You shall dwell alone...
Vinay Lal | 27 Mar, 2020
(Illustration: Saurabh Singh)
THE SINGULAR INELUCTABLE fact about the worldwide political, social and cultural response to the coronavirus disease, officially designated as COVID-19 by the World Health Organization (WHO), is that it is utterly without precedent in the experience of any living person. Panic barely begins to describe the altogether extraordinary steps that states, local governments, municipal authorities, communities, corporations and other entities have been taking in nearly every country to halt the menacing global advance of the coronavirus and arrest the trainwreck it has left behind in bringing much of the machinery of the world to a grinding halt. Social history has often been written around ‘panics’, varying immensely with respect to their intensity, span of time, geographical spread and consequences. This would scarcely be the first time that, even in affluent countries such as the US, Britain and France, store shelves are being emptied out at a frenzied pace and that people are engaged in apocalyptic shopping. Nor is the coronavirus the first epidemic, or even pandemic, of modern times. It was in the late 1980s that the world awoke to something called acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (AIDS), a lethal health condition caused by infections resulting from the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV). Over 32 million people worldwide have died from AIDS in the last 40 odd years: however, even as it induced something of a scare, the vast majority felt distant from the calamity as it appeared to afflict mainly gay men and others engaged in high-risk sexual behaviour. Indeed, among many stern adherents of religious beliefs, the prevalent view was that AIDS was merely a sign from God that the sinful could not be absolved of their wrongdoings.
There have been many other viral panics as well: some, such as Ebola, taking its name from the Ebola river in the Democratic Republic of Congo where the disease first surfaced in 1976, before reappearing in a more deadly form in 2013-2016 and taking on the proportions of an epidemic as it spread to several countries in West Africa, faded from the world’s attention once it was firmly established that it was not going to jump continents. The toll of some 11,300 lives, all but one within Africa, was not going to unduly agitate a world that, deeply infested by racism, is habituated to the idea that Africa is largely a ‘failed continent’. Then in 2003 there was SARS, or severe acute respiratory syndrome, a viral respiratory disease caused by a virus that was transmitted via civets from bats to humans. The present coronavirus is likewise of zoonotic origin, and its kinship to SARS is signified by the fact that it is also known to the medical world as SARS-CoV-2. Though the fatality rate of SARS at 9.8 per cent is much higher than that of COVID-19, which is in the neighborhood of 2.5-3.4 per cent, it remained confined largely to mainland China, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Vietnam and Singapore, besides affecting a cluster of people in Toronto. Only a little more than 8,000 people were infected and fewer than 800 died: it had become to most of the world, outside East and Southeast Asia, where SARS may well have actuated a higher level of preparedness as the success of Singapore and Taiwan in containing the COVID-19 seems to suggest, a faint memory shortly after it fizzled out six months after its first appearance.
There is nothing akin in living memory to the unfolding narrative of COVID-19 and it portends something substantially at variance from ordinary human experience. Humankind is accustomed to catastrophes of much greater dimensions: we have only to recall that about 40 million people were killed in World War I and at least twice as many in World War II. The 14,000 odd deaths that have been claimed by COVID-19 as of present are nothing more than a footnote in the statistical register of preternatural death, though one might perhaps argue that the lurid numbers now being mentioned as the likely infection rate and consequent fatality rate in various demographic constituencies around the world should be enough to warrant the view that COVID-19 is no laughing matter. In her characteristically sober manner, German Chancellor Angela Merkel warned her fellow Germans that 70 per cent of the country’s 83 million people might get infected. Merkel may be disliked by some, but she is respected by many more, and her blunt assessment, along with an equally ominous advisory from the Imperial College London, was sufficient to awaken the US to the impending threat. The US federal agency, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), has since produced statistical models suggesting that if efforts at mitigation are not immediately taken, 160-210 million Americans could contract COVID-19, and in the worst-case scenario 1.7 million Americans might succumb to the disease.
But it is still something else that makes COVID-19 singular, distinct, novel and quite possibly sinister in our experience of the last 100 years. COVID-19 was first reported from Wuhan, in China’s Hubei Province, which has a population just short of 60 million, on December 31st, 2019. That report generated little or no alarm; the first death was announced 10 days later. Unbeknownst to the world, Wuhan was in the throes of an outbreak, and some more days would elapse before China sought to put into place stringent, and most would say draconian, measures to mitigate the spread of the virus. On January 23rd, the New York Times, while describing Wuhan as the ‘epicenter for a viral outbreak that is worrying the world’, nevertheless felt charitable enough to furnish a sketch of a city of ‘steel, cars and spicy noodles’ that embodied ‘the country’s surge from grinding poverty to industrial powerhouse’. That same morning, the Chinese authorities issued a notice in the early hours announcing the closure of all transport services in Wuhan, which with a population of 11 million is the largest city of Hubei province. By the end of the following day, nearly the entire province had been sealed off. Further orders on February 13th and 20th shut down all non-essential services, including schools, and a complete cordon sanitaire had been placed around a province with as many people as Italy, which has now acquired the unwelcome distinction of becoming the site of the largest outbreak.
Social isolation may be an unadulterated good from the standpoint of public health officials, but how does it help to put food on the table? The cloud of economic insecurity has always hung over the poor, and it will, with the spread of the caronavirus, only get darker and larger
What has transpired in Italy has perhaps been even more dramatic. At the end of January, only three cases had been detected in Italy, of which two were Chinese tourists. The patients were isolated and Italy moved to halt flights from China: Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte felt emboldened enough to declare to the world on January 31st, ‘The system of prevention put into place by Italy is the most rigorous in Europe.’ Nero fiddled while Rome burnt, it is said. The Italian Prime Minister’s only crime may have been complacence: while he was waxing eloquent on the competence of Italian authorities, an attribute which sits on them as water on a duck, the disease was slowly working its way through the population—undetected, unheralded, unheeded. Until nearly the end of the third week of February there appeared to be only a handful of cases; then, within days, these skyrocketed. The Coen Brothers have earned a name for themselves with their neo-Western crime psychodrama, No Country for Old Men (2007); but Italy, notwithstanding all the romantic associations that it evokes, is, to exaggerate but moderately, only a country of old men (and women). It has a negative fertility rate and a declining population; 23 per cent of its population is 65 years or older and it has the second-oldest population in the world. So what, one might say, except that the coronavirus gorges on the elderly, even as it does not spare the young. Forty per cent of nearly 5,500 Italians who have been felled by COVID-19 are over 80 years old and around 60,000 people are infected; at least a few Italian doctors have been candid enough to admit, as desperation mounts and hospital beds become scarce, that they have had to practice triage. If and when the dust from all this settles down, most societies will doubtless have to ask themselves if they were too quick to sacrifice the old to the young.
Grim as is this scenario of fatalities, Italy has come to present a still more forlorn picture in ways that presage the upheaval that the entire world is going through: first, the northern region of Lombardy was put under severe restrictions; then, on March 9th, the entire country was placed under lockdown, shutting down everything except some essential services, pharmacies and select supermarkets. Italians are a garrulous, gregarious and gestural lot: as a commonly known joke has it, the Italian spy who was caught and survived brutal torture without squealing later explained he was unable to talk since his hands were tied behind his back. The timid pundits of political correctness are squeamish about such stereotypes, but Italy’s citizens have now attempted to rise to the occasion by attempting to serenade each other behind the balconies where they endure their quarantine. (Our supposition should be that they can sing but not speak when their hands have been disabled.) Nevertheless, whatever the instinct of Italians to congregate and carouse, the country’s streets and famous piazzas are now deserted, and the world’s most popular tourist destination seems to have set the cue for the rest of the world. Over 50 countries, in recent days, have shut down universities, schools, amusement parks and museums and forbidden public gatherings—in many cases, for a month or longer. Most of Western Europe was headed in the direction of Italy 10 days ago; France and Spain quickly followed suit and imposed severe restrictions on the movement of people countrywide. In brief: all over the world, schools, universities and public and private institutions of every imaginable stripe—corporations, art galleries, government offices—have either ceased operations, or have, as in the case of schools and universities in affluent nations, moved to ‘remote learning’. And therein lies the singularity of the global social response to COVID-19: at the height of wars, disasters and national emergencies, ‘public life’ never came to a standstill. Londoners descended into the Underground as their city was blitzed by the Luftwaffe, but they emerged into the sunlight—when there is sunlight in the city of drizzle—and headed straight for the pubs. The bars in Paris remained open at the height of the Nazi occupation. But the coronavirus has necessitated, or appears to require if the advice of scientists and epidemiologists is to be accepted, segregation and isolation in extenso.
‘Segregation’ and ‘isolation’: ugly words and scarcely conducive to furnishing anyone with hope. To soften the blow, the global mantra of the moment has been reduced to just this: social distancing. There is something bizarre in soccer or cricket games being played without fans, but even that charade was dismissed after a day or two; sporting events aside, there are more frequent public gatherings that in everyday life that are rather more unavoidable. Experts, as they are called, differed on the largest permissible size of a public gathering, some suggesting that no more than 50 people ought to be allowed to congregate while others capped it at as much as 500. But most of these discussions were in turn rendered obsolete by the pace with which the coronavirus has been stealthily advancing and devouring its prey: this too is one of the most exceptional features of the contemporary discourse on the coronavirus, namely that most assessments of the day before seem as they were from yesteryears. The protocol has firmly moved to self-quarantine, mandated quarantine and social distancing. There may appear to be some precedence for all this in the protocols advocated by the WHO in 2009, when it designated the US-originated swine flu virus (H1N1) outbreak a pandemic, but though 12,469 Americans were killed and some 285,000 people died worldwide from the virus, it never generated mass hysteria. Researchers established that it was no more severe than the seasonal flu in most countries; at its height, the European Union’s health commissioner issued an advisory recommending that non-essential travel to the US and Mexico be postponed.
Indeed, for a precedent to the social response to COVID-19, we would have to turn to the influenza epidemic of 1918-1920. By dint of circumstances, it misleadingly came to be nicknamed the ‘Spanish Flu’: as it waxed and waned over the course of nearly three years, commencing in January 1918 in the midst of ‘the Great War’, Spain, which had remained neutral during the war, furnished the most reliable news to the rest of the world about the course of the epidemic. Oddly, in consequence, the flu became associated with Spain. The politics of how severe viral outbreaks are named is far from inconsequential, as the brazen attempt by American conservatives and most prominently Trump to designate COVID-19 as the ‘Wuhan virus’ or the ‘China virus’ amply demonstrates, but for the present ‘the Spanish Flu’ has a different tale to tell. Its death toll was staggering, somewhere, as recent research has established, in the vicinity of 50-100 million. Strangely, though this influenza pandemic killed more people worldwide than did World War I, it quickly became ‘the forgotten pandemic’—and remains so. Norman Lowe’s recent and widely used textbook that begins with World War I, weighing in at some 700 pages and unabashedly called Mastering Modern World History, has not as much as a mention of it. Nowhere did it strike as hard as in India, where poverty, disease, poor nutrition and the lack of preventive medical care rendered many—who can be differentiated along caste, class and gender lines—extremely vulnerable. Some 18 million Indians, about 7 per cent of the population of undivided India, are estimated to have died from this flu.
It is, thus far, not the mortality rate which makes the influenza pandemic of 1918-1920 the true predecessor of COVID-19. Modern medicine has doubtless progressed very far in the intervening century, but even then it was understood that the creeping invasion of the virus could only be halted by enforcing quarantine and social distancing. Holcombe Ingelby, Member of Parliament from Norfolk, UK, wrote to his son on October 26th, 1918: ‘If any of your household get the ‘flue’, isolate the culprit & pass the food through the door! It is rather too deadly an edition of the scourge to treat it anything but seriously.’ The Surgeon-General of the US, Rupert Blue, strongly advised local authorities to ‘close all public gathering places if their community is threatened with the epidemic’. The mayor of Philadelphia, then the third largest city in the US, ignored the advice; the mayor of St Louis, then the fourth largest American city, shut down ‘theaters, moving picture shows, schools, pool and billiard halls, Sunday schools, cabarets, lodges, societies, public funerals, open air meetings, dance halls and conventions until further notice’. The list of venues and institutions tells another worthy tale; what is more germane is that, at its peak, the fatality rate in Philadelphia was five times higher than in St Louis.
‘Social distancing’ may have been sound advice then as it is now, but ought we to leave the matter solely in the hands of epidemiologists, doctors and the politicians who are urging us to follow science wherever it takes us? There is some evidence that WHO may have been hasty in designating the H1N1 swine flu epidemic as a pandemic. In May 2009, four months into the outbreak of the virus, WHO was still considering whether it might elevate the epidemic to a pandemic. Its website noted that ‘an enormous number of deaths and cases of the diseases’ were critical to an understanding of what constitutes a ‘pandemic’, but when a reporter pointed out that the swine flu had also been described as mild strain of the H1N1 virus and that seasonal flus had often been deadlier, WHO removed the wording from its website. Subsequently, WHO was also criticised for being too receptive to the advice of experts who, it turned out, had ties with the pharmaceutical companies that had been working to produce a vaccine. In their reconstruction of how the swine flu outbreak came to be designated a pandemic, writers for the German magazine Der Spiegel observed that ‘influenza researchers’ were ‘elated’ when WHO raised its warning about the epidemic to phase 5, the penultimate stage before it achieves the appellation of a pandemic. They quote the well-known scientific researcher, Markus Eickmann of the Phillips University of Marburg, “A pandemic—for virologists like us, it’s like a solar eclipse in one’s own country for astronomers.”
Thomas Kuhn may have argued eloquently that scientists are overwhelmingly engaged in ‘normal science’ nearly all the time, but in the common imagination the history of science continues to be written mainly in the register of heroism, a narrative often swirling around intrepid and tireless researchers. But let us leave aside this strand of the argument and grant, following the evident success of China in containing COVID-19, that draconian measures, designed to achieve complete ‘social distancing’, are required to similarly halt the advance of the virus in the rest of the world. That China has this achievement to its credit is laudable, but every commentator is also alive to the fact that China is an authoritarian state where the writ of the party runs supreme. The state can commandeer resources at will and the penalties for defiance of the law are prohibitive for all but the human rights activist who is indifferent to his own fate or is willing to play the martyr. This is a country where a 1,000-bed hospital for those struck by the coronavirus in Wuhan was built from the ground up in 10 days—a matter of pride, no doubt, for every Chinese, just as the very idea is unfathomable to people in any other country, more particularly a liberal democracy where it may be months before even a green clearance permit is issued and where the state’s right to eminent domain is constantly challenged in courts. The implication, from the standpoint of mainstream public commentary, is unambiguously clear: ‘social distancing’ is more easily achievable in an authoritarian state than in a democracy, or where the notion of the collectivity prevails over the idea of the individual.
The politics of self-quarantine is that the poor, recognising that they are wholly unwanted, have long been practised at social distancing. They are all but invisible to most of society and they are generally quarantined at birth
The exponential growth of cases, first in China, then in Italy and Spain and now in the US, would appear to warrant proportionately extreme remedies. That China appears to have succeeded in containing the coronavirus where Italy, with a population that is less than 5 per cent of the population of China and a death toll that is twice as much, has not would appear to vindicate the authoritarian state. The Chinese Communist Party’s (CPC) main organ of opinion, People’s Daily, unambiguously if not pompously endorsed this view with its declaration, quoted with fulsome approbation by no lesser a steward of capitalism than the Wall Street Journal, that ‘China’s battle against the epidemic showed that the CPC, as China’s ruling party, is by far the political party with the strongest governance capability in human history.’ Supposing that China, which no one would mistake for an open society, is now telling the truth, it is also the case that the self-congratulatory assessment by the CPC does not account for the various egregious errors committed by the CPC in the early days and its obfuscation of what was transpiring in the country until events compelled it to share some information with the world. The report by the WHO of February 28th, which details its joint mission with China to assess COVID-19’s impact on the country, is more candid in suggesting that China’s ‘exceptional’ success in ‘containment measures has only been possible due to the deep commitment of the Chinese people to collective action in the face of this common threat’. Neither must one overlook the equally if not more exemplary illustration of the containment of COVID-19 by South Korea, which unlike China did not force tens of millions into quarantine and self-isolation and abduct or kill those reporting on COVID-19’s rampage as it tore through Chinese society, but rather ‘flattened the curve’ by a sensible if rigorously conducted mix of education, mass testing, screening of airports at passengers, educational programmes and the mobilisation of the entire civil society.
HOWEVER, THE PROBABLE economic, sociocultural and political implications of the coronavirus, for democracies in particular, are critically important matters but require an extended treatment that is properly the subject for another essay. On the question of social distancing, it is also important to recognise that, as the essayist Rebecca Solnit has written in A Paradise Built in Hell: The Extraordinary Communities That Arise in Disaster (2009), ‘In the wake of an earthquake, a bombing or a major storm, most people are altruistic, urgently engaged in caring for themselves and those around them, strangers and neighbours as well as friends and loved ones.’ Our instinct, in the face of emergencies and extreme trials of moral fortitude, is to band together, to seek and offer solidarity and forge communities of cohesion. One of the greater calamities of COVID-19 is that, contrary to what we are ordinarily called upon to do when confronted by a grave disaster, it demands of us that we isolate ourselves from others, build fences and forgo the often intimate and unspeakably beautiful pleasures of touch. The sick, moreover, revive with skilled and attentive medical care; they get even better when they are surrounded by family members and trusted friends. Most likely in every society known to us, the bond between grandparents and grandchildren resonates with sweetness and a love that is often more difficult for parents to lavish upon their children—more particularly when they are scrambling, as many people in the world are, to make ends meet or are merely frazzled by the often excruciatingly boring and numbing activities of everyday life. But the elderly have unequivocally been pronounced to be among those who are most vulnerable to COVID-19, and grandparents and grandchildren are being torn apart. The media is already full of surreal and morbid accounts of last rites of coronavirus victims where family members come clothed in full body suit and protective gear one by one to gaze upon the supine body of their loved one at a distance of six feet. Relationships that have endured the test of time will, one expects, survive the ordeal of ‘social distancing’, but any discussion of the phenomenon that fails to go beyond a clinical, medical or epidemiological view of the matter is woefully inadequate in its comprehension of human conduct and the burning need for sociality.
Once we are past this argument, the questions of self-quarantine, isolation and social distancing beg for further scrutiny. The practice of quarantine is first recorded in the Old Testament, in the Third Book of Moses called Leviticus: it allows us to think of Moses not only as the great lawgiver of the Jews, but as the community’s first public health czar. The text describes in detail the social treatment of someone suffering from what the New English Bible renders as a ‘malignant skin-disease’ but the King James Version rather more plainly and appositely describes as leprosy. A person appearing with the symptoms associated with the disease is ‘a leprous man, he is unclean: the priest shall pronounce him utterly unclean; his plague is in his head’. The leper is then enjoined to pronounce himself ‘Unclean, unclean’ and the text continues: ‘All the days wherein the plague shall be in him he shall be defiled; he is unclean: he shall dwell alone; without the camp shall his habitation be’ (14:44-46). The text is not without ambiguity: though the ‘leprous man’ is compelled to cry, ‘Unclean, unclean’, it is not altogether clear whether he was also forcibly removed or had to remove himself from the company of others—somewhat in the manner of what the US Citizenship and Immigration Service does, when, allowing some to deport themselves from American shores rather than be forcibly deported, it gives all concerned parties the chimerical satisfaction of a democratic outcome by issuing an order of ‘voluntary departure’.
The word ‘quarantine’, which is of mixed origins deriving both from Latin (quarentena) and French (quarenteine), itself lends further colour to the present practice: it signifies a place to which Jesus retreated and where he fasted for 40 days, as well as a period of 40 days set aside by Catholics for fasting or penance and, in later usage, a period of 40 days of isolation imposed on people to prevent the spread of contagious diseases. The idea of isolation and distancing is common to these multiple meanings: the collective and subliminal memory of the antecedents of quarantine, and its association with fasting, penance, and cleanliness, may explain the impulse, precipitated by the coronavirus and now on display everywhere in the Judeo-Christian West, to hoard food and toilet paper. What is also indubitably the case is that we in India too have long been familiar with self-quarantine and social distancing: the Manusmriti and the other Dharmasastras stipulate that the Sudra must clearly announce his polluting presence to others and thereby facilitate their withdrawal from his presence; in South India the practice of requiring the Sudra to ring a bell before making his presence in public so that even his shadow might not defile the upper castes was all too common.
The notion of ‘self-quarantine’ has, in the wake of COVID-19, overnight become not just part of our daily vocabulary but also acquired a regal place in the lexicon of altruism. High-profile politicians and famous personalities have informed the world that they have gone into self-quarantine for the recommended period of two weeks on the mere suspicion that having had contact with a person who has tested positive for the coronavirus, they may have likewise become infected. Their gesture sounds, and doubtless is, unimpeachably altruistic: it is an assurance to those who are near and dear, to concerned communities, and sometimes to the world at large, that the person seeks to protect others more than protect oneself. What could be more noble than to place the welfare of others before one’s own convenience and well-being? When contemporary political discourse revolves so overwhelmingly around rights and entitlements, it is refreshing to see that some are still sworn to upholding the notion of duty to oneself—since, in the view of every religion, we are called upon never to abandon our station in life, even in the face of utmost despair—and to one’s family and the larger web of communities to which one may be obligated.
Self-quarantine would, then, appear to be both a model and admonitory instance of the exercise of moral responsibility, cautioning would-be violators that their irresponsibility may spell dangers for others. The poor, the unemployed, the blue-collar working class and others who live at the margins of society do not, of course, announce to the world that they have gone into self-quarantine. There is a growing concern that the poor and those surviving on working-class wages may be disproportionately and severely affected if social distancing necessitates the shuttering of not only corporate houses, government offices, but shops, small businesses and various kinds of contract work. The number of daily-wage workers in India is huge, and loss of wages for even a few days can lead to a difference between one meal or two meals every day for family members. The vast majority of India’s labouring class lives without any form of insurance—and by this I mean not merely medical insurance, but the insurance that can come only with a social safety net and the comfort that derives from having something in reserve for penniless times—and an extended period of ‘social distancing’ would be nothing short of ruination for many. That is also very much the case in the US, which, in spite of extraordinary levels of affluence, has 82 million people with little or no medical insurance and a large working-class that lives from one paycheck to another.
Ebola faded from the world’s attention once it was established that it was not going to jump continents. The toll of some 11,300 lives was not going to unduly agitate a world habituated to the idea that Africa is largely a ‘failed
While these considerations are wholly legitimate, my point about the politics of self-quarantine is that the poor, recognising that they are wholly unwanted, have long been practised at social distancing. They are all but invisible to most of society and they are generally quarantined at birth: as they reach adulthood and fight their way into a gritty existence, they perfect the arts of self-quarantine. The social oddities of social distancing are doubtless transparent in every society: one would only have to question, besides the hundreds of millions of Dalits, Adivasis, many Muslims and the poor in India, African-Americans, native Americans, Australian Aboriginals, the Roma, the Japanese Burakumin or Eta (literally, ‘pollution-abundant’) or countless other groups who have been commanded to distance themselves from their alleged superiors to divine this gruesome social fact. As for the self-quarantine of the rich, the educated and those with a voice, it is, we may say, only an extension if not merely an instantiation of what the influential French philosopher Michel Foucault identified as a technique of the self-government that, structurally conjoined to the government of the state, he identified with the term ‘governmentality’. The Zurich-based philosopher and historian Philipp Sarasin helps us understand why ‘self-quarantine’ is the logical outcome of the biopolitical governmentality whose contours Foucault explored in detail: as he points out, it is in the late 18th century and early 19th century that the belief emerged that ‘it is largely to the individual him- or herself to determine health, illness or even the time of death.’ Since that time, the liberal state has been spectacularly successful in inducing people to regulate and discipline themselves: not only does this free the state to exercise its coercive powers against those who are troublemongers and truly recalcitrant, but it helps the state to foster the illusion of being ‘progressive’, preserve the social order and immunise capitalism against its dissenters.
There is yet another critical aspect to the question of social distancing. The ‘whole of her sermon’, EM Forster says of his character Margaret in his novel Howard’s End, was ‘Only connect!… Live in fragments no longer. Only connect, and the beast and the monk, robbed of the isolation that is life to either, will die’. It is very likely, indeed I should say that there can be little doubt, that modern society is hounded by the problems of loneliness and atomistic individualism. The public discussions on this question are prolific and there is reason to suppose that the difficulties are more acute in some societies, but there is everywhere a rather commonplace view that the decline of the family has contributed to severe atomism. Even in families that are not dysfunctional, the phenomenon of every member of the family glued to his or her cell phone is ubiquitous and requires no elaborate commentary though educators, psychologists, social workers, counsellors and other alleged experts have filled reams of pages with overwhelmingly mindless commentary on how to alleviate this ‘problem’. It is really unnecessary to enter into these debates, which on the whole can safely be left to pop psychologists and run-of-the-mill sociologists: the more sophisticated versions of these debates have alerted us to some of modernity’s more salient features, such as the processes of secularisation and disenchantment which have given rise to possessive individualism, the split between cognition and feeling, the evisceration of (to use the language of EP Thompson) a ‘moral economy’, the evolution of technologies of the state—the census and the passport, to name just two—which had no purpose other than to produce differentiation, establish new hierarchies and erect walls—and the myriad ways in which differences between self and other were sharpened. The effect of all this has been to produce intense loneliness in many societies, especially in the modern West, and this loneliness has been so acute that those who cherish their solitude are not left in peace. We choose our solitude, and those who are, if I may put it this way, versed in solitude can even find it in a crowd. But no one chooses to be lonely: it is the fate of those who must live in a society torn apart by anomie, estrangement and distancing—from one’s self, community, and moral purpose. The gist of it is that, in the face of COVID-19, we are now being asked to ‘only disconnect’—and this when ‘distancing’—isolation, self-absorption, narcissism, social distancing—has been the bane of modern society.
A fuller comprehension of the politics of ‘distancing’ that COVID-19 has brought to the fore would also require a detailed analysis, of which I can furnish only a few clues at this time, of the geopolitics of fencing borders: no one is predicting that COVID-19 will lead to the dissolution of the European Union, but it is striking that one country after another in Europe started sealing its borders from its neighbours. Nearly every country in the world has sealed its borders from others: friend and foe are all the same. Countries desire nothing more at this juncture of COVID-19’s peregrinations than to distance themselves from one another. Globalisation was touted as making the world smaller, but the ease with which the coronavirus has moved from one territory to another, wholly indifferent to borders or variance in political regimes, is tempting even some of globalisation’s vocal cheerleaders to question the wisdom of their enthusiasm. There was even a time, not so long ago, when commentators such as Francis Fukuyama—moved by the crumbling of the Berlin Wall, the fall of the Soviet Union and the rush in the countries behind the Iron Curtain to embrace laissez-faire capitalism—were inspired to pontificate about the end of history. Western liberal democracy shored up by the free market evidently represented the apotheosis of universal human history: if the consumer could be given ‘choice’ at the supermarket, nirvana was at hand and it scarcely mattered whether the otherworldly messiah was Jesus, Mohammad, Krishna, the Buddha or even the Communist Party. Other commentators of a different political persuasion were bold enough to suggest that supranational entities, such as the UN, the World Trade Organization and the European Union, had rendered the nation-state obsolete. The rise of ethnic nationalism and political authoritarianism in nearly every part of the world has in recent years greatly diminished all these arguments for globalisation; now, with the coronavirus on the loose, there is reason to suspect that some people are preparing to write globalisation’s obituary.
One might have thought that those who abide by the view that reason is everything would have paused to reflect that COVID-19 has perhaps appeared as a warning to humans who thought they had achieved mastery over nature that they are still far from being able to exercise control over the course of events
There is a yet greater sense in which the coronavirus careens towards mostly unexpected outcomes and alerts us to the ever-growing arc of distancing that has upended the relationship of humans to nature. The COVID-19 cataclysm has a cosmic dimension with many implications for our understanding of climate change. It is scarcely surprising that the already massive reporting on COVID-19 has focused largely on either the measures—from washing hands and staying at home if one has a cough and fever to imposing quarantine and social distancing—that might be taken to diminish infections and halt the spread of the virus, or on the immense economic repercussions of its global spread. The economists, whether in India, the US, Britain or elsewhere are still debating whether their country’s economy, and the global economy, has slid into a ‘recession’. The economists long ago established their redundancy but, as the proverb goes, one can take the horse to a stream but one cannot make it drink. The corporate and business elites point to the precipitous decline of the stock market, with the Dow Jones sliding by 12.93 per cent on March 16th for its worst-ever loss on a single day since the Great Depression of 1929, the trillions of dollars wiped out with the market selloff over the last four weeks, the decimation of the airline industry, and billions lost here and there. Those at the middle end of the economy, whether in Europe, Asia or the Americas, have every reason to lament the closure of businesses, the decline in sales, the loss of profits and the slim prospects of a quick recovery. Their concerns hover around, for example, the implications of the economic fallout for the college education of their children or how the economic downturn might affect their plans for the purchase of a car or home renovation. Among the working-class, whether employed in low-paying if steady jobs or as daily-wage labourers, or slogging it out in the so-called gig economy, the economic concerns, to which I have alluded earlier, are more immediate and the fear is palpable. Who is to pay, for instance, for 14 days of quarantine? If infections rise in India, where testing has barely commenced, by the tens of thousands within days, will the poor be accommodated at all in a medical system that is already overwhelmed? How will the poor pay for treatment over an extended period of time? Social isolation may be an unadulterated good from the standpoint of public health officials, but how does it help to put food on the table? The cloud of economic insecurity has always hung over the poor, and it will, with the spread of the coronavirus, only get darker and larger.
While the economic considerations that weigh so heavily with so many people are thus wholly understandable, it is nevertheless the brute fact, all the more ominous in view of what creeping climate change portends for humans (and indeed all other species), that we still remain utterly captive to ideas of growth, productivity and consumption. There have been at best feeble attempts to mitigate consumption, and it may even be argued that Amazon has singlehandedly played what can only be described as a monstrously criminal role in increasing consumption levels worldwide. Thomas Carlyle was being much too kind when he described economics as a ‘dismal science’, but debatable as my proposition may be to some, it is incontrovertibly true that economists have a womb-like attachment to the idea of ‘growth’. The economist who advocates for anything but growth—oh, yes, the ‘kind’ and ‘sensitive’ ones want less uneven growth, or development with a ‘human face’—is nothing but a pariah to his or her profession: if one wants to learn ‘social distancing’, the group of troglodytes known as economists would have something to teach the epidemiologists, virologists and healthcare practitioners now struggling to contain and mitigate the coronavirus.
Airline travel has come to a virtual halt. Oil sales have plummeted. Factories have come to a standstill. Cars are no longer being rolled down assembly lines at a dizzying pace. A large number of containers are lying at ports around the world, with little or no prospects that the goods will find their way to the intended recipients before weeks or even months elapse. The economy of every country has already taken a huge hit, and the global economy as a whole will register a steep decline in growth when the data becomes available in due course. Viral capitalism has, at least for the present, met its match in the viral pandemic. Why should all of this, however, be construed and mourned as an unadulterated evil? The Enlightenment philosophers grappled with the question of the presence of evil in a world made by God, occasioning a lively debate around a massive earthquake that struck the city of Lisbon on November 1st, 1755 and all but levelled the city. Nearly a fifth of Lisbon’s population of 200,000 was at once wiped out, and no church of any significance remained: among a devoutly Catholic people, that alone was sufficient to raise questions about the inscrutability of God’s ways. However, as is the case with the present writer, one does not even have to believe in God, much less subscribe to theodicy, to arrive at the understanding that there are laws of compensation that govern the world. Since human beings have been so obdurate in clinging to their wasteful and destructive ways, and the political, corporate and managerial elites have, taken as a whole, been so wholly oblivious to the pressing questions of climate change, nature has had to find some other way of recompense. The earth needs rest as much as we do. The Puranic imagination in India has never been shy in pronouncing upon the fact that the earth needs to be relieved from time to time of the immense burdens placed upon it by humans. Perhaps we needed a microbe to jolt us from the anthropocentrism to which humans are shackled at their own peril.
The scientific-minded and slaves of reason will doubtless quiver and take umbrage at any interpretation of the emergence of the coronavirus, its passage around the world and the ways in which we might begin to comprehend what is unfolding before our eyes that is not bound to the evidence and the opinion of ‘experts’. It is enough for us to wash our hands, no less than with soap for 20 seconds, as often as is necessary or possible; restrain ourselves from engaging in reflex actions that are second nature to us—touching our eyes, nose and face; observe a distance of six feet from any other person; refrain from patronising a business, restaurant, museum: only follow the guidelines and we as a people will be healed. A miraculous cure of sorts is on offer for a beleaguered humankind. One might have thought that those who abide by the view that reason is everything would have paused to reflect, howsoever slightly, that COVID-19 has perhaps appeared as a warning, not even a very much disguised one at that, to humans who thought that they had achieved mastery over nature that they are still far from being able to exercise control over the course of events. Perhaps COVID-19 really loves us after all and its display of affection might manifest itself in our renewed ability to live in solitude, engage in face-to-face conversation, find pleasure in a book and, often most difficult of all, find common cause with family members. For now, at least, we won’t have the luxury of being able to say that we don’t have the time for all this, will we?