Mass cremation in New Delhi, India, on April 30, 2021. Image credit: Shutterstock / Exposure Visuals
The Indian lockdown has a mystique to it, a machismo of closure and control. It was both a panopticization of territory and surveillance, and a monitoring of time. It displayed an obsession with timetables. The 21-day national lockdown that Prime Minister Modi announced in his address on March 24, 2020, ended on April 15, 2020.
Lockdowns in India inspire their own rhetoric and semiotics. We rely on numbers but add to the aura of numbers. The immediacy of the lockdown indicated that we were prompt and ready, that India was not a failed state in the way Brazil was. Lockdowns indicate the magic of governance, the ability to decide the fate of citizens. Yet lockdowns in their unitary, homogenous, almost monolithic form indicate a simplistic mindset. As the scientist Gautam Menon noted in 2020, one tends to treat the country’s population as a uniform whole, while important differences between regions are ignored. He cites the example of the high population density of Mumbai and the relative sparsity of Arunachal Pradesh. Lockdowns reflect the arbitrariness of the state, an absence of sociological literacy about urban-rural differences, a sense of management as control without the nuances of social science that the diversity of India desperately needs.
Yet the lockdown as control was seen as an abstract idea. The debates centered on modeling and its mathematics. Many statisticians produced textbook reflections of methods and models, but there was little reflection on the semiotics of numbers. In fact, the preoccupation with numbers produced an innumeracy at the sociological level. One saw numbers as a magic of control rather than as information.
The language of death was transformed into body counts, invoking the memory of the Vietnam War. Worse, body counts became a token of a COVID olympiad, where low counts were seen as a sign of competence. India saw its performance as a recommendation for its model of governance. The regime was content with its middling rank as an aspiring developing nation. Ranking and numbers have become a perpetual obsession of Indian regime.
The word “exponential” also became a folkloric term indicating the scientific esotericism and drama of the epidemic. “Exponential” added to the power of closure, surveillance, and breakdown. But worse, the official discourse of death using numbers created an abstract, disembodied sense of the disease. It created a model of cost-benefit analysis to define competence but added little to the language of suffering. COVID as narrative hardly evokes a sense of mourning. The inability to mourn became one of the tacit problems of the COVID epidemic, wherein closure had no sense of pain and memory, nor even the language of renewal.
Menon adds that critique of models often became futile because “modelling studies, to use the words of Wolfgang Pauli, are not even wrong. The questionable nature of data often made the debate about which model was right, futile and functional.” As Menon observed, “overreacting to the predictions of particular modelling claims, in the here-and-now, does more harm than good.” Menon wisely adds that statewide models, rather than nationwide models, allowed for diversity of policy, when uniformity was mindless of local circumstances.
On Science, Memory, and Rights
Beyond the mathematical, the framing of the COVID crisis in economic terms revealed not only the priority of sovereignty but also the narrowness of specialization. Between sovereignty and specialization, the Indian state lost the vernaculars to cope with disorder and issues of crisis. An obsession with numbers, methods, and science blinded us to the importance of the literary and moral imaginations, which provide different metaphors for confronting a crisis.
David Arnold, the historian of the colonial body, also raises the importance of memory in understanding the logic of policy. He observes that the lessons and legacies of the past hang heavily over the South Asian memory. Folk memory goes continuously back to the cholera epidemics of the past 200 years. But more, memory is crucial in understanding policy. “When the outbreak of Bubonic plague threatened an embargo of India’s maritime trade, the British imposed the Epidemic Disease act, a piece of draconian legislation that has been resurrected, 123 years later by the present government of India, to tackle a comparable crisis of global magnitude”. The past as mnemonic and footnote always tempers our sense of innovation in science policy.
Arnold also makes a distinction between the middle class and the masses. The middle class oozed a sense of citizenship, of residence, and the masses evoked a discourse of vulnerability. Arnold’s categories are readjusted by policymakers into formal versus informal economic sectors. Such binaries become critical to the understanding of science policy. The formal sector can exude a sense of bourgeois well-being and claim the ready protection of the state. The anarchic informal sector projects a sense of state indifference and brutality. Arnold’s transposition of the two events is stark. He states, “It is not hard to imagine the chaotic and distressing scenes of 1896–97—the mass plight of the laboring poor as the panic caused both by the disease and by the anti-plague operations, took hold. The hosing down of tenants and the burning of hovels, the enforced hospitalization of suspects, the brutish body inspectors at railroad stations … transposed to India of the recent past.”
One realizes that the violence of thought systems has remained intact through the colonial and postcolonial eras. One also senses that the standard dualisms of society—in particular, the oppositions of private/public, work/leisure, and formal/informal—enforce violence and a strange normalcy. In fact, control follows the classificatory anatomy of society. Latika Vashist, a feminist scholar of the law, in a personal conversation, captured the first: “I have never been so lonely as during COVID. The thing called public health has no space for private anxieties.” Policy might act as a public good, but the personal, the private, is ignored. “The housewife has no place to nurse her anxieties, and rumors of public events, heard in isolation, become more frightening. One’s anxieties about oneself or about children are ignored. Even the fears of older people are forgotten.” The COVID response focuses on the statistically normative, on sociological roles, and the sense of the individual is abandoned in the discourse called public health.
What we find the COVID response bereft of, in a social sense, is the idea of vulnerability; as a general state of being, it is lost as science begins to see rights in the abstract. This becomes democracy’s undoing as one no longer has to confront rights through the filters of life, livelihood, lifestyle, and life cycle. Rights in public health become an empty promissory note. One has to read the COVID relationship to public health in greater detail. This becomes important as the epidemic brushes aside timetables to confront the world of liminality and uncertainty.
Chandrika Parmar is an associate professor at S. P. Jain Institute of Management and Research. She is the director of the Programme on Development of Corporate Citizenship.
Shiv Visvanathan is a professor at Jindal Law School at O. P. Jindal Global University. He is associated with THE COMPOST HEAP, a group researching alternative imaginations.