In April and May 2021, the deadly second wave of the Covid-19 pandemic in India, driven largely by the delta variant, saw the country’s collapsing healthcare system make international news headlines. While images of bodies being burned in makeshift funeral pyres glowed from television screens, desperate pleas for hospital beds and oxygen cylinders flooded social media, exposing the direness of the situation.
Fast forward to the start of July – recovery rates had improved considerably, and India seemed to be past the peak of the second wave, with state governments and private hospitals handling the rollout of vaccines to adults. In Maharashtra (which together with Delhi and Tamil Nadu make up the bulk of India’s Covid-19 cases), the state government had just recently resumed vaccinating those aged 18-44 following a temporary suspension the month prior due to a shortage in vaccine doses.
It was around this time that I began noticing a particular kind of image appearing on my Instagram feed as well as WhatsApp (like Instagram, WhatsApp enables users to post images and short videos as a ‘status’). This image was being posted by young men who I had befriended and enlisted as research participants during my doctoral fieldwork in the city of Pune, Maharashtra. Taken in various locations in the city where vaccinations were being administered – hospitals, polyclinics, company offices – the photographs showed young men posing after their first jab.
Various genres of social media posts pertaining to the vaccine have proliferated in different parts of the world: the photograph of the vaccination card, the queue number for the vaccine, the post about waiting in the vaccination centre, the selfie of the subject with the syringe inserted in their arm. Following a different formula, the photographs I noticed had little to do with the vaccination process itself; instead, they were taken after the vaccination, or sometimes on entirely separate occasions, aided by a ‘selfie booth’ specifically designed for capturing and circulating the self after vaccination on social media.
Posing for the camera with a victory sign or a thumbs up, the subject stands behind a banner stand, their head and upper body visible through a cut-out, as if within a photo frame, flanked by various phrases: ‘#iamvaccinated’, ‘Proud to be protected’, ‘Proudly vaccinated’. Like an Instagram caption or a Facebook status, the phrases printed in large lettering on the stand proclaim the subject’s newly vaccinated status.
The banner stands, described as ‘selfie booths’, are neither traditional booths that create an enclosed space, nor do they facilitate the kind of self-taken photography typically associated with the selfie. Rather, the Covid selfie booth post is rooted in local practices of formal photography in India (Pinney 1998). The preference for ‘photo ops’ containing poses set up for the photographer to capture heavily influenced the production of ‘selfies’ I encountered during my doctoral research. The term ‘selfie’ among the young lower-middle class men I worked with in Pune was understood to mean professionally shot and highly choreographed images designed to increase the subject’s visibility (Advani 2020).
The localisation of the ‘selfie’ appears to have travelled beyond the demographic of young men in Pune that my doctoral research focused on. In a Channel News Asia news piece on selfie booths in Mumbai, a middle-aged man poses behind a booth, photographed by someone else standing at a considerable distance away. Afterwards, he describes how he ‘clicked a selfie’ to ‘tell everyone that I came here and got myself vaccinated.’
One such image that appeared on my social media was from Pranay, a 23-year-old employee at a large manufacturing company in Pune who was able to get vaccinated through the company’s vaccination drive. Speaking with him over WhatsApp, he explained how the post was ‘to show off that I’m vaccinated.’ A similar motivation to ‘impress’ other users on social media surrounded the ‘selfies’ I had previously discovered in Pune in which young men struck confident poses and asserted their masculinity from their Facebook profiles.
Just as objects such as new clothes and mobile phones (Dickey 2013) and digital techniques of concealing one’s background in photographs (Advani 2019) have proven useful in ‘middle class projects of garnering dignity and social visibility’ (Searle and Nakassis 2013), here the performance of the aspirational self takes on a new routine. Specifically, it is configured at the level of the internal body, its altered state otherwise invisible if not for the capturing of the self for digital circulation and the selfie booth’s confirmation of the newly vaccinated self. By staging themselves in this way, participants publicize their newfound status to their online audience and showcase their moral duty as having been performed.
Pranay justified his Instagram post on the fact that ‘everyone is posting this,’ before adding: ‘a lot of people in villages are scared of the vaccine and don’t know what the effects will be. This is to show them it is important to take it.’ Keen to mark his affiliation to a middle class identity, Pranay’s observation that ‘everyone’ participating in the trend precludes those from non-urban backgrounds suggests the post is as much intended to teach moral citizenship as it is to mark middle-class distinction.
Through the post, the subject postures largely for a social media audience of other urban middle class internet users, in effect articulating their desire for recognition and middle-class membership. The vaccinated body as a marker of social identity – specifically urban, educated, middle class – becomes apparent when considering the vast inequalities in vaccinations between not only the affluent and urban poor, but also between urban and rural populations, the latter of whom often lack a stable internet connection and the technical knowledge for accessing and navigating the online system for signing up for shots.
It is perhaps unsurprising that the state project of vaccination has emerged as a site for Indians to rehearse aspirational modes of personhood. As Mathew and Lukose (2020) note, ‘jobless growth and rising unemployment rates leak aspirational work out of market circulation into the realm of democratic politics.’ For the vaccine ‘selfie’, its ability to impress rests on the articulation of the self through the sphere of participatory citizenship: ‘It’s about doing a duty for my country,’ Pranay explained.
That the concern with performing patriotism is an underlying motivation is not insignificant, particularly in a political context where proving loyalty to the nation is a pre-occupation and where questioning the state is to be ‘unprogressive’ and ‘anti-national’ (Chakrabarty 2012; Srivastava 2020). Rather than posting about the Indian government’s mishandling of vaccination orders or its failure to impose restrictions prior to the second wave, one’s duty to the nation – and one’s ‘Indian-ness’ – is articulated instead through allegiance to the state.
The confident demeanours of those posing in selfie booths and the pride they invoke, however, mask a deeper uncertainty. The two main vaccines produced locally and available in India, namely Covaxin by Bharat Biotech and Covishield by the Serum Institute of India (the Indian-made dose of the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine) have yet to receive approval in Europe and the United States. Not only does this decision alone heavily impact the international mobility of Indians, but countries such as Canada, Australia, Thailand and Singapore, too, have suspended travel from India. ‘Even after getting Covishield, I still don’t know when I’ll be able to go abroad for studies,’ one young man told me. For many young Indians whose aspirations are tied up with the lifestyles of the ‘global professional’ (Sancho 2013; Upadhya 2013), the vaccines have thwarted dreams of venturing abroad and hopes of returning overseas to resume study and work.
Suggestive of the vaccinated self’s wider cultural and aesthetic power, a search on Instagram reveals that the Covid selfie booth trend has also emerged in Malaysia; the hashtag #iamvaccinated reveals similar posts of people posing behind displays in convention centres in the country with printed hashtags such as #ourherotoday. Its digital circulation points to the possibility of new genres of internet memes that interrogate what it means to be vaccinated, or a new category of identification that users list in their social media bios. As lockdown restrictions ease, and as questions over who is vaccinated loom over physical interactions, it remains to be seen to what other forms the vaccinated body takes in popular and internet culture. In the quest to make the world a safer place, the production and distribution of vaccines have deepened India’s long-standing inequalities of class, caste and gender. In what ways will the vaccine intensify what Leela Fernandes (2006: 187) describes as a ‘politics of distinction between the middle and working classes’ in post-liberalisation India? To what extent will one’s digital proof (or lack of) of being vaccinated structure life on the other side of the screen?
ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Rahul Advani is a socio-cultural anthropologist and postdoctoral researcher at the Institute for Global Prosperity (IGP), University College London. His research interests include youth culture, the anthropology of social media, and the experience of class in contemporary India. He has published articles appearing in Space & Polity (2019), HAU: Journal of Ethnographic Theory (2020) and Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute (forthcoming, 2022). His recent publications ethnographically explore how young lower-middle class men in Pune, Maharashtra creatively use Facebook to rehearse their masculine selves and navigate the politics of neoliberalism.
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 All names of interviewees have been changed to protect their privacy.
 Ideas of morality have long been tied with notions of bodily vitality in India. In his writing on wrestlers in the northern Indian city of Banaras, Alter (1993: 56) notes that the protection of the body’s vitality and strength undergirds the moral concern and that ‘moral failings are, conversely, visibly embodied’.
 Writing about social value projects in which actors invoke models of social prestige, Nakassis and Searle (2013) highlight how performances of social identity typically rest on the exclusion of others.