The ongoing Covid-19 pandemic has once again laid bare an undeniable Hobbesian truism: life was, is and always will be solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short. Although rapid advances in science and technology compel us to yearn for a day when we overcome death, and if not death, then certainly the confines of the Earth; the sudden genesis and proliferation of Covid-19 has made us starkly realise that our most audacious ambitions and pursuits are as precarious as a ship that finds itself in a stormy sea.
It has shown us that the social, cultural, religious, economic, and political structures and processes that animate our specific way of life are not beyond our own reach. It is we, who choose to keep them alive and functional; without our will (active or tacit), they would end up becoming relics fit for display in museums of a post-human world. The semblance of order, which we impose upon our daily lives, and the very real threat of everything being turned upside-down is essentially the reflection of our will or the lack of it.
A scientific invention will in all probability cure the Corona — as the experts keep saying, a possible vaccine is still about eighteen months away. In the meantime, there will be people who pass on, and ones who live to tell the tale. But, what would be the moral teaching of those stories? Would they only laud the indomitable human spirit? Or, would they simply sing paeans of the great leadership offered by our political and technocratic power elites?
Although such assessments would not be without complete merit, any sweeping victory parade would only be at our own peril. The life-transforming pandemic has called into question almost everything that we had so far been taking for granted: our one-sided exploitation of nature, our ability to control time (underscored by the demands of capital), and our facility to fulfil our ambitions or plans of good life without treating others as means to our respective goals or ends. Covid-19 has unmasked the arrogance of the politics that sustains such a way of life, an enterprise in which science and technology are equally complicit.
This struggle against the Corona Virus will not only test our determination to effectively maintain ‘social-distancing’ norms, our abilities to use gloves and N95 masks, or even our hand washing skills — (for that matter, can we really wash our hands clean for playing the docile subject instead of functioning as equal partners of a democracy, at least most of the time?) —but, more significantly it will test the country’s democratic resolve.
The state of lockdown we all are currently enduring could either become a pause button or a window of opportunity to make some life-altering transformations. Such changes can only happen if there is political will to do so across the entire cross-section of the society. In this essay, I will strive to focus upon three inter-related aspects of our democratic existence. Conceptually speaking, democracy is composed of a substantive and a procedural component. The virus has implicated both these aspects and betrayed their precarious nature.
For how long, can we be mute spectators to the Machiavellian culture of tampering with mandates that have been decided with a certain definiteness? Should the ambition of a single individual or a single political party to gain power irrespective of the wider cost be given a stamp of legitimacy? I hope the situation in Madhya Pradesh proves to be an eye-opener in this regard: at the time of writing this piece, it is the sixth most-affected state in the country, with the third highest number of Covid-19 related deaths, as reported by the https://www.mygov.in/covid-19 website. Compromising with the rules of the game or the democratic procedures might substitute one set of power-elites with another, but in the ultimate it has dire consequences for the common citizens.
A key substantive element of a democracy is the essence of freedom. The incarceration of a television journalist in Mumbai reminds us once again of the very precarious status of our freedom to express and speak our minds in this country, especially when such expressions are backed up by hard facts and logical reasoning and not rhetoric and propaganda. I fear that democratic voice could easily be suppressed in the name of the Corona virus, and even after the pandemic has passed in the name of rebuilding our economy and society. Can we really hope to combat an invisible, hitherto unknown enemy, and, thereafter, make progress without the voice of civic reason being able to manifest itself freely and completely?
It is at this juncture, one might very well raise the following question: whereas, it is true that Covid-19 is an invisible enemy, why is it an unknown one? Although such a question appears to be rhetorical, closer examination would betray that the Corona Virus happens to be this alien force not because our scientists failed to apprehend it well in advance, but because of our imaginations have always been myopic. Let me belabour this argument. We have always thought and have been socialised to think that the human race is the most superior one on the planet. That we would be able to overcome any adversity we encounter. We cannot simply imagine the Earth without human beings (but hang on for a moment: did the dinosaurs think along similar such lines? Look what has happened to them now: they have become computer generated graphics for our entertainment!).
Since, we have always been so very confident about our collective immortality, we have always preferred our enemies to be relatable, and intimate — beings who we could ‘otherise’ without much effort. Hence, our history is replete with innumerable instances of man-made enemies based on religion, nationality, culture, caste, sexual orientation, so on and so forth. It does not take much effort. A demagogue (the great artists which they are!) can easily stand on a podium and point towards a certain people (and this group keeps on changing with changes in time and circumstances), whip-up our fears, our insecurities and paint these people as their real causes. But, can you do that with a virus, with a non-human/non-animal entity? No, you can’t. And, why not? Because, we have never thought of conceptualising a non-human/non-animal entity as a possible enemy. We have never been trained that way. Such elements are extended only limited recognition depending upon their utility for human welfare. This is why the Covid-19 proves to be an unknown, unfamiliar force wreaking havoc to our normalised lives. And, our imaginative failure has given it a free-pass to breach humanity’s collective vigilance.
However, frankly speaking it is rather ironical that we find ourselves in such a swamp! It is ironical because academic disciplines such as Political Science and International Relations have been warning us about the transformed nature of security threats for quite some time now: non-traditional security concerns that undermine human well-being have overshadow traditional security threats that are posed to the state. That being the case, why did India’s intelligence/security establishments fail to apprehend the tsunami of Covid-19? The answer proves to be rather intuitive: they were preoccupied till late-January in dousing the flames of conventional forms of security threats, stoked by a persistent politics of fear-mongering; the protagonists of which are our very own intimate enemies. Yes, those who we can see and relate to, with our naked eyes.
Thus, let me phrase the second key-takeaway in the form of the following interrogation: can we let the powers that run our democracy justify the suppression of freedom in the name of security, hereafter? The ongoing insecurity of our nation is exceptional not because of its novelty (the Corona Virus), but because people in-charge failed to envision that such circumstances could at all arise in the first place. Consequently, can we really consent to be led by people without foresight?
But, alas, given the short-sighted nature of our own lives it is difficult to expect that we will get out of our comfort zones any time in the near future. We will continue to repose faith in our leaders, who emerge from our blinkered society and hope that our lives will remain safe, secured, and that we will achieve good lives one fine day. But, when such aspirations are dashed the best we can do is ridicule the parochial representations we have in our legislatures, in our administrative, and judicial apparatuses, and vent our frustrations through memes and forwards on social media.
This contemporary predicament of ours is symptomatic of the thrusts of our knowledge production: for too long now, we have gone on to produce far too many Engineers and MBA’s (quite a few of them are fretting over losing their jobs due to this alien enemy at the moment) who are trained to exploit nature in the name of economic growth and governance! Our obsession with development as economic growth has been quite enervating, it has been a major cause for our short-sightedness. Covid-19 has bared to us yet again the indispensability of the humanities and the social sciences — that branch of academia, which teaches us how to think for ourselves, which trains us to be ever-ready with a question or two. If we continue to undermine them or sell them as commodities for an overtly covert purpose, it would be to our own collective jeopardy. Why do I speak of their relevance at this juncture? Well, a few paragraphs earlier I spoke about how our security establishments were busy responding to conventional threats rather than preparing for this alien virus, which mind you had already been wreaking havoc in China, our northern neighbours (yes, Pakistan isn’t the only country we share our borders with!).
Had we been more empathetic towards the role of the humanities and the social sciences, we would not have been drawing vicarious pleasure from the physical assaults that took place on the country’s premier humanities and social sciences institutions in the months of December, 2019 and January, 2020. Instead, we would have questioned the fear-mongering techniques that were on full-display twenty-four seven! Please do not forget that while we were distracted with different episodes of man-made violence: Jamia, JNU, AMU, Shaheen Bagh, East Delhi riots, the Corona Virus was destabilising lives of people in Wuhan. Our obsession with our intimate enemies have brought us to this day — all we can now do is wash our hands for twenty-seconds and religiously maintain social distance in order to survive!
Yes, religion! That ever potent opioid. For the past few years, religion has been used as quite an effective tool to drive wedges among Indians by fomenting narratives of ‘us’ and ‘them’, glossing over the real problems that face our society, such as rising levels of inequality, unemployment, access to quality education and healthcare. And, when a pandemic assaults such a society riven with fear and hatred, it is not surprising that it would be ill-equipped to deal with the contingent nature of the problem. To this end, Covid-19 has strangely been an enlightening force — it has betrayed to our pulverised intelligences, that God (no matter whose God it is) at the end of the day is as powerful as our own convictions, reasonable or otherwise.
Attempts to communalise the virus have thankfully been nipped at the bud in some regions, otherwise fanatics would have had a hard time ensuring comparative advantage of their respective Gods. As it stands, if God is good, and is meant to purge any kind of evil, then the carnage all around us illuminates that she or he has quite supremely failed at that task. That being said, I am no one want to totally dismiss religion as a social institution. It certainly has many positive influences on human beings (chief amongst which is to provide peace and solace to individual souls). However, I vehemently protest its politicization, which intoxicates even the most empathetic and tolerant person. This brings me to my third major takeaway offered by the present reality of suspended animation: the politics of fear-mongering does not serve the greater good in the long run. It needs to be immediately banished to the pages of history.
Covid-19 hit India at a point in time when it was already on an economic tailspin and socio-political unrest was on the rise. Given such a context, it won’t be unreasonable to expect that the fear of economic survival faced by the common man could overshadow the immediate threat presented by an invisible enemy. The real possibility of death en-masse due to a contagion would only ensure deterrence for a short period of time. Once the shock-and-awe fades, and people are resigned to their eternal, inevitable fates is when the efficaciousness of administrative measures, like the ongoing lockdown would really be tested.
The lockdown has already revealed that something as basic as access to food and even to reaching out to one’s homes are privileges and not matters of right in a democracy that is preparing to celebrate its seventy-fifth birthday in a couple of years from now. Weren’t we just legislating measures such as the CAA, and implementing administrative exercises such as the NRC to put an end to the bane of illegal immigration a couple of months ago? Let us for a second accept that such measures are highly necessary, and that a sovereign country must have a clear distinction between the legal citizen and the illegal immigrants. Covid-19 has uncovered the arbitrariness of that policy prioritisation — while we were on a mission-mode to solve the problem of illegal immigration did we forget about our own migrant population, our daily-wage labourers? Or, have they always remained invisible to us? We were on our way to becoming a five-trillion dollar economy without ever recognising the foundation that supports that very objective. We can only express our anguish when a train runs over migrants returning to their loved ones on foot. Some of us might even be enraged at their impudence (whilst we congratulate ourselves for bringing back Indians stuck abroad) — is a railway track meant for walking? Equality? Egalitarianism? Such words are meant to sound fine in that book known as the Constitution, in our op-eds, and on the Twitter handle of some-folks! I hope the Corona Virus has slapped us back to our senses. Only an extremely ungrateful lot would choose to shut their eyes again to such norms, and ideals!
Allow me to share with you, one last apprehension that has been troubling me lately: what prevents the norm of ‘social-distancing’ meant to flatten the Corona-graph from being perverted into a casteist, communal weapon that fuels violence both during this ongoing carnage, and even after the virus has been tamed? What is that safe-word or phrase? Go Corona Go? Some of you might argue that I am being unnecessarily cynical. I just hope that some of you are right. But, given our recent track-record of being extremely tolerant and kind towards each other, you would agree that my worry is not unfounded.
Moreover, since as a nation we are easily blinded by rhetorical performances and charismatic personalities leading to cult-worship, I fear that a magnetic personality could emerge in the near future and divide us in myriad ways we are not yet aware of. News of local level leaders trying to communalise the virus, especially from Uttar Pradesh, and some other parts of the country continue to pour in unabated to which our senses have already become immunised. Disruptions created by such kind of politics ultimately hamper the emergence of a spontaneous social resilience.
Efforts of our real-life champions, who are rarely celebrated like doctors and nurses, healthcare professionals and scientists, sweating it out at the frontlines trying to provide that glimmer of hope in these trying times; and even those who are keeping the essential services of the society alive, for instance people who work to maintain the hygiene and sanitation of our neighbourhoods, fruit and vegetable-sellers, food delivery-boys, people who work at medicine shops, and even the ever-maligned police personnel could all just be in vain, if we reboot our lives back to where we were and how it all was.
Covid-19 has laid bare that the Earth, which we inhabit is fundamentally designed for symbiotic intra and inter-species co-existence, as well as, an equilibrium between the animate and the inanimate. An economic meltdown though unavoidable is not insurmountable. However, if our politics does not change henceforth, if we do not start treating our compatriots and other species with life as ‘ends’ in themselves and not just as ‘means’ to our particular visions of ‘good life’, we would have failed to heed to the wake-up call that has been presented to us by the Corona Virus!
N.B. An earlier version of this article was published as a blog-post with the following title: ‘A Wake-Up Call’ by the Centre for Ethics, Politics and Global Affairs, Institute of Social Sciences, New Delhi on 29th April 2020.
Krishnamurari Mukherjee is a Doctoral Research Scholar at the Department of Political Science, University of Delhi and a Research Associate at the Centre for Ethics, Politics and Global Affairs, Institute of Social Sciences, New Delhi, India.