ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846

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Caste and COVID-19

Notes on Sanitation in a Pandemic

The article looks at on-ground shifts in patterns of how the state and general public are treating sanitation workers, during the CoVID-19 pandemic. Based on interviews with sanitation workers in Hyderabad and Lucknow, three trajectories are identified in municipal and societal reactions to COVID-19. A variability is seen in how state and society respond in the face of renewed caste-based stigma underscored by inaction on the part of the state to concretely recognise sanitation workers’ rights.


History teaches us that epidemics are provocations to extraordinary collective action. All too often, this has taken the form of scapegoating and mass violence against the marginalised. However, outbreaks of disease, in some circumstances, have catalysed what have subsequently been recognised as public health revolutions: transformations in both infrastructure and cultural behaviour that have concretely improved societal health indicators, while also reducing the stigma attached to the many forms of sanitation work.

It was the cholera epidemics of 1832 and 1849, for example, that ultimately spurred the construction of the sewer in Second Empire Paris. Unprecedented in scale, this radical overhauling and expansion of the older sewer enabled every worker to walk upright—an infrastructural realisation of the values of equality and dignity of labour—even as it facilitated disease reduction by the safe and efficient removal of human waste from the city (Reid 1991: 23–36). In England fears of cholera, exacerbated by the Great Stink of 1858, were perceived as a harbinger of plague owing to the miasmatic theory of disease popular at the time. This led to similar transformative overhauling of the London sewer. A series of deadly public health disasters precipitated the professionalisation of the New York City sanitation force under a retired military colonel in 1895–96. This shift involved, among other things, doubling the pay of sanitation workers, reducing their workday to eight hours, providing them clean white uniforms with helmets, and conducting parades in which workers marched before and were appreciated by denizens of the city. The improvement of the sanitary condition of New York consequent to these changes was dramatic, and helped end the city’s reputation as a byword for filth (Nagle 2013: Ch 9).

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Updated On : 30th Mar, 2021
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