Never before, a certain sense of distance, distance from a vaccine, from a potentially infected, from inter-religious relationships, from migrant labourers and from the invisible virus, has infected our mind as now. When mind is infected with fear – multiples of fears – can the urge to remain safe, healthy and free from stress work at the level of the society remain the same? Just as an Afro-American person Eric Garner stated eleven times “I can’t breathe” before dying of strangulation when restrained brutally by White policemen, or as Frantz Fanon quipped ‘when it becomes impossible to breathe’ in a colonized society, the virus too attacks the respiratory tract as it creates a ‘cytokine storm’ in the body often causing what has been described as akin to death by drowning. What happens inside an attacked body and what happens outside the body in the overdrive for individualized immunity and self-preservation are somewhat analogical. Analogically, a swarm of territorialized selves and communities cut itself off to immune itself from contact with others, while such a cutting off only internalizes both the risk and safety. The outside remains dangerous, the outside of oneself. The impact of this inside/outside dualism is pointed out by philosopher Giorgio Agamben. In his essay on ‘Biosecurity and Politics’[i], Agamben pointed out that a future politics based on prohibiting any kind of human crowd and ‘social distancing’ in the outside social world would shrink human liberty to such an extent that even the fascist states could not have dreamt of. He went on to conceptualize an inverted crowd where faces are not recognizable being masked, while such a masked crowd is legitimized not on the grounds of democratic political norms, but on the basis of living in a ‘permanent state of exception’.
The question that haunts us further is the use of metaphor of ‘war’, without which apparently, attack by COVID cannot be fought with strength. But what is the nature of this war and who are the warriors against a virus? It is the immune system of the individual, if not herd immunity, both of which lie in the frontline between humans and a microbial colony! The immune system accepts some microbes, while it resists some others. Quite in the same way, the social system built around a model of self-preservation has to draft its narrow and parochial norms of entry and exit, which by itself has to create a lot of exception to the norm of equality and universality in order to cut itself off, or to distance itself off from a supposedly dangerous outside. This is precisely what Agamben in another almost magical blog entitled, ‘Clarifications” called as erasure of the neighbour when one is advised only by fear. In the inimitable language of Agamben,
We have become so accustomed to living in conditions of perennial crisis and perennial emergency that we do not seem to notice that life is being reduced to a purely biological condition in which the social and political-even the human and emotional-dimensions are lost. A society that lives in a permanent state of emergency is no longer a free society. Indeed, our society, having sacrificed freedom for the sake of so-called “security concerns”, has condemned itself to a perennial state of insecurity and fear.[ii]
Agamben’s pointers at our consenting reduction to a society based on insecurity and fear leads us only to what Ivan Illich so aptly described as “Medical Nemesis”, which is the title of his much discussed 1975 book. Pandering to insecurity, as Illich had shown resulted into a massive harm to our society by way of medicalisation of ordinary life and loss of traditional ways of dealing with suffering and pain.[iii] Medicalisation went unfettered to completely deprive the Western man the right to natural death and the right to preside at his act of dying. Health insecurity created by the COVID surpassed all these effects of medicalisation by creating an incurable sense of infection in even life events like ‘birth’ and ‘death’. Neither a newborn even is not immune from ascribed stigma of an asymptomatic carrier of the virus nor a person who lived a god life amidst us and dies during the Corona crisis is spared from being a perceived carrier with traces of the virus. Once again, medicalisation created a nemesis of common sense and rationality by inducing a cold cruelty towards the dead and what afflicts the dead enters into the life-world of the alive by way of a sense of fearing every incoming other. The logic of quarantine for everyone engulfs our common sense and we give rise to a ‘quarantine state’ that normalizes surveillance by asking us to surrender the last shreds of privacy, personal freedom and dignity to be controlled and directed by the state at the level of micro-individual. The emergence of a macro level quarantine state even without a framework of right and entitlement based laws constrains our hard earned liberty, freedom and natural justice. If this is what a war on corona means in reality, then it is not just fighting the ailment, but it is effectively curtailing the rights of the ill and the non-ill by a feat of medicalisation. What is the impact of such medicalisation on our basic sense of morality, decency can dignity? Do staying safe, healthy and diseases free in COVID times then mean a diminution of the idea of personal and social good?
While the state and politics revolve around a realization that our lethal armoury and policing methods cannot contain the virus, irony is that the virus attacks the men in uniform more than the ordinary mortals and it hardly spares the doctors and the nurses. Given these susceptibilities, fear and insecurity now create paradoxical responses. Ivan Illich’s much discussed example of a good Samaritan who picks up the dirty body a sick traveller, a Jew, as he undertook a risk from his inner self, while both a priest and a Levite did not lift the sick up in spite of their feeling equally bad about the condition of the sick man as the Samaritan. The difference between them is, the Samaritan took a risk despite all the danger of being infected, while the priest and the Levite evaded the risk. One who bears the risk by taking it on his or her shoulder does an extraordinary feat beyond what is expected, including the expectation of ‘safe physical distancing’ norm, which the Samaritan ought not to follow if he ought to help the sick. In an exactly opposite scenario, the fear of contagion imposes a fear or distance in a manner that it makes impossible a genuine act of help and support driven by humanity. Charles Taylor made a succinct comment on this good Samaritan parable of Ivan Illich by saying, ‘Illich..offers a new roadmap, a way of coming to understand what has been jeopardized in our decentred, objectifying and discarnate way of remaking ourselves..’ and thereby showing us the way to accept risks instead of distancing.[iv]
The price of distancing in the present circumstances could be seen in the long journey of the migrant labourers on the road, where they faced the stick of a quarantine state either by design or by accident. Be it a Sramik express without a pantry and drinking water with surcharges levied, or be it the horrifying disaster on the railway track of 16 returning migrants being crushed – or be it the police spectacle of punishing the poor and the hapless on the streets of India – life in its gory mode of distancing has spectralized fear and insecurity. This spectrality made the virus more viral than its actual spread, as it made us less humane and infected our hearts and souls.
The protocols and norms of control of the viral virus exercise its macro power on the helpless returnee migrants on their journeys and continue in the form of isolating, stigmatizing and denying entry of the returnees into one’s own home or place. Much worse is the discriminating quarantine in paid hotels and homes for those who can afford and in decrepit state-run quarantine for those who cannot. The great quarantine divide perpetuated with enormous virality in it. The norm of equality and fairness in one’s medical entitlement of critical care in need is maintained with difficulty in healthcare as a breakable norm. Receiving due care once again becomes more an exception than a norm even in a state of permanent emergency. The emergency remains unmitigable! This spectral emergency of a ‘quarantine state’ then need not follow the principle that ‘no one can be deprived of life and liberty without the due process’, as the very template of equality is substituted by narrow motives of just securing oneself only with skewed ethical standards. Let us say that the foundational norm of responsibility towards the other is twisted into disciplining the other and extracting a special treatment for oneself, due process mutates like strains of virus into the undue and the skewed.
In such a conundrum of making some special and some others disposable and dispensable in the gaze of a surveillance quarantine state, both the models of authoritarian democratic state and the compassionate democratic state enter into an irreflexive hall of mirror effect. Authoritarian state starts mirroring compassion and other virtues, while a compassionate model of democracy such as Jacintha Ardren’s leadership style of empathy mirrors vulnerability of the other in oneself.[v] As the curve goes exponentially higher, it tests the tenaciousness or tenuousness of such virtues, whether virtues are embodied or they are just advocated to serve narrow class or personal ends. In the end, it could be seen that a state of permanent emergency emerging on all sides of a democracy turns it into a permanent quarantine state that cannot operate without creating a permanent state of exception. In case of India, a tough negotiation is on between fundamental rights and suspension of these rights by an emerging quarantine state, while the West is slowly exiting out of this mode of quarantine into a model of empathy that puts one in the shoes of those infected by COVID. The negotiation is between shared pain and distantiated pain of the other, in which India still remains bipolar and ambivalent. Layers of non-uniformity pervades through this bipolarity and ambivalence as India dresses itself up with economic stimulus package and crisis management at the ground level.
The question remains unresolved then, can we behave like a receding army of a trailing and self-inverting crowd of self-preservers going towards an imagined firewall, which does not exists anymore, as we have gone on destroying forests, animal habitats and the poor and the marginalized humans in our backyard? In COVID times the last resort of sheltering us in a safe backyard of home has increasingly become more vulnerable, as it has become a habitat of microbes left from our mayhems on forests and animal kingdoms on which we made our hubs. Our state of exception then just emerged with only a politically engineered quarantine procedure that in no way can save us from the Ivan Illichian nemesis by too many new microbes sprung in our backyards of destruction.
Anthropologist Aida Benton’s description of this nemesis by COVID pandemic as a ‘racialized geography of blame’[vi] brings out the predatory nature of the imagination of emergency that binds us to backyards of closed racialized identities. Indeed, such closures of identity are used to override the need for treating the vulnerable with empathy and care, as the virus is identified with race, religion and community. The “in group” is considered as safe, while the out group is made ‘dangerous’ and ‘carriers’. This mode of continuous othering and blaming as an impact of the virus has not only made the virus into a wicked stable state, but it also weakened our capacity to adapt to long term ‘herd immunity’ against it. In the short term ‘in group’ immunity is an initial step, while in the long term, mix up with the ‘out group’ by going outside earmarked geographies is t the only way to develop proper herd immunity.
[i] https://medium.com/@ddean3000/biosecurity-and-politics-giorgio-agamben-396f9ab3b6f4, accessed on 8th May, 2020
[ii] https://medium.com/@ddean3000/clarifications-giorgio-agamben-3f97dc7ed67c accessed on 10th May, 2020.
[iii] https://www.rcpe.ac.uk/sites/default/files/jrcpe_46_2_omahony_0.pdf accessed on 11th May, 2020.
[iv] The quote of Charles Taylor is cited from https://medium.com/@ddean3000/clarifications-giorgio-agamben-3f97dc7ed67c, accessed on 11th May, 2020.
[v] https://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2020/04/jacinda-ardern-new-zealand-leadership-coronavirus/610237/ accessed on 11th May, 2020.
[vi] Adia Benton, http://somatosphere.net/forumpost/border-promiscuity-racialized-blame/ accessed on 13 may, 2020.
The writer teaches Philosophy at NEHU, Shillong and is a political analyst.