyer, says things have improved since the summer, but the damage inflicted upon a community already under pressure to prove their patriotism and secularism is irreparable. Cases against hateful media reporting are being heard in India’s Supreme Court.
It would be easy to argue that much of the discrimination was a result of rumors and misinformation that exacerbated the existing wedges within Indian society. Yet, if there is one thing 2020 has taught us, it is this: the prevalence and virality of misinformation is not just about the algorithm that may amplify it, but also the fear and division within society. Addressing the technology that fuels misinformation, without actively improving inter-communal relations and public messaging on the pandemic, is not even half a battle won.
Reporting from India by Maya Mirchandani