Fake news, islamophobia and social distancing in ghettos

Discussing COVID-19 in India with Mariya Salim

17 September 2020

This is a conversation between Anrike Visser, founder of Global Ground Media and Mariya Salim, writer, researcher, and activist in India recorded on Thursday 10 September 2020. The interview has been edited for clarity.

Welcome to our viewers. Let me introduce myself quickly first. I am Anrike Visser, the founder of Global Ground Media. In this video series, I wanted to have a chat with writers and journalists across Asia to talk about some of the underreported human rights issues that this COVID-19 pandemic has brought to light. First up with me today is Mariya Salim. I’m very glad to have you here Mariya. Welcome to the show. 

Thank you.

Mariya, is an amazing writer, researcher and activist based in Delhi, India. She has worked with Amnesty International and regularly writes about human rights and gender-based issues including at Al Jazeera. Before we get into human rights issues, Mariya, can you tell our viewers briefly about the current status of COVID-19 in India?

Thank you Anrike, thank you for having me. Well, India is leading the world right now in daily reported COVID cases and has the second-highest cases globally. It passed 4 million earlier this week on Monday [7 September 2020]. The recovery rate is good: it is about 75-77 percent, but according to the health Ministry the numbers are really high. We have about 4.3 million reported cases in India and as I speak, every second, this increases. As I said India reports the highest number of COVID cases. It’s a matter of when [we get it] for us right now. 

It is sad to hear that it’s kind of exploding right now in India. What would you say are some of the hardest-hit groups when it comes to the COVID-19 pandemic in India? 

There are different aspects to this but the two most effective groups according to me, as I have seen from March onwards as a government declared a lockdown in the country, and then things progressed. There are migrant workers. They are people who have moved from their villages and rural areas to urban areas and cities in search of work. That is one group that was terribly affected especially after the lockdown. The government declared at 8 pm that from tomorrow onwards there is going to be a lockdown without much of a plan I would say. 

And the second group that we saw for the next couple of weeks as the lockdown progressed were Muslims. Do you want me to tell you a little bit more about why I think these groups are the hardest hit? 

Yes, let’s dive right into that.

So, migrants of course. There are so many construction workers, people with little carts of fruits and vegetables, and everything was shut down, so they didn’t know what to do. The migrants had to go back to their villages because there was no food, they didn’t have a place to stay, so their employers told them to leave as they also aren’t very rich and couldn’t provide for them.

There have been migrant deaths: over 150 migrant workers died in road accidents while going back to the villages because they weren’t helped with anything while going back home. Only after an outcry by human rights organisations and the media that the government finally came into the picture and provided some cars trains and buses. Still, I would say that it is civil society that really helped in whatever way possible so the migrants could also go back. 

The second group most affected group were Muslims. I say this because whoever is watching this show should just type #coronajihad [in a search engine]. There was a full communalisation of the issue of a pandemic with a particular community, especially in India. Social media was used to do this. Basically, there was a gathering of a few Muslims which happens every year in Delhi of 300,000 Muslims. And it happened at this time as well. There was no advisory given while the gathering was happening and a lot of them got infected. They then moved back to different parts of the country and then there were cases that came up. But the word ‘corona jihad’ was coined almost to say, these people infected themselves as Muslims so that they could spread the virus to different parts of the country and the world to destroy everybody else. 

This rhetoric continued despite the fact there were so many other religious gatherings that happened later but there was no connection made there. There have been cartoons and memes of a Muslim man dressed up like the virus, looking like the virus, trying to spread the virus. Muslim as the virus and the virus as Muslim. Because of that a lot of discrimination started as well. 

Muslim women. A pregnant woman wouldn’t be taken to a hospital, because her name is Muslim. People believe there were suicides that happened because they said: “You went to that gathering. You must be infected as well”. With this started another hashtag stating an economic boycott of Muslims comparable to the whole U Wirathu campaign in Myanmar frankly where you’re told to not buy anything from Muslims. So in times of a pandemic you’re completely destroying, well the economy is already destroyed, and you’re targeting the poorest of the poor. And you’re making sure that person loses his employment. 

For me, these two groups are the most impacted. 

Let’s unpack this a little bit and I want to jump in with the cartoons you mentioned and fake news surrounding that. Even hashtags being used on social media. You were so kind as to share some of these cartoons before the show. The first one I want to show is from The Hindu. Can you tell our viewers what we’re seeing here? 

The Hindu is supposedly a liberal and progressive newspaper which gives you good and unbiased views, but here it published a cartoon where you see coronavirus dressed like a Muslim. These are clothes typical of what Muslim men wear and they are holding the earth ransom. There was such an outcry after this because this is adding onto the narrative of the ‘corona jihad’ theme. Then activists eg. started writing about it and then they published a similar but different cartoon whereby the clothes were not used, the clothes were neutral. 

So this is when progressive outlets are doing this. It was very difficult for us to question this narrative and to bring this narrative to the right perspective. 

In this instance, there was an outcry. You also shared a second example. This one is from [India Today Group]. Was there also an outcry responding to this cartoon?

Yes, of course, a lot of us were saying this is so unfair because what was being said, even in government advisories given out at that time from April until June, was a separate section on Corona spread by the Tablighi Jamaat, or that congregation. Almost as if again to say, that there is a separate group, that is spreading [the virus]. So looking at that narrative, this man [in the cartoon] wearing a mask has a skull cap, so he’s shown as a Muslim spreading Corona. 

There was an outcry, but they didn’t change the cartoon, but it shows you the face of media and social media outlets that were supposedly progressive but buying into this [narrative]. Also, there were so many village gatherings happening post this with many people who were infected at that. Even popular news media are giving into that narrative of popular islamophobia. That’s why I shared these two examples, and not examples of right-wing groups online because that’s what they are doing all the time. 

Exactly. The point in this last instance is indeed as you said, the numbers are true but there were also other religious gatherings from other religions that caused a big spike in cases. There were no cartoons made about those, but only when it referred to Muslim groups or Muslim places of worship these were put in a cartoon with the Muslim skull cap. 

Going back to the migrants you mentioned before. For me it was very vivid, the images of migrants being stranded on the roads, under bridges, trying to scramble and find their way home when the lockdowns were announced. These are very vivid images and I’m sure some of our viewers have seen them as well. You talked a little bit about governmental support saying it was a bit slow to start and civil society really stepped in. Can you bring it back to the current day? Are migrants still stuck in their villages or did they travel back home? What is their status right now? 

A lot of those who went back home are coming back [to the cities], but obviously not all of them because they still need work. Not all of them have agricultural land back home which they can use to make a living. Also because the construction work, and other work [in the cities], has already started. But a cause of worry for a lot of us in the developmental sector is, god forbid, what if there needs to be another big lockdown. Is there a plan for them? Will there be part 2 of what happened in March and April? Is there a plan in place? Do we have enough funds to help them this time? 

Images of people dying on the trains leading to other places than where they were supposed to go to. That’s something we now have to wait and watch because as I said, the numbers [of COVID-19 cases] are just going up. To imagine what would happen to migrants workers who are infected, the poorest of the poor: what kind of medical facilities would be available to them when beds are not available to the richest of the rich because it’s not about money, it’s about availability these days. 

In terms of government support, there have been a lot of packages that we’ve been hearing the government has for the migrant workers, but from what I saw from last week of March until the end of the lockdown, is that civil society entered and just took charge. I personally would get phone calls and we had WhatsApp groups, an SOS group, where people would say: ‘We have 100 people stranded in this part of the county’. We would get in touch with our friends and [ask them] to provide them something. Sometimes we would just go with water and biscuits because there was no time. Of course, there were others who made food and handed it out on the streets, but how much can you give. All of us had salary cuts, some have employment issues, so some of my friends stopped taking my phone calls after a point in time because they knew I’m calling to ask for money or help to help [the migrants] with these things. I personally think, that if it wasn’t for civil society things would have been very bad. 

Slowly the government started also complying and helping because a lot of areas had a curfew and you could only enter with permission. So these things started happening but there are so many stories of rotten food being given out and food with insects being given out, and rotten dal and rice. Some states were better than others I would say, but there was a lot more that could have and should have been done. 

You said the number of cases is rising significantly in India, but there isn’t a lockdown currently. Is there talk of a new lockdown? 

Different states are handling this differently. In Delhi where I am, there isn’t a lockdown, but in Bengal where I’m from originally, in [the city of] Kolkata where my family states there’s a lockdown two days a week. The government announced there will be a lockdown on these two days but essentials will be available. So states are handling this differently, but there’s no central or country-wide lockdown as we speak. They are trying to bring things back to normal because we need to learn to start living with the virus now. 

That probably means that cases will continue to rise, but I also understand that many developing countries, or the poor people in some developing countries, don’t have the facilities to be on lockdown while we’re waiting for a vaccine which could be the middle of next year or maybe even the end of next year for countries in Asia.  

Also, Anrike, we have to remember we’re talking about a country like India where most people live below the poverty line. We don’t have the luxury of drinking water [in houses], forget water to keep washing your hands. There are small rooms which house 8 people in a room. How does one imagine 6 feet or 2 meters [for social distancing]? We don’t have the luxury. 

Right behind my house, is what I would call a ghetto. When you go there the street is narrower than my room where people are walking close to each other. There are shops very close to each other and people living very close to each other. So we also have to understand the reality of the place that we’re living in. How easy is it to ‘wash your hands every 20 minutes’ when you have no water? 

That’s the sad reality of many people, actually the majority of people on this planet. I know that’s also when the pandemic hit, you focus for a while on fundraising and getting protective gear to vulnerable people. Why did you decide to focus on these activities instead of writing for example? 

A lot of us realised we can’t be on the ground all the time, but we realised we needed to do something to protect those who are on the ground all the time, because they were not. For example, I had an elderly person in the house so I was very careful in going out and coming back home. Whenever I would get back home I would wash my clothes and take a shower. A lot of my friends were posting photos of themselves trying to help others to fundraise, but none of them were wearing masks or gloves. It was very scary because a lot of them then developed symptoms. 

And a friend of mine and I said we can’t let this happen. So [we decided to] fundraising for food and then sending it across [the country], also to some survivors of Muslim pogroms that just happened in Delhi just two months before the pandemic. So we were helping them as well, but what about the people on the ground going into these areas? A friend of mine and I started a campaign online on a [crowdfunding] platform where we made a call for people to fund us. We were able to provide protective gear, basic masks, shields, gloves and sanitisers, to those health and sanitation workers who are most vulnerable at this time. 

There are ASHA (Accredited Social Health Activist) workers, women going from house to house finding out if there’s anybody infected in the house and if they need something. They didn’t even have masks. They were just putting their stoles on their noses and a lot of them were being infected. These were in the Red Zones in an area called Nuh. So we got in touch with the trade union where the ASHA workers were involved and we provided about 850 protective gear to these ASHA workers in the Red Zone. For the sanitation workers, we got in touch with [the organisation] Safai Karamchari Andolan and gave their volunteers. 

It’s amazing to see how they wouldn’t care for their health. They were taking rice, dal and oil to families and not even covering their faces, so we forced them. When we gave them protective kits we told them to send us photographs wearing [the kits] while distributing so that others are also encouraged. That is the reason we started this and we were able to raise about 250,000 Indian Rupees (about US$ 3500) and were able to help about 1000 people with these kits. 

That’s amazing. Just think of the impact when you’re not protecting health care workers. They continue with their work, but they get sick or infect others. Then the problem is even bigger and no one is out there handing out these materials. How do you make sure that you stay safe currently? 

Initially, I had an elderly person in the house but currently not. So initially everything that came into the house was sanitised. Vegetables and fruits were washed with soap. Right now, it’s a little difficult because it’s a daily affair now so you have to carry on with life and [handle] this. What most of us do right now is not go out as often. Most of us are working from home. If relief work has to be done, we make sure that our masks are in place, basic not touching your eyes, nose and mouth, and trying to wear gloves when we go out. We come back immediately and wash yourself when you get back. Just follow basic health rules. That’s about all and trying to not go to the Red Zones.

For our viewers, the Red Zones are specific hotspots around the country where there are a lot of cases currently. Are they in the cities or rural areas?

They are both in the cities and the rural areas: they are everywhere. The state government staked out a list of places that are in [isolation]. Earlier they would have a red paper [on a house] stating this house is quarantined, but it’s not like that anymore because there are so many. You have hundreds and thousands of cases every day, so you can’t. People are advised to stay at home and self-quarantine.

I am going to wish you well and hope you stay safe while you maintain your very good work in the country. It was a very interesting chat. You gave a great overview to our viewers of some of the human rights issues that are related to the current pandemic and what everyone is doing. I want to thank you for your time Mariya.

Thank you so much for having me. 

And for our viewers, if you have any questions please put them in the comments or contact us through our website. Stay safe and I hope to see all of you for our next recording as well. Thank you Mariya!


The views expressed in this interview are solely those of the contributors and do not necessarily reflect those of Global Ground Media.

This series was developed with the support of Free Press Unlimited. 

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