It takes a pandemic to render visible the deep inequalities that make up the highly unequal societies we inhabit. As pandemics go, the power of COVID19 lies in its mobility, along the circuits of global capital, picked up and carried by the upwardly mobile classes feeding the financial and technology hubs of capital.
The irony of neoliberal globalization lies in the disproportionate burden of accelerated mobilities borne by the bodies of the poor at the global margins. The poor, whose bodies are the sites of neoliberal extraction, are also the bodies to be easily discarded when crises hit.
The images of throngs of people, the poor, now expelled from their spaces of precarious work at the metropolitan centers of financial and technology capital, spaces that are projected as the poster-models of mobility in development propaganda, walking on the long walk home, are circulating across our mobile screens.
Images of a migrant worker dead after the gruelling walk home, a mother pulling her daughter as they try to make their way home, a young man bursting into tears at the sight of food, a father walking as he carries his sleeping daughter on his shoulders, crowds of workers waiting in long lines to board buses, these are the faces of the unequal India made visible by COVID19.
These images of emaciated men and women, with little children, carrying pots, torn down bags and dilapidated beddings on their heads, walking on the roads and highways that form the infrastructures of the new India are haunting reminders of the masses of displaced people expelled by wars, riots, genocides, and famines.
These forced mobilities as expulsions reflect the worst excesses of neoliberal India, rife with caste-class hierarchies.
Deep inequalities and Indian society
Note in the backdrop of these images the high-rises and the gated communities that house India’s upwardly mobile classes, the classes that fuel its financial and technological imaginaries.
These are the classes that extract the daily labour of the precarious workers. Ironically, also these same classes are quick to catalyse the expulsion of precarious workers when they are turned into threats, by an inversion of empirical evidence (where the actual threats of the infection are largely carried by the upwardly mobile bodies traveling across global borders) and driven by irrational fears.
For those of us in privilege sitting in quarantined safe spaces across the globe, for those of us with the privilege of ample space to enable us to quarantine, for those of behind the gates in the gated communities in the metropole, these images of moving masses of India’s precarious margins disrupt the ideological psychobabble of the “New India” we have been fed over the last three decades.
Or perhaps, we have been so well incorporated into the neoliberal ideology of self-help that we have lost our basic ethical commitment to feel empathy, to connect, and to join in solidarity with those at the margins of the societies we inhabit. As I witness this apathy, I am reminded of a student from one of those Bombay high-rises who once sermonized that she does not pay much attention to the poverty around her.
We, the middle and upper classes, have habituated ourselves to the techniques of unseeing. These techniques of unseeing have been propped up by an ideology that constantly tells us that “we have the resources because we deserve them” and that the “poor are undeserving because they are lazy, not intelligent enough, or simply not entrepreneurial enough.”
Talk to a techie or an investment banker working in the Silicon Valley circuit and you will be given these moral lessons on the neoliberal ethic and the ideology of “pulling yourself by the bootstraps.” Ask an investment banker about the plight of the precarious classes amidst a crisis that is largely catalysed by neoliberal globalization, you will be inundated with whataboutery.
I write this OpEd from behind the safe privilege of my laptop screen, guaranteed a shelter, three meals a day, and enough stocked up food to last our family of five for a week. We have our basic supplies of essential medicine and the basic supplies of daal and rice to meet our needs without having to step out. We are in lock down mode because we can be in lock down mode.
Authoritarian repression and state control
What is the most striking feature of the Indian lockdown is the paradox inherent in the state’s management of COVID19.
Even as the state has decreed Indians to stay indoors, replete with police violence targeting anyone that is seen outside, large crowds of migrant workers are on the streets, walking insurmountable distance to get home. Contrary to the 24/7 propaganda of the strong leader, the state here is weak and ineffective, demonstrating its lack of preparedness in addressing the needs of those at the margins. The poor governance, lack of preparedness, and mismanagement of the crisis are publicly on display, contrary to the propaganda the regime concocts regularly.
The absence of careful planning and consideration of the needs of the migrant workers is evident in the absence of infrastructures of care. For instance, transportation facilities following precautionary measures are entirely missing. Similarly, transit-housing arrangements for precarious migrant workers following precautionary measures are entirely missing. Infrastructures for addressing everyday food needs of migrant workers are entirely absent.
All this is ironic in the backdrop of the power asserted by the authoritarian state to mobilize material resources quickly to set up infrastructures for marking and incarcerating so-called illegals picked up by its neo-fascist National Register of Citizens.
The precarious workers that hold up the IT-finance economies in the metropole are discardable. Their bodies can be thrown off, disciplined, and violently targeted by the repressive state in its performance of governance.
What’s more, as amply evident on our screens, their bodies can be subjected to brutal violence and repression unleashed by the police as instruments of the state. As all this happens, the yuppies from the gated communities that benefit from the labour of these precarious bodies are all too comfortable that the threat has been managed and mitigated.
Note the inversion at work here, much like other discourses of inversions carried out by the neoliberal regime. The burden of COVID19, a virus carried into India by the chains of neoliberal mobility, has to be borne by India’s underclasses. The performance of risk is an inversion of the actual sources of risk.
Depletion of public health
The poverty and precarity made visible by COVID19 is constituted amidst extreme neoliberal reforms pursued by a state aligned with the interests of capital. From the privatization of the telecommunication infrastructures to the privatization of the railways, the current regime is soaked in the worst excesses of the neoliberal ideology.
This translates into the large-scale absence of financial infrastructures, welfare resources, food resources, and essential shelter infrastructures to address the needs of those in poverty. For a virus that thrives on mobility, guaranteeing these essential infrastructures is central to managing the epidemic.
With the Congress-led neoliberal reforms introduced in the 1990s to the BJP-led accelerated privatization of the Indian economy, the public health infrastructure in India has rapidly dwindled.
The systematic attack on the public health infrastructure has been catalysed by transnational Foundations such as the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, which in the name of addressing the HIV/AIDS epidemic, strategically invested into setting up a privatized management model. The hegemony of the mantra of public-private partnerships categorically dismantled the already minimal public health infrastructures.
Changing the politics
I hope that what we are witnessing on our screens is a clarion call for advocates and activists to mobilize for rapidly building these basic infrastructures of health and wellbeing for the poor and precarious classes across India. Significant proportion of economic resources need to be deployed toward guaranteeing basic income to every family in India in poverty, and simultaneously building the capacity of the health infrastructure.
The inequalities that we witness amidst COVID19 are not only deeply unethical, but are also strong barriers to effectively addressing the pandemic. Inequalities profoundly impact the capacity of communities to respond to disease and illness. Highly unequal societies are also societies that are disproportionately sicker. The middle and upper middle classes must realize quickly they cannot isolate themselves from the disease when the poor are placed at risk.
If India has a shot at addressing the pandemic meaningfully, it needs to accelerate the development and distribution of public resources for the most disenfranchised. Testing needs to be made universally accessible, along with developing universal infrastructures for treatment.
We desperately need to quickly develop an ethic of compassion as the basis for safeguarding the health and wellbeing of India’s underclasses. Doing so will need the active work of dismantling the morally bankrupt neoliberal ideology that has rooted itself in the cellular structures of India.
Nothing short of organized mobilization will achieve this. The COVID19 crisis makes this amply clear.
How India responds to this pandemic will be a critical moral narrative of the values the nation aspires to. This is the moment for the forces of the Left, activists, and people’s movements to articulate with clarity the necessary narrative for response, anchored in justice and equality.