Confirmed cases of COVID-19 are incessantly on the rise. The novel virus which has debilitated the existing health system across countries is closely entwined with a range of factors stretching from the global economic slowdown to a cultural reimagining. Although stock-price crashes, trade restrictions or shortages of essentials may seem the more urgent problem, the cultural reimagining develops more steadily and is therefore more perilous.

This cultural reimagining is deeply nationalistic in its constitution. COVID-19 has affected not only China’s economy but those of all its trading partners, considering its humungous purchasing power. This shifting dynamic presents an opportunity, in what is one of the rarest crises to have hit humanity in decades. It is an opportunity to the mongers of partisan politics through modes of cultural disapproval, religious denouncement, and most dangerously nationalistic competition.

It will be argued that drastic steps on cross-border travel and trade, often selective, are more discriminatory than scientific. The more this crisis awaits a scientific, rational breakthrough, the more it is delayed by traditionalist dogmas. Our own country is a case in point: with an official total of 132 positive cases as of March 17, India is one of the least hit countries. But the statistics provided by India may be misleading.

The WHO has indicated that the Indian government may be unaware of the gravity of local transmission of the virus already occurring. The indication comes in response to the measures taken and categories chosen by the government. So far, the government has limited the tests to international travelers and those coming in contact with them. This eliminates an appalling majority of population outside of the speculated benchmark.

Implementing the “imported cases only” category of the WHO by the Indian government is an act of choicelessness that is based on the weak public health infrastructure of the country. With as low as 52 testing labs for a population of over a billion, the ratio is worrisome.

In budget 2020-21 the allocation to the healthcare sector was increased by just 5.7% nominal, the allocated sum of Rs69,000 crore being only 1% of the GDP. Years of starving public healthcare and it is falling well short of the required preparedness for fighting the virus.

It is troublesome that the low-income Indian states have so reported zero cases of COVID-19. Even Delhi has only two hospitals with sample collecting facilities. In such a dire situation social distancing will not be sufficient, and is anyway impossible for the working majority.

A plethora of strange developments have taken shape. These changes are instrumental in bringing the cultural changes underway. ‘Namaste’ is validated as the superior Hindu greeting domestically, while internationally, it seeks validation as the superior Indian greeting.

Another seemingly trivial example is the panic hoarding of commodities like hand sanitiser and toilet paper by those who can afford it, leading to acute shortages. The sneer doing the rounds here is that ‘Westerners’ would do well to learn from Indians and use water instead of toilet paper…

But leaving these narratives far behind is that of the miraculous gaumutra or cow urine and cowdung. Events have been organised for the collective drinking of cow urine in the country. This despite the fact that cow urine is not scientifically known to possess any medicinal values to cure COVID-19.

Most of these narratives have been dismissed as the promotional stunts of religious gurus. This is where we go wrong. Circulating in the form of social media memes, these narratives have been reduced to content consumerism – but the problem lies much deeper than that. The moment we overlook these bits of information as farce, we refuse to engage with it.

These small instances are consistently contributing to the hegemony of Hindu supremacism. They are making normal the belief that Hindus are superior to everyone else. Grounded in what we might understand as nationalism, they are small acts of orthodox nationalism intended to cause social polarisation and hierarchy. They are directed towards creating a homogeneous, singular national identity.

It is important for us as responsible citizens to engage with the framework that is executing these acts. The framework is constituted by a nexus between the various organs of government and the fringe associations. On one hand the state is fabricating the true case numbers by only testing suspected imported cases. This may be a technique to keep panic at bay, but at what cost? On the other hand, such ‘nationalist’ acts as mentioned above are suppressing awareness of COVID-19 all the more.

This efficiently contributes to the US-led global xenophobia constructed against the Chinese, while also unfailingly creating a discriminatory national identity based on rejection of defined minorities. Reported cases of people addressing students from the northeastern states of India as “coronavirus” is one example. The fact that women in Shaheen Bagh are still protesting – while taking precautions like masks and distancting – is testament enough that women and other minorities of the country are less alarmed by COVID-19 than they are by the government’s draconian laws.

Recently, a Bihar court registered an advocate’s complaint against Xi Jinping for hatching a COVID-19 conspiracy. Regular interviews on television show religious gurus deploring the practice of meat consumption by the Chinese and how COVID-19 is a resulting ‘curse’. Such acts culturally polarise people against an economic rival of India’s which is currently at the receiving end of global xenophobia.

Second, they subtly manufacture a collective opinion grounded in religious morals, to urge a shift to vegetarianism. They do so using fear founded on lies, such as the claim that consuming chicken can cause COVID-19. They inspire fear among people similar to spate of extrajudicial killings and mob lynchings on accusation of meat consumption, transport, skinning, etc. that jeopardised the livelihoods of small-scale meat sellers in India, largely Muslims and Dalits.

It is a time of authoritarian governments seemingly worldwide, and India is offering them a significant stimulus. ‘Nationalistic acts’ taking place at various levels are compounding to a larger trend of reducing systemic problems to accusations against cultural or social groups. These groups are personified as biological threats or scapegoats. These personifications act as dangerous diversion mechanisms in the long run, to prevent interrogation and accountability, and any discussion of the real issues.

Viruses possess no passport, as French president Macron recently remarked. It is time for countries to think beyond geopolitical borders and establishing supremacy. That will only reduce the COVID-19 crisis into a petty opportunity for few, at the cost of many lives.

Akansha Singh is assistant professor of English at the NALSAR University of Law, Hyderabad.