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Crisis reimagined

The pandemic has become surreal both as art and science

Shiv Visvanathan Published 21.05.21, 01:06 AM
Indian homeless people and stranded migrant workers stand in circles marked on ground to maintain a social distance, to receive free food from the disciples of Ramakrishna, a Hindu religious group, at Ramakrishna Ashram, as nationwide lockdown continues over the highly contagious coronavirus (COVID-19) on March 31, 2020 in New Delhi, India.

Indian homeless people and stranded migrant workers stand in circles marked on ground to maintain a social distance, to receive free food from the disciples of Ramakrishna, a Hindu religious group, at Ramakrishna Ashram, as nationwide lockdown continues over the highly contagious coronavirus (COVID-19) on March 31, 2020 in New Delhi, India. Yawar Nazir/Getty Images

The Covid narrative has become bare and impoverished both as policy and story. It has become arid as a technical answer to a technical question. One needs to broaden it out so it has a sense of an ethic. A moment of horror needs a touch of posies to grasp it. A bit of language, a jab of meaning that opens up new possibilities.

I am a newspaper addict. I begin the day with coffee and news, drinking both in. Of late, I find I cannot read the news. News has lost its sense of story, of ethics. News has become bland about horror and every report of a crisis feels like a government handout. A crisis of Covid has become a crisis of journalism, a failure of ethics and storytelling, the very loss of language that affects the ability to mourn. Death has become meaningless with this charade of governance and policy becomes the act of erasure.


An old woman I know said that instead of talking numbers, the government should have conducted a simple ritual of mourning. In spouting statistics, it has lost the power of memory. Covid, sadly, is seen as a crisis of medicine when it is a crisis of culture. The sad thing is that we keep thinking that Covid needs a technical answer to a technical question when it embodies at least several layers of crisis.

Let us begin with science. Remember, science in India is no longer a knowledge system. It’s an ideological system that supports the State. Worse, our scientists have lost their sense of philosophical roots. A scientist must know, especially in an ecological age, that nature is always in flux. Our scientists operate under idiotic assumptions that treat nature as a commodity, and they think that nature will fix things. An outdated science with little notion of risk, uncertainty or complexity underwrites our system of governance. Scientific ethics is treated marginally. Science literally has to return to truth-telling by admitting its mistakes candidly. The Covid myth might be badly behaved but the illiteracy of science as the policy system and an ethical act is starkly vivid.

The second fact we have to confront is that truth is not a monopoly of science. Science in its own way requires a different language and ethics. With Covid, we have lost the sense of the epic and ethics. One sees a gross failure of journalism here. Reporting is at an all-time low and the crisis is read like some kind of circus. The failure of journalism adds to the human rights crisis we face today. The victim and patient have disappeared as people. They are only a demographic presence as body counts or are treated as failed consumers as they are turned away from hospitals. What is true of the patients is also true of the migrants in the informal economy. It represents the irony of citizenship in urban India today.

It is interesting how certainty and uncertainty operate in today’s India. Certainty and continuity are what the regime demands for itself, while it is content to impose violence, uncertainty and vulnerability on the citizens. We are faced with a regime that speaks wellness and welfare but lacks even a modicum of care, either for the victim or for the caretaker. Ours is a regime for which welfare moves between Kafka and Alice and the suffering, whether that of the patient or the migrant, is met with indifference.

There is a deeper failure of narrative and ethics. We equate truth with fact without realizing that fact is vulnerable and naked without the power of metaphor. Truth has to have a literary power and epic quality even in the everydayness. Newspapers and government reports have destroyed this rhythm of storytelling, of a society replete with folklore and parable. Earlier, epidemics had mythic power and invoked the sacred. Covid as a pandemic has no gods or rituals devoted to it. An arid secularism is too listless to challenge the demonology of Covid. This litmus test of language is accompanied by the inane illiteracy of our leaders who do not know the difference between a nursery rhyme and a policy document.

Watching Narendra Modi on a TV screen is like watching the perpetrator as the philosopher king. It is Modi’s performance that has created one miracle of Covid. Modi did the impossible. He convinced his fans that he is far more incompetent than Rahul Gandhi, thereby creating a historical turn that hardly anyone was ready to accept. Democracy right now is the choice between two authoritarianisms. What is also intriguing is the absence of dissent in the Indian Administrative Service. A spate of resignations would have reversed the nature of the story. In fact, one is prompted to ask, would a B.C. Roy as chief minister or the presence of a Mother Teresa have represented things differently?

When language has become clerical and sterile, fit for certification but not for storytelling, democracy becomes desperate to attain the power of prayer and narrative. When literature and science fail and politics remains inane theory, there is little a society can do. One confronts the breakdown of the society and a disappearance of the language of the social. We have lost an everyday sense of society and it shrinks to that of a brutality. The government has already destroyed the margins of a civil society.

The only word for the social we have is a behaviouristic term: social distancing. It lacks a sense of norms, it lacks a cosmos. It is disaggregation by definition; the State pretends that this disaggregated state is society. Sadly, no respectable body of social science challenges Modi’s alleged contribution to sociology, his world of unaccountable power and consequent nihilism. In fact, the media have to pretend that cinema is a simulacrum of society where good families and loving couples go to a nirvana called the Maldives. The myth of the Maldives as a new paradise continues. It is a society aggregated from beaches and hotels where the only inmates are film stars.

There is an obscenity in the way society is constructed in newspaper supplements. Upper-class, governmental babus pretend to be non-resident Indians in their own domain. A government practising social distancing with its citizens is the final irony. Governance has become the ritual to destroy the social. It is a pandemic where displacement, medical catastrophe and genocide become just another form of collective violence.

Western narratives of horror have a central focus on monsters, but the new Indian horror story just empties out the content, the character, and the meaning of all before it. The increasing waves of emptiness that Covid creates at every level, from language to norm to governance to science, give it a major place in the annals of violence. The Indian horror story has emerged at the right moment of creation and as good Indians we see it as normal and are tempted to adapt to it. India has become surreal in a way that the West could never have been. Covid as an evil has become surreal both as art and science. The challenge is to find a new language and exemplary acts of ethics that confront the way it constructs the world. This is the real challenge for the idea of democracy.

Shiv Visvanathan is an academic associated with Compost Heap, a network pursuing alternative imaginations

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