A global plague, political epidemiology and national histories
Migrant workers on the move in New Delhi, March 28 (Photo: AP)
COVID-19 HAS made diarists of many of us, but the Englishman Samuel Pepys (1633-1703), who lived through the Great Plague that struck London in 1665-1666, was a prodigious keeper of a diary that remains unrivalled in its depiction of the daily life of a well-heeled and influential man living in times of turmoil and pestilence. Pepys might well have been writing about the pandemic that has crept upon us: there is an uncanny resemblance to our times in his observations of how an epidemic insinuates itself among a people, the measures that were undertaken to effect its containment and mitigation, the pallor of death that hangs over an entire society when plague strikes and what a plague brings out in a people and a nation.
Pepys commenced his diary on January 1st, 1660 and on October 19th, 1663 first mentions the plague as having reached Amsterdam. The following year, on June 22nd, Pepys recorded that there was ‘great talk’ at the coffee house which he was fond of frequenting of ‘the plague [which] grows mightily among [the Dutch], both at sea and land’. On July 25th, his visit to the coffee house yielded ‘no news, only the plague is very hot still, and increases among the Dutch’. What impresses most thus far is that there is no intimation of the plague coming to the shores of England: perhaps the island was shielded, after all, from every pestilence coming from the Continent. Yet Pepys, Member of Parliament and Chief Secretary to the Admiralty, whose reforms would play a significant role in transforming the English navy, to the extent that the Royal Museums Greenwich website states that he is ‘often described as ‘the father of the modern Royal Navy’’, would have known that the plague sails with ships—and that England was not likely to be spared.
Another year and the rats had made their way to the city as his entry for April 30th, 1665 shows: ‘Great fears of the Sicknesses here in the City, it being said that two or three houses are already shut up. God preserve us all.’ June 7th was ‘the hottest day’, Pepys wrote, that he had ever felt in his life but the afternoon brew he had at the ‘New Exchange’ did little to cheer him up: he did in Drury Lane ‘see two or three houses marked with a red cross upon the doors, and ‘Lord have mercy upon us’ writ there—which was a sad sight to me, being the first of that kind that to my remembrance I ever saw.’ Henceforth, the plague would very much be on Pepys’ mind: three days later he describes himself ‘being troubled at the sickness’ and thinking that he should put his papers in order ‘in case it should please God to call me away’. Those households where the plague had claimed a victim were evidently marked, so that others might keep their distance from them: it was, as an aside, this very idea of the untouchability of those homes that the Swiss businessman Henry Dunant invoked to mark the inviolable sanctity of those carrying out relief work when he founded the Red Cross. But with every entry Pepys adds something new to our understanding. That the plague had made its way into the city, and into his own life, is brought home to Pepys when, on June 10th, he is troubled ‘mightily’ to discover that it should have begun at the home of his ‘good friend and neighbour’s, Dr. Burnett in Fanchurch Street’—and that five days later the number of dead should have risen to ‘112, from 43 the week before’.
There, in Pepys’ account of the creeping, sometimes sinuous, rise of the plague, which before it petered out in late 1666 had claimed perhaps as many as 100,000 Londoners, wiping out a fourth of the city’s population, we begin to see the contours of so much of the present writing on the coronavirus pandemic. His invocation of its simultaneous proximity and distance is striking: ‘but where should it begin’ but at the home of a friend, Pepys writes, and yet five days later he has already moved into the enumerative mode, counting the number of the dead; indeed, as days yield to weeks and then to months, he displays an obsessiveness with recording the weekly toll of dead displayed on the ‘Bills of Mortality’ plastered on city walls. The plague grew (in Pepys’ favourite word) ‘mightily’: the number of dead in one week, the entry for July 31st states, had gone up to ‘1700 or 1800 of the plague’, and by the week that brought August to an end, ‘7496’ had died in the city, ‘6102’ of the plague: but it is feared, Pepys would state, as if in anticipation of the uncertainty with which the mortality count from the coronavirus is being placed before us, ‘that the true number of the dead this week is near 10000—partly from the poor that cannot be taken notice of through the greatness of the number, and partly from the Quakers and others that will not have any bell ring for them’. We want to know, always, the ‘true number’: is it out of a fidelity to the truth, a trust in numbers, the fear of the waves crashing upon us, as a social fact to be used to some end or in the scarcely acknowledged morbid fascination we experience in seeing the numbers shoot up and thus reminding us that we are living in the midst of a momentous event that is truly one for the history books? Should we be surprised that, in Wuhan and New York City alike, the number of those dead from the virus has been revised upwards, and that the bell will not toll for the poor when they drop off like fleas?
Amidst the callousness of state policy, the country had also been offered a masterclass in understanding what it means for the gigantic working class of India to be without a social security net, to be utterly adrift in a world not of their making
“A single death is a tragedy, a million deaths are a statistic,” so Stalin is alleged to have said, and it matters not a jot if the apophthegm is apocryphal. Statistics produce one kind of distancing, but the entry for September 14th in Pepys’ diary points to the other registers of moral distancing. The dead were being carried past Pepys as he took to the streets for his walk; the alehouse that was his other abode was shut up; and then perforce he had to ‘hear that poor Payne my waterman [river worker] hath buried a child and is dying himself—to hear that a labourer I sent but the other day to [the London borough] Dagenhams… is dead of the plague and that one of my own watermen, that carried me daily, fell sick as soon as he had landed me on Friday morning… is now dead of the plague—to hear… that both my servants, W Hewers and Tom Edwards, have lost their fathers… of the plague this week’: all this put Pepys ‘into great apprehensions of melancholy, and with good reason’. The dead are pitiable; it is also their closeness to him that makes Pepys feel apprehensive, and for a moment even contemplate the loss as his own; and yet he must distance himself from them lest they should contaminate him. As a man of considerable means, much like the superwealthy in California and Manhattan’s Upper East Side who have fled for their country homes or private yachts in the wake of Covid-19’s onward march, Pepys could settle his wife in a country home and himself retreat to the countryside when the occasion demanded—though not without some sleight of hand. Word of the plague had spread and people were ‘afraid of London, being doubtful of anything that comes from thence or that hath lately been there’, and Pepys found that he had no expedient but to say that he ‘lived wholly at Woolich’.
WHAT IS MOST remarkable, however, in Pepys’ recounting of the Great Plague is that even as the disease continued to decimate the city, he carried on with life as usual. He was up and about town, stopping by the stationers, settling accounts with merchants, stocking his cellar, exchanging political gossip and dining with friends. On September 9th, just days before his lamentation about the deaths of those known to him which put him in a mood of great apprehension, he was off to lunch at Lord Brouncker’s where the party feasted on ‘venison pasty’ and everyone was ‘mighty merry’. Less than two weeks later, on September 20th, he was again at Brouncker’s home, where the diners included a certain Lady Batten—who, says Pepys with evident titillation, was on good terms with a certain Mrs Williams, ‘my Lord Brouncker’s whore’—and all ‘were mighty merry’. Pepys was quite the philanderer, eyeing one of the king’s own mistresses and even carrying on with the house maids under his wife’s nose: the stench of the dead from the plague did nothing to diminish his appetite even for the common wench.
Under order of Charles II, no stranger was to be permitted in London without a certificate of health, public funerals were outlawed, ‘unwholesome Meats, stinking Fish, Flesh, musty Corn’ were forbidden from the marketplace, infected homes were to be ‘shut up for forty days’, and warders were to be appointed to prevent the unhealthy ‘from conversing with the sound’. Nevertheless, as is amply demonstrated by the 1666 ‘Rules and Orders to be observed by all Justices of Peace, Mayors, Bailiffs, and other Officers, for prevention of the spread of the infection of the PLAGUE’ as much as by Pepys’ diary, Charles II did not envision the shuttering of England’s economy and social life. Quite pointedly, the orders, to take one illustration, allowed for the explicit provisioning of alcohol, stating only ‘that no more Alehouses be Licensed then are absolutely necessary in each City or place, especially during the continuance of this present Contagion’. Pepys moved around town as someone who prized his liberty and, while mindful of the restrictions placed by the state, did not wish to be unduly hampered in his movements. Moreover, with the diary as his testament, it is clearly the case that many business establishments remained open. One might say that, in his time, much less was known than at present about how disease is spread, and the bubonic plague is more likely to take as its victims those who live in rat-infested dwellings and unhygienic conditions. Pepys may have seen little reason to fear for his life, and the generic homilies—‘God save us all’ or ‘The Lord knows what will become of us’—with which he peppers the plague entries in his diary might rightfully be seen for the predictable expressions of piousness that they are.
In Samuel Pepys’ account of the creeping, sometimes sinuous, rise of the plague, which claimed as many as 100,000 Londoners, wiping out a fourth of the city’ population, we begin to see the contours of so much of the present writing on the Coronavirus pandemic
Yet Pepys’ diary raises some fundamentally interesting questions about what one might describe as national histories and the logic of social response in each country to what is now the global pandemic known as Covid-19. The diary is taken by social historians to be the supreme example of the English sensibility at work, a claim that may appear to be controverted in my suggestion that much in Pepys’ representation of what the plague wrought appears to anticipate the questions that are being asked in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic. It may appear to be the case that I am advocating for the view that if one has seen one plague, one has seen all; quite to the contrary, we ought to take seriously the view commonly encountered among epidemiologists, ‘If you’ve seen one pandemic, you’ve seen one pandemic.’ The so-called Spanish influenza of 1918-1919 was, for reasons that have not been entirely understood to the present day, especially fatal to young men in their twenties and thirties, and even infants; on the other hand, Covid-19, though now known to strike people of all ages, has been the death knell more particularly for the very elderly. If, thus far, the advanced industrialised countries of the West appear to have borne the brunt of Covid-19, in the influenza that accompanied the ‘Great War’ countries such as India and Indonesia, both of which were under colonial rule, and China, which was mired in poverty and deeply fractured by internal strife, suffered the most. But, these differences apart, to what extent is it possible to say that the Englishness of the English informed Pepys’ thinking as it does of the English at present, and that the American, French, Chinese, Indian or other responses to the coronavirus pandemic have, in turn, been shaped both by the contours of national histories and the sensibilities born of sharply varying conceptions of ‘culture’ and ways of experiencing notions of self, identity and community.
The World Health Organization has from the outset of the pandemic pushed for ‘social distancing’ as a universal protocol and national governments have generally followed suit, prescribing it to different degrees and designating the measures that have restricted the movements of people, confined them largely to their homes and strangulated the public sphere under various names such as ‘lockdown’, ‘shelter-in-place’, ‘stay-at-home’ and ‘movement control’. Yet, days before Britain on March 20th fell in with the rest of the world and Boris Johnson called for the closure of all non-essential businesses and a ban on public meetings, the British government had signalled its intention to defy the widely accepted international protocol on social distancing and continue to permit limited social gatherings and keep Britain, to use the clichéd expression, open for business. As Sir Patrick Vallance, the Chief Scientific Adviser to the British government, explained on Sky News, draconian measures designed to keep people entirely confined to their homes might work for a period of time, but the virus was bound to return once those restrictions were lifted. Besides, as the Prime Minister had said, the British public would experience ‘behavioural fatigue’ if they could not exercise their freedoms. If, on the other hand, the onset of infections could be staggered by not shuttering the economy, thereby also relieving health systems of a crushing load of cases, ‘herd immunity’ might develop among the people.
It may appear to be the case that I am advocating for the view that if one has seen one plague, one has seen all; quite to the contrary, we ought to make seriously the view commonly encountered among epidemiologists, ‘if you’ve seen one pandemic, you’ve seen one pandemic’
The public commentary on Great Britain’s ‘herd immunity’ debacle has been profuse, but nearly without exception it has focused both on the quite possibly flawed epidemiological understanding of Covid-19 and the poor messaging of the government. It is vaccination that typically generates herd immunity, and the notion that an immune population might be created by a lethal infectious agent opens up the possibility that some lives, perhaps a great many lives, are viewed as expendable. On March 12th, while warning the British public that the country faced “the worst public health crisis for a generation” and that “many more families are going to lose loved ones before their time”, Prime Minister Johnson nevertheless said that he was neither prepared to close schools nor join Scotland in banning gatherings of more than 500 people. Johnson was prepared only to advise those over 70 that they should desist from taking cruises just as schools were to refrain from taking pupils on trips abroad. It is not in Britain alone that people were aghast at such pronouncements emanating from the highest offices of the land that seemed to suggest that the British government was aiming at creating an epidemic by having a significant portion, perhaps as much as 60 per cent, of the populace get infected in the expectation that the ‘herd immunity’ thus developed would eventually render the virus impotent.
The death toll in Britain from the coronavirus stood at 12 on March 12th; eight days later, when Johnson in a televised address to the nation declared the decision of the British government to reverse course and join the world in advocating for a total ban on public gatherings and the virtual shuttering of the economy, the number had risen to nearly 150. “We are collectively telling cafes, pubs, bars, restaurants,” Johnson said as indicated in the transcript of his remarks released by the UK Prime Minister’s Office, “to close tonight as soon as they reasonably can, and not to open tomorrow… . And listening to what I have just said, some people may of course be tempted to go out tonight. But please don’t. You may think you are invincible, but there is no guarantee you will get mild symptoms, and you can still be a carrier of the disease and pass it on to others.” Counselling, as he had done earlier in the address, the public to stay at home, Johnson had this to add: “I know how difficult this is, how it seems to go against the freedom-loving instincts of the British people.” He appears also to have said, as reported in the liberal Guardian, “We’re taking away the ancient, inalienable right of free-born people of the United Kingdom to go to the pub,” though the more conservative Sun rendered it quite differently: ‘Mr Johnson said he realised [the government order] went against what he called ‘the inalienable free-born right of people born in England to go to the pub’.’
If Boris Johnson’s extraordinary invocation of the restrictions demanded by the pandemic as an affront to the freedom-loving instincts of the British and most certainly English people and as a violation of their inalienable right to the pub, we are face-to-face with the political epidemiology of Covid-19
Let us not quibble at the moment over the differences, significant as they are, in the accounts of Johnson’s remarks as found in the Guardian and the Sun: if it is only people ‘born in England’ who have the inalienable right to go to the pub, that would seem to exclude the millions of immigrants who have put down roots in Britain and taken citizenship, not to mention the Irish, the Scots and the Welsh. One can scarcely imagine a more offensive remark at a time when immigrant doctors and health workers who staff Britain’s National Health Service, which Johnson in very recent days has had occasion to thank for restoring him to health after his testing positive for the coronavirus, have clearly gone out of the way to render service to a nation that has often been inclined to treat them as something little better than second-class citizens. There is yet a more grave consideration here: In Johnson’s extraordinary invocation of the restrictions demanded by the pandemic as an affront to the freedom-loving instincts of the British and most certainly English people and as a violation of their inalienable right to the pub we are face-to-face with the political epidemiology of Covid-19. Enough has been said by virologists, medical practitioners and scientists about the epidemiology of the coronavirus; and increasingly, though this language is opaque to most journalists, we are also hearing a good deal about its social epidemiology and the visibly greater vulnerability of the poor, the working class and the socially and politically disadvantaged to Covid-19. It is Friedrich Engels who, in his The Condition of the Working Class in England (1844), furnished the grounds of an incipient social epidemiology in his penetrating analysis of the greater susceptibility of the working class to deprivation, desolation and disease. The ‘usual consequences of inhaling factory dust’, he wrote in a characteristically blunt passage on the workers of Manchester amongst whom he lived and worked for two years, ‘are the spitting of blood, heavy, noisy breathing, pains in the chest, coughing and sleeplessness’. It is in fact social epidemiology that is now helping us to chart the disproportionately detrimental effects of Covid-19 as it makes its way across prison populations, slums, chawls, ghettos, favelas, banlieues, shantytowns, immigrant neighbourhoods and working-class enclaves.
POLITICAL EPIDEMIOLOGY, however, takes us still further afield to a larger set of questions on how national histories and conceptions of national character have shaped the response of politicians and the populace alike to the coronavirus across countries and political systems. England has long prided itself on its essential distinction from everyone else, but nothing is more critical to English political life and self-awareness than the idea that it is apart from continental Europe even as it partakes fully of the legacies of Western civilisation. The idea—the Englishness of the English—is present in Shakespeare; it is there in the novels of Jane Austen and Charles Dickens; and it was cemented by what is commonly thought to be, and has in England itself been represented as, the crowning moment of glory in Britain’s modern history as it became the vanquisher of a militant Germany in World War II. The Nazis took Paris almost effortlessly, a palpable demonstration (though this was not always loudly proclaimed) of Gallic effeminacy and cowardice: all that stood between civilisation and barbarism, as the English would come to believe, was their own indomitable will to resist naked militarism and keep out the barbaric German invader. Some have characterised the English demeanour through the expression ‘the stiff upper lip’, but it is perhaps better captured in the storied history of the Londoner’s stoic and yet nonchalant resistance to the carpet bombing of their city. People went into the Underground as the bombs incessantly rained down on their beloved city; once the air raid siren sounded the ‘all clear’, they emerged into the streets—and headed for the alehouse, Boris Johnson’s much vaunted ‘pub’.
‘No man is an island entire of itself,’ John Donne famously wrote, but the notion of Great Britain as an island complete unto itself, standing forth as something like the Rock of Gibraltar, never more so than in the face of adversity, has been pervasive in the history of English self-representation. It has played a significant part in fuelling Britain’s exit from the European Union, just as it informs both Boris Johnson’s initial decision to separate Britain from the herd, ironically in the name of attempting to have the British acquire ‘herd immunity’, and later his seemingly quaint invocation of the ‘inalienable right’ of the English—or did he say British, which is quite a different thing, when one considers the history of England’s suppression of Scotland or the virulent English hatred until comparatively recent times of the Irish as infernal Papists—to “go to the pub”. George Orwell was mindful of ‘the insularity of the English, their refusal to take foreigners seriously’, but if this has been ‘a folly that has to be paid for heavily from time to time’, he also thought that the same characteristic had helped to ‘keep out the invader’. Orwell’s wartime essay, ‘England Your England’, is a paean to this very Englishness: ‘When you come back to England from any foreign country, you have immediately the sensation of breathing a different air.’ The feeling one has in England is bound up ‘with solid breakfasts and gloomy Sundays, smoky towns and winding roads, green fields and red pillar-boxes’—and, above all, with the awareness that this is one country where ‘the liberty of the individual is still believed in’, a liberty which has ‘nothing to do with economic liberty, the right to exploit others for profit’, but rather the liberty ‘to have a home of our own… to choose your own amusements instead of having them chosen for you from above’. The freedom-loving instincts of the English people send them, Boris Johnson has told us, to the pub and the coronavirus pandemic must not be permitted to strip them of this ancient right: as Orwell put it, the culture of England has hovered around ‘the pub, the football match, the back garden, the fireside and the ‘nice cup of tea’’.
The modern world, as Orwell says, cannot be understood apart from the ‘overwhelming strength of patriotism, national loyalty’, and perforce ‘one must admit that the divisions between nation and nation are founded on real differences of outlook’. The English are far from being the only people who claim to have a special attachment to liberty, and the question of French national characteristics has come up in the debate that is now animating France on whether the proposed deployment of smartphone-tracking apps to inform people if they have come in contact with an infected person can be reconciled with the tradition of individual liberties. Last month, the French interior minister dismissed the idea of digital tracking, which has thus far been used with remarkable success in South Korea to contain Covid-19, as anathema to “French culture”. The junior minister in the French government who is responsible for digital affairs and is charged with the development of the app, Cédric O, has similarly gone on record to suggest that the debate “has to do with French history and a sensitivity to freedom that is inherent to French culture”. The supposition is that France as a constitutional democracy has a long-standing commitment to the ‘rule of law’, and that the individual’s love of liberty, subject only to the constraint that such love should not constrain someone else from their rightful exercise of liberty, is inextricably interwoven into the ‘rule of law’; correspondingly, Asian nations, even when they, as may be said of present-day South Korea, display democratic features, have only a historically contingent relationship to the idea of freedom as it is not intrinsic to their cultures.
Anti-lockdown demonstrations cannot be dismissed merely as expressions of the entity to which modern man has been reduced: Homo Economicus. The demonstrators may want to return to work, but the recourse of another language-freedom, liberty and rights-also impresses
THE OFFICIAL CUE to frame the debate as one pitting the apparently severe constraints on freedom of movement deemed necessary to mitigate the coronavirus against the cultural and political inheritance of the French people may have come from the French President, Emmanuel Macron. In addressing the nation on April 13th, he expressed the hope that the discussion in the National Assembly would make it abundantly clear to the nation that “under no circumstances should the coronavirus weaken our democracy or infringe on [our] civil liberties”. It is telling, however, that if French officials have invoked the cherished principles of the French Revolution and its call to liberté, égalité, fraternité, they have not taken recourse to the idea that the French have an inalienable right to frequent their neighbourhood café for the customary coffee or aperitif. The English claim their liberties only for themselves: as Orwell would have it, the English like their pub and their ‘nice cup of tea’, and are at heart a nation of flower-lovers, stamp-collectors, coupon-snippers, darts-players and crossword-puzzle fans: they had an empire, too, as Orwell knew all too well, but ‘the patriotism of the common people is not vocal or even conscious’. France, that other freedom-loving nation on the Continent, has in contrast always thought of itself as a country that sets an example to others: thus, in the present debate on whether digital apps might be used to mitigate the spread of Covid-19, Sacha Houlié, a French lawmaker from President Macron’s own party, La République En Marche, put it quite candidly: “We are France. In terms of civil liberties, being France means something. It means that, in a sense, the world is watching what we do.”
The world has better things to do than watch France. But let us put that aside. Given the long histories of European colonialism and the unspeakable brutalities of colonial wars, one might with very good cause forthright dismiss all talk of the supposedly intrinsic attachment to the ideas of liberty among the British, the French or indeed other Europeans as nothing more than bunkum and balderdash. To do so would be to fall grievously into the error of supposing that unearthing the hypocrisies of peoples or nations furnishes enough warrant to dismiss the motive force of the national imaginary in shaping a country’s social response to something like the coronavirus pandemic. The recent demonstrations in the US against the restrictions that have been placed on the movement of people, as well as against the mandated closing of schools, universities, government offices, indeed all ‘non-essential’ businesses and private enterprises, provides yet another if more muddled illustration of how national histories and notions of national identity continue to play a critical shape in shaping the political epidemiology of a global pandemic such as Covid-19. In recent days, as reported in major newspapers and media outlets, demonstrations have broken out in Michigan, Ohio, Idaho, Kentucky, Washington, and other American states against the continued lockdown and stay-at-home orders that are now common to nearly all parts of the United States. The protestors, judging from interviews, newspaper accounts, statements released to the press, and the placards that they have been carrying, have expressed a strong desire to be able to go back to work and have demanded that businesses, churches, and public spaces such as beaches be re-opened. ‘My constitutional rights are essential’, read one placard held by a supporter of the Michigan Conservative Coalition, while in Richmond, Virginia, demonstrators held placards bearing slogans such as ‘End the Shut Down’ and ‘We Will Not Comply’. In Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, a boy held aloft a sign, ‘Freedom is Essential’, while another displayed a placard with a provocation, ‘Give me Liberty or Give me COVID-19’. Whatever one may make of the inexpediency and perhaps insensitivity of such demonstrations, they cannot be dismissed merely as expressions of the entity to which modern man has been reduced: homo economicus. The demonstrators may want to return to work, but the recourse to another language—freedom, liberty and rights—also impresses.
One cannot be oblivious of the fact that, the world over, political demonstrations, whatever their ideological colouring, have time after time proven to be hospitable grounds for people with an incongruous mixture of interests
Trump, a voracious consumer of Fox News, which has been vocal in its sharp dismissal of state governors who have insisted on more rigorous lockdowns as ‘authoritarian’, himself has egged on the demonstrators with the all-caps tweets with which his name is now indelibly linked: ‘LIBERATE MICHIGAN!’ and ‘LIBERATE MINNESOTA!’ Virginia, with its (in the American experience) hallowed history as the birthplace of some of the country’s most well-known founding fathers—Washington, Jefferson, James Madison, George Mason, among others—has especially rankled Trump as a state that has gone over to the other side, and Trump has called to ‘LIBERATE VIRGINIA, and save your great 2nd Amendment. It is under siege!’ There is ample evidence that the demonstrators have in part also been instigated by rightwing groups, White nationalists, militant supporters of the constitutional right to bear arms, anti-abortion activists, religious fundamentalists, even—what is more particular to the US with its own particular histories of resistance to any state-imposed intrusions on private life—anti-vaccination groups. Some of the protests have been funded by innocuous sounding organisations such as the Idaho Freedom Foundation, the Michigan Liberty Militia and the Michigan Freedom Fund, but the link of some organisations to neo-Nazi ideology, White nationalism or to such causes as the state support of Christianity or the militant advocacy of the unchecked right to private ownership of arms cannot be doubted.
ONE MIGHT, FOR all these reasons, condemn these demonstrations as very clear instantiations of White supremacy—more pointedly, the noxious combination of White rage and White privilege—disguised as protests in defence of individual liberties and the American Constitution; one might also, certainly less controversially, roundly criticise the demonstrators as people whose actions are quite likely to place the lives of others in jeopardy by giving the coronavirus a more fertile terrain for expansion. The virus loves crowds, public spaces and dense gatherings. Nevertheless, one cannot be oblivious of the fact that, the world over, political demonstrations, whatever their ideological colouring, have time after time proven to be hospitable grounds for people with an incongruous mixture of interests. A demonstration billed in support of immigrant rights in the US, for instance, is almost always calculated to attract those who, even if they have no intrinsic interest in immigrant groups, are prepared to advocate for a welfare state, clean energy, a state-subsidised mass transit system and the like. It would be difficult to believe that if there are some who have come to the present anti-lockdown demonstrators as White supremacists, there are also not an equal number who have come as radical libertarians with a profound suspicion of the state. Philosophical anarchism has its adherents as much among the ‘right’ as among the ‘left’. Nor, if we are to advocate for subaltern history, or for a form of writing that is willing to recognise that ordinary citizens do display political will and act of their own volition, can the demonstrators be dismissed as so many sheep being led to their slaughter by ideologues and militants skilled at manipulation. Above all, one must recognise that protest of the present kind, which goes against the grain of scientific advice, violates state regulations, is quite possibly injurious to public health and is viewed with dismay by the majority of the population as inimical to the preservation of the social order, is intrinsic to what for better or worse is ‘the American way of life’. One might hold, as the present author does, that ‘the American way of life’ taken as a whole has been more detrimental to the welfare of humankind and the earth than anything else in history and still suggest that the logic of the social response to the coronavirus pandemic is unimpeachably American. One can only with grave circumspection, if ever, begrudge a civilisation its political choices and the liberty to make mistakes.
IT IS IN INDIA, however, that we can witness how the political epidemiology of the coronavirus pivots around national history and the particularities of culture in the most arresting ways. By way of a conclusion, as much as by way of furnishing an opening to an intellectual inquiry that has yet to commence in India, I offer one illustration of the social response to the pandemic and state policy that has antecedents in the Indian imaginary. Narendra Modi called for a nationwide lockdown on March 24th, giving the Indian people barely any more notice than he did when, on the evening of November 8th, 2016, he demonetised the Rs 500 and Rs 1,000 currency notes. One might put these momentous decisions down to his authoritarian style of governance and likewise declare as nearly everyone has the experiment in demonetisation an unmitigated fiasco that placed a cruel hardship on common people, but such political judgments are not wholly germane to the argument at hand. In the immediate aftermath of the Prime Minister’s announcement, the nation, indeed the entire world, was witness to the spectacle of tens of millions of migrant workers across the country taking to their feet and fleeing the city for the countryside. Since factories, offices, and workplaces were overnight shut down, these migrants suddenly found themselves unemployed; those who slept at the workplace, such as construction workers, were in an instant stripped of shelter. Others were without the financial resources required to pay rent. The workers massed at bus stations, but the lockdown had led to the suspension of all train and bus services; there was no recourse now for most of the workers except to begin the long trek home on foot, and walk they did—sometimes for days, 50 km on some days, and often without food. There are still more wretched details: photographs and videos of workers being sprayed like so many insects to disinfect them went viral. Those observers with an eye for history thought they detected in the migrant trail the ghosts of Partition. Here, amidst the callousness of state policy, the country had also been offered a masterclass in understanding what it means for the gigantic working class of India to be without a social security net, to be utterly adrift in a world not of their making.
Should the state not have anticipated such a response? On September 24th, 1994, The New York Times made bold to give a headline to what evidently was an interesting and perhaps what the correspondent thought was an uncommon phenomenon: ‘Thousands Flee Indian City in Deadly Plague Outbreak.’ The article in its opening line went on to describe how 200,000 people had fled the city of Surat ‘after an outbreak of pneumonic plague that medical experts described as one of the most serious reported in the world in recent decades’. This, too, was scarcely unprecedented: as reports of official plague commissions from the colonial past suggest, migrant workers almost invariably fled the city with the onset of plague and disease. Text after text, one oral history after another, one folk memory after another, all point to the fact that there is in India a long history of a people signalling its unhappiness with onerous taxation, unjust state policies or the tyranny of a ruler, as much as its fear of the plague, pestilence, or an uncommon disease, by migrating en masse. We may say that in the migration of the present moment, there is also the enactment of national history. The migrant workers did what they had to, reversing, at least for the moment, the immense drift to the city from the countryside that has been one of the most pronounced features of the social landscape of India in the decades after independence. There is a story waiting to be written here: if we are tempted to use the phrase, ‘the world turned upside down’, to characterise what the coronavirus pandemic has wrought in the last two months, reminding us that in the matter of modernity we are little better than vainglorious drunken louts, we should surely take this reverse migration induced by Covid-19 as a sign that time is yet again out of joint.
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