“It isn’t all that bad”, exclaims my 56-year old uncle, with type-2 diabetes. As he reassures his family that the world isn’t experiencing a ‘crisis’. And it isn’t. Pollution levels are low, rivers are clean. We’re learning to live rather with peace in the midst of a silent storm. If only the fittest may survive, it is important to ask— for how long do we plan to trick it by locking ourselves in? And for how long can we give up on our freedoms?
It’s like we’re part of a modern-day, dystopian Schrodinger’s thought experiment. The cat can either be dead or alive and we don’t know it yet- but what if it went missing? Like in the Douglas Adams novel, as it no longer desires being subjected to the ‘box’? We see strains of this as people like Elon Musk tweet “FREE AMERICA NOW”. It encourages many in the US to boycott health restrictions and let the free market soar.
Today we fight an invisible enemy with medical practitioners and nurses at the forefront. The world is at a standstill, economies are crashing and people are dying. How do we then define the worth of our personal and political freedoms in the face of arbitrary surveillance strategies and rising neo-fascism- knowing that our socio-economic systems have failed us. And who do we trust at a time when our own smartphones don’t belong to us?
The Perplexing State of Affairs
The novel Coronavirus was declared as a pandemic by the World Health Organization at the end of January 2020. But what makes it unique is that it poses an immediate threat to the rich. The marginalised no longer suffer alone because they can infect their oppressor. It is true that the virus seeks “not profit, but proliferation”, and so it doesn’t ‘discriminate’- but we still do. Everything is political, and so the worst affected will be those with lesser socioeconomic privilege.
Like Ranil Wickremesinghe remarked, “we’re at a global crisis without a global leader.” We cannot deny that times are uncanny, but what alarms the global community is the incompetent leadership sprouting across the so-called democracies. Apart from lying, gaslighting and capitalising on neo-fascist trends, these leaders threaten democracies and liberties at a time when only human lives were supposed to be at stake. And no, making beverages out of bleach won’t help.
Surveillance states coming to life
Foucault, in his volumes of the History of Sexuality (1976), uses the concept of biopower. To note how after the seventeenth century, political technologies were used to ensure higher discipline and control in society. “Right of death and power over life,” the idea was to maximize the human body’s use while rendering it docile. Biopolitics, coupled with panoptic ideas of surveillance, as a method of control proved effective back then, and now we see it penetrating our modern-day life.
So much that it seems absurd to think about our daily lives without forms of state surveillance. It is an indispensable tool of exercising biopolitics. And as for this year, we cannot fight a pandemic without straightforward interventions. But would it be naive not to ask- who controls this system of private information and ensures its safety? How do we know our own information (which is now a rightful possession of the state) isn’t used against us?
That being so, the future- one we can only hope for–can be worse than the current era of insignificant privacy. This gains a fair momentum. This is due to the presence of leaders who enjoy the citizen’s individual liberties and freedom of expression very little. For instance, the Aarogya Setu app. Launched by the current government in India, was only meant as a tool of tracking the diabolical virus.But privacy experts in the country raise alarms suggesting devastating misuse of personal information–which is now being pre-installed in every smartphone for reasons that won’t be communicated. We see the Indian government taking in political activists as prisoners of the anti-CAA agitation and those who dare to ask questions, thereby escaping fair trials for justice.
The aim ‘on paper’ is to tackle a pandemic. Yet such increasing interventions are encroaching upon individual liberties and further strengthening forces of biopower. The world in 2020 seems more like a George Orwell novel, but what’s scary is that it is no longer surprising.
Our systems in decay
To say that we were “free” after the discontinuation of colonialism is an overstatement. But today, we look at a failed world order: one, that aims to exploit global suffering to bolster its economic self-interest. The problem with capitalism really is that it allocates resources not for a population’s need but economic privilege, and more often denies people their own humanity.
Preceding Covid-19, 87 million people in the United States of America were uninsured and more than 3,000 died every year because they couldn’t afford to see a doctor. Post the outbreak, we see the “greatest country in the world” in disarray with a bleeding system of healthcare. Businessmen like Donald Trump dismiss rectifications like it’s a choice. A healthcare system that feeds off the misery of its own people cannot sustain itself when the economy goes in shambles.
This obsession with the free market isn’t new, but it has acquired creative names. Concealing capitalism behind the veil of ‘liberty’, more precise, ‘neoliberalism’ (or as some call it, ignorance) rationality sweeps away the remnants of science. Europe became the epicentre of the ghastly disease. Leaders like Boris Johnson and Mark Rutte suggested the concept of ‘herd immunity’ to let the virus impact populations for them to become immune to it. However, the measure was definitely beyond science and proved ineffective.
We have systems in place that were designed not to protect but rather exclude. And if you’re one of those being left out, it’s not only nobody else’s concern but also your own fault. The eternal cycle of oppression and marginalisation seeps into other areas of life. And a grey area turns into a gaping, bottomless void of apathy and self-interest in the hearts and souls of those who can afford not to bother. Hence, ‘herd immunity’ is the same form of abuse meted out against the more vulnerable. It is termed, by some modern-day scholars, as a form of ‘epidemiological neoliberalism’. Today our world order quantifies pain and turns it into working capital.
This is the era of bad policy decisions. During a crisis we should not disregard its reasoning and its eventual consequences. Bill Gates in a TED Talk in 2015 warned us about ‘Biological Warfare’. “If anything kills over 10 million people in the next few decades, it’s likely to be an infectious virus rather than a war,’ Gates said during the Ted Talk. ‘Not missiles, but microbes’. For all we know, these “policy” decisions could be put in place to speed up the cause for such biological weapons used by those hungry for more power.
Social distancing or solidarity?
People have been ‘social distancing’ for ages as intolerance has always been meted out against the “outsider” or the “weaker”. It’s rather easy for people to call it the ‘Wuhan virus’ and discriminate against the Mandarin but racism doesn’t conclude at someone’s nationality. It targets a population for its physical appearance. In March of 2020, a woman from Manipur was spat at and called “corona” by two men on a motorcycle in the national capital of India. It is far from surprising how this pandemic has resulted in exaggerated forms of outright bigotry and racism against people of Asian descent not only in India, but across the world.
And as the disease spreads, so does the fear of being infected and its stigmatization. But can a nationwide lockdown with a four-hour notice in a country like India resolve issues in our complex social realities? Are xeroxing western healthcare measures and locking ourselves in mean that we’ve aced a pandemic? India saw countless migrant workers and daily-wage labourers out of jobs. Many had no source of food or revenue and some even died.
This points to how our ideas of ‘social distancing’ take a halt where we distance ourselves from the rest of the world. This micro idea, driven by self-interest, refuses to acknowledge that we’re a country beyond enumeration if at all the crisis has already hit us. What to do with the dead bodies of those who weren’t counted as dead? ‘Physical distancing’ is definitely a better term for instituting healthcare measures. But does it ensure social solidarity at a time like now when we need it more than ever?
The coronavirus is often compared to the Spanish flu of 1918 or even World War-II. It suggests that our societies are in extreme distress. It is true that fear is an effective tool for paralysis. Societies, right now, are nothing but collective forms of naked life- as there is nothing but survival to look forward to. The enemy penetrates our personal and public lives more than ever. But as Giorgio Agamben writes, “what is a society with no other value other than survival?”
Talking about this pandemic has felt like screaming into a void. Our fears materialize when we see a nation break out in a frenzy for their charismatic leader who won’t submit vital answers while improving modes of draconian surveillance or when men inject disinfectants as their leader calls a deadly disease a conspiracy of the left. Such times do call for solidarity- both at home and globally- and letting the market free from control isn’t the solution.
Whether we like it or not, outrage is becoming a way of life. It’s how we position ourselves in society and that’s how we demand the right to what’s truly ours–the right to subject ourselves to reality. And to claim that autonomy we should not give up on questioning authority and what it tells us. Everything is political, even during a health crisis. And if not ensure, we should at least not completely give up the ideas of social solidarity and justice.