[avatar user=”meihouba” size=”thumbnail” align=”left” link=”file” target=”_blank”]PRADIP PHANJOUBAM[/avatar]
Though India’s COVID-19 infection and casualty rates are still comparatively low at a little over 3000 infected and less 100 deaths till the time of writing this article, experts say the next two weeks will be crucial in determining the extent and depth of the spread of the virus amongst the larger Indian population. From the picture that emerges by mid-April, it will be known if the virus has begun community transmission beyond the vulnerable group of continental travellers and their associates confined largely to the metropolises. The signs indicate community spreading could have already begun. The most recent of these indicators is the Tablighi Jamaat case in Nizamuddin, where about 4000 followers of this orthodox Islam sect congregated and then were forced to be holed up in one premises for days, partly on account of the sudden lockdown imposed on the whole of India to fight the spread of the virus. Many of the participants were foreigners coming from places known to have become epicentres of COVID-19 outbreaks, hence as much as the organisers of this congregation were irresponsible to decide not to cancel the meet in the wake of the world wide concerns about the pandemic at the time, the government must equally share the blame for this unpardonable oversight and laxity both for not blocking visas for these foreign delegates as well as for not disallowing the congregation. As all of us have seen unfolding during the week, several of the devotees too became infected and after their return to their home states might have already begun spreading the virus among their communities. It may be recalled, of the ten who participated from Manipur, a 65-year-old man is the only one confirmed to have the infection.
The Nizamuddin case is known and participants are being traced in the effort to contain the virus, and we must add with a vengeance from amongst a large section of the right-wing Indian population suffering from Islamophobia, shadows of which are also surfacing in Manipur. As some have pointed out, this targeting probably has also to do with the need to find a scapegoat to shift blame for the lapses in government failure to take needed timely action in this fight. The disease, it may be recalled, first surfaced in India on January 30, and despite warnings, the harsh measures that we are witnessing now only began mid-March. Leaving aside the politics, the question left unaddressed is, there also have been so many other large gatherings of other religions, Hindus and Sikhs included, during the period. All of us also witnessed with horror how migrant workers from India’s many cities came out in huge hordes to walk home in despair after the lockdown as this obviously meant the loss of their daily wages, therefore their survival means in the cities. Should some among them be carrying the virus, the spread and distribution of the disease would practically have been in all directions and into several states of the country, therefore virtually out of easy control already. Hope this has not happened yet.
The next two weeks therefore should be crucial. Nothing can be said with certainty just as yet if what awaits will be the herald of an apocalyptic landscape as many are predicting, or else a showcase of successful suppression of what may have been an unprecedented health horror of the nature several other countries including China, USA, Italy, Spain, Iran and more are either going through or have gone through. But it is somewhat clear now that the disease may likely have transformed the world in many irreversibly ways. One of these is the fact that unless a vaccine is discovered, the virus threat is likely to stay even after the present pandemic has been successfully suppressed and contained. The disruption to life everywhere in such a scenario is imaginable. The social distance that we are asked to maintain now may have to remain for a long time, at least until an effective vaccine is available. In this sense, the changes in social life that COVID-19 brings probably will remain as another epochal chapter in human history, making it possible for history to talk of pre and post COVID-19 periods, just as history tells us of the pre and post industrial revolution eras. As Italian philosopher, Giorgio Agamben, recently wrote, the future after COVID-19 is uncertain and bleak. We may be left to contend with the basic instinctual animal drive to protect what he famously terms as “Bare Life”. The beauty and charm of human life, he reminds us, is however much more than this. But Agamben expressed the fear that humans may have to forsake by necessity much of the realm that gave meaning to existence which lie beyond “Bare Life”.
As deep existential crises always do, the COVID-19 has also succeeded in bringing out the best as well as the worst in our society. How do people respond in situations of great danger and threat to life has been an enduring subject of study in social psychology. Jeremy Rifkin’s “Empathic Civilisation” is just one outstanding example where he convincingly argues the idea of empathy emerges out of a realisation of the universality of the tragedy of life and death. Another psychologist Jordan Peterson, author of “12 Rules of Life” says the same thing in a different way. According to him, what distinguishes humans from the rest of the animal world is their awareness of space and time and how limited and insignificant they are in this scheme. Some of the most popular works of art, as well as cinematic dramas have also been about a portrayal of this human predicament. The question: “what do people do when they are faced with the prospect of death?” will always remain intriguing. Though it must have been difficult for the director to avoid leading his audience to a wee little bit of voyeuristic gaze, the 1997 James Cameron superhit “Titanic” was also about this.
As in this movie, in the wake of the COVID-19 scare, even in Manipur, we are witnessing many latent qualities in our society, some dark some brilliant, long camouflaged under many pretensions, baring themselves. The despicably communal, the selfish, the generous, the cowardly, the heroic and more are showing themselves up in public view. Hence, if we have hoodlums selfishly barricading the roads in complete disregard of what inconveniences these may cause to the rest of society in the foolish belief this would save their localities from the virus, we also have young men and women coming out of their homes doing voluntary work and raising money and ration to ensure the needy in their localities are looked after. If we now know we have rabidly communal sick minds amongst us wishing death to the two who unfortunately contracted the disease and their families, we also know there are also health professionals willing to risk their own safety to save them. This emergency is also in this way becoming a time for self-reflection and assessment. Whether we choose to mend ways by retrieving the best and rejecting the worst will determine the character of our society.
Editor, Imphal Review of Arts and Politics and author