The last time Europe saw a pandemic was in 1920 when influenza killed millions of people. Since then, dreadful diseases like the plague, cholera, small-pox continued to strike the Global South, while the North escaped them. The spread of these pestilences was accentuated by dense populations of large sizes, suffering from deprivation of various kinds, including in civic amenities, like water and sanitation – a general lack of what used to be described as “development”.

But Lady Corona – fellow feminists, please don’t object, the name of the virus does have a female ring to it – has decided to upturn this South-North characterisation.

It seems somewhat bizarre, if not difficult, to believe that it is developed countries that are being ravaged by the virus. Over 81,000 deaths have been reported from the United States, 32,000 deaths from the United Kingdom – and the toll continues to rise. How come? What are the factors that have made this happen?

Till she, Lady Corona, started attacking us in India, and with increasing numbers, I wondered if this virus somehow differentiated between populations, infecting white people, while sparing brown people, for instance. Is it related to immunity levels which are dependent on sanitation conditions?

Why was the virus devastating people in Italy and New York, not so much in India and New Delhi?

Yes, the age structure is a factor: the virus is a greater threat to the elderly. Italy has a large percentage of the elderly and we are told this could be one of the reasons for the high rates of coronavirus mortality in that country.

But what about New York? I wondered whether the epidemic was causing more deaths in certain neighbourhoods. In other words, is the spread of infection related to deprivation of some kind, overcrowding, lack of cleanliness, poor infrastructure like access to water and toilets? Or some special cultural or social practices?

What is Lady Corona searching for? Old people? Poor people? Sick people? Unclean people? Just people?

Victims of the virus

I decided to explore the run of this virus in New York. Why? Having visited and revisited the city since the 1950s, I am deeply familiar with its geography. I examined the rates by boroughs in New York as of May 5. Bronx, Queens and Brooklyn have much higher rates of coronavirus cases than Manhattan.

Black people are the predominant racial group in the Bronx and Brooklyn boroughs. As per the census data of 2020, African Americans form 43% of the population in the Bronx, while Manhattan’s majority population is white. It is possible that African Americans live in crowded spaces and have poor access to health infrastructure because of the wages they earn.

One cannot say that Lady Corona is racist, but she is certainly cruel. She attacks the most vulnerable: people living in congested areas, with lower levels of accessibility or even health bases to resist her attacks. A map of hotspots in Delhi, where there has been a surge of attacks, reveals a similar pattern of Lady Corona feasting in areas with tightly packed populations, lack of food and health services.

She flies in the air, all over the place, in parks, on the roads, in homes. But she also settles down on surfaces we touch. Double knock: both breath and touch?

Right now, she is leading the collapse of the world economies, both national and international, since working together has become a deadly risk.

Ugly truths

Lady Corona is also lifting the cover off the ugliness we had hidden away. For example, in India, the dreadful exploitation of people who have been denied access to education, a living income, decent housing. Like in one of those science fiction horror stories, we chained them to oil the engines of production and exchange, and when Lady Corona walked in, we ran into our homes and cabins, leaving those who were oiling and running the engines of our economy, homeless and starving.

But that was not enough. When they decided to walk back to their families and homes to survive this deprivation, we sprayed them with disinfectant, stopped them and held them in cages. They were needed for our return to production and trade, they were the engines of the growth of our economy. After all, foreign capital came to India to reap the benefits of abundant, cheap and unorganised labour.

Now governments and the firms want them back. We recently witnessed the viciousness of that desire when the chief minister of Karnataka banned outgoing trains for migrants. The audacity of that gesture reveals the terror the government felt over what would happen without vulnerable migrant labour. The entire edifice of our cities would collapse without them.

This reverse march of millions of migrant labourers back to their homes reminds me of a slogan we raised during the social summits of alternative economics communities: “The Empire Strikes Back”.

Over the past six weeks, countless migrants have expressed this sentiment: “We will go back home. That is where we feel secure.”

But political leaders, policy makers, factory owners have refused to hear their voices. To retain migrant workers, governments are now offering incentives – but not wage and employment security, housing, health services.

Crucial questions

The question that Lady Corona is forcing us to grapple with: are there any other options by which India could engage with development without dragging vulnerable people away from home without any social protections?

Not so long ago, a high profile economist who headed an important government policy making department commented: “Agriculture is a sunset industry, there is no need to back it up anymore.”

Now, agriculture is what is saving India: the fact that we have enough foodgrains to take care of this deprivation on a massive scale, without begging other countries, makes one wonder if agriculture is a sunset industry or a sunrise industry? Our agricultural sector has been one of the most persistent and valuable in keeping our nation’s autonomy as well as providing raw materials for some of our goods.

To return to the question: Can India progress without an economic model based on exploitation? To many of us who worked through the 1960s and 70s, when India was emerging out of the deprivation of colonisation, it seems there are answers.

At one time, there was an idea called rural industrialisation. This involved dispersed production, supported by transport and communication. A shining example of that idea is what is called the Amul project: the Kaira district milk cooperative federation where decentralised local production at the level of farms was combined with marketing and distribution in dairy centres, without shifting assets and people out of an area.

Many such enterprises have come up in India over the decades, creating jobs without dislocating people from their natural homes. An old example is the Lijjat Papad, which comes out of a cooperative in Maharashtra. There are many such small and large enterprises based on home or local production that scale up through the mode of cooperation.

Economic growth with justice

Again, to go back to the 1960s: to many intellectuals in other parts of the world, India was a torch light. I remember Ivan Illich in his book, Shadow Work, was fascinated by the possibility that India offered what can be called economic growth with justice. Many institutions, which are prominent today, came out of that same impulse of building through the cooperative rather than the corporate mode, both of production and exchange. This could ensure there is no peaking of economic inequality, no shifting of populations, no overcrowding in urban areas, no sucking up of underground water, no cannibalising of coal to generate power.

The ideas were to engage with economic success, even economic competition, but without generating inequality in incomes, wealth and location.

Many of us are revisiting such experiences in the hope that someone somewhere will take note of the lessons. But watching the debates on television, this seems unlikely.

Even after Lady Carona has shown us our pitfalls, the conversations are still dominated by those who are called mainstream economists, whose education, experience and ideas were incubated in the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, in large firms.

It would be a fantastic idea if the prime minister, who has been calling so many citizens for consultations, would call some of the relics of the past, who have a whiff of Gandhi in their hearts and minds, who have been engaged with ground level production and exchange, to see if they can upturn this monster called globalism and replace it by something that we once called localism.

The author would like to acknowledge the contribution of Shivangi Gupta in the research of this article.