Notes from the lockdown: How we view and experience consequences of coronavirus outbreak reveals society's schisms
Circulating better and faster than any other commodity in global markets; the coronavirus has outpaced human responses in a world in which borders are policed as vigorously as in previous eras; anti-immigrant politicians more popular than ever before; and most importantly, where the border between the rich and poor is worse than it has even been in global history.
The showers of last evening cleaned out the remaining of Delhi’s usually toxic air. The first, decisive blow had been struck of course by the national lockdown of nearly a week ago. Unaccustomed to the freshness, lungs jerkily expanding as I step into my yard, I untangle the wind chime that has been twisted out of shape by the storm, playing a little with its bars. Face heavenward and smiling a little idiotically, I turn back towards my room. The cobalt blue skies, the unseasonal winter chill in late March; and most welcome of all, the preternatural silence — gifts we have been given suddenly and unexpectedly by the coronavirus outbreak.
I am not alone in thinking of this time as a series of benedictions.
Social media posts on slowing down, do-it-yourself spas; and getting back to the pleasures of gardening and star-gazing are flooding my timelines; the consensus is there has never been a better time for self-care. People are sharing inspirational poetry from Neruda to Rumi, a colleague has started writing (shockingly good) poetry herself; one Facebook group posts ‘simple recipes for a complicated time’. Families flung across the globe are getting off news channels and into Zoom and Houseparty; the giggles of my four-year old niece in Ottawa trill delightfully into my parents’ house for the first time since she was born. Nobody is locked in the death grip of the daily work commute; online delivery services have resumed after a hiccup; and a friend called to marvel at the five different types of bird calls she had recorded on her phone that morning.
Most unbelievable is the emptiness. In this country of 1.3 billion humans, the crowds have vanished. Bodies etherised from the streets as if they never existed. For people of my father’s generation and political inclinations, this is nostalgia — a throwback to the discipline of the Emergency and the two wars they have lived through. For me, as a woman, this is simply and profoundly a reprieve. A time to walk solitary, unseen, un-touched, and un-followed in this otherwise belligerent city, just to buy milk, assured of a miraculous gap of 1.5 metres from the next customer.
Reflexively, as I return from fixing the wind chime in the yard, I double lock my bedroom door. I have never done that. This is my yard, inside my gate, inside the compound of my colony, well-loved by its residents for its ‘security’. The fortification of our little kingdom has increased if anything in the lockdown, the guards having been given orders to not let anybody in. And this in a city that has already fallen still and orderly; at a time when lathi-wielding police are swarming the streets. Why did I do that? I become aware, for the first time, of a subliminal terror of losing everything; I who was meditating on the transience of life and the ephemerality of possessions just last evening. Nothing is OK.
With the paranoid prescience of the privileged, I know that I am breathing my fresh air along with nearly a billion others who have just been pushed over the edge. Unbidden images had taken over my dreams last night anyway; the rickshaw puller cycling all the way back to Bihar; the boy of 17 beaten by the police for daring to leave his home looking for work; the delivery men assaulted by the well-sanitised occupants of high rises in Gurgaon; the Manipuri woman spat on and called "coronavirus" in Delhi last week. The stories are legion, and those of us with the time and bandwidth are consuming them breathlessly like we are consuming everything else, even in these times of scarcity.
Viewed one way and as so much of the commentary has claimed, the pandemic has brought the world closer. Medical research is being shared rapidly across national divides, governments appear to be speaking to each other on hotlines; and international organisations are united in their distress. So much information — both medical and otherwise — that was previously paywalled by gatekeepers in the global North is publicly available, and one can assume the consumers of this vital information in the South outnumber those in the North by millions. With the affluent nations falling disproportionately prey to COVID-19 (so far) and their superior health care and welfare systems looking suddenly tattered; the vulnerabilities of the developing world are suddenly ‘global’. One popular WhatsApp post in India is gloating at the fact that with the Prime Minister of Britain having contracted the virus, running the country may now be in the hands of two Indian-origin British politicians.
The empire strikes back; the virus flattens the world.
Or does it? COVID-19 has in fact lethally deepened an old split; and my inflated lungs and deflated heart reflect it perfectly. There is no peace to be had easy in this world; and this has nothing to do fears of the actual disease, of contagion, of scarcity and specifically of running out of toilet paper (as a South Asian it is difficult to keep the smirking out of this). After three decades of the so-called novelty of “globalisation”, it is the novel (corona)virus that has globalised itself better than the halting, broken, splintering trans-nationalisation we have seen in this period. Circulating better and faster than any other commodity in global markets; the virus has outpaced human responses in a world in which borders are policed as vigorously as in previous eras; anti-immigrant politicians more popular than ever before; and most importantly, where the border between the rich and poor is worse than it has even been in global history.
With all this circulation of risk going around (whose origins lie firmly in the extractive prowess of late capitalism and the obliteration of wild-domestic barriers rather than in closer human contact through regular migration, as this article amongst others has powerfully argued), here is what the split looks like, in real terms. On the one side are those who are going to dig their heels in, retreat into their corners of real estate, consolidate their savings and social capital; and wait for this to pass. Face masks are optional. On the other side is everybody whose lives have been turned upside down. Which is not to say that they were doing well before the pandemic and the global recession hit. Rather, these are those who have fought their way into the nooks and crannies of the economic system, dirt still under their fingernails. People who have survived previous global and local crises (Mumbai train blasts?) by dusting themselves off and getting to work the next morning; being applauded by the national media for their ‘spirit’.
This time around though, they haven’t been asked to show their spirit. Their bodies seem no longer indispensable to keep the wheels of the world turning. All our bodies are dangerous; and bodies that are forced to mass together for work or residence are particularly dangerous. At one level, the lockdown and the manner of its announcement (stern speech by a bearded patriarch) demonstrates with precision how well the epidemiological mirrors the social in India, steeped in caste and class divisions. As many have noted, we are awfully good at this, old hands at enforced segregation along the lines of purity and pollution. “Hygiene”, social distancing, hierarchy, and coercion — marching in lockstep as they have done for millennia. In this culture, the viral (pun intended) video of police lathis being sanitised is so apposite, that like God, if it didn’t exist, it would need to be spoofed into existence.
At a larger level, the question begs itself: how many humans does it take to keep the system running?
Put another way, when most of the planet’s able bodied workforce is in quarantine, what system of wealth creation will take the place of labouring bodies? Because let us not lose sight of it at a time like this — wealth will be produced. Resources will be extracted, deployed, and consumed. What resources will those be? Already, it is clear that without the “prosumers” of e-commerce (us) continually shopping online, the giant supercomputers that convert our consumption patterns into valuable big data will gather rust. Thus, these websites along with their inescapable physical infrastructure, have been brought back online.
Stock markets will need to keep hustling speculation across the globe; they have been practically bouncy on some days of the lockdown. The military and paramilitary will keep getting fattened by arms purchases and technology transfers — as demonstrated nicely with our sweet deal with Israel the day after the lockdown. Governments and bureaucracies will need to be protected even further from the public, because the long-term political consequences of an economic meltdown like this can’t be pretty. Did we hear of an underground tunnel from the Prime Minister’s residence to Parliament in the 22,000 crore central vista plan approved three days after the lockdown? If not, take this as my humble contribution to the nation’s progress.
Slowly, yes, the bodies will reappear on the streets, in factories, in call centres and on mass transport. Not all of them will return to their previous places of work; nor their previous lives. The desperation will continue for a very long time; governments will shuffle taxes and benefits around without convincing anybody but their most ardent supporters that they have a solution. The social contract will be re-written endlessly until a new equilibrium is achieved, and one can assume that it will have little to do with ecological equilibrium. Some of us will emerge refreshed, if we manage to avoid the pandemic altogether — both medically and economically. But for most of us, the “choice” will be what it has for over a century now: between blue skies and a decent meal. No prizes for guessing what we will “choose”.
Sunalini Kumar is associate professor, School of Global Affairs, Ambedkar University
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