In March 2020, an abrupt, Covid-induced lockdown triggered a mass human migration in India. The Indian administration received significant criticism from its global counterparts for aggravating a crisis amidst a raging pandemic. The analyst, Pronab Sen, argued that in the absence of substantial economic capital, migrants were being forced to return to their homes so that they could bank on social capital to stay afloat during the crisis. While the first wave of the pandemic brought to the fore the concern of people dying of hunger, it did not make the idea of death an everyday matter for society at large. The second wave in India has, however, completely changed this notion. Media reports of underreported death counts as well as the visuals of graveyards with multiple burning pyres have stoked the deepest fears in the people.
Life, undoubtedly, is uncertain; but when we experience this uncertainty in our everyday affairs, we end up suffering from a ‘novel’ phobia — ‘Covid phobia’. Because of this, we try and maximize our chances of survival by distancing ourselves from possible sources of infection. A good example of this was wealthy individuals taking shelter in safer countries to escape the dire situation in India; this safe physical space was available as a result of their fortunes and influential social connections. Another manifestation of ‘Covid phobia’ was people postponing treatments of other medical conditions. Managing the disease is often a lonely affair. Covid phobia is thus an upshot of this loneliness: the fear of ‘dying alone’ haunts us rather than dying itself.
Coping with this emergent crisis calls for collaboration. There needs to be collaboration on taking safety measures and distributing critical medical resources. However, the ground reality is that people across different social strata have varying levels of access to healthcare and other resources. This inaccessibility, combined with inadequate medical facilities, aggravates Covid phobia, which, in turn, makes social collaboration difficult. Amidst a global crisis, instead of an expansion in the circle of caring, there is evidence to suggest that social collaboration is diminishing in the face of shrinking social capital. The exchange of critical information on social media platforms has been a heartening phenomenon. Nevertheless, we need to reflect on whether these platforms reach the ones who need help the most. There is also the challenge of the iniquitous nature of the economic capital needed to survive. Unlike the affluent segments, those who are banking solely on their social capital have been left with nothing as State and society retract their circle of caring.
There are predictions that suggest that pandemics and other such extreme events are expected to become periodical occurrences in the age of climate change. Strangely, climate change is still believed to be a phenomenon of the distant future even though the world is getting adversely affected by climatic disasters, leading to extreme uncertainties, fear and panic. Moreover, our responses to such crisis situations, be it Covid or climate change, are likely to be inadequate. It’s safe to assume that we are going to see similar situations in the near future where people would have to live amidst multiple constraints and with limited resources, and the lack of financial resources and social capital would further threaten the lives and livelihoods of marginalized people.
Is society capable of collaboration when faced with imminent death? While Covid phobia is diminishing the potential for collaborative action that can emerge as a critical pillar of support for the disadvantaged people, a new form of eco-anxiety, climatic disaster phobia, is likely to creep in. Climate change is expected to exacerbate migration on a mass scale. This displacement is likely to lead to the emergence of newer spatial boundaries based on the lines of class and caste and make society more fragmented. Cities could restrict the entry of rural folks. Upscale neighbourhoods could turn into gated areas under surveillance. In fact, the notion of a ‘climate haven’ includes the idea of gated communities that can efficiently exclude others from accessing critical resources and offer an increased scope of survival to their subscribers. It’s also possible that a black market would take over the dispensing of critical life-saving resources during the crisis. This means that, once again, those on the margins are going to be the worst hit by the fallouts of climate crisis.
Harnessing social capital is, therefore, a necessary condition for the welfare of the marginalized who have been stripped of economic resources. Consequently, we as a society need to find a way to tackle our fears and consolidate social collaboration while also expanding the ethics of care. It is more important to address the fundamental human anxieties underlying phobias so that imminent crises do not escalate into humanitarian disasters.