In Nathaniel Hawthorne's Scarlett Letter, we read about how adulterers had to wear the sign "A" across their chest. We even have examples in local literature and popular culture like the one of Hurmati , from Shahidullah Kaiser Sangshaptak, or that of Rakhee Gulzar's character in the 1998 hit Indian film Soldier.
Yes, after a collective shout, we are stamping overseas returnees with "PROUD TO PROTECT BANGLADESH/ HOME QUARANTINED UNTILL..." in a similar way. We believe it is important to explore the meaning(s) this mark bears in the present scenario in Bangladesh. It denotatively means that the returnees bearing this temporary mark need to be quarantined for 14 days, to limit the contagiousness that has caused the present pandemic. But, for the returnees, the "isolation" associated with the aforementioned mark/stamp connotes "untouchability". And, with the series of viral videos of angry returnees at the Ashkona Hajj Camp to the carefree rashgolla-loving biker from Shariatpur, the Covid-19 disease has "earned" the status of a kharap rog where many ranging from patients, doctors and nurses to friends, family members and neighbours of the returnees tended to hide the symptoms. However, when the stamp should have only indicated that they have returned from abroad, they are all facing a strong surge of stigma even though many of them do not have the disease. Things have escalated to a level that local residents are almost on the verge of banning the returnees from entering their own mohallas, because they have decided by now that these "stamped" people are bad news.
For long, "living in a foreign country" was a symbol of status but things have changed dramatically. Now, in this era of corona, the news of someone's coming from a foreign country provokes a sense of fear, social shaming and stigma. We are advised to keep ourselves away from a sneezing neighbour, to shut doors on our ailing caretakers, etc. for safety measures. We even learned how not to hanker after the money (i.e. banknotes)! But this has been socially understood and collectively practiced in a "strange" way that requires attention. Rather than limiting public gatherings or maintaining social distance and personal hygiene, somehow our netizens seem more interested in pinning the blame on something or someone. Therefore, soon after the government decides that the bodies of the patients who died from Covid-19 would be buried at Khilgaon-Taltola graveyard, the locals protested and put up a notice at the entrance gate asking the government to not bury the bodies there, and suggested they should find some "safer" place outside of Dhaka instead. The intensity of our will to cut all contacts with them became pictorial when "grown-ups" of Diabari protested after it was announced that Diabari would make space for institutional quarantine of the returnees. The idea of living our last painful days alone, without any kith and kin around, followed by the most deserted cremation is getting on our nerves. Such a formidable crisis has never crossed our thresholds—and now, when it did, we are barely trusting anyone. This is the era in which we have learned how to un-trust, we are flooded with distrust, and as a nation susceptible to rumour, we have learned how to mistrust, too.
In Jashore, we red-flagged residences of the overseas returnees, but another in Manikganj is seen to spread maya-mohabbat among his village mates. In response, netizens are trolling them. Journalists hopped in and probably "duly" ran sensational stories about how sassy, selfish, and unruly the returnees are. We are starting to see them as an uncouth and rude group of people who are putting our safety at stake by refusing to practice the ideal model of conduct which means social distancing and self-quarantine. Some of them are asked to go for forced "isolation" and that immediately creates the dichotomy of us-vs-them.
A us-vs-them narrative is already gaining a lot of popularity. We are often taking breaks to raise questions like why we are still allowing flights from coronavirus-stricken countries and occasionally, ridiculing "surreal" comments made by important people of the country that give the impression as if they cannot care less. But the panicky selves within us gradually learn to overlook the lack of preparedness which was required as we almost got a three months' notice before the virus came to our shores. But all our minds seek is to find a bad guy—in this case, overseas returnees and the dead. We are trying to banish them from our very own utopic "land of the living" which looks like a very long shot, right now.
How does this dichotomy act in our society? Is it making us inhumane to some extent? Except for a few hospitals, most of the hospitals are denying patients with flu, cough, sneezing, breathing problems and other symptoms which are common in a Covid-19 case because they are not at all equipped to provide treatments to such patients. Moreover, handling even one patient can lead to the quarantine of the entire hospital along with infecting all the staff and other patients.
A few days ago, a person died at Shivganj, Bagura. He returned home from Gazipur with fever and cough and fainted due to high fever. His wife's attempt to call for an ambulance did not work out, a phone call to the hotline failed. Nobody responded to his family's plea for getting medical attention, as all are afraid they might get infected with the virus too. Having one member in the family with possible symptoms might make the whole family pay a high price socially. It might lead to having police interrogating the entire family of a suspected Covid-19 patient and getting the entire area surrounding the house locked down. The behaviour of all the residents of that area, including the security guards, changes overnight, even before one is confirmed as a Covid-19 patient. Such stigmatised gaze is getting more intense as citizens countrywide are counting their locked-down days.
Not just in Bangladesh, Covid-19 patients across the world have reportedly suffered from such social stigma and xenophobia, and proper treatment was denied in many cases. The first Covid-19 patients and their family members were inundated with hate messages and social-shaming. The exacerbation of social shaming is leading people to hide their symptoms from the health professionals as well as neighbours.
Despite the IEDCR's repetitive denial of the transmission of Covid-19 at a community level, it keeps requesting people to contact their hotline numbers if they have any symptom of the coronavirus. However, people keep complaining that they are not being able to get through the hotline.
The way the state is handling the pandemic is fuelling the stigma and xenophobia in society. And as we write this piece, we came across the news of a local hotel in Sylhet kicking out an international guest with Covid-19 symptoms, who lied in the street for a while before a rescue team took him to the Sylhet MAG Osmani Medical College Hospital.
In regular press briefings, the IEDCR director states that they cannot reveal the identities of the deceased as they may face social harassment—while it would be just enough to say that it is because of medical ethics. All the claims made by netizens in social media about their severe lack of preparation in handling an epidemic of this magnitude fall into places, thanks to the ceaseless attempts to sweep their shortcomings under the carpet.
When one of us asked our domestic help to take a break during the lockdown, she replied with gloomy eyes, "Why? I do not have that kharap rog." It makes us wonder how the coronavirus is gradually becoming a kharap rog and how we are collectively contributing to the social manifestation of this disease. It is high time that we addressed these social issues. It is because of such stigma and sometimes xenophobic behaviour that an Indian citizen of Chinese descent, who has never been to China, had to stand in front of his vandalised laundry store with a placard claiming, "I have never been to China!"