An Exclusively Economic Approach Cannot Negotiate the Aftereffects of the Pandemic

One of the unmistakable aspects of the pandemic is emotional trauma and our collective inability to develop social psychology necessary for regular life and more so in conditions of crisis.

While there have been rather intricate discussions on the economic fallout of the COVID-19 pandemic, there seems to be a failure to recognise that exclusive focus on the economy has been one of the causes of our inability to deal with it. The pandemic has suddenly alerted us to the social, personal, emotional and psychological dimensions of life, issues that have got waylaid because of excessive focus on growth and development.

One of the unmistakable aspects of the pandemic is emotional trauma and our collective inability to develop social psychology necessary for regular life and more so in conditions of crisis. In negotiating the aftereffects of the pandemic, we need to take into account various cultural and emotional aspects, neglecting them and pitching for yet again an exclusive economistic approach, however sensitive and good, will only further reinforce the frameworks that have disabled us.

A worker wearing a protective face mask cleans a machine inside an undergarment factory in Kolkata, April 20, 2020. Photo: REUTERS/Rupak De Chowdhuri

Psychological and emotional aspects are ‘silent killers’ just like the virus. If we do not open the pandora’s box, it could mutate to create dimensions that can be self-defeating and holds the potential of creating mass violence and difficulties for collective living. Life after the pandemic, or even the lockdown, cannot get back to the ‘normal’ merely by lifting the lockdown, just like it could not be unproblematically implemented with a four-hour notice. This kind of flattening out of complexities that overlay social life will bury the anxieties, anomie and trauma that will remain as residual effects to re-appear in more damaging forms.

Cultural sociologist Jeffrey Alexander in his book Trauma: A Social Theory points out that idealising the discourse of globalization was a trauma-response to the Cold War. In order to come out of the deadlock of the Cold War, we were compelled to imagine globalisation as a rhizomatic escape from the hardships into a wonderland of opportunities. Similarly, in order to escape the threat of the coronavirus, we might end up in a dystopia of persistent insecurity, mutual distrust and violent acquisition. The traits of which are already visible in rioting in Uttar Pradesh, cutting off the limb of a police officer in Punjab, attacks on medical and health workers, among others. These are not minor or stray incidents but a consequence of collective trauma that society is experiencing.

Two lines of enquiry

We need to open up two lines of enquiry: Why emotions got disturbed as a result of the lockdown and why are we finding ourselves ill-equipped to cope with a constrained social life due to social and physical distancing. There is a layered reality underlying the trauma we are collectively experiencing. Capitalist modernity has dislocated ensconced social life into an open life of unexpected adventures. We moved from ritualised routines to adventures of the unpredictable encounters. While this added intensity to life, it also broke the continuity into serialised moments. We began to look for meaning in intense experiences. Each moment became indispensable and non-negotiable. From a ‘way of life’ we moved to a life without pathways.

At one end of the spectrum, the response to such a context is to re-impose the traditional ways as a mode of resisting risk that came with unpredictability. Good examples of this are highlighted by Gandhi’s practice and philosophy. He organised bhajans before every public meeting, not only to convey the message of harmonious living but the form of bhajan indicated the value of repetitive activity in order for the message to become a ‘way of life ‘. It was also to equip the collective to cope with the mundane, the banal and the everyday. It was not about lofty idealism, but simple acts of everyday life that decided the potency of the act. Gandhi wished to demonstrate that life cannot be made a series of high points but ethics emerged from the slow brewing moments that are crafted unto our lives.

His use of the charkha was yet another instance of masterly symbolism to demonstrate how life needs to be slow but also create or rather ‘spin’ meaning to mundane activities. The repetitive activities of the everyday too held deep ethical and spiritual content. One cannot build mass movements without grounding them in the certainty of its everyday moral content.

As against this traditional view that has its undeniable organic relation with individual, personal and social life, the more modernist version saw this as constraining and disciplining. In contrast, critical thinker Alain Badiou argues that modern life has become inimical to the adventures of falling in love and experiencing the unexpected. There is no love without risk. There is no risk without the preparedness of having an adventure. Modernity created a chimaera of opening up avenues for adventure without making us prepared for it.

An empty shopping mall in Ahmedabad, March 16, 2020. Photo: REUTERS/Amit Dave/File Photo

Struck both ways

Today, we as a collective are struck both ways. We are neither equipped to negotiate the silent, repetitive activities nor are we prepared for the adventures of the unexpected. As a result, we are struggling to connect to our own selves. The mundane has become trivial, while the adventure too risky. It is this no man’s land of an amoral existence that has lead to an emotional vacuum. When we are asked to stay put at homes, what could be a moment for introspection is actually leading to the trauma of facing the emptiness that always existed. We are unable to come to terms with the repetitive activities that have become a source of boredom and loneliness, while, we are not prepared for the adventures of compassion and unable to even admire the forthright work and the risk taken by health workers.

It is this cul de sac that is waiting to burst in the near future. What we need as part of the process of opening up the lockdown is to create, not an empty narrative of solidarity demonstrated in coming together to clap and light candles, but a substantive idea of negotiating the need for silence with the adventures of intense compassion.

Ajay Gudavarthy is associate professor, Centre for Political Studies, JNU.