Why Citizens Should Refuse to Go Back to the “Normal”
Political reflections in the face of a pandemic
Albert Camus insists in The Plague that “each of us has the plague within him (and her)”. I think the pandemic is already in me. It has affected me, even if it has not infected me. It has affected everyone – with its scale and its ability to disrupt life as we knew it.
Most nights I dream of disappearing people. The staff at the local grocery store, the boy who comes to pick up the trash, the milkman, the watchmen, the tai who puts up stalls of fresh vegetables across the street; all leaving palpable absences in their wake. I cry for them and thank them profusely in my dreams. Something I might not be able to do in real life.
Every time I watch the news, I wish I could mourn for all the dead, putting faces to all the numbers floating about, people embedded in networks of other people, people with presence and aspirations, over hundred thousand a week before, over two hundred thousand now. But my heart is not able to hold the pain. So most days I ignore the count.
Despite its mental toll, to those of us fortunate enough to be locked away safely with family or friends or even just have the security of secured provisions for life, this disruption, an unparalleled event in many of our lives, can provide a crucial opportunity for reflection. I have been reflecting. Mostly on the hubris of humanity even in the face of its actual fickleness. Humanity is a small spectrum of activity in the larger functioning of the universe. In our guts we all know this, but we don’t act as such. We act as immortal lords of the planet and beyond. If only there were one lesson to be taken from this occasion of mass suspension, it would be this: a little humility is in order.
But instead of introspection, in my country India, some days I woke up to nightmares during the day that were more nightmarish than the ones I had in the nights. When people were battling with life and death all across the world and healthcare systems were screaming warning alarms in the most ‘developed’ and formal of economies, much of the televised (and social media) ‘debate’ in India was hovering around Corona Jihad - a novel disease specific to the subcontinent. “Experts” and non-experts, equivalent of the novel virus in this new disease, were investing their newly found free time in spewing communal venom even in the face of the most non-communal human occurrence – death. I watched as the whole Muslim community was blatantly vilified as perpetrators of some insidious bio-terrorist plot against the majority in India. In the wake of one particular Islamic congregation – irresponsible without any doubt – which recorded many COVID-19 positive cases and became a major hotspot in the country, the usual henchmen of hatred tarnished a whole community as “Corona Villains” and voluntary “super-spreaders”. They invoked “heavy punishment” on these others who they deemed were consciously subverting the efforts of their country to “defeat” the monstrous virus.
Even though all this was shocking, it wasn’t surprising. The response to the unknown is played out on the scaffolding of the known. And the known in India for the most recent years is a low-hanging palpable communalisation. Of society, of politics, of news, of day-to-day conversations. Of the present, of the past, of the future. That it could overpower the impinging dread of death was shamefully eye-opening.
While mulling over the moral bankruptcy of the majority in the Indian public space and our increasing collective ineptitude to shape intelligent public discussion around anything without resorting to binaries – without being pro-Modi or anti-Modi – even in the face of disease and death, I began chronicling a wish-list of political reflections that an alternate public space could perhaps engage in during this time of enforced stepping back. As many commentators around the world have been introspecting, an event as jolting as this that is reshaping our lives is and should also rewrite our very imagination. What is the virus trying to tell us about how we live? How we have lived? How we should live? I am highlighting three main reflections that stood out for me:
1. Should we be using war language against the pandemic?
Most days one is bombarded with statistics and policies to “defeat” the virus in what seems to be a war. Medical professionals are hailed as being on the “frontline” as “Corona Warriors” in the “war against COVID-19”. The Prime Minister has repeatedly urged citizens to fulfil their duties like “a disciplined soldier” in this ‘yuddh’ (battle). While the efforts of all concerned in the practical response towards tackling the pandemic is nothing short of a war effort, using war language makes it seems the problem at hand is that of a crafty stealthy virus against humanity. While this may seem to be the case in an immediate sense, the real problem infact is that of human created systems against humanity. The scale and distress the pandemic has caused cannot be fully understood by divorcing it from the conditions of its creation. In a brilliant analysis titled We created this beast – Political ecology of COVID-19, the authors contend that “the virus is neither an aberration nor a monster: it merely reveals to us the monstrousness of business-as-usual in eco-colonial capitalism”. In the prevalent ‘politics of othering’ which the world is getting increasingly used to and that is now extrapolated to the pandemic, we fail to understand our own responsibility in the creation of problems and convince ourselves that all issues that we face are somehow external to our own activity – to be pinned on an enemy outside. Therefore calls are made to “return to the normal” whereas the “normal” as we understand is the very problem.
The bitter truth is that business-as-usual as we know it, the rigmarole of endless (over)production and (over)consumption which forms the basis of the neoliberal capitalist order of society is the reason that the health crisis has come to scale. The emergence of the virus and the many problems associated with its handling in many countries, resulting in the massive toll in human lives that we are witnessing, is as much due to the unequal distribution of resources that the system promotes as the virus itself. It is also buttressed by the mindset that humanity is separate from its ecological environment and can go on exploiting it endlessly for its own ‘gain’ – well, gain of the few. In an exceptional analysis of the present situation, wellbeing economics advocate Dirk Philipsen notes that “a market system driven by private interests never has protected and never will protect public health, essential kinds of freedom and communal wellbeing”. So as many wait with bated breaths for the economy to re-open, for this unprecedented but ultimately powerless enemy to accept its retreat, so that we carry on with our inevitable march towards endless growth, we need to seriously ask ourselves what kind of “normal” we wish to go back to.
Commentators promoting a more holistic reflection on the pandemic, beyond its understanding as an enemy to be won over, are calling this unusual and surreal period a “dress rehearsal” for the next crisis for which we aren’t prepared or more hopefully, a “portal” into a newly imagined world.
2. Should we be valorising “India’s fight against COVID-19?”
This call for a renewed way of thinking about organisation of our societies leads me to the second point of reflection. In the early days of the lockdown in India, news channels were throwing around terms like “Delhi Model”, “Chhattisgarh model”, “Odisha model” etc. in the wake of a rising COVID-19 curve. They rendered the term “model” meaningless by using it denote just about everything, while for the term to make any sense it should denote a standard to be followed or emulated. Any search for an actual successful “model” in this worldwide chaos would return one result in common: to be even remotely prepared we need long-term systemic commitment to prioritize large-scale public well-being.
The states that were able to tackle the pandemic with maturity had systems in place while the crisis exposed faultlines in the most “developed” of states. Some of the richest countries that do not grade public health and other basic needs of their larger public as high priority cracked at the helms during the crisis. Most prominent case in point being United States of America, wherein a despicable healthcare history run on profit motive resulting in minimal support to public measures, capital driven reliance on private medical insurance companies and excessive lobbying by big pharmaceutical corporations has exacerbated the havoc that an irresponsible “leader” at the helms has caused. In such a warped system people prefer to stay at home when they are sick rather than get themselves tested fearing an unaffordable medical bill for treatment. When healthcare runs on the basis of market forces rather than health needs of people such bizarre things are bound to happen. So that is a model not to follow.
On the other hand, be it Singapore that learnt from its experience in 2002 SARS outbreak to ramp up its health care protocols, legislations and chain of public messaging over the years or South Korea that evolved a network of private and public players to spring into action early with mass-testing and tracing of contacts (again spurred by its past experience with epidemic management), preparation seemed to be the key word among the deemed “success models” on the global scene. But besides the fact that the demographic and economic profile of these countries may be too different for a big and complex country like India to emulate, another ethical point to ponder about the efficacy of these models is that their successes were predicated on a culture and technology of mass surveillance.
A model that seems to work without resorting to mass invasion of individual privacy seems to lie closer home in the state of Kerala. Kerala’s political mobilisation akin to what some have categorised as deep democracy is being deemed as having paid off by many. In this model besides decades of empowering local government systems, strengthening primary healthcare networks and engendering visible local action, what seems to have worked during the emergency is the continuing treatment of people not as subjects resigned to accept decision making of the state but right bearing citizens who help keep state systems accountable as well as functional. This kind of an operative system, that has the breathing space of taking into consideration the specific needs of a wide array of people in a crisis situation, does not come about overnight though.
As Patrick Heller rightly pointed in his commentary on social democracy and its dividends for Kerala, the humane and efficient COVID response in the state is built on a legacy of social rights and public trust in governmental systems. In the absence of such a trust based relationship between the state and its citizens a public health emergency becomes a law-and-order issue and the very state executive machinery that is supposed to act as enablers for the troubled populace turn into disciplinarians, hellbent on enforcing the lockdown as a coercive punishment rather than as a preventive cure. When people are overcome by fear and under-confidence in public systems and the overall climate facilitates a blame game, contracting the disease becomes a stigma. Instead of empathy. for the person who falls sick or even takes care of the sick, people develop apathy for them.
Therefore valorising the troubleshooting efforts of the Indian state as “India’s fight against COVID-19” does nothing to hide the fact that we have at best make-do systems in place. The justification for putting 1.3 billion people under total lockdown, which some have deemed the “the most severe action” undertaken anywhere in the world, is itself that we are not prepared for it otherwise. In more sunny days, we do not prioritize healthcare, spending an abysmal 1.28% of GDP on public provisions resulting in asymmetries in quality and lack of access to the maximum number of our people. The population density, large scale presence of pre-existing infectious diseases as well as deplorable environmental conditions present a uniquely horrifying prospect in India if the pandemic were to take hold like it did in Western Europe or United States. While India seems to be doing well on keeping the dreaded curve under control and various officials are trying their best to work with whatever resources they have at their disposal, the relatively low number of cases cannot be accredited to a well-prepared state mechanism let alone a robust healthcare system. Most days we can only thank India’s demographic dividend, sometimes weather conditions and divine providence for the numbers being low.
The pandemic has therefore made clear that we need to radically reimagine our systems; that only when there is long term vision for large scale public well-being and systematic action based on the same over the years can institutions think clearly and variedly in crisis – taking heed of the needs of all, especially the most vulnerable who slip through the cracks in times of panic and fear. Otherwise the best case scenario would be hurriedly put jugaad to avoid bad press.
3. Did the state fulfil its duty of care?
The importance of trust in state-citizen relationship brings me to the final point of reflection. In many casual conversations in the past few weeks I have encountered the argument that starvation is ever-present in the country but an epidemic is exceptional. For the exceptional condition presented by the virus therefore, the severe measures enforced are not just justified but necessary. Besides the fact that we have become used to mass starvation and poverty in the country, this argument reveals a self-centred public morality of most of the country’s well to do. It justifies starvation and indignity caused by the lockdown by claiming that it is anyway always present and posits it as a collateral for the “larger good”. Which begs the question who is the large in the larger good? With the documented non-COVID deaths due to the lockdown at times surpassing the official deaths due to the virus, this kind of moral reasoning for ignoring the plight of a large number of people in the country not only exposes the societal fault lines but reflects state apathy towards the question of justice.
As soon as the three weeks mass lockdown (which was later extended to another three weeks) was brought upon a mostly poor populace of over 1.3 billion people – the biggest anywhere in the world – indigent India started walking home. The ugly secret on which the increasingly fudged growth story of India is based was revealed for the world to watch – the invisible underbelly of its cities, its nowhere people. Images of migrant workers deciding to cross hundreds of kilometres on foot are now etched in everyone’s minds and the mass suffering relayed repeatedly all over the internet; some stranded midway with meagre belongings, including children, hanging from each shoulder being meted out harsh indignities rather than assistance. Why were the ‘migrants’ so desperate to go home? Even if that meant defying the lockdown, getting exposed to a potentially life threatening viral disease, facing potential state violence, walking hundreds of kilometres, getting dehydrated and, in some cases, dying? To address the question ‘Why they walk home’, Centre for Policy Research fellows Partha Mukhopadhyay and Mukta Naik elaborated that “their walking conveys a deep distrust of the state, especially when it promises assistance… The poor see and experience the state often through a lens of violence and control, as evidenced in the recent orders, and rarely through a prism of care”.
The actual actions of the state in the wake of the lockdown has completely justified this lack of trust. Even after announcing adequate financial provisions it does not seem that the benefits reached the workers and civil society organisations were scampering almost in all the major cities to make provisions available to the most stranded workers, bereft of social security, savings or access to food. There was a constant tussle between the provincial states and the centre took time to acknowledge the very problem. A plethora of #fundsfortheneedy sprung up and charity based messaging, many with celebrity endorsements, were doing rounds on television and whatsapp groups with sad music and sadder visuals. Our prime minister, who has assumed the role of a motivational speaker amidst the pandemic, called the COVID response of India people-driven. With his usual oratorial flare, he painted a picture-perfect scenario of people driven by altruistic Indian values helping each other as well as “the underprivileged” and a sense of benevolence oozing out of the citizenry, even the state, towards “the poor”. Not only is this a roundabout denial of accountability by the state like in his early COVID speeches with little practical value, but also a denigration of the status of the suffering poor as citizens. As academician Pratap Bhanu Mehta reminds us what the migrants and other vulnerable sections need is not the pity of the populace. The whole discussion needs to be centred around their rights as humans and justice as citizens because as necessary and lofty as charity may sound and feel, it makes it seem that their suffering was inevitable.
So while a lockdown was necessary and impending in the face of the pandemic was the suffering associated with it necessary? Avoiding mass human suffering is the duty of the state. Did it fulfil this duty? Did it consider its most vulnerable, the daily wage workers, the rural and urban poor especially the women, the homeless including children before bringing it all to a halt? Was it prepared to do so? These are questions that we as citizens need to ask on behalf of other citizens who are bearing its brunt.
It would be a crisis of citizenry, if we let the pandemic experience slip into some feel-good soft nationalism wherein we indulge in constant body-count-watching and number-comparing to celebrate the brilliance of India’s response and ignore the otherwise less visible structural inequalities that it has revealed to plain sight. We have a whole mass of people who don’t feel secure to survive even a day if they don’t labour, have no trust in state mechanisms and are glossed over in state policy decisions. They don’t need our benevolence but systematic and sustained state action.
All this is not to sound negative or pessimistic as any critical analysis is tagged these days. In all optimism, the virus will go. We will venture out again. We will be healed from it. But will we pay heed to what it has told us? Shown us? Will we learn the deeper lessons this period has revealed? Will we be healed of the bigger virus of accepting systems that perpetuate gross inequalities and hatred?
In a sense, if we really think about it, the biggest lesson learnt is quite basic; something that our collective human wisdom, particularly the philosophical tradition of our own country, has highlighted for a long time, that of interdependence. The old clichéd knowledge that what affects one affects all played out in all its glory. A true realisation of interdependence begets true solidarity. One based on equality rather than pity or identity. This is the only long-term antidote to something such as the pandemic or any other crisis; to build our systems – health, economic, political, social – around the realization of interdependence and solidarity. Systems that will live beyond concerns of any particular community, party or minister.
The summary of the three political realisations enumerated before therefore is this: We need to reimagine our systems now and we need to base them on a politics of interdependence and solidarity rather than one on “self-reliance” as our Prime Minister seems to think. In an evocative piece in the Atlantic, the author writes “we can learn from these dreadful days that stupidity and injustice are lethal; that, in a democracy, being a citizen is essential work; that the alternative to solidarity is death”. As citizens therefore our duty is a refusal to go back to the “normal” and to actively imagine a safer world for all.
(The writer is scholar and tutor of politics and IR at the University of Adelaide)