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Is Covid-19 a catalyst for cultural change in Asia?

Some Asian nations have ditched conservative cultural and religious practices as they grapple with an invisible enemy

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Is Covid-19 a catalyst for cultural change in Asia?

A medical worker wearing protective gear takes samples for a Covid-19 test from a visitor at a testing station in South Korean capital Seoul on Nov. 27. (Photo: AFP)

Covid-19 has turned socioeconomic, political, religious and cultural lives upside down across the globe, but the pandemic has also brought positive aspects that are helping to break the glass ceiling of cultural and religious taboos.

Though largely unnoticed, some Asian nations have decided to give up on conservative cultural and religious practices as they continue to grapple with an invisible but deadly enemy.

Hindu-majority Nepal recently deployed female soldiers to deal with bodies of Covid-19 victims for the first time. This marks the breaking of cultural ceilings in the Himalayan nation of 30 million where touching dead bodies by women is still taboo.

Four female soldiers in protective gear carrying the body of a victim and handing it over to funeral workers at Pashupati crematorium in capital Kathmandu is an unprecedented scene in this culturally and religiously conservative country.

The change is not only a sign of further empowerment of women in Nepal, which parted ways with decades-long ethno-political conflicts in 2006 and abolished absolute monarchy in 2008. The crisis posed by coronavirus is also a trigger for such much-needed changes in a nation that has recorded over 233,000 infections and 1,529 deaths from the virus.

Neighboring India has the second-highest number of coronavirus infections after the US. The Hindu-majority nation has also continued to falter in tackling the pandemic in every aspect — social, economic, cultural and religious.

Indian authorities completely ignored the plight of millions of migrant workers when it imposed a Covid-19 lockdown with only four hours' notice in March. The rich and elite class resorted to beating utensils, clapping, singing, lighting candles and discussing new face masks of Prime Minister Narendra Modi while appearing on TV as millions of poor workers endured the extreme pain of walking home on foot, without food and water.

Poor workers were beaten by police on the streets for not maintaining social distancing and hundreds died on their way home in hunger and sickness, while some were crushed by trains and vehicles as they sought to avoid elite areas. The white-collar job holders in prime cities like Mumbai, Bangalore, Delhi and Hyderabad remained untouched by any suffering that poor migrants faced. The pandemic exposed extreme, brutal divisions in Indian societies that favor the rich and keep out the poor.

The pandemic was no lesson for self-styled godmen in India who continue to enjoy near-deity status and spellbind religious-minded people with superstitious beliefs and actions.

In June, Aslam Baba, a godman in Ratlam district of Madhya Pradesh state, died a day after he tested positive for Covid-19. The man who claimed to cure people of coronavirus by kissing their hands not only succumbed to the virus but also left at least 24 of his followers infected with “the kiss of death.” Local authorities were forced to declare the area a containment zone and put some 150 in quarantine.

That’s not all. Indian media reported that holy water, turmeric, bleach and amulets were among various so-called miracle cures being offered online and offline in various parts of India. It seems the death of over 138,000 Indians and more than 9.5 million infections were not enough to dismantle the unholy elements in India's sociocultural-religious bandwagon.

Bangladesh, the second-worst-hit nation in South Asia after India, has seen individual and organizational efforts in tackling the impact of the pandemic.

Maqsoodul Alam Khondker, alias Khorshed, 49, a Muslim politician from Narayanganj district near capital Dhaka, shot to national fame as he started burying bodies of Muslim and Hindu Covid-19 victims in the area.

Although Muslim-majority Bangladesh has a long-held tradition of religious pluralism, religious groups maintain a safe distance in observing religious rituals such as burial rites.

Yet Khorshed and his team continued their mission of breaking barriers as they buried some 140 coronavirus victims including 20 Hindus while observing all rites. In addition, they have been offering vital medical support to families with coronavirus-infected members irrespective of caste and creed.

Volunteers from several Islamic and secular charities including Al-Manahil Foundation, Man-For-Man Force and Bidyanondo (Learn for Fun) have also shouldered similar responsibilities to Khorshed and his team to support anyone — Muslim, Hindu or Christian — seeking vital support in a time of a grave crisis. These groups faced criticism from radical groups, but they received huge support from wider Bangladeshi society.

Such generosity and breaking of cultural and religious barriers come against the backdrop of reports of social stigma and divisions resulting from the contagion in communities, especially in rural and socially conservative areas. There were cases of families locking up, abandoning and ostracizing infected members and leaving behind the dead to rot in fear of spreading the virus.

Most South Koreans ditched some of their most cherished cultural traditions associated with the celebration of Korean thanksgiving festival Chuseok in September. South Koreans decided not to visit their hometowns to celebrate the harvest festival and pay tribute to their ancestors. Instead, they opted for virtual programs to honor the ancestors from their hearts as they skipped the services.

In Japan, the government’s strict lockdown measures and work-from-home policy have been seen as a relief from often painful corporate culture — overwork and stress — which is blamed for an alarming rise in suicides in the country. Time will tell whether Japan rethinks its tight-knit corporate culture to save lives from premature losses with lessons from the pandemic.

Experts noted that Confucianism, the dominant cultural force in East Asia that advocates duty to society over individual needs, was behind successful Covid-19 responses in nations such as South Korea, Vietnam and Taiwan.

Communist China has drawn the ire of the world for failing to contain the deadly virus since it was first discovered in a wet market in Wuhan city in Hubei province. For decades, the popular culture of consuming wild animals like civets, pangolins, snakes and peacocks turned the wild animal trade into a billion-dollar but largely unregulated industry.

In June, China imposed a ban on the consumption and trade of wild animals amid a global backlash. Such a ban should be made permanent and people need to refrain from causing more harm to nature and wildlife in order to save humanity from future outbreaks of deadly viruses.

Covid-19 has put the world into one of the gravest humanitarian crises of modern times, but it is also an eye-opener to look at existing social and cultural systems so that we can advocate for necessary changes that will bring greater welfare of humanity.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official editorial position of UCA News.

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