Let’s choose social connection over social distance

7 min read
Social distancing during the pandemic
Image: WaterAid/ Srishti Bharadwaj

Inequality in economics means vast disparities in health too. People who live in slums are at least 10% more likely to suffer from chronic health conditions, making the coronavirus 10 times deadlier than it would be to a person with more robust immunity, writes Ashima Narian as she delves into the spread of COVID-19 being conferred as “democratic” and shares the recipe of a homemade sanitizer that one can make in times of a lockdown for those most in need.  

The spread of Covid-19 is being conferred as ‘democratic’ in many pieces I have read in the paper, on social media and in spoken conversations – while the virus itself certainly does believe in a system of equality – and will take up residence with no discrimination on economic, cultural or political grounds – the nature of the elevation of the disease to a pandemic has not been democratic, nor does it’s containment or treatment espouse equality.

NPR’s global health correspondent, Jason Beaubien explained, “One of the first major clusters in Europe in late January was among 21 people at a ski resort in France. One of them had come over from Singapore who carried the virus with him. This group of ski buddies then all dispersed - some went to the U.K., some to Spain and others to different parts of France. Thirteen of those 21 ended up testing positive… We've also seen other clusters on cruise ships, so we are talking about people with a certain amount of disposable income. Some of the very first cases in Hong Kong turned up at the Four Seasons Hotel and the W Hotel… So far, we're not seeing that many cases in the poorest countries of the world, like in Africa or Central America. And when we do, it turns out it's primarily among people who've been arriving from Europe.”

He does go onto say, that there are many thousands of people who have been infected that are not rich or famous, yet “one thing with this disease is it matters who you come in contact with… So, it is about these social connections. And that's really what this is showing. So far, it seems to be among people who are out schmoozing, people who are at conventions - they are far more likely to get this virus…”

For centuries suspicion has been the righteous domain of the privileged – and now it is illuminated across the world in neon lights. ‘These are scary times’ is a phrase that is oft heard, but let’s get some perspective. In India, if you are poor, your child has a 70% chance of dying under the age of 5 from malnutrition. In 2017, almost 900,000 children died in India alone. Every day, daily wagers know that they have a 50% chance of receiving work that will give them up to 350 rupees a day (in urban areas) on which they will feed themselves and their families. Imagine living with the knowledge that your child has a 70% chance of dying… These are some of the truly terrifying statistics that the poor deal with daily. Suddenly, the rich and privileged are being included into statistics and we are unaccustomed to this audacity. In 4 months approximately 10,000 people have died worldwide from Covid-19. Panic and fear reign. 

India has a high number of Indians who travel abroad and back as migrant labour too, so we cannot restrict the carriers only to a particular class of people. Prof. Amitabh Kundu, a labour economist and a distinguished fellow at the Research and Information System for Developing Countries made an interesting statement - he claims that because of India’s gaping social divide, the possibility of the virus’s spread will be less. “The rate of infection has been low in India than in many European countries mainly because of the divide between the lower/middle-level workers on the one hand and professionals and management staff on the other. The latter are more likely to get the infection because of their visits to foreign countries or contact with those who have. But their rate of transmission to other workers would be low.”

While I am not convinced of this argument, largely due to my own discomfort with the idea of socio-economic disparity playing the saviour for India against a potentially fatal disease, I thought it was an interesting enough perspective to share.

India’s first Covid-19 dashboard (as on 20 March 2020) says that in 60% of the cases that have been confirmed the transmission source has been ‘imported’, while the remaining 40% says ‘local’. There is no further break up of how many of these have been due to exposure from someone who has travelled in from abroad. We don’t have figures or a socio-economic demographic of the cases (that has been revealed to the public, at least), but we have been told the only way to contain the spread is by social distancing.

One has to question the ‘democratic’ nature of this solution – as it has obviously not been created by people who have been into low-income communities in India, which account for over 70% of our 1.3 billion population. Washing our hands also seems like a simple enough solution, if you have constant access to clean water, but again that is not the case for most of India. So perhaps everyone should just use sanitizer? But wait a minute, hasn’t most of the stock been hoarded by people who have piped water in their homes? Not to mention the affordability and lastly but importantly access to relevant safety information for the poor. 

Inequality in economics means vast disparities in health too. People who live in slums are at least 10% more likely to suffer from chronic health conditions, making the coronavirus 10 times deadlier than it would be to a person with more robust immunity.

At the time of writing this, in Maharashtra, despite 53 confirmed cases and a death from Covid-19 there has been no evidence of community transmission. But Mumbai slums have some of the highest population densities in the world, so the very idea of social distancing is impractical, to say the least. These safety advisories are centered on the urban upper and upper middle classes. 

I don’t deny that by shutting down, lives will be saved, but how many more will be decimated because they already barely have enough to survive? 

And that is where we can and need to galvanise our time, thoughts and resources into community action, instead of worry and WhatsApp (and yes, it is a verb too!) We need to work out how to first create some safety measures for people who live in close proximities, then we need to ensure they have food, so their immunity does not diminish. At your own building, street, friends circle – try to work out how you can send out home-made sanitizers to low income groups in your local areas, or to the BMC garbage collectors that come to your buildings or street cleaners to take home. Then work out with NGO’s, or local corporators that you trust or know how to distribute the collections that you have made.

While we heed the advice shared on social media about enjoying time with our families and diminished carbon emissions, what we really need is true reflection on the world we want to emerge into. A world where economic entities actually work for wider society and not as gambling dens for global corporations, where politics is about cohesion and not division and we consider philanthropy a patriotic responsibility rather than a sacrifice we make. As one of my friends on a school WhatsApp group wrote, “We need to stop calling this social distancing – it is physical distancing, because what we need most now is social connections.” Amen.

Recipe for homemade hand sanitizer:

From the chemist you can buy 75% - 99% isopropyl alcohol (to kill those germs) aloe Vera gel (to prevent the alcohol from burning our skin!) and something for fragrance if you like - this could be a few drops from a left-over soap making kit, Mum’s essential oils, or even taking fresh lemongrass, or pudina or neem. 

The suggested quantities are 2/3 cup alcohol 1/3 cup aloe Vera gel.

You can also use the fresh aloe Vera, but do test the quantities- maybe you can add a bit more. And the fragrance at your discretion. 

You can make a give these out to whomever may need / want it. But do test the strength before you do!!!