These are not good times to be an Indian in Britain. Not at least for many Indians in many parts of Britain every now and then. For the inescapable reason that the virus that is threatening the lifting of a lockdown has come to be called the Indian virus.
Or Delta, as the World Health Organisation named it earlier this week. But the British have not been in a hurry to replace ‘Indian” with Delta. Not people, not the media either. The Guardian, to be sure made the switch straightaway. But it was among the few to do so.
“Indian variant ‘now dominant’ in the UK” read a BBC headline late Thursday. The text speaks of the variant “now known as Delta.” It could have been possible to speak of the virus as the Delta variant known earlier as the Indian variant. And later to drop ‘Indian’ altogether. The Telegraph and most other papers also still speak of the Indian variant. Much of the media in Britain continues to use language that inevitably will fan the prevailing prejudice against Indians – or anyone seen to look like an Indian. So, sub-continentals really.
There can be a lot in the name when a virus comes to be named an Indian variant. Particularly if you are an Indian outside of India.
“It’s a shame that the virus was named the Indian variant,” Dr Ramesh Mehta, president of the British Association of Physicians of Indian Origin (BAPIO) tells CNN News18. “It’s a real shame because it is causing a lot of unhappiness, a lot of confusion among people, but also the rightist people are using it as an excuse to bring xenophobia and racism into it.”
These attitudes are being experienced in some way or other by just about every Indian everywhere. Even if many do not like to admit it.
“It is quite obvious that among the general population there is a fear of Indian people,” says Dr Mehta. “So if there are Indian people walking on the street they will walk a little bit further away from Indians. And when I say Indians I mean all South Asians, whether Bangladeshis or Pakistanis or Sri Lankans, we all look the same.”
Red Lists and Red Zones
The strain of the virus (and Delta sounds a lot better than B.1.617.2) to be sure was first identified in India, and it spread with tragic rapidity. And in Britain, it was identified in some areas that have a significant Indian population such as Bolton and Leicester. The popular conclusion was quick: that it is Indians travelling to Britain long after they should have been red-listed that had brought the virus to Britain and were, and still are, threatening the end to the lockdown on June 21.
The perception is based on a part-truth. Strains of this virus have been found all over Britain that have in no way been connected with travel to India. The virus presumably does not decide one kind of thing in only one chosen country. The UK government declared some Indian-heavy areas in Britain “red zones” after early reports of a concentration of the virus in these areas.
The Indian became the one arriving from a red-listed country into a red zone in Britain. It had to follow that a white Britain looking at an Indian would see red. The UK government soon found that the virus is not confined just to Indian areas. Or to Indians. It withdrew the “red zone” label. But the prejudice stuck.
“This virus is everywhere, not just in Indian areas,” says Dr Mehta. “And the problem is not the Indians, the problem is the virus for god’s sake. This virus is very different. It spreads much faster than the previous strains of the viruses. So it can’t be an individual or a particular group of people that is spreading the virus.”
There is of course a crucial difference between the Delta variant in India and the same variant in Britain. “Fortunately I think we are very lucky in this country that vaccination has progressed quite a lot,” says Dr Mehta. “And that’s why we don’t see the impact of the virus as in India.”
But India and Indians will undoubtedly be blamed if the lifting of the lockdown due June 21 gets delayed. The worst of the prejudice is in that case yet to come. The prevalence of the virus could double as the fault of an Indian neighbour.
“The majority of British people are very sensible people, but here as in any country there are people who are extreme nationalists,” says Dr Mehta. “They take advantage of such situations. I hope that sense will prevail, I think the government has been sensible and will remain sensible, and hopefully, there will no blame game against Indians.”
Call it Delta but given the prejudice wave across Britain, many people will still simply translate Delta to mean Indian. And to the Indian, that continues to mean that many among them are being avoided, well, like the plague.