Corona Virus: Difficult Times and the Haunting Utopia


hardly care for days and time these days. It hardly matters to me if it is a
Sunday or Monday. Only day and night makes sense; other minute dimensions of
time seem to be irrelevant these days. We are locked down. We need not and
should not move around to ensure safety of our lives. The monstrous pandemic is
gaining strength day by day and the number of affected people as well as the
death count rises fast. Suddenly everything comes to a halt. The sky has never
been so clear, even one can see the different shades of blue contrasted with
bright silvery sunlight. The calm and quiet that the virus brought to us, to homo sapiens, might be a cause of wonder
for other living beings whose existence humans hardly recognised in their busy
life. Now in metro cities you can hear birds chirping, cows and buffaloes
mooing loudly, they cross busy roads without being perplexed by the cacophony
of heavy traffic. The pride of humanity, of thinking that the planet and the
nature should behave according to their whims alone gets a big jolt. We feel debilitated
and scared not because of missiles thrown by powerful countries but by
microorganisms that threaten to corrode our bodies en masse.

Life in a lockdown
the beginning two three days of the lock down I tried to ascertain my freedom
using the enlarged unexpected disposable time; I can sleep as much as I can, I
can read without thinking about what I would be producing from the stuff, I can
watch movies one, two or three a day. It appeared as a quiet revolt against the
discipline that we imbibe from our childhood through schools, colleges and
universities that are meant to produce labour, manual or mental in sync with
the capitalist clock. But the ‘economic man’ re-emerges again and again that
understands the purpose of life through a structured sense of rationality or
meaningful use of time. And broadly speaking, that meaning of life has to be
realised in the market through its exchangeability. It is a rare experience
where parents stay with their kids all the day or adults stay with their
parents all locked in a house where hierarchies of issues by metrics of more
useful and less important gradually evaporates. People learn to share spaces,
emotions, food and entertainment, household chores and somehow learn to
compromise individual choices. It is also the time for less envy and less
pride. No discussion about who did what, who went where, who ate what or who
wore what! The fluctuations of achievements and failures in our individual perception
curve have become dull more like a horizontal line. And since happiness is a
function of the gap between expectations and achievements, as expectations fall
to the minimum level of being alive, our happiness index should have improved!
It seems we are locked down to learn something else apart from saving ourselves
from the deadly Corona.

warmth of familial and community relations and that of concerns about society
at large are precious things which very few of our countrymen can actually
appreciate. Just think for a moment that because of another surgical strike, a
very harsh of its kind, but needed lock down suddenly closes your avenues of
earning. There is no guarantee that salary would be credited in your account at
the beginning of the next month; you are not sure whether can buy your
necessaries and at the least can ensure two square meals for your family. A
rickshaw puller, a labourer at the spot market, a daily waged construction
worker, an auto driver, a prèss wala,
small vegetable vendors, hawkers, sex workers, beggars and such huge number of
precarious labour who are immediately losing their jobs due to the lock down
face a cruel trade off: corona versus hunger. They seize to be responsible father,
mother, son or daughter in their respective families because of the social distancing.
Ruthless cities close their doors for the migrant workers. Employers are clever
enough. They didn’t pay the workers the accumulated due wages and landlords
throw them out. Some state governments came forward to provide food and shelter
to the migrant workers. But mind that workers did not prefer to live the life
of beggars and decided to walk hundreds of miles to rescue their security and

say that death is the greatest equaliser in our society. The poor has nothing
to lose be it alive or dead and the rich reaches that level of nothingness only
when they die. Death equalises caste, class, gender and all divisions and
deprivations. The fear of death also insinuates a similar movement. Everyone
wants to die amidst their kin, their tribe and community. The rise of the
market and the primacy of individual progress moved people away from their
kinship. People move forward leaving behind their ascribed past. It is the fear
of death that once again reminds them about their kin. All want to share misery
and death with their close acquaintance; it is the last resort of compassion.
International passengers are the real carriers of the virus this time. They
were not stopped nor were disinfected by chemical spray as the arrive at the
airport. The internal migrants decided to walk hundreds of kilometres to go
back to their villages. Now all the state borders are sealed and thousands of
migrant workers are in a state of limbo; neither getting a shelter at their
shoddy work places as there is no work anymore, nor is embraced by the native
villagers because of the fear of contamination. Cops hounded them like
criminals, disinfected them like animals and the dark underbelly of capitalism,
the low cost supply of packets of labour power are now seen by the society at
large as the dangerous class of virus carrying irresponsible unwanted humans!

many, lock down is a lull before the storm: aviation, tourism, FMCG,
hospitality industries are shivering more than one affected by corona fever.
Close down, pay cuts, furloughs, lay off and all symptoms of recession are
looming large. Farmers are unable to sell their crops, no work for daily
labourers, no payment for migrant workers, domestic help and care givers don’t
know how far the compassion and generosity of their middle class employers will
continue. Alike others the poor are potential carriers of virus so they are
locked down but in this process they are also knocked down to become confirmed
cases of hunger and destitution.

The rise of the Humane
taught us about the primacy of individual subjective satisfaction as the
uncompromising essence and monad of human well-being. But now it is time to
respect collective concern. Social distancing has apparently become the most
preferred way to respect the social concern. Individuality is immensely curbed both
in terms of movements and options but we are happy to accept such
self-restraint without complaining much. Priorities are redefined ignoring
individual freedom and choice; resources are allocated where it is most needed.
Even social priorities define sequence of death in some countries where it has
almost gone out of hand. Countries that were hesitant to impose restrictions on
individual movement and did delay in acting upon seem to be the worst affected.
While non-liberal authorities seem to have shown reasonably better outcomes. A
situation of crisis and emergency taught us that individual freedom can’t be
unconditional and collective concerns are nothing primordial as it is often
posed to be. People are ready to accept restrictions and volunteer restraints if
they are convinced that it is for the collective good.

shows that life goes on even if malls, restaurants, gyms, movie theatres are
closed down. It gives a sense of what actually we need to survive, the
necessaries that one must procure. This is not to say that apart from the necessaries
the rest are luxuries and can be and should be avoided. We do derive
satisfaction from goods and services beyond necessities and there is nothing
wrong in it but such satisfactions have different dimensions and need not be
driven by possessing goods and services always. In fact deriving satisfaction
only by possessing is a sign of impoverishment and human beings can easily go
beyond that if the narratives around them changes. At the current moment many people
are happy to give and share rather than possess, people are much more
compassionate to those who are facing severe problem of livelihood. The
competitive instinct of having more than others has somehow taken a back seat
for the time being. Generally capitalism recognises only buyers and sellers.
Commodities do not have history and neither do life of the sellers matter to
buyers. We hardly care about the life of our vegetable vendor, the shopkeeper,
the delivery boy, domestic help, auto driver, teacher, doctor and so on. It is
only relevant as a point of exchange. Once you pay the price of the pizza your
fleeting engagement with the human being who delivers the pizza is over. The
relationship between human beings appears therefore to be relation between
commodities. As if when you have enough money you become the most independent
person of the world. You need not care about any relation with any human being
in this world and can get whatever you require by paying for it. The veil of
money economy conceals the social relation that exists among human beings. It
comes to the fore only in situations of emergency. Lockdown is the temporary
suspension of exchange and perhaps reciprocity and use values get temporary
prominence. People are caring about their service providers, sympathetic about
migrant workers, sharing responsibility for the elderly and thankful to those
who are helping every day in keeping our life going. For the time being at
least people realise that society is not an aggregation of self-interested
individuals but a mutual constitution of the individual and the collective.

religion of market efficiency is seriously facing question worldwide.
Privatising gains while nationalising losses, has become the unwritten rule of
the game. Stimulus packages to revive the sinking ship of neoliberalism are
frequently announced even in the citadels of corporate capitalism. Humans of
the world are paying the price of privatising health care. Our life cannot be
the business of profit making for the few. We cannot let one die simply because
s/he cannot pay the price of the required health care. Many countries are
nationalising their private health care facilities because efficient rule of
profit maximisation is proved to be grossly inefficient in handling this huge
pandemic. Mind that realising the importance of public health care system in
the context of fighting the corona virus, is primarily because the disease and
the death is infectious this time. Had this been as benign as death due to
hunger, malnutrition or because of inaccessible health facilities otherwise, if
the poor died just for being excluded by the market as it happened in every
other day, it was not contagious for others. But the virus perhaps empowered
the poor! Their disease and ailment, their movement, misery and death have to
be taken seriously this time. They become important because they can cause harm
to others and need to be cured because this time they do not die silently and
can create threat to others’ life. Hence, normalisation of excluding the poor
is somehow destabilised and at least for the time being, the ‘public’ overrules
the ‘private’.

Social Sharing should follow ‘Social
see an ensuing recession if not another great depression; growth rates are
likely to dip to near zero or negative levels in immediate future due to the
lock down. The scourge of mass unemployment and insecurity is going to create a
crisis of legitimacy for capitalism across the world. Cost of privatised health
care deter testing and cure and aggravate the pandemic. Social distancing has a
cost for the poor that they bear to ensure health and life for the whole
society.  Now it is time for social
sharing to face the impending crisis. But this is nothing beyond our
imagination. We do not deny food and clothes, shelter and medicine to any of
our family members because s/he lost job for some reason, we care for our
elderly without paying any heed to whether they can earn, we do not calculate
that children and elderly are dependent on earning adults. It is only when the context
changes from family or community to society our responses tend to be different.
The same human being who happily contributes to relief funds, volunteer to
prepare food for the poor and destitute or lend time and labour to procure
groceries and medicine for an elderly neighbour, share and drive vehicles in
situations of medical emergency, emerges to be the rational self-interested
individual in a different context of normal life. We live in a society where
returns are only based on exchanges and hence insensitive to use and need that
do not fit into an exchange equation. In a sense normalcy of the capitalist
society subverts our humanitarian qualities. Once normalcy is restored we would
once again tend to argue that there is no free lunch; that hunger is the
deserving punishment for the jobless and why should one get food, clothes,
health care and education if s/he does not have the capacity to pay? Mind that,
it would be a disaster if capitalist instincts of profit making once again
attain dominance over human needs. Simply tax the rich, introduce tax on wealth
instead of exalting corporate philanthropy, restrain luxury consumption, pump
money for new investment, create jobs and income. But more importantly we
should de-commoditize necessaries such as food, clothes, shelter, health and
elderly care as well as education.

need to relook our decision making process and priorities of allocating
resources. The Corona crisis shows how incapable we are to meet emergency
requirements of masks, sanitizers, testing kits or ventilators. It shows how
woefully inadequate our health facilities are, despite experiencing episodes of
high growth and rising number of billionaires. We need to alter the priorities
as well as the decision making process. This is also something we mortals do in
our daily life. Whether to keep money for school fees, pay rents, buy essential
medicines or go for a trip or a dinner is the micro level household planning we
are habituated to. We do not require a bureaucrat or a politician to decide on
our behalf. Grudges and bitterness are mitigated by collective resolutions that
are accepted as good for all members of the household. True indeed, what is a
simple routine act in a household management is difficult for the country as a
whole. It requires understanding of planning, science of setting priorities as
well as institutions of participatory feedback on changing needs. But the moot
point is the need of the people rather than profit making should guide social
priorities and resource allocation. It is not only about nationalising hospital,
schools and factories but bringing people into the centre stage of social
decision making. Doctors, nurses, health care providers and patients can decide
better what should be the priority in the health sector or the teachers,
students, publishers, and related non-academic staff can suggest the needs of
education system. Workers, engineers, managers similarly can decide what to
produce and how to produce. Collectives of people, communities and councils can
easily share the pains and gains of the society rather than offloading the
pains onto the poor and the powerless.

Haunting Utopia
it be the case that if people are provided food and necessary goods and
services free of cost it would encourage free riding and shirking from work?
This may not be the necessary outcome. Mind that people shirk from work when
they are treated simply as cogs in a wheel; where mind and labour is separated
and they are to follow instructions and nothing to decide. They are alienated
from the fruits of labour while gains are appropriated by few. Altering the
rule of the game also changes human behaviour. And more importantly it is in
capitalism paradoxically where the rich can enjoy life through generations
without doing any work because of their accumulated wealth. In fact we do not
need to work so much compulsorily to fulfil our needs. Because a part of the
fruits of our work actually goes to fulfil the luxury consumption and insatiable thirst for profit making of the non-working rich.  If everyone excepting the old and the disabled
has to contribute in social labour we need not have to work much. Improved
technology has already drastically reduced the need for direct labour but we
should collectively own and enjoy the disposable time and increasingly get rid
of compulsory work. People in that case would be much more creative and
actually may opt to work much longer hours at their choice. Labour then becomes
the mode of self-realisation and the biggest joy of life.

civilisation has a long history of overcoming natural calamities and
catastrophes. The two most critical attributes that distinguishes modern
civilisation from pre-history is one, the capability to acknowledge ignorance
and the second is by creating higher orders of cooperation through imagined
reality. The quality to accept ignorance kept alive the quest for scientific
knowledge enabling the human race to master their surroundings instead of
surrendering to predetermined fate. And humans could surpass other beings not
by their physical strength and valour but by means of ideas that facilitated
higher orders of cooperation for the future. It is time once again to prove our
strength. Not only we develop a vaccine for the novel Corona virus but also rekindle
our instincts of sharing, empathy and cooperation that we discovered within
ourselves in difficult times. The haunting utopia amidst the pandemic is the new
imagined reality of collaboration and reciprocity that could save the human
race from the savagery of competition and profit making. 

The author is Associate Professor at ISID, New