YESTERDAY WAS ANOTHER day. Far from the spreading morbidities of the present. Remember that day when the comfort of denials allowed us to carry on, to board a plane, still tolerate a sneeze, and to look at the masked ground staff and warning boards with a shrug of the immortals? A time when we read about the wet markets of Wuhan with the curiosity of those who lived on the other side of a mysterious planet, as if the imponderables of remoteness made us feel even more precious? We were teased by the phonetics of virology—and that funny nomenclature— and in the end, we thought from the cosiness of distance that these crazy pathogens were too foreign to afflict us. Before we made social distance the universal mantra of global togetherness, geographies kept us safer from the maladies of others. It was long before the stranger was a suspected carrier, an asymptomatic threat to civilisation. Yesterday was innocence, about being soothed by a million assumptions.
The return gaze accentuates what we have lost, what we have taken for granted, what we have thought to be the normalcies of a familiar world, and where we have reached—or where we have been brought by the unknowns. Among the many realisations of the return gaze, some make us a part in a tentative experiment involving state, citizenry, community and ethical as well as
This experiment is political. Suddenly, as we are pushed from the plateau of certainties to the brink of existential revelations, the struggle for power has become inseparable from the value we attach to human lives. This kills a cliché, for a while at least. They didn’t value life; the unnamed mass grave was a dialectical necessity in the pursuit of a just society; death was a statistic, and attaching humanity to the inanimate was a sign of sentimentalism—or so we were taught by revolutionaries and reformers, which they were all as they set out to change the world they had conquered.
It takes a virus to change the reality and perception. Journalism is busy rating the virus busters, but what is more interesting is how the virus busters are rating themselves. The best of them—not counting autocrats and leaders of curated democracies—are those who have adapted to the ethical exigencies of politics. Saving lives is not a rhetorical flourish any longer; it is a measurable achievement in governance. The winners reach there by, first, passing the ethical test set by the citizenry. As much as the obeying citizen accepts the relativity of individual freedom, the demanding ruler strikes a balance between ethical accountability and executive powers.
Science may finally defeat the virus. We are in that stage where politicians are setting the parameters for science to succeed. For politicians, the choice is not, as the headline writers have oversimplified, between lives and livelihood. A passable alliteration, but an unsustainable comparison as one cannot be sustained without the other. The leader who vindicates himself or herself in the time of war or a pandemic is not necessarily the one who makes the right choice between the two, but one who realises that he or she cannot afford to be trapped in such alliterations. There is no choice. There is only the urgency of being an ethical human. In a system that is kept receptive to the fears and hopes of the living by experts, the ethical leader convinces us that life is not a choice but the only responsibility of power.
This has to be more than a change of attitude. It is an unlearning. Yesterday, our anxieties were a secret in paranoid regimes. (They still are in places where every citizen is a potential suspect in the conspiracy against the wise state, and that place is not just China.) Yesterday, it was not our anxieties that made the most measurable difference in a democracy. Today, it is our anxieties that shape the future, and propel ethical leadership. If we believe that our sacrificial urge is mandatory for the general good, that giving up in calamitous times is equal to being alive, it shows how far we have travelled—and how far the ethical leadership has travelled with us, and gained our faith.
In normal times, freedom was singularly defined by the struggle against power. Today, the humanisation of power, at its most inspiring moment, is a joint project undertaken by the ethical leader and the sacrificial citizen. Anxiety, wrote the philosopher, “is freedom’s possibility; this anxiety alone is, through faith, absolutely formative, since it consumes all finite ends, discovers all their deceptions.” Today, from our existential confinement, we, in our return gaze, realise that it is the possibilities of freedom that sustain our faith. And our faith won’t be wasted if the struggle against a pathogen becomes a purifying rite in politics.