Constructs of “social distancing” and “caste based social exclusion”- Lessons that COVID-19 teach us

The COVID-19 has given us a world of opportunities to rest and reflect on many challenges facing us, as members of society. We see recently the term “Social Exclusion” has gained a lot of currency and has been used in almost every other COVID-19 discourse, press meets, political dialogues, etc! I have been intrigued by the use of this “sociological” construct to explain and describe “keeping away”, “physical distancing”, “medical distancing”, etc to denote other forms of being a “distance away”. These have been explained from the perspective of “ blunting the curve” of the spread, “cutting the cycle of infections”, etc.

Chandran Paul Martin

In my understanding, ‘physical distancing’ is the key, and maybe one of the appropriate constructs. In sociological terms, one of the key issues of “social distancing” is always related to “power”. In fact in theory and principles in the social distance theory of power, “ it is that asymmetric dependence between two individuals gives rise to asymmetric experiences of social distance, with the high-power individual feeling more subjective distance than the low-power individual.”

“Social distance refers to the level of acceptance people have of others outside of their own social group or class. Social distance is a measure of perceived difference (or distance) among groups. It can be small, for example, when people are accepting of others, or large, when people reject other groups. As a social construct, social distance is a familiar issue. These social norms are ingrained in our collective consciousness. (Social Distance: Definition & Theory:

In such an understanding it’s interesting to see some of the ways “social/personal distancing” was in vogue with in the gamut of ‘caste based untouchability’ that was and is based on “purity and impurity” issues. Within this understanding it could be interesting to ask, what and which social characteristics apply to social distancing? How is it possible to understand or describe this distancing? Is there something we can do as a society to eradicate “social distancing” based on the practices of ‘caste-based untouchability’ and gender based, racism, apartheid based social exclusion? The following were some of the “caste-based constructs” and practices:

• “Prohibition from eating with other members
• Provision of separate cups in village tea stalls
• Separate seating arrangements and utensils in restaurants
• Segregation in seating and food arrangements at village functions and festivals
• Prohibition from entering places of public worship
• Prohibition from wearing sandals or holding umbrellas in front of higher caste members
• Prohibition from entering other caste homes
• Prohibition from using common village paths
• Separate burial/cremation grounds
• Prohibition from accessing common/public properties and resources (wells, ponds, temples, etc.)
• Segregation (separate seating area) of children in schools
• Bonded labour”

Social distancing is similar to some constructs of caste, racism, aparthis and gender based “social exclusion, distancing’, etc and is now coming to haunt our homes, neighbourhoods, communities! Now does society understand “social exclusion” better after practicing it in another context of COVID-19! Just a thought!

Jai Bhim!!
Chandran Paul Martin

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