Compliance or Critique: Citizens in a Post-COVID-19 World

A key feature of this pandemic ailing the world has been uncertainty. The temporal uncertainty of the length of the various quarantines and lockdowns around the world, the uncertainty of the effect the pandemic will ultimately have on the world economy, the uncertainty of the time it would take for us to create vaccines and finally the spatial uncertainty of not knowing how the virus could spread. At such times, the temptation to become nostalgic for a return to the way things used to be before the pandemic is strong, but it is a temptation one must resist. Only when we solve the antagonisms in our current system that have become hypervisible during this time around the world, could we claim a true victory over the virus. This pandemic is an opportunity – albeit a tragic one – to build a different world, where we are even more modern, scientific and equitable in our solutions to this and future crises. 

To understand what the world should look like post-COVID-19, one must look back to the world before the pandemic. The pandemic, arguably couldn’t have started at a more tumultuous time in the world. The end of last year to the start of this, the world has seen massive upheavals in many countries, Hong Kong, India, Chile, Lebanon and France to name a few. While Hong Kong and Indian protests were related to political citizenship of the people in the country, the protests happening in Lebanon and France have been explicitly about income inequality and austerity measures by the government. One thing that binds them is the state of economy of all these countries. India was already experiencing unemployment rates it had not seen in the last 45 years. While countries have halted their respective social movements in the time of the pandemic, the problems they were fighting against have persisted, if not exacerbated due to the lockdown and, the repressive measures the governments have had to adopt have only antagonized the protesters more. In Hong Kong, the brutal repression of gatherings by the police have only increased the tension between them and the civilians that had existed during the time of the protests. The governments are even using the pandemic to crackdown on dissenters as reported by protest organizers in both Hong Kong and the student of Jamia Millia Islamia and various activists arrested under the draconian UAPA law in India.

Demonstrators during a protest over deteriorating economic situation, in Beirut, Lebanon. Mohamed Azakir, Reuters

In a world where the trust between large sections of citizens and the government was relatively strained, to be able to control the virus requires an even greater amount of trust in the State. Trust in the data provided by the government regarding the virus and trust in the strict lockdown measures and its efficacy. In India, these measures have been one of the most strict in the world, with PM Modi announcing a complete lockdown in the country three hours before it was to be implemented, sending migrant labourers in the country in a frenzy to get to their villages. Since then, the lockdown has brought troubling news of starvation in various part of the countries, with the recent news of a labourer committing suicide in Gurgaon, one of the most prosperous cities in the country. An equally troubling phenomenon of this lockdown in India has been the quickness with which the rest of the Indian citizenry have been convinced to blindly give in to all sorts of surveillance and repressive measures, propagation of communal hatred and have been quick to justify the police brutality carried out as an excuse to implement the lockdown. 

At such times, the concept of “public reason” coined by Immanuel Kant in his 1784 essay, “An Answer to the Question: ‘What is Enlightenment?’” in response to Johann Friedrich Zöllner, a preacher and a theologian could be useful. Kant writes “Enlightenment is [one’s] emergence from [one’s] self-incurred immaturity”, and this immaturity is not from a lack of understanding but it is a self-imposed restriction because of “lack of resolution and courage to use it without the guidance of another.” Kant locates this lack of courage and a tendency to obey not in human nature but in mis(education) or in a comfort of just obeying and not thinking for oneself, which gradually makes people more passive. We saw it in the willingness of thousands of people in India, urban for the most part, to bang utensils outside their houses on the instruction of the Prime Minister, with nobody questioning the government’s gross mismanagement of its lockdown measures or the lack of transparency of the PM Care funds raised for the pandemic. 

Indians lighting candles/diyas in solidarity. A. Dave, Reuters

But, Kant makes the distinction between “public reason” and “private reason”. While “private reason” has social limits to keep order in society as when holding a civil post, “public reason” is free. It is not enough to simply disobey, especially in a time of a pandemic, where you have to have some amount of trust in the government’s measures. It is but, obey, but also “Sapere aude! Have courage to use your own understanding!”. As Zizek puts it in his latest book ‘Pandemic’, “the measures necessitated by the epidemics should not be automatically reduced to the usual paradigm of surveillance and control propagated by thinkers like Foucault. What I fear today more than the measures applied by China and Italy is that they apply these measures in a way that will not work and contain the epidemics, and that the authorities will manipulate and conceal the true data.”

For Kant in the 18th century, only a few individuals were capable of moving from immaturity to maturity (who he terms Vormünder) and who can “set the enlightenment process in motion among the masses”, on a public forum. The notion of such public intellectuals has since then evolved, where access to power to influence the public, especially with the advent of social media. Social media is also especially useful in the time of social distancing, where the critique of the government and broader work of organising and critical thinking of government measures in the lockdown must be carried out. 

On the other hand, there have also been protests against government measures to contain COVID-19 around the world, from the United States to Brazil, India and even Germany and Malawi. The protests are broadly for two very different reasons. In countries like the US, Brazil and Germany, people see the measures of lockdown as an onset of a more authoritarian state that infringes upon their individual liberties. These have been mostly anti-vaxxers and far-right groups, etc. In the case of both the US and Brazil, these movements for “liberation” have been explicitly supported or sparked off by the comments of the leaders of the states.

Protesters holding placard in the US. Reuters

A second reason for protests in countries like India, Malawi and Colombia stems from the massive inequality and poverty in these countries, where most of the workers affected by the sudden lockdown on movement and work have had to rely completely on the charity of the government and civil society. The protest of almost a thousand migrant workers in Mumbai and various other parts of India has been to demand a right to passage to their own villages, where they claim to have a greater social network to be able to survive without any income and to avoid the precariousness of survival in big cities. In Malawi too, most of the workers protesting are daily earners who would not be able to survive without going out and working each day. 

Though the protests might be for radically different reasons, there might be some merit in people still being able to question the measures of the government and fight for the right to survive in the pandemic. Even the organizer of the protest in the US, Christian Yingling, a “former commanding officer of Pennsylvania’s Light Foot militia,” was quoted in one report explaining his willingness to endanger his health and the health of others: “My mortgage payment is late, my truck payment is late, and if I lose either of those I’m dead in the water.” Instead of dismissing the right-wing movements as “fringe” and the workers’ movements as ill-informed, one must see these concerns as a need for an alternative to a system that seemed so ill-prepared for a crisis. 

People are quick to give natural phenomenons a mystical meaning. Many scientific-minded people have called COVID-19 a warning bell from nature to human beings and their modern-day industrial activities, and some have taken it upon themselves to chide humanity (especially China) for its meat-eating habits and sees COVID-19 as championing the point of vegetarians. But, any such view that tries to provide a broader supernatural character to the virus or nature would be falling into the same trap that it claims to criticize, i.e. that nature cares enough about human beings to even directly communicate with them through these natural calamities. The truly scientific way forward is to realize that there is no larger meaning to the virus; it is an absurdity, a black hole in man’s scientific understanding. A post-COVID-19 world, if such a world is to come anytime soon, is not a world that should emerge after fighting or reconciling with nature. On the other hand, it is time for people to question the efficiency of the current world order built by us as a society, its fragility and realize our agency in restructuring it.

Will there be a restructure in the global economy? Eric Risber, AP

The pandemic has hit us at a time of grave political unrest in various countries, and with the weakening of the world economies (to levels similar to the Great Recession), people need to realize that the real antagonisms are much bigger than this virus. But, as John Mueller described in his seminal paper in 1970, a pandemic could increase a government’s popularity because the citizens “prioritizing country over politics”. People would be much more submissive to government’s policies, even if flawed, to both encourage the government to make good policies and for people’s need to rest back on some sort of certainty in times of crisis. A much grimmer outcome of this pandemic could be a greater propensity among people to unquestioningly accept the measures enacted by the government, which with a crash in the world economy could lead to barbaric measures of choosing who is worth saving and who can be sacrificed to the forces of The Market. If we fail to do so, even if we develop a vaccine for the virus, the world will have to witness even greater calamities in the aftermath of the pandemic.

Aditi Gautam is a contributing editor for Catharsis Magazine.

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