Politics in the Time of Covid-19

Francis Bacon. Triptych, Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion 1944

Much of what follows is about Covid-19 as “the” pandemic. But our interest far transcends it. At issue is the nature of the crisis the Neo-liberal Capitalist Democratic States (hereinafter referred to as States) confront. A meaningful determination of the matter prompts us to dig into and find out the reasons for their complete collapse, and carelessness, on one hand, and, with it comes, on the other, their unconditional surrender before umpteen numbers of free-flowing Biblical phrases – ‘apocalyptic’, ‘time of darkness’, ‘sowing and reaping wrath’, and so forth – as if, uttering them would conjure up the much need ‘revealed miracle’ that one Pied Piper of Hamelin did in Saxony. The memories of plague and other epidemics have come back, and so with them arrive the Sontag disease: the spike in gun sales in the United States is no simple coincidence. Does putting on the full armor – masks, quinine in moderation, social distancing or guns – holds any prospects of fulfilling Ephesians 6:11?

The Popes – the political, institutional, titular or self-proclaimed – have nothing but lies on their lips as they mint tales of conspiracy theories, bio-tech-war, racial, communal, and sexual hatreds of all types and kinds. The enchantments of globalization yield abundance of commodity-charm; now they disenchant us with the opulence of pestilence as we jog our memory on the old saying on Janus and its, alas, two faces. If our globe is now one village, then worms affecting the apples on one end, the other end of the village cannot run free from that, and ‘worms are not merely contingent interlopers but an integral part of the ecology of the apples.’ As fruits, apples have to come with the allegory of sin.

“Stop the virus before you can do anything about economics” – the peroration Bill Gates ominously states while talking to Anderson Cooper sounds much like a character right up from a comic book or a mushy-macho plastic hero from Hollywood alien-fighter potboiler; but beneath the veneer, reverses a serious concern: ‘war or posture of war.’ No wonder the Lockdown is thus described as “The war is still on and we should use this time to operate as if we are on war-footing” (COV-IND-19 Study Group. “Historic 21-day Lockdown, Prediction Models to Study Lockdown Effects & the Role of Data in the Crisis of Virus in India.” (accessed May 10, 2020) – hereinafter as The Report). And with this and other very similar kinds of cries and calls we, in our immediate surroundings, that is, in our immediate environment, embrace the ‘posture of war’ so naturally that we take no notice of what we are giving us politically by this act of tacit consent!

Firstly, what we could make out form the study of The Report is that this initial 21 days Lockdown strategy is a recovery measure for those States that had lost the advantage of lead-time they got which they could easily make use of that to their advantage when China, South Korea, and Italy were choked in crisis. Failed in every respect to pick up the lead-time these States, including India of course, would surely attract severe criticisms but we can keep that out for time being, as other serious issues capture our attention right now. A half-hearted international travel restriction is like consuming poison, though hesitantly, which brings the expected result expectedly – the Lockdown.

Next, the Lockdown should not be construed as curative; at best, it is palliative – though a very costly one when we take into account the economic hardship and physical tortures thousands of unorganized sector laborers are facing in India – which would be effective, only if, we could rapidly gear-up our Health Care resources in this borrowed time. And here we think our general idea about Health Care needs serious rumination. We need to address the current issue of Health Care in India as well as in other States from a perspective that we normally are not used to looking at it, that is, as social issues. The techniques of self-sequestrations, hygiene habits, early voluntary disclosures of our respective health conditions, and most important, updating us constantly with current knowledge on measures that the States like Vietnam, Taiwan, South Korea, and Cuba are taking, not only on health issues but on the economic fronts (as both the issues are now interdependent on each other) are less of measures which can be cleanly boxed as pathological measures than practices which need to be installed by and through ‘social intercourses.’ After all, catering Health Care of this stature is a very expensive matter, and, so as the condition of daily life of the teeming billions of people across the States who are already living in a perpetual state of malnutrition and hunger are extremely fragile and vulnerable, our aim should be that we send very less COVID-19 patients to our hospitals where the beds are few, and the necessary medical care facilities are appalling, a fact we have to accept without hesitation, and we must make our States to declare it unabashedly. So changing of the focus, primarily form hospital-centered Health Care measures to measures we can implement by ‘social intercourses’ – in our everyday practice of life – which would finally reduce hospitalization pressure, needs to be addressed bluntly.

Thirdly, we have to realize that for quite some time now, and short of ‘miracles’, we have to live with COVID-19. And more quickly we realize and understand that, we can adapt and swiftly switch to sensible rational social behaviors and measures based on the ideas and readings produced by labs like COV-IND-19 Study Group, and others. Their insights should be taken up to frame our principles of governing conduct, our lodestars. By making those principles explicit in the form of normative rules and commitments we need to give shape to our life in our coming days. In other words, what we need urgently is a pack of very clear-cut “NORMATIVE RULES” – not normative attitudes – and those rules should be deontic norms, and not norms that have alethic roots. Unfortunately, most of the empirically driven scientific research centers and disciplines (paradoxically naturalism as such) are very much infected with alethic norm-producing practices, and, they like contingency planners – house-property gazumpers, or economic crisis quick-fixers – address the problem of this stature wearing the lens of choice optimizations, or trade-off and pecking order formulation (one such popular optimistic solution path is ‘collateral damage optimization’ leveling). Our COV-IND-19 Study Group, and others largely suffer from above defects which in the immediate future we hope they will be able to overcome.

Changing the gear in our construction of norm-finding and norm-governing exercise, from alethic drive to “NORMATIVE RULES”, is no less a fundamental challenge we need to address now, especially, dealing with this kind of epidemic in our modern time. Legal measures, or administrative diktats, for example, the ones Italy, India, or Japan came up with – “…for hygiene and public safety reason of the municipalities and areas with the presence of at least one person who tests positive and for whom the source of transmission is unknown, or in which there is at least one case that is not ascribable to a person who recently returned from an area already affected by the virus” (quoted from The Invention of an Epidemic by Giorgio Agamben) or the series of notifications coming out under Disaster Management Act, 2005 in India – though they look like shiny apples but they are filled with worms of disproportionate measures of militarization. They and other States impose, without hesitation, a state of emergency as a normal paradigm of government. The suspension of democratic values and social relations even at the state of crisis or state of fear shut all the doors of the critical practice of reason, and the States thus become Absolute States by conduct. The upshot of the matter is that such legal or administrative diktats though apparently look effective but they suppress the path to reasoning as we stare at the legal and administrative diktats, the diktats stare back into us! Deliberate suppressions of ailment figures and death incidents numbers, selective or inadequate testing, ineffective determination of ‘Hotspot’ – not guided by the protocol of definitions of ‘burdened Hotspot’ and ‘transmission Hotspot’ (Lessler, Justin & What is Hotspot Anyway? The American Society of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene, 96(6), 2017, pp.1270-1273) and similar execrable acts make the States into Absolute States.

But this absolutism is not to be confused with the traditional idea where the sovereign grabs both executive and legislative powers, and put them into its pocket; here it is bound up in a tale of very cruel subversion: in its exclusive power and prerogative to define what constitutes “the” pandemic, the sovereign prepares, and makes a record of those areas or locations as dangerous, and with it comes by implications who are the major carriers and potential bearers of the infections; thus the States revive a well know social marker called ‘dangerous people’ – ‘the individual[s] who [are] not exactly ill and who [are] not strictly speaking criminal[s]’ (Foucault, Michel. 2003. Abnormal: Lectures at the College De France, 1974-75. New York: Picador. P.34). With the accounting and computing of infectious persons, alias ‘dangerous people’, what sovereign in proxy asks us, as citizens, is to read the number and figures of “the” pandemic Cases Tracker and apply measures to save ourselves independently against our infectious fellow citizens who are ‘biological threat’ to those of us not infected yet. As a result, we, as citizens, take up the responsibility to decide and determine what constitutes the mark of our enemy, and our combating arsenals no wonder find expressions in racial, communal, sexual, and economic class hatreds of all kinds, which this absolutism promotes without a doubt. In addition to the social hierarchies that we already have in our States, this victim-blaming joust – the infectious verses the germless – gives rise to a new formal hierarchy of subjugation that acts as a safety valve which mitigates the rising threat for the demand of responsible Health Care for all.

Fourthly, and continuing with the thread of argument we place in the paragraph above, we find it pretty dangerous to use unconsciously or even rhetorically any words or expressions that carry with them the impressions that facing the challenges of COVID-19 is like waging a ‘war.’ The expression ‘war’ or ‘posture of war’ conveys an intense political meaning. What we come to learn from Hobbes that either war or war like situation with or without declaration either by action or by ‘posture of War’ is a ‘State of War’ when sovereigns are exempted to take care and give protection to the life of the people or citizens. Once such leeway is obtained tacitly – that is, in our democratic system consent obtains without debates, engagements or deliberations – whatever States do thenceforth are by way of gratis, a mark of magnanimity, wildly gyrating their unlimited authority and power – the way the forced exodus of daily laborers, for example, took place in various parts of India by using the uncertainty of future as fear of death – without normative or institutional evaluations to decide what is right or wrong. Morally and institutionally the States absolve themselves for being judged. The suspension of the right of safety and life of the people by using Leviathan’s trump card of ‘State of War’ thus save these incompetent States of their responsibility to take care of the lives of the citizens and people, health-wise and economically. As a next step, thus the States process the license to slaughter the lives of people and citizens by leaving them in dire distress and by allowing them to take decisions on their future course of action by themselves without state-support of any kind. We further learn from Leviathan that like ‘Foule weather’ we now have to bear with this for ‘many dayes together’ (Hobbes, Thomas. 1996. Leviathan. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. P. 88) with permitted gimmicks and pranks like, clapping hands, ringing bells and light up candles as a mark of togetherness!

Finally, what the wave of COVID-19 forces us to think is not the population in particular alone but pace von Justi the physical elements or economic elements of the States as constituting the ‘environment’ on which the population depends and which conversely depends on population. The essential feature of this ‘environment’ is as an element it is capable of producing income and revenues (not to forget that those of Health Care services and essential services even in the time of crisis are but profitable businesses), which the natural environment like rivers or forests or mountains are not capable of, though they contribute economically otherwise. While as living beings the entire population is situated in such an ‘environment’, the States wield their power over living beings as living beings, and taking care of them by measures that we now refer to as ‘biopolitics.’ But with insufficient Health Care measures, ineffective normative social relations, mounting economic pressure, oppressive social relations by new form of subjugation and leaving the laborers of the organized and unorganized sectors in a quandary what the States are doing for the sake of their political interests – no doubt such interests benefit the capitalistic production relations as such – are that they slaughter a section of the population as if they are sacrificed for a larger cause (reopening economy, getting people back to work, and continue with life are the popular catch-words now) which is but necessary. Since the States by rhetorical trope assume a ‘posture of war’, what they apply in reality, therefore, then, is a special kind of politics called ‘thanatopolitics’ reverse of ‘biopolitics’ (Michel Foucault. 1988. The Technologies of the Self: A Seminar with Michel Foucault. Great Britain: Tavistock Publications, p.160). In ‘thanatopolitics’ life sublets into death. As political beings we need to ponder more in these lines and their associated phenomenon. Sapere Aude, if we can muster it.