However I try, I am unable to get away from the deep mystery of the occurrence: that a non-living protein molecule with a centre of RNA and a covering of fat should so resurrect in our respiratory systems and cause mayhem with no thought to the castles we build. It seems to play no favourites, and yet, the consequences of its apparently non-discriminatory praxis suggest the novel coronavirus may not be as apolitical as our speculations assert.
As Edward Said may have said, this invisible menace lives and works its way in “the world”; and, that being so, its workings inevitably affect homo sapiens in discrete ways, all according to their place in the material scheme of things.
If, at one end, it obliges governments to order lockdowns, on the other end, here at home in India, it compels our masses to trudge hundreds of miles to the consolation of their hinterland “homes” in Bihar, Uttar Pradesh etc. Having lost their daily wages in towns and cities now under lockdown, these real builders of the nation have neither food, nor medicine, nor shelter, only their children on their shoulders and hopes without hope.
While we wear fancy masks and wash our hands with designer carbolic, these sansculottes of India—constituting according to one report, some 37% of the republic, have no water to drink as they trudge in hopes of “home”. In a Delhi slum, they ask the same question: with no water to drink, how do they wash their hands.
In the heart of the Capital, the masses in long and close lines squat for food, unmindful of “social distancing.”
While notable citizens in metropolises disregard the lockdown and make a beeline for stores, laid off workers looking for similar succour are made to hop and squat as they trudge, and kindly persuaded with baton incentives as well.
Here is a nasty thought: if you recall the days and months prior to the coming of the coronavirus, there was – in city after city, country after country – a resurgence of collective resistance to government policies gravely inimical to republican ideals and assurances. From Shaheen Bagh in Delhi to Santiago in Chile, years of oppressive class rule seemed to have finally awakened the masses everywhere to take a stand and be counted.
Come the virus and all that has melted overnight into a frightened retreat from a menace that for now threatens life itself.
Whereas most victims of ‘corona’ seem thus far to come from the elites who wander the globe from end to end, the virus, curiously, with no conspiracy theories proffered, has come as much relief to the ruling classes per se.
It is of course entirely possible that after the scourge of the coronavirus has had its day, the world may not return to business as usual – that the desperate of the world may find themselves embroiled in agitations which far exceed what preceded its coming.
Much as the ruling classes may tout a return to “normalcy,” that normalcy may turn out to be rather more chaotic than foregone upheavals. The virus may have so altered the concrete conditions of the masses of people the world-over that sansculottes may be compelled to demand more than just the conditions of bare life.
That the ruling classes understand this all too well is suggested by the fact that governments have with alacrity made ameliorative announcements. And yet, Donald Trump and those like him are keener to recover GDP growth and profit margins than to reorder the economic life and destiny of the globe in any sensible and far-reaching ways so as to obviate the calamities of livelihood that ensue when a pandemic hits a world of unconscionable inequalities.
A blight is upon the world, but worse may be in the offing should food, water, health-care riots, transform into inter-racial, inter-ethnic, inter-religious blood-letting — all speeded irretrievably by climate change which still seems to Trump a liberal conspiracy.
How he would like to shoo away corona and suchlike to return to the business of making deals. And, to be fair, Trump is not alone in this.
The meek of the earth may have no recourse but to look to a promised homeland elsewhere. A time for forbearance rather than any callow optimism.
Badri Raina has taught at Delhi University.