By Anindita Chatterjee, Postdoctoral Research Assistant, Department of Anthropology, Brandeis University
Anamika landed in Dubai on an October 2020 afternoon, and called her mother, Arpita, to let her know about her safe arrival. Anamika’s brother, Mainak, resides in Pune. Arpita is 67 and her husband Manoshij is 77. Despite their old age, they preferred to live alone in Kolkata instead of residing with their children, breaking the more conventional arrangement in India. They had been residents of Skytech Apartments for over 35 years and had developed a sense of attachment with the neighbors and locality. The next day, however, Anamika received a call from Arpita that Manoshij was suffering from fever and sore throat, potential symptoms of COVID-19. A home collection of nasal and throat swabs was arranged after much trouble, and the results confirmed the family’s fears when Manoshij tested positive for COVID-19.
Blame, care and COVID-19
As a scholar of gender, language, and social inequality, I began paying attention to the discourse of the pandemic in India. I became struck and moved by the ways in which the rhetoric of stigma, blame, and guilt intersected with the everyday vulnerabilities of aging to become a double affliction for older patients. In this instance, the family first had to guess what wrongdoing of Manoshij’s had led to him catching the virus. It was assumed that Manoshij got the virus during his recent visit to a bank. Despite his old age, Manoshij visits banks to withdraw money for monthly expenses. His children had offered to buy a smartphone that would allow online banking, but Manoshij held on to his old phone. While the pandemic raged, Arpita had worked hard to care for her household and her own body through measures including a diet chart to track her diabetes, walking, and maintaining her skin to conceal her age. Yet the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic had disrupted the sequence in their lives. The constant mention of the increased vulnerability of the elderly people to the virus had led to Arpita feeling more helpless. And now her husband, who had insisted on going in person to the bank, was hospitalized.
Following Manoshij’s COVID-19 test result, Mainak rushed to Kolkata, while Anamika scrambled to find a hospital for Manoshij. The availability of hospital beds was a problem, but privileged to have insurance, the family finally located a place in a private hospital. Upon arrival from Pune, Mainak took his father to the hospital in the car, leaving Arpita alone in the house. Mainak recollected that a ward boy suggested that he have a glimpse of his father before he was whisked away to the isolation ward for COVID-19 patients. The enormity of the situation suddenly hit Mainak and he choked up momentarily. He returned to his mother soon after, restricted from staying inside the hospital premises.
Stigma and the double isolation of COVID
While Manoshij faced loneliness in the isolation ward, Arpita and Mainak confronted a different set of challenges at home. Inquisitive neighbours were eager to know about Manoshij’s test report, and Arpita revealed the result, expecting help. Instead, she was abandoned and ostracized. The house was no longer Manoshij Banerjee and Arpita Banerjee’s house; rather, it was stamped as a “COVID house,” and Manoshij became a “COVID positive” case. The neighbours with whom Arpita had an attachment quickly withdrew themselves. She overheard comments: “They are getting COVID positive and spreading the disease…Why can’t they just move into their holes, just like rats do?” Others remarked that “even the air from that house will pollute the environment.”
Arpita was unable to fathom that even though she was a Brahmin, a member of the highest Hindu caste, the apartment complex’s sweeper refused to touch their trash can. The contagious disease had altered caste and class hierarchies. Arpita felt like an achhut (untouchable), a pejorative word used by upper-caste Hindus to refer to the so-called untouchables or Dalits. Arpita experienced the social stigma that segregated the healthy from the ill, the high from the low. Erving Goffman theorized that social stigma is an attribute or behaviour that socially discredits an individual by virtue of them being classified as the “undesirable other” by society. The old, already at risk for being regarded as useless, now became double deviant beings by getting COVID-19.
Honor, crime and sin: COVID effects
A week later, Manoshij returned home from the hospital and told Anamika that home is the best place on earth. However, his happiness did not last long. Arpita tested positive and was hospitalized. As Arpita battled the virus, Manoshij became burdened with the guilt of having brought the virus into the house, and he shared with his daughter that he had damaged the “family’s honor.” There were silent tears for becoming COVID-positive. Mainak accused his father of negligence by going to the bank, again questioning his father’s decision to not get a smartphone. Meanwhile, Manoshij reminisced that there exists a relationship between his ageing and a special fondness for things regarded as old and useless.
Arpita returned home after a week with a heavy heart. Sorrowfully, she mumbled, “It feels that contracting the disease is a crime” and recalled just weeks before celebrating the major Bengali festival of Durga Pooja with her neighbours. As her body felt weak after fighting off the virus, she wept and begged for help. But she also felt guilty for disrupting the lives of Anamika and Mainak through her illness. Arpita also associated contracting COVID with sin (pap). She bemoaned, “What sin have I done that I got this disease?” Arpita stopped performing her regular rituals, since God had not protected them from getting COVID-19.
Other older people who had tested positive revealed the news of their infection to me in a hushed, whispering tone, not eager to divulge much information. The United Nations has observed how “fears, rumors and stigma” are key challenges accompanying COVID-19 globally. Infectious diseases have long had a relationship with stigma and prejudice, Arpita commented. She uttered with grief that people suffering from leprosy and tuberculosis were also discriminated in India. She realizes how hard and distressful it is to be left alone and ostracized, envisioning now bearing the guilt of contracting COVID-19 throughout her life.
Manoshij was emotionally attached to the familiarity of his home and local neighborhood. But his familiar “home” had turned into a “COVID house.” Both Arpita and Manoshij feared living in isolation and being treated as pariahs. Hence, they decided to break all ties and move to Pune to live with their son Mainak. People facing long-term post-COVID-19 effects are termed as COVID “long haulers.” As Arpita and Manoshij plan the next phase of their lives in a new city, can we find a term that will capture their feeling of loss caused by ostracization and guilt?
 Names and address are pseudonyms to protect the privacy of the participants.
 Goffman Erving. (1974) Stigma and social identity. In Rainwater L (Ed.), Deviance and Liberty, Social Problems and Public Policy 1974. New York: Routledge.
Bio: Anindita Chatterjee is currently a Postdoctoral Research Assistant with Sarah Lamb (Brandeis University) on her Andrew Carnegie Fellowship project, “Successful Aging’s Global Moment: Visions and Dilemmas of Aging Well.” She was a Postdoctoral Fellow at Max Weber Stiftung (IBO). Dr. Chatterjee’s research was funded by the University of Würzburg. She received her PhD in Socio-cultural Linguistics (focus on language, gender and labor) from Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.
This post is the twenty-third post in The Age of COVID-19 series, conceived and co-edited by Celeste Pang, Cristina Douglas, Janelle Taylor, and Narelle Warren. Please send your contribution to Narelle.Warren@monash.edu
All contributions in this series will also be published by Somatosphere