The World Health Organization has declared novel coronavirus or COVID-19 to be a pandemic. At the time of writing this article, the death toll stands at above 7,000 and over 180,000 people have been affected all over the world. According to some reports, deaths have taken place in over 50 countries so far.
There have been many examples of deadly viruses in history. Small pox was caused by variola virus. The pandemic of Spanish flu in 1918-1919 was a viral infection that killed close to 20-40 million people. HIV/AIDS is also a virus that has killed about 1.1 million people in 2018 alone and since its outbreak, about 32 million people have lost their lives to AIDS.
In San Francisco, during the outbreak of the influenza in 1918-19, the city Board of Health had came up with a series of recommendations for the public. Some of those included avoiding streetcars during peak hours, restrictions on dancing in public places, attention to personal hygiene, closure of all places of public amusement, schools (public and private), and ban on all lodge meetings, among others.
The usage of mask carried a sense of patriotism, of responsibility. But in the wake of the flu, the ‘mask order’, which made wearing masks compulsory, was seen by people as an offence—something that stood in the way of personal civil liberties. A small section even formed an ‘anti-mask league’ to protest against this compulsion. Many people were arrested for violating the order. They were to pay fines between $5 and $10, a sum which eventually was donated to Red Cross. Then California governor William Stephens was recorded to have said that wearing a mask was a ‘duty which each citizen can easily perform to our country’.
People from poorer nations and the social underclasses have minimal or no access to health infrastructure.
Countries like Singapore have done exceptionally well in containing the virus. In contrast, in countries like Italy, instead of treating everyone, they might move towards the philosophy of ‘catastrophe medicine’. This means that those with maximum chances of survival will be given priority. Such discourse is generally used in war and disaster situations. It is bound to create moral panic and hopelessness.
Virus, unlike bacteria, is not a cellular organism. It needs a host to survive. That host could be anything. Once it enters the human body, it can change the composition of the cellular structure by copying the genetic material and proteins. In the process, it can release particles that can destroy the cell itself. The infants and the elderly are seen to be the most vulnerable among our population groups to this virus.
It is interesting how its functioning can remind one of capitalism. The virus can enter any human being, like capitalism can invade any nation state. From empty flights being flown to just retain the ‘spot’ to disrupting many supply chains and stock markets, such capitalist processes are touching the various circuits of global capital. With conferences being cancelled or rescheduled, sports matches cancelled or called off indefinitely and exams withheld, the virus shows us that it can make us wait, postpone or cancel things.
In people like me, who stay away from ‘home’, it evokes a certain desire to ‘return’ to home. In essence, the virus webs a moral and emotive economy around us, which is different and teaches us a new way to be human. It has given to us a new language of human correspondence and care. It also makes us hoard things. It gives us a new language of scarcity and valuing things in life. In fact, it re-inscribes quantitatively and qualitatively different values for commodities [such as sanitisers and masks].
It is clear that the virus is a threat, but it is not an alien. It is a threat to our governments and is creating an environment of ‘exceptionality’. It is as if we are made to live in a condition where ‘state of exception’ is turned into a normal governing paradigm as Agamben puts it. Agreeing to such an erosion of freedom and how this might be misused by the states and narrow minded leaders, we cannot be irresponsible, for the implications lie outside one’s body. Both the individuals and social institutions should find a symbiosis to fight this pandemic.
Here, I am reminded of a term ‘examined life’ which sociologist Ivan Illich used. He mentioned it in reference to the works of the Japanese economist Joshiro Tamanoy and hibakusha, the victims of the twin bombs in Japan. We are all reduced to a life which is ‘examined’ or needs to be examined. In examining the virus, we are examining the bodies that carry the virus, the departed, and everyone that is capable of carrying the virus—even our furniture and door handles.
The virus can become a new category for the nation-state to examine the citizens, monitor them, mark them, treat them, and ignore them. We must also prepare to face the fact that the virus can be a permanent thing living with us, not just a temporal entity, although we want to defeat it. Seemingly, we have become examined subjects which lay in the ruins of capitalism.
*Suraj is a doctoral candidate in Sociology at National University of Singapore and tweets @char_chapori. Views are personal.