Coronavirus as infra-structural crisis: Some thoughts from locked-down India

ELISA T. BERTUZZO

On Sunday 22 March, in the midst of the coronavirus crisis, Indias Prime Minister Narendra Modi called for a 14-hour “voluntary curfew”. 1.3 billion people, of whom a large number are day labourers and at least two millions live on the streets, were expected to stay at home and practice social distancing. The premier also asked everyone to go out on the balcony at 5 p.m. and clap their hands, ring bells or strike metal plates: a sign of gratitude and recognition for the health sector workers—who, however, till that point had received no instruction, let alone equipment, to face the looming threat by his government. The proposal of the Prime Minister might seem naive or baffling to some, but it reveals itself to be the mean diversionary tactic of a shrewd politician who, in parallel to conjuring the “common enemy” and fomenting religious communalism, pursues the withdrawal of the state from most responsibilities as a strategy. While this strategy is quite typical of the populist-neoliberal governmentality found in many other countries of the world today, Modi’s version is peculiar for its mantra-like appeals to values that are insistently attributed to an increasingly orthodox Hinduism, such as patience, discipline, self-sacrifice and “service as duty”.

A group of people walking down the street

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Meanwhile, only few people in the supposedly secular democracy get excited when the “first citizen” evokes the creative cosmic energy of Shakti at the end of a speech to a nation that knows to be ill-equipped for an impending medical, infrastructural and economic crisis. Of course, this does not mean that the entire Indian population would rely on the protection of the heavenly powers: on the contrary, the fear of contagion, aggravated by incorrect and sometimes tendentious information in the social media, has quickly taken root in the collective consciousness. Last week, foreigners and Indians from the northeast of the country were exposed to scattered attacks: “You brought Corona!”, they were told. Also those who directly interpreted the “voluntary” curfew as a test for further restrictions are not few in number. Collective intimidation, they admonish, always helps to impose repressive measures—and these could also be applied to areas beyond the health care system.

Authoritarianism and religious stubbornness, which by no means are unique to Narendra Modi’s leadership style but characterise the attitude of many politicians, especially from the ranks of his Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), cannot hide the helplessness of the political apparatus in the face of the present challenge. The first encompassing deliberation on coronavirus by the central government came as late as 22 March. It imposed general lockdown in 75 districts where cases of infection had been identified (including the capital, New Delhi, and major cities such as Mumbai, Kolkata, Bengaluru, Chennai and Hyderabad) and was abruptly extended to the entire country just two days later, with validity for 10 days and then, quickly, 21 days. Also on Sunday, the Ministry of Railways ordered to halt all passenger trains, after it became clear that unknowing but also already identified infected persons, who were supposed to remain in isolation, had been travelling on various long-distance trains for several days. A ban on international flights from 22 March (on domestic flights from 24 March) had been decided just days earlier. For many Chief Ministers, these measures came far too late and several resolved to take the lead in their own states, the ones ordering the closure of public offices and educational institutions, the others beginning to isolate the infected, still others closing the state borders. The speed and lack of coordination of these decisions only made the population more insecure and forced thousands of migrant workers to undertake sudden journeys to reach their home districts, which obviously was counterproductive for the containment of the virus.

It is in the area of prevention that the action of the authorities in New Delhi has been the most contradictory. Just last week, Balram Bhargava, director of the Indian Council of Medical Research, claimed that the WHO recommendation to test consistently every potential case was not meant for India but only for European countries. The reason cited by the official, namely that India’s external borders had been closed very early, failed to convince entirely. His statements also contradicted the long-held position of the Ministry of Health that there was no danger of community transmission. As a result, India with its huge, highly mobile, dense and often underserved population, is one of the countries in which the fewest coronavirus tests have been carried out to date. After the vehement criticism of Indian and international scientists, as well as the Opposition, the government is currently carrying out tests and tracking, whereby due to the lack of suitable infrastructures, a number of private clinics will have to be commissioned. Comprehensive measures for the accommodation and care of the sick, for the support of thousands of stranded migrant workers and the poor—who will be hardest hit by the lockdown, the cancelled jobs and possible supply shortages—have not been announced by the Prime Minister so far. In his latest speech, on 24 March, the frequency with which he mentioned the private sector and non-governmental organisations was striking.

While the live tickers of newspapers and other platforms constantly provide new information and figures, the impression is growing that the state will do little or nothing for people; that it simply cannot. Why not, actually? Why are the state-owned hospitals insufficiently equipped? As I follow the live tickers from Germany and Italy, it occurs to me that the indecisiveness of the Indian rulers and the contradictory nature of their actions have a counterpart in Europe. Accordingly, many are asking themselves about the protection, help, responsiveness and ability to act of the state and there too, they have to conclude that it can do little. Why is that? Possible that it has done something wrong? The simultaneous coming to the fore of perceptions of vulnerability and sheer defencelessness in many and very different parts of the world is a novelty. It is vital to take it seriously and provide viable answers that give hope and orientation, before it is completely taken over by catastrophist, defeatist, populist, right-wing and xenophobic positions (of course, panic buying, border closures and racist attacks against Asian-looking people have long been happening in Europe too).

Why is the coronavirus crisis novel? Various commentators have remarked it in recent weeks: especially in the West, fear of the coronavirus has led people and governments alike to cut back on accustomed freedoms and comforts that they would never have been able to accept or enforce in the face of the profound and much longer lasting crisis represented by climate change. Thereby, also Fridays for Future, the most recent and indeed most successful of environmental movements in terms of breadth and reception, is based on the perception of a serious threat and vulnerability. The movements of 2011-12 (Occupy; Indignados), with which people in the whole world protested against intolerable austerity policies and demanded fair economic practices, fostered the hope that the crisis—here the financial crisis of 2007/08—could mark the beginning of the end of a political-economic system that distributes precariousness unequally (to quote philosopher Judith Butler). This hope survives, like the hope that the struggle for an ecological coexistence will eventually be won. At the same time, we know what a huge and ruthless effort is continually put into maintaining the status quo, and we recognise that the measures adopted against the spread of the coronavirus could only find acceptance because of their supposed temporary nature. While as is already being widely discussed, some of these measures seem to presage a full-fledged surveillance society, others concern a standard of living that many already feel is socially and environmentally incompatible. In order to ensure that these latter do not remain exceptional measures, but contribute to progressive discussions and substantial change, a closer analysis is needed.

In ancient Greek “krísis” stands for precarious situation, uncertainty or need and at the same time for turning point, escalation or decision. The coronavirus pandemic can be seen as a crisis and, in particular, an infra-structural crisis. It is “infrastructural” in the sense that the present restrictions on mobility and daily life have been introduced with the explicit aim of protecting one infrastructure from collapse and helping another infrastructure to function at its best. Namely: the health infrastructure—hospitals should not burst at the seams—and the research infrastructure—universities and research centres are hoped to jointly develop suitable medicines. The real threat to human life posed by the virus per se is comparatively low (compared, for example, with the number of people dying each year from drought and famine all over the world; the number of farmers committing suicide because unable to repay their loans from Monsanto and other agro-companies; the number of women dying each year in the aftermath of rape, and of children dying from malnutrition; even, as many have noted in the last weeks, the number of people dying of flu each year); what must be avoided at all costs is a collapse of the health system.

In other words, the vulnerability that many people are suddenly reminded of these days is less of a medical nature than it concerns the (in)ability of our institutions to manage an unforeseen demand in the health care sector. Of course, there is also the fear that the preventive measures taken or being pondered, be it in the European countries or in India, will affect other infrastructures, first of all those sustaining the food supply chain. In the dramatic scenarios that are flooding the social media these days, a disruption of the labour market, the economy and the stock market, linked to the disruption of mobility, leads to further diseases, if not directly to outbreaks of violence, conflicts, and war.

The fear that has now gripped people is simultaneously rooted in the invisibility of the virus. We cannot see it—how it moves, how it attacks, and whom. I’m talking about an “infra-structural” crisis to reflect that very fact. “Infra” in “infrastructure” does not simply refer to something that is “below” or supports something else, but to what is under a certain structure, and therefore invisible. Infrastructures are, for various reasons and in different ways, invisible or infra-visible. I look down from the balcony and see the ground, but not the cables, pipes, subway, sewers, etc. that run below it; if I look out of the window, I see the ensemble of shop-neighbour’s house-trees-sky, whereby I hardly notice the power poles and cables; looking just a little further away, cars and passers-by define my view (though they have become rare here too), while I ignore the street as such… in all these cases, the infrastructures that support our urban but also rural environments are hidden under something, and let it be under things to which we pay more attention. It is perhaps also because of this infra-visibility that we have not “seen” the grave implications of the reforms and cuts in health infrastructure dictated by the logic of austerity for years.

Seeing—especially for a public sphere that strongly relies on visual media—is knowing. This explains the fear: we cannot bear, not even for a short time, not to have knowledge about something that has affected, or could affect, our daily lives so severely. The virus attacks the belief in our ability to understand life, to order, categorize, distinguish, and ultimately control it. In addition to that, the wide circulation of information is making it very difficult to maintain, or gain, orientation. A very plain example is how rarely the number of patients healed after a coronavirus infection appears next to the total number of infected persons, or how infected and deceased persons are reported less often in percentage terms than in absolute numbers. Every single life lost counts, of course. But percentages would certainly help to inform and contain the panic.

Now I should finally come to the “turning point” inherent in the term “crisis”. The actions of most governments, especially in the initial phase of corona contagion, revealed a deep disbelief, sometimes stubborn rejection, vis-à-vis the possibility that normality could be disrupted. Deviations from normality are difficult to accept for most people, especially in the “orderly” West. But for the state—all the world over, with very few exceptions—”normality” today means above all that the normal functioning of the economy. Whereas the burden of containing coronavirus lies largely with the general population and their sense of responsibility, their solidarity, many governments have been impressively quick to announce, and often implement, aid schemes to help the businesses (mainly via fiscal easing). It is however highly uncertain whether these will serve to protect jobs, including or especially in the low-wage sector; in any case, hardly anyone has spoken of any obligation on companies to do so.

Interestingly, very few politicians are speaking about the far and wide broken health care system at the moment. Although this would certainly be out of place now, in the midst of the events, everything suggests that the topic will take a prominent role in the public opinion for months to come. And here we have an opportunity that should not be missed. The coronavirus crisis is sure to not only accelerate a reconfiguration of representations, such as security, predictability, planning, “normality”, “progress”, which has been underway for several decades thanks to the work of anti-capitalist thinkers, decolonial writers and indigenous communities, feminists and LGBTQ groups. It also makes it possible to bring together the critique of capitalism, and especially the critique of neoliberal austerity policies, with the environmental movement’s demand for a respectful economy that does not exploit nature. The horror—on the one hand at the inadequacy of the health infrastructures and on the other, at the devastating consequences of humans’ predatory attitude towards flora and fauna (the new coronavirus is said to have evolved in an illegal market for wild animals)—has already been collectivised; it must now be channelled in the right direction.

It could be argued that the conditions of both political struggle and of dealing with, or surviving, a crisis such as the current one are enormously unequal in regions as different as India and Europe. Yes, the differences and diversities are real, concrete, material. But the awareness that no borders, no nation states and, of course, no wall can stop something as microscopic, as invisible, as natural, as a virus coming from the other end of the world is taking shape everywhere. The (dreaded) crisis of our infrastructures and the helplessness of our governments—manifestations of the crisis of a civilization” organised according to the logics of capitalism—show that only a change to a more caring and careful coexistence can save us. If there is any chance at all in this grim moment, it is that we get a kick in the ass to rethink our ways of living together, taking into account human and non-human concerns.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR:

Elisa T. Bertuzzo does research at the crossroads of Urbanisation and Cultural Studies with a focus on South Asia. She holds a masters degree in Comparative Literature and Media Studies and a doctoral degree in Urban Studies. She is Honorary Professor at weißensee school of art berlin, where she has lectured on critical urban studies and postcolonial theory in the Master Programme “Spatial Strategies” since 2016. Her latest monograph, Archipelagos. From Urbanisation to Translocalisation, collects the outcomes of a multimedia ethnographic project on circular migration in Bangladesh and India, Archives of movement

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