By Uditha Devapriya –
In the space of two weeks, the whole world has decided to lock itself in. The human cost will be immense, as will the economic cost, and the only real consolation to come out of this will be that we’ll be better prepared next time; that is, if we get through this. Experts estimate that it will take up to a year to come up with a vaccine, while Nobel laureates tell us not to worry too much, since it’ll eventually go away.
Corporations are enforcing across-the-board retrenchments to save the big ones at the top, government programs are expanding at a rate unprecedented in modern history, and we’re seeing the first few stages of what will be, as economists warn, a recession worse than the 2008 subprime mortgage crisis. Again, there’s a consolation: corporations and governments are arguably better prepared for another Great Depression, we are not living in the days of unregulated, unfettered robber baron capitalism, and if push comes to shove, government after government – beginning, aptly enough, with a two trillion dollar package in the US – will go ahead and start injecting money, and confidence, into the economy. But first, we’ll have to bear the human cost of the tragedy.
At one level, it’s an existential crisis. Readers of Camus’s The Plague will remember how, in spite of rising patient numbers, the Prefect of the region in French Algeria in which the story unfolds, Oran, refuses to declare an emergency, doing what he can “to avoid upsetting public opinion.” Susan Sontag, in her Illness as Metaphor, observes that our responses to illness and plague are shrouded in inaccessible rhetorical conceits, romanticising the very idea of illness and turning the whole exercise into a victim blame game: even in a plague, tragedy is pinned down on specific communities, and officials and citizens alike, instead of responding as they should to a crisis, indulge in rationalising disease in terms of people who are alleged to have carried it. Decades earlier, Antonin Artaud made the opposite claim: that illness and plague were being couched too much in clinical, medical terms, and that perhaps what could save the infected from the stigma attached to disease was what Sontag warned against: metaphor. In the long run, perhaps Sontag was more correct.
No doubt Donald Trump’s references to the “Chinese virus” and counter-references to a Western “biological weapon” soothe the minds of those who want to blame someone for what’s happening. The truth is that none of the epidemics that broke out in the last 10 years – SARS, MERS, H1N1, even Ebola – has broken out on the scale that this has. If one looks for a historical analogy, one has to go back to 1918. Hence the hemming and hawing à la Camus, hence the rhetorical obfuscations à la Sontag.
Moreover, it’s election season everywhere, and politicians, like corporations, are pretty much in denial of the obvious. Poland as of now has tentatively decided to go ahead, and many other countries, many of them in Europe, have given the green (amber?) light for polls to happen. If the people aren’t quite responding negatively to these reports, it’s because the people are in such a state that they are in denial too.
In a context where the lower middle class is being pressured beyond its limits, and the lower class – daily wage earners especially – has nowhere to turn to, it’s natural that panic is barely being suppressed or contained. Break-ins at outlets across the world are ominous portents of what will happen unless governments steps in. On the other hand, if official reports in developing countries are to be believed, there is no shortage – of food, fuel, medicine – in the market. What’s missing is a lifeline between the government and those in need of these items. For a while, as long as that lifeline operates – and no amount of debt relief can compensate for that – people will be pacified.
The virus has propped up and made a little painfully evident another thing: the contradictions of capitalism. I am not talking about the breakdowns in public healthcare, the rush to hoard as many groceries, medicines, food items, and toilet paper rolls as it is possible, or the inability of delivery apps to deliver to the worst affected places. I am talking also of the assumption made by the big names of certain industries – especially delivery – that they can continue with their profit earning models even now.
Jeff Bezos’s plea to donate to a public fund, when his net worth is $16 billion more than Bill Gates’s and earnings top more than $215 million a day, may seem almost a caricature, a paradox, but the truth is that he’s the rule rather than the exception: multiplied several times over, we come across that kind of entrepreneur in every country. In Sri Lanka, for instance, the Consumer Protection Authority raided the office of a popular delivery service site for charging five to six times the normal retail price of groceries on its website; its founder, a near replica of Bezos, reportedly claimed he did so considering the dollar value. The capitalists, in other words, are as deluded as bureaucrats and citizens: for them, and for us, business as usual has become an urgent, desperate order of the day. Many of us are like the journalist Rambert from Camus’s novel: we feel the virus is not our doing, so we want to ignore it, escape it, or – in the case of the corporations – profit from it.
The most difficult question to answer now is how we should take all this. We are not going to return to normal soon. The Plague ends with the people of Oran regaining their wits, numbed after such a long time that the end of the epidemic means nothing to them, even though they smile. We are going to have to rethink what normal means, because normal, even after curfews will be lifted – again, hard to say when, how, or where – we’ll never look at one another as we have before. Until then, the lingering dilemma will be whether we should overstate or understate the full weight of our calamity.
For some, not considering this as normal will make them accept this as the new normal, for weeks, if not months, if not years. Even if a vaccine gets out, and even if the poorest of the poorest nations get themselves immunised, the memories will stay on, and the idea of communities will change dramatically. The human condition now is such that we’re trying to adapt ourselves to a situation we – that is, those of us in relatively well off nations – have not drawn up drills or contingency plans for. This is the first real unforeseeable crisis of the 21st century; even 9/11, supposedly unforeseeable, was not unpredictable, given the scale of Western intervention in the Middle East since time immemorial.
It’s not that no country has lived through this, or is living through this. People in Gaza have made what we’re experiencing now a part of their daily routine. COVID-19 has brought that situation forward to every doorstep on the planet, even Myanmar, where if we believe official reports of low patient numbers we still have to account for the state of lockdown it’s in, and has made it part of our routine. Countries like India, where shanties were until now considered a nuisance best ignored, are grappling with a nightmare Mike Davis wrote about 15 years ago in Planet of Slums. The relatively affluent will say this is the great leveller; for the poor, that’s hardly going to be a consolation.
I may be cynical in saying it, but we are living the experiences of the poorest and the most wretched of people: in Africa, in Iraq, in Afghanistan. Some nations are taking it better than others, certain world leaders have cheerfully exclaimed that we need to get everything we have got together in time for Easter. But once you account for these facile differences, the truth stands out: COVID-19 has impacted us all, some more than others, and what was once remote and unimaginable has turned into an everyday reality and nightmare.
The world saw the Gulf War and the invasion of Iraq and Afghanistan through the lens of the media. As Edward Said put it in Culture and Imperialism, media outlets turned into tools of propaganda for the US. We were bombarded with distorted images and voice-cuts from the frontlines and the government. Today we’re seeing unedited images, uncensored voices. The two contexts are different, to be sure – one is an insurgency, the other a contagion – and notwithstanding our president’s remark that “we” can fight this thing since “we” have already eradicated terrorism, one cannot compare the two.
But in one sense they’re the same: they’re bringing out what it’s like to be isolated from each other, and isolated from ourselves. The world of 1993 and 9/11 did not have WhatsApp, Instagram, and Facebook, but then the world of today, even with these, can’t handle a crisis of this proportion on an existential level. On the material level, we’re famished: no government has been successful in its response so far. I am certainly not suggesting we’re on the verge of a breakdown; just that we’ve already broken down, and that we’re in denial of the fact that we are. The surge in suicides is just the tip of an iceberg.
Naturally, the existential crisis will be denied. At one level, it’s normal. People are facing far worse dilemmas in the form of withheld wages, diminishing food stocks, and no medicine. But at another level, the existential crisis is as real as the material.
We who have been born and bred in a culture of remaining resolute in the face of tragedy will continue to believe that nothing drastically serious will come out of this. And yet, if we are refusing to believe COVID-19 will send everyone in the world to a state of frenzy, we are equally vehemently refusing to believe that it will settle down soon. In that sense, the people of the world has accepted that it will not end. They have also accepted that it will not go on forever. On both counts, they’ve numbed themselves. Like the people of Oran. And like the people of Iraq, Afghanistan, and Gaza.