By Saumya Liyanage –
‘Like silent rage the most terrible plague is one that does not disclose its symptoms” ~ Antonin Artaud, Theatre and the Plague, 196
The history of epidemic diseases that have adversely affected human race has taught us that the understanding and fighting against an epidemic is not merely a fight through scientific rationality but a battle against many socio-political and cultural catastrophes. The recent Coronavirus known as the COVID-19 pandemic has been widespread all over the world including many developed countries. The elderly generation of the contemporary societies is at risk of being infected and many have already payed the ransom from their own lives.
I want to write about this Corona pandemic not because I have an expertise on such a medical condition nor am I an epidemiologist who could analyze the nature of the disease. But being engulfed in the daily rituals of social media and Governments’ streams of news conferences, I thought of writing about this social catastrophe and try to understand its socio-political and performative nature that affect our daily lives. Further I want to show some of the performativities that have germinated through Corona viral pandemic and how these social spectacles affect our daily existence. The term ‘performativity’ therefore I use as a way of capturing the current nature of human behavior in the midst of a viral outbreak. The term performativity derives from the term performance and Max Herrmann describes it as a ‘game in which everyone, actors and spectators, participants (Herrmann cited in Fischer-Lichte, 2014, p. 18). The term performative or performativity therefore used to denote the blurring boundaries of traditional understanding of performers-audience relationships and how current social behaviors could be understood through the light of these theatrical concepts. Further it should be noted that the performativity is related to the idea of theatrum mundi (Theatre of the world) where human life and the world is defined as theatre.
Evolution and Disease
This is not the first time that human race has faced such a pandemic in the history of disease. The medical history reveals that there are many epidemics or pandemics that have taken thousands of human lives all over the world for centuries (Reid and Taubenberger, 2003, Ferguson et al., 2006). In some historical moments, it is well-known that the Black Death has taken thousands of peoples’ lives without even leaving traces of them. However, writers like Sean Martin and Arno Karlen assume that the reason for our ancestors to get down from trees would be some disease that they have encountered in the early period of human evolution. Viral disease such as meningitis and polio might have affected in their movements on trees and must have forced them to walk on ground (Martin 2015, p. 23). Many ancestral human species who used to live on trees were herbivorous and they relied on many plants, nuts and leaves. However, when the human ancestors have decided to leave trees and walk on open lands, then they have gradually faced new opportunities as well as threats in survival on land.
As Sean Martin explains, there are three major shifts in the human history that the human faced ‘disease burdens’. In the first instance, when human race started walking on grounds, they have faced their first disease burden because humans have encountered new challenges and threats of diseases that were germinated through soil. Animal droppings have nested parasitic worms. Humans have caught up with sleeping sickness because of parasitic flies and other insects that lived on animal skins. The second disease burden marks the shift from trees to the ground and changing their dietary requirements while walking as hunters-gatherers. When our ancestors started walking on ground, more opportunities for meat and protein were available for them. Therefore, humans were in contact with animals and they used to hunt them, butcher them and eat them. As some authors suggest, this may have caused them to have ‘zoonotic diseases’. Adding protein to the dietary system according to Arno Karlen, have had more lasting effect for humans (Martin 2015, p. 24). It has been found that early humans such as Neanderthals have buried their members alongside with collected flowers. (Anthropologists have found a buried man with flowers in a cave in northern Iraq, 60,000 year ago, and they believe that these burials indicate the inception of culture of human race). The third disease burden of human race begins 12,000 year ago when we started living our lives as farmers. As Sean Martin further argues, the major shift in the livelihood as farmers with domesticated animals have developed another set of diseases which were mainly germinated through them. Butchers have been coming into contact with animal meat and might have exposed to zoonoses. ‘Tilling and ploughing the ground would have exposed the Neolithic farmer to millions of microbes in the soil that could easily enter the human body through cuts or cracks in the skin, or through eating with dirty hands’ (Martin 2015, p. 25).
When the world started talking about the first Corona viral infectious person in China and how this disease has infected humans, many people discriminatorily started talking about how Chinese people eat cobras, frogs and other animals. In daily conversation people tend to disgust about Chinese people’s dietary habits as if they do not eat meat, chicken, beef or pork. Apparently we have inherited many diseases from animals such as ‘tuberculosis from cattle and birds, anthrax from herbivorous mammals, leprosy from mice, rabies from dogs and bats, chicken pox from chicken, measles from foxes, and common cold probably from horses’ (Ibid, p. 25).
The Current pandemic of COVID-19 is also being identified as a viral disease infected through bats. Whatever the cause of the infection, the problem related to this viral infection is rapidly spreading throughout the world and many lives have been taken. Amidst all these calamities the media and online platforms talk about this new threat and local gurus and indigenous medicinal men suggest various remedies. This disease has developed further perfomativities in the society and the social discussion and behaviors have been again and again redefined and re-conceptualized according to the developing pandemic.
Daily life and Performativity
As the pandemic spreads its tentacles around our lives day by day, the Sri Lankan Government has announced certain measures to reduce the spread of the viral infection. News agencies calculate the death toll of each country and provide numbers of people who have been infected. Further, the fight against Corona is developing into a cat and mouse game between the Government intelligence and with those who have come from Italy and fled from the Airport. It appears to be like a crime scene situation that has increased the suspension and tension among communities. People are being asked to do ‘social distancing’, washing hands as a ritualistic practice and wear masks to cover their faces to avoid further infection. Monks are chanting ‘rathana sutra’ as if they were living in visala mahanuwara and assuming that they are under the rule of king Suddhodana and confronted with a famine. Communities therefore are confined to their own houses where they tend to connect via online to support the fight against the Corona. Each and every person of the society is becoming a social commentator and some house wives are becoming experts in social psychology and health science, providing information and instructions on how to avoid this viral infection and keep healthy behaviors via WhatsApp.
The main discussion that is promoted in the society at the moment is ‘social distancing’. In this social distancing, people tend to avoid interaction with each other and refrain from public gatherings and meetings. Many leaders in the World have already announced that shopping malls, theatres, cinema halls and sports stadiums to be closed for public gathering. Hence, the responsible public should avoid all sorts of social interactions and stay isolated in their houses. But the paradox of social distancing is that the officials instruct the mases to practice social distancing and at the same time they want people to get together and develop their communal spirit to fight against the threat. In other words, the practical remedy is to keep distance between people and ontologically we need to be communal at the same time and stay together to fight against the ‘monster’. In order to be isolated and practice social distancing, people need food and drink. Therefore, it is evident that why people have already emptied hundreds of supermarket shelves and grabbed toilet papers to rice, milk, canned food and other supplies. Greediness and individualization is paramount for survival. People from the lower social strata are queuing in front of Government owned retails stores to get canned fish and dhal. Others are waiting in petrol stations for hours to fill their vehicles to run away from the Pandemic. They believe that they are safe as well as their families, as long as they have adequate food stocks in their larders to feed hungry kids and elderly at home. The whole nation is getting ready for the mass performance of battle against Coronavirus.
Witch Hunting & Shut Down
The Sri Lankan Government has declared curfew for certain areas in the Puttalam district. People who seem to enjoy themselves having parties inside their homes remind me the last moments of the sinking Titanic. The performativity of cat and mouse game appears to be accelerating and intense. Earlier the Government has announced that the public who have arrived from overseas, particularly from Italy and South Korea are to be self-quarantined. In the meantime, the military may be trying to locate those who have not been succumbed to the Government regulations. While Iran for instance releases 80,000 inmates temporarily, we have begun our battle against those who have run away from the self-quarantine. When social distancing and shutting down airports and borders seem to be the solution to prevent viral infection, Cuba has decided to accept the British cruise ship MS Braemar by sending their own medical team and help the crew to transport unaffected people to the UK and elsewhere (Francesca Street, CNN Published 18th March 2020).
However, the drama is very much intense at the moment by escalating the idea of shutting down Sri Lanka for two weeks. Some politicians and social commentators are in the lead of this discourse and their suggestion is to shut down the country in order to stop the spreading of the disease. But the fact is that this isolation or social distancing does not purely bring the solution to the problem. For instance some countries such as the Great Britain has taken a very few steps to control the Corona outbreaks because they still think that the British society has not reached to the maximum level of the Pandemic curve. As the Prime Minister Boris Johnson and his two consultants (scientific and Medical) suggest, they are monitoring the scale of the outbreak and it is not their prime time to impose all the measures. According to their analysis, what they try to do is to flatten the peak point of the pandemic curve and control the spreading of the disease through a longer period of time. As experts suggest, COVID-19 will not be over soon but last for months or may be another year. The nature of a pandemic is to reach its peak through time and space and along this path the most vulnerable sector of the society would be the older people.
Liminality and Identity
A year ago, Sri Lankan society was terrorized by covering faces due to terrorist attacks. The law enforcement agency declared not to cover faces in public spaces, schools and other venues. Now the question of terrorism and public safety discourse has been shifted to promote covering faces to prevent Corona spreading. For the last few weeks, there was a shortage of surgical masks because people have purchased surgical masks in large numbers. Variety of masks is a common feature of today’s human attire. We do not bother about identifying a person through face or recognizing a person through facial features. Today our main purpose is whether people have covered their faces in order to prevent from infections. Therefore now the masked face is a must for the public appearance and daily performance.
With these costume changes and self-quarantine rituals, the whole society is becoming more performative than ever before. Although theatre, film screening and other entertainment venues are closed for public gathering, we are becoming a part of the nationwide performance and this performance is projected to the local and global audience through World Wide Web and local media. The division between poor and elite is blurring into infected and non-infected, masked or non-masked, patriotic or non-patriotic. The Corona warfare is becoming a performance where the spectators are also becoming participants of the event. Therefore the ‘event-ness’ of the disease is more apparent and ‘participants experience themselves as subjects who partially control, and are partially controlled by, the condition–neither fully autonomous nor fully determined’ (Fischer-Lichte, 2014, p. 42). It is very much evident that the current pandemic is no longer a natural phenomenon but it associates with many political and cultural nuances which cannot be analyzed through medical or scientific knowledge. As Jennifer Cooke explains ‘plague is wielded as a political or rhetorical weapon in the service of social discrimination or stigmatisation; it is mobilised to critique regimes, dictators or minority groups’ (Cooke 2009, p. 2).
Therefore the whole nation is stepping into, if I use Victor Turner’s term ‘liminal State’ where the in-between-ness of Corona viral infection is experienced and performed. Anthropologist Arnold Van Gennep in his book The Rites of Passage (1960) describes three stages of liminal states. The first liminal state is that in this current social context people are being requested to be quarantines or self-quarantines and a sector of social milieu is already being separated or marginalized from their daily lives. The second liminal space is where the ritual of treatment and medical procedures are followed and succumbed to the Government rules and regulations. The state identifies and begins to categorize who are healthy and fit to survive and who are weak or rather abnormal. The second threshold is somewhat an unsettling experience for participants as they have to undergo many medical and governmental procedures in order for them to prove that they are being transformed into the final phase of the ritual. Then the final stage is to reintegrate the newly transformed or quarantined individual to the social order. In the current context, the final liminal space for the Corona suspect is to free from the 14 day quarantine process and get back to her/his own family or the community with a new identity and presence. It is a larger scale performance that is being carried out in five continents partaking with many actors and directors interventions. As Michael Foucault argues, plague or pandemic is wielded as a political and oppressive apparatus to identify and stigmatization of certain groups of the society and how the medical institutions and governance would be redefined and operated as epistemological tools of surveillance of people’s sickness and wellbeing (Cooke 2009).
COVID -19 has threatened all nations and it is time for us to rethink how we should fight against such a fatal disease. Talking at a television discussion very recently, Dr Vivian Balakrishnan, the Foreign Minister of Singapore clearly demarcated the ways that powerful and weak States would handle the current pandemic situation. According to him there are three pillars that hold the idea of how effectively we are to handle the situation: 1. Quality of Health care, 2. Standards of Governance and 3. Social Capital (CNBC Interview, 11 March-COVID-19). If the current disease outbreak spreads overwhelmingly, exceeding the capacity to control with the existing medical facilities or if the social capital is not educated or competent enough to understand the severity of outbreak and how to handle it as a community, and finally if the Government does not take the current situation seriously and provide adequate financial and infrastructure support, then our lives will be at stake. As proven with research, the public response to disease outbreaks is in general calm and orderly but if the situation escalates into a severe outbreak the situation will be more dramatic and catastrophic. For instance, recent research has found that in such a situation ‘outbreak of disease can trigger social disturbances, including panic, rioting, hoarding of medical supplies, or violence against members of groups believed to have or carry the Disease ’ (Shannon M. Fast1, Marta C. Gonza´lez, James M. Wilson, and Natasha Markuzon, 2015). To sum up this, I would like to show what Antonin Artaud, French theatre director and theorist, half a century ago compared and discussed the affinities between theatre and plague. He wrote that ‘The plague takes dormant images, latent disorder and suddenly carries them to the point of the most extreme gestures. Theatre also takes gestures and develops them to the limit. Just like the plague, it reforges the links between what does and does not exist, between the Virtual nature of the possible and the material nature of existence’ (Artaud, A., 2010, p. 18). Therefore we need to look at the in-betweeness that we all experience in the wake of the Corona outbreak; it is the transformation or the rites of passage of life and death.
Artaud, A. and Calder, J., 2005. The Theatre And Its Double. London: Calder Publications.
Cooke, J., 2009. Legacies Of Plague In Literature, Theory And Film. London: Palgrave Macmillan UK.
Fast, S., González, M., Wilson, J. and Markuzon, N., 2015. Modelling the propagation of social response during a Disease outbreak. Journal of The Royal Society Interface, 12(104), p.20141105.
Ferguson, N., Cummings, D., Fraser, C., Cajka, J., Cooley, P. and Burke, D., 2006. Strategies for mitigating an influenza pandemic. Nature, 442(7101), pp.448-452.
Fischer-Lichte, E., 2014. The Routledge Introduction To Theatre And Performance Studies. London: Routledge.
Martin, S., 2015. Short History Of Disease . [Place of publication not identified]: Turnaround Publisher Serv.
O’LOUGHLIN, M., 2016. EMBODIMENT AND EDUCATION. [Place of publication not identified]: SPRINGER.
Reid, A. and Taubenberger, J., 2003. The origin of the 1918 pandemic influenza virus: a continuing enigma. Journal of General Virology, 84(9), pp.2285-2292.
*Saumya Liyanage (PhD), Professor in Theatre and Drama, Dean, Faculty of Graduate Studies, University of Visual and Performing Arts, Colombo, Sri Lanka