The politics surrounding the arrival of coronavirus is on the way to becoming heavily reactionary. Its chief articulators are primarily governments and the corporate media, both of which enjoy enormous clout, and will use it effectively to ensure that their own private agendas are royally served.
Yes, people need to keep a distance from one another for the time being. It just does not have to be “social;” we’re talking about practical distancing between individual persons, for a specific purpose and for a specified period only. Where did this notion of the “social” come from and why does it have the connotation of being a remedy when it is only a deterrent! The one who controls language also controls reality – we grew up with this idea reading Orwell’s 1984. It is crises like the COVID-19 that give governments the power to manipulate reality to suit their ends better than ever before.
I cannot think of a form of discrimination that did not involve some kind of social distancing. It is at the heart of caste system, gender segregation, homophobia, racism, anti-Semitism etc. Thanks to how coronavirus is being politicized, the new victims of social distancing are going to be the aged and the ill, and worse so for the weak and the homeless who are already social isolates anyway.
Medical science historically has played a dubious role in endorsing different kinds of discrimination. In the South Asian context, social distancing that has been institutionalized through the purity and pollution of caste system took the form of “clean” and “unclean” of the modern world, pushing the vast masses of people who work with their hands or unorganized labor into the domain of the impure. Hygiene becomes a way to make a distinction between one class of people and another, and legitimately too since it is science that says so. And who can argue with science because it is about “facts” or as Thomas Gradgrind puts in Hard Times: “You can only form the minds of reasoning animals upon Facts: nothing else will ever be of any service to them.” Governments globally are espousing a Gradgrind theory of facts to keep the masses in line.
I am not talking of the practical aspects of cleanliness. It is the theory behind it that I find difficult to accept. Uncleanliness is more often than not associated with people who we dislike without sufficient reason. I have heard the lines “they don’t bathe” or “they’re unwashed” or “they smell” often used against minorities and people from exploited groups. That’s what makes me deeply suspicious of the concept of social distancing which is expected to keep you secure from any contact with the other person. There is something innately problematic with it.
I agree that the virus spreads with contact and therefore one needs to be careful. But, to advocate social distancing as a philosophy of day-to-day life, a gospel line endorsed by the so-called medical fraternity whose wisdom is supposedly beyond question, I am opposed to that because its consequences are ominous to say the least. The destructive effects of social distancing outweigh whatever might seem as positive gains in containing the virus. It is bound to affect interpersonal relationships because it might be for the first time in history that there is a system of propaganda globally working with the one-point goal of homogenizing populations to think alike across borders.
Coronavirus might be making a mockery of globalization especially the tourism industry and the dubious finance capitalists who are able to make money without a hard day’s labor. The fear of governments is that the outbreak of coronavirus on a mass scale could lead to social upheaval because an external trigger could easily cause an angry and vulnerable population to revolt. That certainly is a legitimate fear in the third world where the poor, working masses have had enough of being brutally suppressed and might actually be ready to explode. More than the use of force, social distancing nobly serves the political parties in power and the elites whose interests they defend in keeping the masses contained using the “knowledge” of medical experts. This is science in the service of despotism and technology for the benefit of the powerful.
Some of the most dangerous reactionaries are the new age gurus and the ones who fall back on organized religion of every shade and hue to promote sinister ways to keep the emotional and spiritual lives of common people under control. They are the ones who will successfully use the argument in favor of social distancing to curtail whatever civil rights and private freedoms that people managed to achieve in the past fifty or so years.
I live in a crowded country where you get to see people from dawn to dusk. How does social distancing work with such crowds and how is self-quarantine possible with close-knit families which live in small, enclosed spaces? People love their children and care for their parents and might not be willing to stay away from them in a time of crisis. This is true everywhere and is certainly true of people where I live as well.
What is questionable about the concept of social distancing is that instead of addressing the real problem of inequality and injustice, governments intend to merely keep the masses away from each other to avoid the slightest possibility of social togetherness, which does not mean that they stand physically next to each other, but rather that they understand each other better and work towards such ends that liberate them.
Predatory governments, for lack of humane solutions, play on the fears of the masses. They will do everything possible to make the masses crouch in terror and fall on their knees begging for help. A fallen mass of people that is afraid to stand up for itself is what governments need in order to reduce human freedom to the bare minimum and maintain a stranglehold on those who dare to fight back. I propose that a more sincere government start thinking of a sense of belonging as being a much more useful way to deal with an invisible force such as a virus rather than blindly promoting social distancing except as a practical, time-bound way to address the problem.
Half the battle is won when the ill and the suffering are made to feel that they have a reason to live. Since most of the victims happen to be the aged it is imperative that a sense of belonging is instilled in them to make their lives meaningful. People need to feel wanted no matter what. This is a good time to encourage such a feeling in ordinary people. If the virus is mocking an entire system built on a cynical and self-serving view of human nature, we need an alternative philosophy to combat a view that brings out the worst in people by suspecting them, rather than the best by believing in them.
In countries like China and Iran the aged are treated better than in any country in the western hemisphere. In my view, they will ultimately succeed in controlling the virus before the others despite initial debacles. That is not the case in my own country, India, where the aged are seen as a burden by the system and the educated young are either imitating American sitcoms or are trapped in a Bollywood version of India, which is basically straw with thermocol packing.
Where people have a general sense of belonging astoundingly positive results can be achieved. We live in a time in history where there are no statespersons who can guide the masses. The worst kind of political leadership is at the helm of affairs across the globe with the partial exception maybe of Germany and New Zealand. Our popular culture has no solutions because it is operating at the level of pure fantasy with no connection to the lives of common folks. Shallow intellectualism and commercialized art have replaced a serious attempt to understand the role of the human person on the planet. This leaves humanity in a precarious condition because ultimately we need truth to enable us to come out of a crisis.
The virus might merely be testing our ability to tell the truth to ourselves. Like Saint Augustine says, truth is not independent of justice. Justice is in fact the other side of truth. For people to be truthful it means that they have to be just as well. But justice that does not stand on the foundations of mercy is a justice that will condemn all of us in the end, as Portia puts it in the sweetest way possible to the vengeful Shylock.
A sense of belonging that comes from people treating each other in a kind and humane way is the answer to the virus. I am certain this is the response that enabled the human person to survive on this planet in the most difficult periods in history. A people who feel that they don’t belong are in some sense already dead or are dying a slow death. Making them feel that they are needed is a step in the right direction. I don’t believe the virus will stay for good. However, a disadvantage can be turned into an opportunity by creating the conditions for a truthful, just and kinder society.
Prakash Kona is a writer, teacher and researcher who lives in Hyderabad, India. He is Professor at the Department of English Literature, The English and Foreign Languages University (EFLU), Hyderabad.