The power of narratives in the face of COVID-19

Nousheen Sharmila Ritu | Published: 00:00, May 10,2020

Nousheen Sharmila Ritu, The power of narratives in the face of COVID-19, coronavirus,

Narratives shapes our thinking process and dictates the collective psyche of a nation. We have to recognise available scopes and opportunities in this predicament to exploit them at our advantage. We need to understand that if we fail to utilise this, meaningless and unfavourable narratives will take over, doing more harm than good, writes Nousheen Sharmila Ritu

NATURAL disasters or pandemics are nothing new on the face of this earth; in fact, history shows there has been a pandemic regularly once in a hundred years or so. But what is unique is that each pandemic has affected the populace and its state of affairs in one way or another.

For instance, the Black Death that took place in the 1300s had a much more far-reaching impact on the European continent than just the death of 200 million people. At a time when feudalism and slavery were deeply pervasive, the pandemic led to huge labour shortages and compelled the peasants to demand for the wages they deserved.

Maybe it was the sheer desperation of the situation or a renewed sense of unity among the peasants that led to the formation of strong movements and institutions like the 1351 Statue of Labourers, 1381 Peasants’ Revolt, et cetera. Fast forward few years down the line, the west became part of a booming market economy freeing itself from the shackles of serfdom and slavery.

An almost 700 years later, today as we find ourselves in another pandemic namely the COVID-19, we know for a fact that this is going to change the course of our history. This pandemic is going to affect every sphere of our public and private lives; safe to say, our lives are not going to be remain the same. Given the era of globalisation and capitalism that we dwell in, the stakes are going to be much higher in aspects of global politics. And the politics is nothing but the politics of narratives.

The power of narratives is vastly consequential, especially at the face of crisis. Narratives do not just dictate the different opinions at any given situation; they shape the thought process of the larger audience. Effective and expansive narratives create stories that not just determine the mass perception but also eventually translate into the discernible truth.

Needless to say, the global COVID-19 pandemic is unprecedented in terms of its reach and magnitude. The coronavirus has today, in its spread, unfolded a wide range of varying narratives. Worldwide, governments, politicians, policymakers and different stakeholders all have something to say on this pandemic.

For postmodern thinkers, the coronavirus is a materialisation of all the conjectures they have thrown at the face of modernists till this day. And why not? The coronavirus has indeed shattered the ceilings of capitalism and individualism. Be in its threat or attack, this virus has not conceded to any class, social status, ethnicity or nationalism. Countries that were named as superpowers are today in a similar plight like that of namely insignificant nations. The pandemic threat has in its own way united the entire world and reminded them its interconnection and interdependence like nothing else.

If there is someone who has exploited the power of narratives in its best, that is China. The country that is known for its draconic control over media, has used this similar platform to turn the situation in their favour. Until just a few weeks, everyone was blaming China for this pandemic and hurling racist and xenophobic blames on their food habits. But China has successfully reshaped this narrative to restore their image as the Good Samaritan by portraying optimism and also in disputing the alleged origin of the virus. The country has stressed on its publicity of awareness programs, adopting effective strategies and bagging global appreciation along the way. It has also now started sending generous donations to different countries in participating in the global fight against this pandemic. So what do you think?

Are these policies and actions mere philanthropic gestures? Not really. The New York Times actually coded thousands of tweets from Chinese state media and official accounts and found out how the country is deliberately projecting these dominant messages to reshape their narrative regarding this crisis.

While China poses an interesting example of the power of narratives, this brings us to question the prevalent narratives at our home. Even though the damage is not as bad as the European countries, but Bangladesh being a developing and densely populated country remains to be immersed in the threat. Despite the government announcing mandatory quarantine and closing down of educational institutions to prevent the spread, we still lag a long way in approaching the threat in its due caution and preparation. The inadequate preparation and provision of medical service, facility from the government’s end is another discussion; but for now, let us see which narratives have dominated our storyline.

Bangladesh being a religion loving country, a lot of the burden of responsibility comes upon the religious leaders and preachers to guide the population through their message of clarity, duty and hope. But what we saw was an exact opposite of misinformation and fanaticism being spread by bogus religious leaders. Even though many might say that there were also handful of wise religious preachers speaking responsibly and making sense of the crisis, but only the former got an inflated publicity in the social media.

At a time when the country should be in a lockdown, we see in masjids, for example, in Lakshmipur, about 25,000 people participating in a ‘Khatme Shifa’ to find protection from the coronavirus. It is for these same reasons that we see people visiting Cox’s Bazar in flocks because virus is a very small thing that cannot harm them with the grace of god, right?

This lack of seriousness regarding the immensity and imperil of the virus have also been shared by the politicians of the country, unfortunately. When ministers went on comparing COVID-19 with any other cold and flu and claiming the virus cannot get in the country as long as it is under the competent leadership of the prime minister Sheikh Hasina, what messages are we sending? And what impact do these irresponsible and ridiculous narratives create? Apathy, ignorance and unawareness regarding the pandemic. And for a country as ours that is already pervasive in ignorance and scanty in its resources, this is a very costly mistake to make.

There has not yet been discovered any cure to the coronavirus and we do not even concretely know when we can find one. World Health Organisation has announced that the only thing we can do to curb this virus right now is to flatten the curve by strictly maintaining social distancing, all the while allowing the medical facilities the time and resources to deal with the current cases. At a desperately threatening time like this, we have to do everything within our capacity to contain this pandemic.

We have to recognise available scopes and opportunities in this predicament to exploit them at our advantage. Social distancing is obviously the first and most crucial step that needs to be taken, but then we also need to pay attention to the weapon of narratives that silently sits there waiting to be made use of. We need to understand that if we fail to utilise this, meaningless and unfavourable narratives will take over, doing more harm than good. It is hence that before it is too late, we have to take charge of our social and political narratives and reshape them to fight the pandemic.

Nousheen Sharmila Ritu is a student of criminology at the University of Dhaka

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