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Mainstream, VOL LVIII No 47, New Delhi, November 7, 2020

Social Exclusion and Stigma during COVID-19 Pandemic: A Sociological Interpretation | Jitendra Ram

Sunday 8 November 2020


by Jitendra Ram *


The purpose of this paper is to explore the Covid-19 and its impact on the people of India from sociological point of view. This pandemic has brought lots of challenges for the whole humanity in contemporary time. In this regard, an attempt has been made to focus on how coronavirus is being used as stigma or social stigma rather than a disease. Subsequently, people are treating infected persons as untouchable which seem a very adverse mark of social cohesion or integration for society. Even, social discrimination, segregation, untouchability, exclusion have increased through coronavirus in the globe in general and India in particular at this crucial juncture.

[Keywords: Covid-19, Stigma, Pandemic, Social Distancing, Untouchability, Social Exclusion]


On January 30th, 2020 the World Health Organisation declared a novel coronavirus, Covid-19 a matter of Public Health Emergency of International concern (WHO 2020). This coronavirus was reported in Wuhan, Hubei province, China in December 2019. Due to its rapid spread round the globe, World Health Organisation declared the Covid-19 as a pandemic which has now become a global phenomenon. In the era of globalisation, almost all the nations of the world are affected by coronavirus. It is one of the rarest of the rare incidences of the world which has infected almost millions of people and taken many lives globally so far. As of 23 June, there are 440852 confirmed cases with 178646 active cases and 14015 death in India [1]. This pandemic has brought lots of challenges in front of people worldwide such as ‘survival of the fittest’ (coined by Darwin 1859), food, shelter, income, economic disparity, stigma, discrimination, untouchability, social exclusion, displacement, joblessness, etc. across all societies and nations. In this regard, India is not exception to it. Keeping the view in mind, the paper focuses on the following underlying concerns: Firstly, how the Covid-19 has become a peculiar form of stigma or social stigma for the whole humanity. Secondly, recently the practice of untouchability has emerged as a new phenomenon in quarantine centres even in the times of the toughest crisis though it is illegal and constitutionally prohibited. Thirdly, idea of social distancing will be appropriately contextualised through sociological point of view. Fourthly, coronavirus has accelerated social exclusion of people especially for migrant workers in recent time.

Understanding Stigma

In the light of the above, here we may deal with the conceptual understanding of stigma or social stigma. In a general parlance, stigma refers to attitudes and beliefs that lead people to reject/avoid or fear those they perceive as being different. By analysing the above concept ‘stigma’ further, it is pertinent to take the sociological definition of the term ‘stigma’ as discussed by Goffman (1963:3), stigma as an attribute that is deeply discrediting and that reduces the bearer from a whole and usual person to a tainted discounted one. The term is originated from Greek that refers to a kind of mark that is cut or burnt into the body. It identifies people such as criminals, slaves or traitors-a blemished person, ritually polluted, to be avoided, especially in public places (Goffman1963). Further, the idea of stigma has also discussed by many scholars such as Page (1984), Manzo (2014) with a blemish and negative connotations. Thus, stigma can be understood as a process of dehumanising, degrading, discrediting and devaluing people in certain population groups based on a feeling of disgust. According to Goffman (1963:5), “the person with the stigma is not quite human”. Stigma can also be termed as personal shame, guilt and embarrassment that happen with a group or a group of individuals based on their primordial identity such as caste, gender, religion, ethnicity and so on. In Hindi, the literally meaning of stigma is Kalank (Stigma) Dhabba (stain/spot), Dag (blot/burn), Nindit (condemned/abused) Batta (abatement), Kshati Chihn and so on.

Keeping the above understanding about stigma or social stigma, now we shall analyse Covid-19, a global pandemic, and its stigma related discriminatory behaviour by individuals worldwide. As we know that Covid-19 is a contagious disease like others such as HIV/AIDS, Ebola, Flue, Hantavirus and so on that should be treated as a disease rather than a stigma or social stigma. But in the recent time, we find that Covid-19 has become as a process of segregation, isolation, discrimination and social exclusion through which infected individuals are being unequally treated and behaved, stereotyped, kept separately in various isolation or quarantine centres. Likewise, infected people, even uninfected people are also being suspicious by others in locality, community, street, society if they do sneeze, cough publicly. In this connection, it has been widely observed that most of localities, streets, mohallas, villages and even societies of India are barricaded for not only entry of outsiders but also for their own neighbours, kins, brothers and sisters who are returning back in their native place due to the outbreaks of Covid-19 and lockdown. For example, in India there are countless evidences that reveal that doctors, cleaners, renters, etc. are forcefully threatened by flat owners and locals to leave the houses, localities or apartments in which they are living. This is a very serious matter of concerns that shows a kind of discrimination, humiliation or disgrace against them. It is in the sense that discrimination is understood as prejudice transformed into action and carries a derogatory or negative perception about a group of people and, thus, promotes the behaviour or creates conditions that adhere to the thought and behaviour (Prakash Louis 2002, Ram 2008). Furthermore, both Discrimination and stigma are closely interrelated and interlinked. It may be said that discrimination takes place not only in terms of social interaction and relations, commensal relations but also in socio-cultural domains. Looking at the above arguments, one may view that the Covid-19 has adversely impacted on social cohesion of society and fragmented human relations, interactions and commensal relations among people. Even, practice of untouchability has been arising in quarantine centres during lockdown.

Rising Untouchability in the Crisis

The 21st century is witness that the practice of untouchability has not vanished from society of India though it is illegal and constitutionally prohibited. In the recent time, it has observed that untouchability has arose against Scheduled Castes in quarantine centres by people belonging to higher castes. In this connection, one needs to understand the conceptual clarification as Lambert (1958:55) who argues that untouchability as a social problem that firstly defines untouchability in order to prohibition of social intercourse, denial of access to wells, temples, schools, residential segregation and stigmatisation in general. Secondly, there are the behaviour traits and attributes of the stigmatised groups themselves which, in terms of prevalent social mores, justify the assignment to these groups of fewer of the rewards of society such as prestige, wealth and power. In the context of an example of untouchability, there is a report from Bhumka village of Nainital that a 23-year-old man refused food cooked by Dalit woman in the quarantine centre (TOI, 20th May, 2020). Likewise, Reports have been come from Kushinagar, district of Uttar Pradesh (Telegraph, 13th April, 2020) and Hazaribagh, district of Jharkhand (TOI, 25th May, 2020) where food cooked by Dalit was refused by people in the quarantine centres. Hence, in times of great crisis of pandemic, the rampant practice of untouchability in various forms such as discrimination, exploitation, subjugation, etc., have been seen against Scheduled Castes in India and elsewhere due to their low caste status in the caste system. As we know that such a kind of practice is not a new phenomenon and it has a long history of practice of the same against Scheduled Castes in Independent India. Notwithstanding, earlier the practice of untouchability has also been witnessed in the government sponsored mid-day meals scheme where Dalit children were separated from children belonging to higher castes during meal in the schools. Anyway, in addition, one may look at the crudest practice of the same studied by Kumar (2001) in ‘Uttaranchal’ Jodhka (2002) in ‘Punjab’ and Ram (2008) in ‘South India’ where Dalits still face social segregation and ritual impurity due to the practice of untouchability. In this context, caste plays a vital role in determining social relations and interactions between people of different castes (Ram 2018). Similarly, Sanghmitra (2010:210-11) focuses on Dalits who face untouchability related discrimination in access to health care centre in the domains of private, public sectors and non-profit organisations in rural areas. Taking the argument further, it is a matter of fact that the Covid-19 as a global pandemic has become a new phenomenon of caste system at this juncture. Because of it, people associated with the victim of untouchability are largely discriminated and unequally treated in the society on the notion of ‘pure’ and ‘impure’ that creates social hierarchy (Dumont 1999). This invariably shows a rise of untouchability as well as caste related discrimination against Scheduled Castes in Indian society. By and large, ‘social distancing’ has created another form of social segregation than integration of people during pandemic worldwide.

Contextualising Social Distancing

In the recent time of pandemic, the word ‘social distancing’ has become a buzzword. Hence, the concept of social distancing has been contextualised and theorised in the sphere of the Covind-19 by stating that it is the best way of conquering or preventing the spread of novel coronavirus worldwide. It is a fact that the word ‘social distancing’ is widely used and less academically debated or contextualised so far. Now, it has become a widespread discourse in all disciplines from social science to natural science. In the context of the above, here we shall attempt to cope with the meaning and its accurate interpretation associated with the Covid-19. From sociological point of view, one may sense various kinds of meaning such as distance, segregation, isolation, separation, detachment, aloofness and so on from society than an infected person through the idea of social distancing. According to Penguin Dictionary of Sociology, (2005:355) ‘social distance’ refers to the perceived feelings of separation or distance between social groups. It is most commonly used to indicate the degree of separation or closeness between members of different ethnic groups. Likewise, Pathak (2020) views that distancing or obsessive fear has crippled us and made unsure of what really matters for our collective sanity in terms of enchanting power of love, trust and human touch. Further, if we go by explanations about social distancing which primarily refers to staying at least six feet away from others. Accordingly, the meaning of social distancing describes a kind of physical space or distance between people to prevent the spread of coronavirus. Taking the above account in a proper consideration, one views a degree of physical space or distance especially between two persons rather than social groups. Consequently, the term ‘social’ is having a negative connotation. In doing so, it is causing to multiple forms of discrimination, stigma or social stigma, social inequality and moreover a kind of fear against collective solidarity. In a nutshell, ‘physical distancing’ would be the correct term to address the prevention of spread of the pandemic despite ‘social distancing’ for this global crisis. Finally, pandemic has further caused to (still is causing) social exclusion of people, especially migrant workers from their livelihood.

Social Exclusion during Pandemic

More importantly, the concept ‘social exclusion’ is relatively of recent origin in the mid-1970s in Western Europe mainly through the work of the International Institute of Labour Studies (IILS) at the International Labour Organization (ILO), and it implies to the deprivation of the poor and the marginalized section of people in the world. The credit goes to Rene Lenoir (1974), known as the first initiator, who studied excluded people such as mentally and physically handicapped, suicidal people or people with the suicidal tendency, aged people who remain invalid with regard to performing actively the productive role, abused children and the abusers, delinquents, single parents, multi-problem households, marginals, asocial persons and other socially ‘misfits’ in France before the 1970s (Referred in Sen, 2004). Besides, Silver (1995) illustrates social exclusion by saying that people may be excluded from earning their livelihood, at the prevailing consumption levels, through securing permanent employment; acquiring property like land, housing, etc. and getting credits, achieving education, skills and cultural capital, and so on. Keeping the brief exposition of the concept in mind, there are innumerable reports that unveil the pathetic condition faced by migrant workers during lockdown. Not only that but also, how they have been perennially excluded and deprived of their rights from almost every aspects of life in the pandemic. For instance, a survey conducted between 8 and 13 April, 90 % of migrant workers in various states did not get paid by their employees, 96 % did not receive ration from the government and 70 % migrant workers did not get cooked food (Hindu, April 20, 2020). Along with, this crisis is causing number of people as helpless in various ways. They are mainly tailors, plumbers, cooks, construction worker, domestic helpers, daily wage workers, labourers, daily sectors, handloom, or agriculture sectors, the small industries, or even petty businesses (such as Kirana Shop, Bidi wala, Tea stall, Weavers, etc.), landless labourers, marginal farmers, slum-dwellers, Dalits, tribal, women and so on. Most of them are likely to be dependent on daily income and now they have lost their source of income for livelihood due to the pandemic. In this way, the Covid-19 has not only made them economically handicapped but has also created various kinds of distress, anxiety, depression among them for their future.


Summing up the above argument about stigmatisation of Pandemic, it is apparent that the Covid-19 as a global phenomenon has brought lots of challenges for humanity. In the toughest time of the crisis, coronavirus has become a new kind of stigma or social stigma than a disease for people worldwide. According to Goffman (1963:5), “the person with the stigma is not quite human” which has rightly proved in the case of corona infected persons. In this regard, it is a fact that how they have been mostly discriminated, isolated, segregated, stereotyped and even unequally treated compared to a normal person. At this crucial juncture, it has also seen that the practice of untouchability has arose in various quarantine centres where people belonging to higher castes openly refused food cooked by Dalits though it is illegal and constitutionally prohibited. In this context, caste plays a vital role in determining social relations and interactions between people of different castes. Despite all this, the term ‘social distancing’ is having a negative connotation such as segregation, isolation, separation, etc, which has been contextualised from sociological point of view. Finally, due to the outbreak of Covid-19, migrant workers and others have faced extreme form of social exclusion in terms of not receiving their basic rights such as food, shelter, rozgaar, etc.

End Note:


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(*Jitendra Ram is Assistant Professor, Department of Sociological Studies, Central University of South Bihar, Gaya, Bihar Email: jitendra241[at]

[1Data as taken from on 23 June, 2020

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