Science and civil society in the year of the plague
Vinay Lal | 26 Mar, 2021
A coconut vendor during the lockdown in Chennai, April 2020 (Photo: Reuters)
‘WHAT DO YOU THINK?’ Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai is reported to have been asked by Henry Kissinger in a conversation in the early 1970s, ‘of the French Revolution?’ ‘Too early to say,’ the Chinese leader replied. It has been said by some that he was referring to the 1968 student revolts in Paris rather than to the cataclysmic events of 1789, but a good story must never be allowed to go to waste. Zhou Enlai may as well have been replying about the French Revolution, considering that the ideals—liberty, equality, fraternity—ushered in by what Edmund Burke memorably deplored as the ‘cashiering of kings’ have been pronounced by the sitting president of France as under threat.
One year into the coronavirus pandemic, notwithstanding the easy confidence with which many are saying that the world has been dramatically transformed, it seems far more reasonable to aver that it is too early to say what has been changed by a pathogen that insinuated itself into the lives of so many people and communities and for some months nearly brought the entire world to a standstill. Many journalists and writers, sensitive to how numbers numb, have sought to humanise the story of the carnage wrought by the coronavirus. Every country has its share of doctors, nurses and other healthcare workers toiling on without respite as in the early months of the onslaught bodies were wheeled into hospitals one after another. There are accounts of patients who appeared to be in perfectly good health and resounding spirits, only to be dead 24 hours later, and others who recovered at first but have since collapsed into a state of prolonged agony and discomfort characterised as ‘long Covid’. Who is likely to forget photographs of families bidding farewell to the dead while dressed in hazmat suits?
The lore around creativity has it that poets, writers and artists find their calling best fulfilled amidst adversity. To human beings, the virus appears as an infernal agent of suffering, disease and death, but when functioning as a living organism it is bound to do whatever it can to survive, thrive and paralyse resistance: dodge every bullet, find new hosts, and multiply. The sheer audacity with which the virus has worked its way into the sinews of society, mutating and deceiving, is but—however loathe we are to admit as much—an ode to life. The virus is a player, invisible to the eye but alas more than a bit player, in the cosmic plan. There is a metaphysics of the virus: as the epidemiologist Tony Goldberg of the University of Wisconsin-Madison, US, has written, ‘If all viruses suddenly disappeared, the world would be a wonderful place for about a day and a half, and then we’d all die—that’s the bottom line. All the essential things they do in the world far outweigh the bad things.’ The world as we know would cease to function without viruses: they are, Goldberg explains, the ‘major predators of the bacterial world’. These bacteria-devouring viruses, or phages, help maintain the equilibrium of the oceans, which produce around half of the world’s oxygen—and yet, ironically, those struck by the coronavirus are left gasping for oxygen.
Among the critics of the lockdown the more general position has been that most nations acted foolishly in copycat emulation of others that went into lockdown. On the other side, the inclination has been to argue that governments could have enforced quarantines much earlier and been more attentive to public health measures. The debate is unlikely to be settled anytime soon
Once we are past the poetry, biology and metaphysics of the virus, or rather of this virus known to the scientific community as SARS-CoV-2 which turned into a lethal pathogen that causes a disease called Covid-19, we are nevertheless back in the realm of numbers—and they have been overwhelming. Almost 121 million people are known to have been infected by the coronavirus; the actual number may be considerably higher. Nearly 2.7 million people have died from Covid-19 around the world: a fraction of the 50-100 million estimated to have been killed during the influenza epidemic of 1918-1920, and that at a time when the population of the world was about one-fourth of what it is today, but equally after a century of scientific and medical advances of unprecedented scope. In the US, the coronavirus has hollowed out the population by 0.15 per cent, a number which takes on a different meaning when we are given to understand by the demographers that life expectancy has diminished by exactly one year, almost entirely in consequence of coronavirus fatalities. The International Labour Organization (ILO), in its late January briefing, notes that global unemployment increased by 33 per cent in 2020. Many of those who lost work, or were rendered inactive, rejoined the workforce later in the year; but even allowing for such revisions, ILO reports that the ‘equivalent’ of ‘244 million full-time jobs’ were lost in 2020 ‘relative to the fourth quarter of 2019.’ If these numbers seem alarming, consider that school closures globally by the end of March 2020 had put 1.52 billion students out of school. In some countries, children have yet to return to school.
As I have written earlier in the pages of this magazine, what is wholly unprecedented is the extent to which the entire world moved, with remarkable speed once the World Health Organization (WHO) had declared an international public health emergency, in near unison to effect a global ‘lockdown’. It would be superfluous to enumerate the steps taken, from the closures of airports, schools, museums and non-essential retail businesses and the transition to online learning and the rapid expansion of digital technologies to facilitate virtual office environments, to mitigate the spread of the coronavirus as they have now become part of our collective memory. The pandemic has evidently touched all aspects of our life, altering how we shop and travel, our conception of what constitutes work, the workspace, and the institution that we call the office and our notion of community and the idea of proximity; it has similarly compelled many others to re-evaluate their relationship to their family, reflect on what is more enduring and what is perhaps fleeting and ephemeral in human relationships, and perhaps accelerated the concerns that have been growing over the last decade over the pace of climate change. Musicians, theatre actors and dancers may be contemplating on the future of their art practices; architects are likely to ponder on how design may have to reflect a future where other pathogens produce yet greater constraints on human mobility. Just what might be, as the first anniversary of the pandemic is upon us, a few of the questions and the long-lasting effects that are likely to emerge as being of critical importance?
THE STATE AND CIVIL SOCIETY
‘If you’ve seen one pandemic, you’ve seen one pandemic.’ So goes an aphorism common among epidemiologists. By this token, every pandemic is distinct; and yet the distinctness of the coronavirus pandemic can be seen differently, as a comparison with the ‘Asian flu’ (H2N2) of 1957 and the ‘Hong Kong flu’ (H3N2) of 1968 suggest. Each had a staggering mortality in the vicinity of one million, though excess deaths from the latter may have topped around three million. Astonishingly, there is barely a trace of either of them in history books and even coverage of them in newspapers of that time was exceedingly sparse. There is no evidence of any state intervention either in 1957 or 1968, much less intervention on the gargantuan scale that we have seen in 2020—nothing to suggest that countries en masse went into lockdown; closed schools, shops, businesses and offices; and required tens of millions of their citizens to place themselves in self-quarantine.
The pandemic has evidently touched all aspects of our life, altering how we shop and travel, our conception of what constitutes work, the workspace, and the institution that we call the office and our notion of community and the idea of proximity
Though many opinions have been expressed about the idea of the ‘lockdown’, they are distinguished from each other only by the extent to which the lockdown is viewed as having been enforced in haste, much too slowly, inefficiently, piecemeal, without adequate thought on the suffering it would impose, and so on. Perhaps only among a fringe of the far right in the US might one hear the view that the very idea of a lockdown is anathema and that one should never have been imposed at all—certainly not in the US nor even, to the extent that those committed to radical anarchic thought disown the very idea of the state, in the rest of the world. But among the critics of the lockdown the more general position has been that most states acted foolishly in copycat and unreflective emulation of others that went into lockdown. Once a few had taken to the idea, others instantly fell in line. On the other side, its ranks generally filled with those who are of liberal disposition, or consider themselves moderates within the political spectrum, the inclination has been to argue that governments could have taken less of a laissez-faire attitude, sealed their borders and enforced quarantines much earlier, and been more attentive to public health measures. On this view, the greater public good was unnecessarily sacrificed to the tyrannical hegemony exercised by the idea of the economy. The debate is unlikely to be settled anytime soon, and it may be more productive to think of what the pandemic augurs for the future of the state and correspondingly for individual autonomy and the liberties of common people and especially marginalised or minority communities.
It appears, a little over one year after the first lockdown in Wuhan and Hubei province in China, that states relative to civil society have everywhere been strengthened by the pandemic. China scarcely required the pretext offered by the pandemic to tighten its grip over subject populations or impose punitive measures upon those viewed as recalcitrant to state authority. Indeed, in some parts of the Muslim world, the emergence of Covid-19 was at first viewed as God’s revenge against China. No less a person than Ahmad Issa Al-Masrawy, who is chairman of the Committee for the Recitation of the Quran and Professor Hadith at Cairo’s Al-Azhar, the world’s pre-eminent seminary for Sunni learning, tweeted to his nearly 1 million followers on January 26th, 2020 thus: ‘After China isolated more than 5 million Uighurs, today the whole world is isolating China because of the spread of the deadly corona pandemic among the Chinese and the fear of spreading the infection.’ Allah, in his infinite wisdom, had countered one lockdown with another. When the virus spread beyond China, this line of thinking had to be quickly abandoned—but that is another story: one about how religions, including Islam, have sought to explain the pandemic to their followers. In moving beyond the example of China, it still beggars the imagination to suppose that any entity other than the state could have offered a coordinated response to a crisis of the present magnitude. In democratic and authoritarian countries alike, the state moved in to furnish relief to the economically vulnerable, shore up faltering businesses, maintain the public healthcare system, initiate systems of testing and contact tracing, develop regimes of quarantine, and enlist the aid of medical personnel, scientists, researchers, social workers and myriads of people engaged in services marked as ‘essential’ to mitigate, contain and now suppress, with the aid of vaccines, the coronavirus.
The state represents, however, far more than a benign aspect when we consider the various ways in which it has opportunistically used the pandemic to augment its power. The pandemic has enabled new regimes of surveillance, placing individual liberties as much as the wellbeing of marginalised communities in jeopardy and aggravating the drift towards the exercise of untrammelled power that is palpable in many parts of the world including established democracies. Most countries, as documented by Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Covid Tracing Tracker, have availed of sophisticated tools of surveillance, among them biometric monitoring, face-recognition technologies, artificial intelligence, mandatory contact-tracing apps on phones, and extensive use of CCTV cameras and drones. Furthermore, most countries have also passed ‘emergency’ (and judicially non-reviewable) legislation on the grounds that the unprecedented threat posed by Covid-19 can only be defused by similarly unprecedented consolidation of the state’s power and resources. Unfortunately, under such ‘emergency’ conditions, much of international human rights law is derogable just as judicial review of government action is also foreclosed. Minority rights are further at risk: for example, the Roma have long been scapegoated in Europe and there are many reliable reports of Roma people being evicted from the perimeters of towns in many East European countries as well as France and being blamed for introducing the disease to the continent.
There are many other highly objectionable features to both emergency legislation and these new regimes of total surveillance, but a few considerations will suffice. First, there is no question that the technologies in question are highly intrusive and can make deep inroads into the private lives of individuals. Second, there is a long history of allegedly ‘temporary’ emergency legislation, across a wide swathe of political systems, and most evidently of course in countries prone to authoritarian rule, becoming permanent. It is always necessary to remind ourselves of Lord Acton’s dictum that ‘power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely.’ Third, and most critically, emergency powers are almost invariably used to both stifle political dissent and suppress social and political movements far removed from the ostensible emergency at hand. India’s uneasiness with political dissent offers a striking illustration of this argument. On March 12th, 2020, the Government invoked through ordinance—a measure that in colonial India without exception signified the arbitrary and unchecked exercise of power—provisions of the colonial-era Epidemic Diseases Act (1897) which had been passed in response to the bubonic plague that had begun to make its way into the interior from Bombay. The widespread resistance to the Act, which allowed the colonial state the undisputed right to board ships, trains and vehicles on the road and remove people and place them in isolation or confinement, is in itself a remarkable story. More to the point of the present narrative, the announcement on March 24th of a countrywide imposition of curfew with the promise of large fines and prison terms for offenders was to lead, on that very night, to the complete effacement of the political murals and makeshift structures put up by protestors in December 2019 around Jamia and Shaheen Bagh in response to the Citizenship (Amendment) Act.
It is no surprise that China, having over the course of 2018-2019 been largely unsuccessful in its attempts to crack down on dissent in Hong Kong, deftly used the pandemic to distract the world’s attention and crush the resistance movement in September 2020
In a similar vein, it is no surprise that China, having over the course of 2018-2019 been largely unsuccessful in its attempts to crack down on dissent in Hong Kong, deftly used the pandemic to distract the world’s attention and crush the resistance movement in September 2020. In Hungary, Prime Minister Viktor Orbán had already set the country on the road to what he infamously called ‘illiberal democracy’ long before Covid-19 struck, and he capitalised at once on the pandemic to push through a law on April 1st, 2020 that suspended elections and allowed him to govern by decree indefinitely. Even as the country’s economy has witnessed a deeper contraction than any other in central Europe, he has remained wholly unfazed by dissent within Hungary and criticism from the European Union. As the world slowly begins to emerge from the pandemic, it will become necessary to understand how and to what extent, in countries spanning the spectrum of divergent political systems, the fundamental freedoms of speech, movement, dissent and assembly have been retained or compromised. We are also called to reflect upon a set of complementary questions just as critically important: what new public institutions and new forms of international cooperation may be required to position civil society as a bulwark of strength and solidarity relative to the state? Has WHO, set up at a time when the principal public health measures were shaped by the will to eradicate diseases such as smallpox and polio, outlived its usefulness when the contemporary threat seems to be emanating from man’s aggressive encroachment on nature’s preserves? Italian political theorist Giorgio Agamben, having in mind Nazi Germany but more generally the historical conditions that have permitted the state to assume total powers, argued that ‘in every case, the state of exception marks a threshold at which logic and praxis blur with each other and a pure violence without logos [reason] claims to realize an enunciation without any real reference’. Nevertheless, even if one agrees that the ‘state of exception’ is the ground on which repression is staged, is it not also the case that emergencies can seed new forms of solidarity? If the 20th century was the century of total war, is it not also the century that witnessed the creation of a new architecture of mass nonviolent resistance? The pandemic has become an occasion to think about how we may craft new solidarities and grammars of protest and thus ensure that the notions of individual liberty and the integrity of communities are not compromised.
VACCINE IMPERIALISM, ANTI-VACCINATION, AND SCIENCE
Rich countries, as everyone knows, have been hoarding vaccines. Many of the richest or most powerful countries, among them the US, Germany and Canada, have purchased three times as many doses as are needed to fully inoculate their populations. Much like rich people, they don’t bother denying that affluence merits entitlements; it is merely a fact of life and no country feels the moral imperative to be apologetic when its own people have been through some suffering. Though ‘vaccine imperialism’ has become a more intense subject of discussion in the last few weeks since the vaccine rollouts started accelerating in some countries, widening the gap between, on the one hand, Britain, the US, Israel and the oil-rich Bahrain and the UAE, where a comparatively significant percentage of the population has been partly or fully vaccinated, and, on the other hand, countries such as Egypt, Uganda, Sudan, Venezuela and Vietnam where vaccination is negligible or yet to be commenced, the script for the grave inequity which marks the political economy of vaccination was written much earlier. The antecedents of the script lie, in the first instance, in the histories of colonisation; second, in the supposition—which, notwithstanding all liberal protestations to the contrary, remains true to the present day—that the lives of white people are materially speaking, if not intrinsically, more valuable than those of coloured people; third, in the political economy which under conditions of liberal modernity has, if anything, sharpened the distinction between ‘haves’ and ‘have nots’; fourth, in the indisputable, if to many people not wholly visible, fact that the West still exercises a considerable dominance in most domains of research and has carved out an empire of knowledge; and, last, in the circumstance that the inequities being witnessed today in the vaccine stockpiles that nations have acquired merely echo the inequities encountered in previous iterations of the vaccine race (such as in 2009 when ‘swine flu’ was declared a pandemic by WHO).
Minority rights are further at risk: for example, the Roma have long been scapegoated in Europe and there are many reliable reports of Roma people being evicted from the perimeters of towns in many East European countries as well as France and being blamed for introducing the disease to the continent
In a Malthusian universe, it would be enough to admit that some people are more disposable than others, and the idea of prioritising the vulnerable for vaccination would be construed as either inexplicably bizarre or as driven by a false sense of compassion. A politically astute reader might thus object that the privileging of (besides those in the medical profession) the elderly and of people with underlying medical conditions, a disproportionate number of whom in the Western countries are ethnic minorities, in the administration of vaccines gives the lie to the claim that ‘whiteness’ or wealth is perforce a road to entitlement. Nothing in that argument contravenes the hierarchies that prevail in relations between states, and similarly the prioritisation of the vulnerable is less a mystery than one might imagine. Among those with underlying medical conditions or ‘comorbidities’, a disproportionate number are also those who, besides being coloured, are classified as essential workers—labouring as low-paid healthcare workers, drivers, housekeepers and janitorial staff. Much as slums or poor shanty towns are never very far from elite neighborhoods in every country, if only because the rich cannot do without the services of the poor, the seeming altruism of the state is intensely purposeful, designed to entrench rather than diminish class hierarchies. Consequently, there is no reason to suppose that vaccine imperialism only defines relations between states and that it has no bearing on intra-state relations between classes. If altruism was in any measure a factor in international relations, the world would long ago have devised an agreement that all doses would be administered by an international agency to the vulnerable irrespective of nationality and that in like manner the subsequent rounds of vaccination would be carried out throughout the world with attentiveness only to parity.
Much more might be said about vaccine imperialism, vaccine nationalism or vaccine diplomacy. The terrain is amply rich for discussion even if one can predict its contours. What is far more intriguing, unsettling, perhaps of greater import, and to some degree inscrutable, is the question of resistance to vaccination. Many are the reasons for such resistance in the US. There is a small group of anti-vaccine activists who oppose all vaccination—not just inoculation against the coronavirus, but what is often called ‘routine vaccination’ against measles, mumps, rubella, polio and tuberculosis. Among them, some claim a link between vaccine and autism; others claim that the risks of vaccination outweigh the benefits. There is another constituency of those who, while not adverse to routine vaccination, have signalled a resolute unwillingness to accept an anti-Covid vaccine. Among them some argue that the vaccines have been developed in haste and have not been adequately tested on humans. Commentators and scholars explain that the reluctance of African Americans to be vaccinated stems from a long history of abuse by scientists and medical practitioners of Black people and the instrumentalisation of the Black body in the apparently holy cause of scientific advancement. Liberals have also attributed resistance to vaccines to obdurate Americans, overwhelmingly Republicans, who are resistant to state-administered medicine. In what is the called the QAnon universe, a world rife with conspiracy theories, one rumour that has been circulating widely is that the jab delivers not just a dose of the vaccine but a microchip that permits the state to monitor the recipient’s movements.
The resistance to vaccination is a global phenomenon, and the opposition to vaccination is being led by France rather than the US. In a World Economic Forum survey conducted in late December 2020, only 40 per cent of French respondents expressed a willingness to get vaccinated, compared to 77 per cent in the UK
There is but no question that resistance to vaccination in the US is thus also animated by a long history of deep suspicion towards the state. However, the resistance to vaccination is a global phenomenon, and the opposition to vaccination is being led by France rather than the US. In a World Economic Forum survey conducted in late December 2020, only 40 per cent of French respondents expressed a willingness to get vaccinated, compared to 77 per cent in the UK. Some of the reasons for such resistance are common everywhere, notably a concern that testing protocols were compromised in the haste to produce vaccines. In India, some strict vegetarians have expressed strong opposition to vaccines on the grounds that the vaccine is contaminated by animal product, however infinitesimally small; similarly, whether in France, India, the US or elsewhere, there is among those who subscribe to a holistic conception of health and wellbeing considerable uneasiness with the idea of injecting synthetic or chemical substances into the body. The more radical animal rights activists have long objected to the inhumane treatment to which monkeys in particular are subjected in the quest for vaccines. There is also a sustained critique of modern medicine that lays stress on its industrialised and highly corporate character, and the pervasive links between hospitals, scientific and medical foundations, the pharmaceutical industry, and big business. The point here is not to establish a complete inventory of everything that animates the anti-vaxxers; rather, it is to suggest that it would be all too easy to dismiss them as irrational, thoughtless, selfish or plain stupid. In the scientific and medical communities, the anti-vaxxers are subjected to criticism since their purported thoughtlessness introduces potential difficulties in the way of achieving herd immunity.
The ‘revolt against reason’, as the anti-vaccination movement is generally characterised, points to the highly ambivalent position that science, some 500 years after the way for its hegemony was paved by the likes of Francis Bacon and Isaac Newton, still occupies in modern society—even in the West. The pandemic has, on the one hand, been a boon for science. Though the science around the virus has been, in the cliched formulation, ‘evolving’ and therefore made people somewhat wary of scientific advice that at times has seemed groundless, uncertain or contradictory, it has nevertheless been an extraordinary time for virologists, structural biologists, epidemiologists and many other medical practitioners and scientists. Many claim that more work has been accomplished in the feverish race to develop a vaccine over the course of one year than in the previous two decades. There is an expectation that the development of the vaccines will raise immensely the profile of science in the public imagination. Yet, on the other hand, it would be a pity if the pandemic were not used to reflect on just exactly why it is that the scientific revolution which in the conventional narrative launched the modern world, and so effected the separation of the West (before, if we continue to accept the received view, the rest of the world followed suit) from the shackles of unthinking faith and superstition, has not quite yet established a complete dominion over the thinking of humankind. It may be that science cannot satisfy the deepest aspirations of many people; it may be that, even as people are thankful of the blessings of science, they are at least dimly aware of the fact that science cannot resolve all our problems, and that indeed scientists alone cannot be left to resolve some of the difficulties that have arisen in consequence of the dominion of science in the first place. The question is whether modernisers and scientists, in the wake of the widespread anti-vaccination movement, will deign to see that there may after all be some notion of logos in the ‘revolt against reason’.