Has This Pandemic Created A New Caste System?

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I am going to remember 2020 as the year when I experienced a new caste system taking root around me. Yes, it’s a fallout of Covid-19, as most things in 2020 are.

Masks, PPE kits, antibodies testing, social distancing, all kinds of sanitizers…as they emerged as the saving grace, we added them to our lexicon and to our lives. All these are needed and I appreciate our inherent resilience to fight it out, struggle, and adapt. Our lives have irrevocably changed. Daily habits, livelihoods, kids’ playtime, education, expressions of love and affection, celebrations…everything that was, has been tossed out. But as we find newer alternatives in our attempt at normalization, do we really need to bring in a new and ugly caste system?

It’s a caste system that’s arising in our mind regarding domestic help – people we usually can’t function without even for a day. And I just cannot reconcile to what I see and hear across predominantly educated, white-collared, urban upper middle-class gatherings.

It all started after Mission Begin Again. That’s when things began to open up and naturally discussions around domestic workers started to crop up. Unlike us, work from home isn’t an option for them and they were itching to get back to their livelihoods. And most of us who are working from home also wanted them to come in and relieve us of a few time-consuming chores.

The return of convenience was most desired.

But it came with its own share of – justified – fears and apprehensions. We wanted someone else to make the decision of calling them back to work – be it the mohalla committee or a neighbour. It seemed too much of a responsibility to make that call…

So far, all understood. But then followed the hushed and loud conversations…

How can we expect them to maintain hygiene? God knows what kind of living conditions they have? They’ll go to so many different houses, how can I have them come into mine? Sure they’ll wear a mask, but what about their clothes? Should we spray sanitizer on them? Maybe I will have her just clean, but not cook because you know she will touch the food…So far our society has been green, why invite trouble? What about money? I’ll just give her half…after all how much do you need for just food and basics?

That’s where I start to get uncomfortable.

My mind retaliates with my own set of questions: Did I miss out on research that says Covid spares “those who work in offices” and infects “those who work in others’ homes”? Was there a news flash that scientists have added domestic workers to aerosols and contact as transmission channels? Are we really saying that they aren’t as scared as you and me – especially BECAUSE they work in multiple homes? How can they be assured that their employers are taking the right care and not passing on the infection they’ve caught from somewhere else to them?

Some of us ask them for medical certificates. We hammer it into them to wear masks and not step out of home unnecessarily. I’ve even heard of houses where helpers are sprayed with santitizers when they step in. I’m hoping it’s as a precaution…but I cannot ignore the niggling thought that maybe, just maybe, our lurking casteist attitude is surfacing and we rush to cloak it in this self-righteous garb of precaution…And I’ll park that here as a topic for self-introspection.

Of course, this is a grey zone. I’m not attempting to simplify it black and white. Concerns are valid as we thrash around to stay afloat in this novel pandemic. We do what we think is best for us and we are entitled to doing just that.

What I’m saying, however, is that this has to be a two-way street, devoid of indignation.

Be prepared to be asked for a chit of your good health in return for theirs. Tell yourself to not step out for “fresh air and much-needed human company” if you’re asking them to stay at home after working in yours. Open up a candid discussion with your help about reduced pay if you expect that transparency from your employer. Labeling ours as the right way to think can be dangerous, I feel.

Since I started writing this piece (it’s been a while but I couldn’t wrap my thoughts), my cook and my driver came in to work. Ten days ago, the cook’s neighbourhood had a positive case, so I had to temporarily discontinue her services as per the society’s SOP. Later, I checked if all was okay with her and her family (at that moment, because things can change overnight) and asked her to resume work. Same goes for the driver – recently an area near his home has been declared a containment zone, and I have requested him to return when all is well. But, at the same time, I need to not take offence if he tells me he’d rather wait it out – because his home and mine are equidistant from the containment zone.

Just today, the cook asked me if I had a moment to spare. She said she was upset about one of her jobs. Contrary to my expectations, she said, “They’re paying me full salary and I feel awkward accepting that as I haven’t resumed work as yet.” I didn’t know how to respond. Kudos to the employer for keeping her income intact…Kudos to this employee’s super ethical way of thinking…there are just so many different angles to this story…

All I know is that tweaks to the way we think and respond – along with the way we live – are much needed. Any of us can get infected, be it the cook and cleaning lady or you and I or friends and family or the neighbourhood grocer and chemist.

Strange are these times…no wonder then that despite the havoc, we have to ironically hail Covid as an equalizer that is partial to no one. There is no “us” and “them” anymore, even though this piece of writing uses that structure.

We’re all in this together – infections and recovery alike.


~Rasika Dhavse-Wadodkar identifies herself as a thoroughbred Punekar. Storytelling is her forte – previously as a journalist and now as a digital and user experience content specialist. 

#All views expressed in this article are the authors and/or individuals that may be quoted and Pune365 does not necessarily subscribe to them.

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