ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846

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Covid-19 and the Question of Taming Social Anxiety

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In view of the COVID-19 pandemic, keeping oneself in complete isolation has become a dire necessity. Direness in the particular context of the pandemic has made it quite compelling on the part of the governments to regularly issue precautionary warnings to the people that they must maintain social distancing and stay at home. The direness of the corona crisis has also made it absolutely urgent on the part of every single individual to quarantine themselves. However, despite the advice and assurance given by the governments, people do not seem to contain their anxiety. The anxiety of people has taken two contradictory forms: rational and irrational.
 
Arguably, one may locate rational anxiety in the decision taken, for example, by the migrant labourers to leave the cities for their respective homes. The need to reach home is so acute among the stranded labourers that they have threatened to go on hunger strike if they are not allowed by the government to go home. The anxiety of how to reach home has been basically caused by two factors. First, the sudden abandonment of these labourers by their employers, and second, the desperation of the central government to enforce a lockdown without prudently thinking about these workers. In the absence of any initial support provided, these workers had every reason to become anxious as to how to keep themselves and their families safe in such a crisis. 
 
It is this acute sense of anxiety that forced thousands of them to rush to the inter state bus terminals (ISBT) in Delhi risking their lives to a situation of severe vulnerability and helplessness. Many of these stranded labourers took grave risks and decided to walk several hundred kilometres back to their respective villages. Walking on the road without any help only led to high levels of anxiety. The “long march” home in some cases turned out to be fatal. Thus, in the conditions of helplessness, anxiety of these labourers had a definite element of rationality. Unfortunately, such rationality found its validity in the tragic death of some labourers. It is the complete sense of helplessness, that provided them the reason to leave the cities. 
 
Fear-ridden anxiety leads people to step out, despite the fact that the government is trying to minimise people’s sense of anxiety. On the other side of the spectrum of rationality, there are many who with “adequate” resources could take and exercise the decision to stay indoors. In such cases, rationality found, particularly during the lockdown, its validity in creatively and hence “meaningfully” organised life. 
 
However, the manifestation of social anxiety can also be Janus-faced, which means that anxiety could manifest in both rational and irrational forms. This was evident in the collective behaviour of the people from many villages in Maharashtra. As was reported by the media, some villagers put irremovable barricades, thus blocking the roads leading to these villages. One may argue that this was a rational step to ward off their anxiety of getting infected, should outsiders walk into the village. However, the decision to block the roads also turned out to be irrational or short-sighted as the villagers did not factor in medical emergencies that may require immediate medical aid from outside. As a result, according to media reports, one person had to lose his life as he could not receive better medical attention. Similarly, it is equally irrational to bar the entry of those who have been medically certified as non-infected. The irrational anxiety is deeply influenced by a strong sense of self-preservation. It is this paramount sense of self-preservation that leads to irrational anxiety. 
 
In this regard, it is also relevant to take into consideration the anxiety caused by the conditions of surveillance imposed by the governments. The technique of surveillance, in the present case, involves stamping suspected people on their forearms or using drones to bring people under supervision. Such techniques are used by the authorities to render human bodies legible, identifiable, and verifiable. The legible bodies, in view of inhospitable social attitude, become all the more anxious to hide these body markers. Members of the society, as reported by the media, have also been assigning derogatory words such as “dirty” to the doctors who are fighting the coronavirus. This can be termed as a kind of invisible stamping that has reduced the doctor to the level of moral dirt. Highly contagious diseases such as COVID-19 seem to have made the members of a “civil society” more anxious about their own lives. However, such anxiety suffers from irration­ality when anxious people start treating medical service providers as a social menace. 

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Updated On : 23rd Dec, 2020

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