Antonio Scurati, the Italian novelist, wrote recently in the Corriere della Serra, “How can I explain to my daughter that when I look out of the window, I see the end of an era.” We are all aware that we live in an unprecedented moment. The experience of states confining entire populations to their homes has expanded the remit and reach of political authority. House arrest was a weapon against the political dissident, now it has become a condition of life.

We stand at the cusp of a new era perhaps in which we shall take such interventions and surveillance for granted as our very bodies are subject to regulation, and apps map our movements. We have voluntarily submitted ourselves, in the name of a larger cause, to the uncertain tenderness of state pastoralism. It is this submission that is a distinct and different feature.

Philosophers like Agamben have argued that political crises and epidemic crises are alike in that the sovereign powers of the state are extended, and the exception of emergency becomes the norm. However, it is important to emphasise that a new compact characterises the pandemic moment: the virus has precipitated an internalisation of deference to governmentality. There is dissent, of course. Those who resist the restrictions – masks, rules of social distancing – for libertarian reasons are heroes to their own and the objects of derision to others.

Those who have been opposing the populist and identitarian nationalism that is the other virus of our times, have under cover of the pandemic and its paradigm of restriction of public presence, been incarcerated without the possibility, now, of public outrage.

Newer forms of politics

Yet, newer forms of sociality and politics are emerging and the outrage in the USA (indeed over the world) at the continuing murder of mainly black men by the police, has brought people back on the streets. If the virus kills as it travels silently on our breaths, the murder of George Floyd, reminded us that breathing is not our birth right.

Times like these generate a notion of end-time which reflects very often merely the myopia of thinking with the present. Thinking from within the horizons of a situation does not lead to useful prophecies.

There have been predictions of the end of capitalism, American dominance and of an era of globalisation. Parallel to this are the narratives of the rise of Chinese global ascendancy, the surveillance state (coronopticon in the Economist’s felicitous neologism), and of the cementing of the gig economy and the short-term contract. However, we must think also with the contingent and the conjunctural; that which appears to be forever, may soon be no more. We have to grapple with the differential impact of the global lockdown with regard to nations, societies and individuals. To paraphrase Tolstoy, all lockdowns are alike, but each experience of lockdown is different in its own way.

Fundamental questions determine how people experience lockdown: does one have a job; a home of one’s own; food on one’s plate; access to public health? We are back to the basic needs of human survival: food, clothing and shelter. What is significant in this conjuncture is a certain limited fusion of horizons; a truly global feeling of a common human condition.

Another world has become visible as in India which has seen the greatest movement of people since the partition of India in 1947. The great abandonment of labour by state and capital has generated scenes of labourers walking and cycling a few thousand kilometres to get back home when lockdown was declared. The impact on the informal economy has been profound and it will take us a few years to come to an understanding of the effects on employment and livelihood. While we may romanticise the indomitable resilience of the human spirit, it is important to remember that sentimentality towards the poor and their condition has been a feature of postcolonial societies. This reflects the inability of states and elites to find lasting solutions for an ascriptive inequality which is endemic to our societies.

In the political sphere, sitting governments have managed to ride roughshod over the niceties of parliamentary debate; vital questions of law and order, financial allocations and public safety have been subject to the ad hoc rather than procedure. We need to think with another neologism coined by the Economist; that of pandemocracy – democracy in the time of pandemics.

A health worker wearing a Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) suit waits for students at the Children Aid Society. Credit: Indranil Mukherjee/AFP

Disintegration of information

The present crisis has also exacerbated the tendencies towards prejudice – scapegoating of groups as carriers of disease, as much as misinformation over social media.

Crises generate a disintegration of information and consensus over facts, rumours determine the currents of the public sphere. Georges Lefebvre, the historian, in his classic study of rumours during the French Revolution and the generation of la grande peur – the great fear – showed how the public sphere abhors an interruption of information (Lefebvre, 2014). Rumour rushes in to fill the vacuum. There have been attacks on Chinese on public transport in the USA; those from the North East of India in the capital city of Delhi because of perceived “Chinese” features; and of course, given the tenor of our times, continuing bias against Islam.

A convention of the Tabligh-i-Jamaat, an Islamic missionary movement encouraging a return to a purer Islam, in Delhi in March this year led to a spike in Covid-19 cases and those who returned home after the event, to places as distant as South Africa, carried the virus with them. This became the trigger for a social media campaign #coronajihad, that portrayed Muslims as especially irresponsible, even malevolent. The virus amongst us has moved seamlessly along the fault lines of the idea of the enemy in our midst.

These ethnic and religious divisions have been accompanied by an increasing distance from the poor and the vulnerable: domestic workers, delivery people, garbage collectors, who perform essential services and whose proximity, it increasingly appears, was merely being tolerated, if not suffered. The fear of physical closeness has also affected social support ranging from employment guarantee schemes to midday meals for school children. The United Nations has pointed to the fact that there are 369 million children over 143 countries who rely on school meals for survival. It is still too early to predict the global consequences of this.

We have seen the emergence of a conjunctural vocabulary, of neologisms and phrases that describe the historical moment we are in. Self-isolation does not carry connotations of misanthropism; in fact, it conveys the reverse. Ideas of social distancing and physical distancing do not reflect some form of social censure, but rather an affirmation of social responsibility. We have become aware of obscure medical terms like zoonoses, asymptomatic carriers and the need for PPE (not a degree from Oxford). And we doom scroll daily to establish whether our countries have managed to flatten the curve (no longer concerned with fighting bulging waistlines).

The phrase the “new normal”, first used to describe the aftermath of the financial crisis of 2007-8 and the fact that industrial economies would not go back to an earlier paradigm, now has become a way of describing any present situation.

Remembering history

Walter Benjamin reminded us that history is not about the seeming flow of homogenous and empty time. The task of the historian was to cultivate a scepticism towards narratives that emphasised an uninterrupted and uniform continuity and instead to think about history as a series of urgent reachings back to relevant pasts in order to understand the present. This has become evident in the resurfacing within public memory of the Spanish Flu of 1918. Images circulate on social media of masking, quarantine and the presence of death a century ago. Of course, the scale was different – or perhaps it is just too early to tell. That flu affected 500 million people all over the world and left close to 50 million dead; more than the toll of both world wars combined. In colonial India, recent historical estimates suggest that between 11-14 million people died.

Samuel Johnson once quipped that “when a man knows he is to be hanged in a fortnight, it concentrates his mind wonderfully”. Doom scrolling has made history relevant again as people look back to epidemics past for lessons as well as to understand the sheer contingency of historical events themselves. What if Woodrow Wilson had not contracted the flu and been weakened, allowing Clemenceau to bully him into agreeing to harsher terms for Germany at the Treaty of Versailles? Could the tragedy of the rise of Nazism and its appeal to nationalism have been avoided?

A nurse going to the isolation ward in the intensive care unit at Saint Petros Hospital in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. Credit: Amanuel Sileshi / AFP

However, if we look back to the experience of colonial India, it is clear that there are continuing fault lines that are conducive to quick spread as well as numbers of fatalities during epidemics. The historian Ira Klein was the first to study the impact of the flu in 1918 in India and he attributed the high number of deaths to three causes.

First, by the middle of the 19th century, there had been an expansion of agriculture after the cessation of the wars of conquest and land settlement. The clearing of forests, the disruption of natural lines of drainage, and the creation of swamps had led not only to the disruption of ecosystems but also created the conditions for the breeding of malaria.

Second, the establishment of the railways from the mid 19th century and the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869 exposed India to global epidemics and their spread. The expansion of the British Empire had created a space within which the easy movement of bodies and material also meant safe passage for viruses. An astute observation in Gandhi’s 1905 tract Hind Swaraj regarding trains is revealing. “The railways, too, have spread the bubonic plague. Without them, the masses could not move from place to place. They are the carriers of plague germs. Formerly we had natural segregation.” Viruses need human bodies to hitchhike on and though we may have reservations about Gandhi’s idea of an autarkic and secure rural landscape, it is clear that improved transport also meant an increased spread of diseases.

Third, Klein points to the insufficiency of public health institutions and measures in colonial India. Moreover, imperialist ideologues continued to adhere to the miasma theory of disease even after it had long been discredited in Europe. As Mridula Ramanna points out the sanitary commissioner of British India, JM Cunningham, intimidated those who tried to resist the official ideology, denying the efficacy of Robert Koch’s germ theory. Ramanna suggests that this denial was a “splendid pivot for inaction,” and the effects of this paradigm were disastrous. Mike Davis sees adherence to miasma dogma as resulting in the “late-Victorian holocaust,” with more than 30vmillion deaths from famine and disease between 1877 and 1910.

In the current pandemic we can see a similar mix of environmental degradation, global migration, failure of public health systems, and uncertainty about the modes of transmission of the virus. Arising from state activity, economic expansion, and failures of knowledge, the effects of the pandemic were felt most by the weakest sections of the population. A fact that remains true in the present despite the transition to an indigenous government. During the flu epidemic of 1918, for every 1,000 deaths within a community, the ratio was 61 lower caste Hindus as opposed to 18.9 caste Hindus, and 8.3 for Europeans. However, death touched everyone and every home.

The Hindi poet Suryakant Tripathi “Nirala” lost his wife and many others near him. He wrote:

My family disappeared in the blink of an eye. All our sharecroppers and labourers died, the four who worked for my cousin, as well as the two who worked for me. My cousin’s eldest son was fifteen years old, my young daughter a year old. In whichever direction I turned, I saw darkness

The river Ganga was swollen with bodies as no systematic cremations were possible given the numbers. An interesting sidelight of the epidemic was noted by Jim Corbett, hunter turned conservationist. In his Man Eaters of Kumaon, he speculated that it may have been because of the number of corpses thrown into the jungles in the sub-Himalayan regions that tigers had developed a taste for human flesh. Ideas of death and the customary rituals around it, guaranteeing a blessed afterlife as much as, for Hindus, the possibility of escaping the cycle of rebirth, are the first to be jettisoned. Today, the possibility of being present at the bedside of a loved one has become impossible given the constraints of travel as much as the rules of physical distancing.

A health worker at a primary school in Secunderabad. Credit: Noah Seelam/AFP

Questions of death

Death during the pandemic has undone many of the social expectations around grieving, based on both individual and collective presence. It has also raised questions about the expenses incurred at ceremonies and demystified the very fact of the end of life as sudden, unexpected and banal beyond a reconstitution through religious and secular ritual.

The H1N1 flu virus of 1918, originating in the trenches of Europe was carried back to the rest of the world in the bodies of those Asians and Africans who were recruited by empire. A million troops from India had fought in the battlefields of Europe and East Africa with casualties of 70,000 men. In India, the epidemic was ignited by a ship carrying troops that reached Bombay on May 29, 1918, and docked there for 48 hours. The world is a small place for a virus that depends on human bodies to get around!

David Arnold points to the puzzle of the negligible archive of visual and administrative evidence for India, and Asian societies in general for the 1918 pandemic. Was this typical colonial negligence, policies of laissez-faire regarding intervention in native society, or were there other conjunctural reasons?

In 1896-’7, India had suffered the bubonic plague epidemic in which 12 million lives were lost, which was 95% of the world’s mortality. The colonial government had been driven by ideas of native lack of hygiene, and a perception that the poor were the main carriers of the disease. While there had been a connection made between pilgrimages, mass gatherings and cholera, the colonial government was chary of being seen as interfering with religion, particularly after the major scare of the 1857 rebellion which had threatened to uproot the English in northern India. The plague outbreak was haunted by the spectre of 1857.

However, in the cities, particularly in Maharashtra, there had been colonial intervention on a large scale. The Epidemic Diseases Act (invoked by the Indian government in March 2020 to impose lockdown) had allowed for a situation similar to martial rule allowing for entering homes, body searches, forced quarantine and so on. In a society governed by caste rules, then as now, this was seen as a major violation of social norms. It led to the first political assassination in colonial India. WG Rand, the Plague Commissioner was targeted and killed by two brahmin brothers, the Chapekars, who believed that the purity and sacredness of upper caste bodies and homes had been violated. Arguably, this act put the brakes on a government already wary of the relation between intervention in private spheres and political unrest.

Caste segregated hospitals were set up in 1899 and when the flu epidemic rolled around, the government was in no mood to be proactive. Hence, as much as the inadequacy of the colonial public health system, and the paradigm of medicine, the conjuncture of the plague had conditioned the state to inaction.

Political considerations meant that cholera and plague were seen as military and political threats as much as medical ones and intervention was guarded. Vaccines when they were discovered were tried out in contained spaces like prisons, the army, tea plantations with compliant, or coercible bodies. The access of the postcolonial state to the body of the citizen is more far reaching, given that the paradigms of care and of punitive action overlap. For instance, the Aarogya Setu App that was introduced by the Indian government during Covid-19 has allowed not only the tracking of infected bodies (the intended outcome) but also potential political dissidents (the additional outcome).

Local paradigms

Given the growth of the punitive state during the pandemic, the notion of governmentality extends far beyond the pastoral to an exercise of absolute sovereignty over the body. The idea of the sovereign as the one who lets live or die acquires more potent meaning in the present circumstances. There was a further complication with regard to the colonial practice of medicine, apart from the strategic. Expertise was in the fields of parasitology and bacteriology, and not virology, and the government was less prepared to understand the flu pandemic. It is important to remember that research done in colonial India yielded two Nobel prizes in medicine: Ronald Ross 1902 for his work on the transmission of malaria, and Robert Koch in 1905 for his work on tuberculosis which followed on from his work on plague and cholera.

The question of local paradigms of medicine are crucial as in regard to the pandemic, the Indian Council of Medical Research initially contested the WHO mantra of “test, test, test” with an insistence on isolation and lockdown, and again with regard to the use of hydroxychloroquine dosages (recommended dosages in India were a quarter of those recommended by WHO).

A street in Caracas, Venezuela. Credit: Federico Parra / AFP

Paul Richards in his book on the management of Ebola in Sierra Leone has shown how it was local knowledge and a “people’s science” that helped end the epidemic. Urban populations worked with epidemiologists and medical responders in the urban slums and there was a mutual learning (Richards, 2016). Humanitarian responses worked best where community initiatives were already in place with regard to the handling of bodies for example. As he argues, epidemiology is a people’s science; everyone has to get involved.

This raises the question of local biologies as against the presumed universality of the human body and complicates arguments about an earlier period of colonialism. The understanding then that the “native” body was different was premised on a racism undergirded by ideas of the primitive. However, epidemics raise issues about the generalisability of understandings of how bodies may react to medicine; whether curative regimes can be universalised; and finally, about taking seriously local paradigms of knowledge about the body and its location within community.

State, society and sociality

One of the most important consequences of the pandemic has been the ripping off of the veil regarding assumptions about society, politics, and the economy. The neoliberal state had given up any pretence of pastoral care devolving social assets to private players and allowing the market to determine the value of care, stripping itself to a bare performance of rule. The consequences of this have become evident during the pandemic as states struggle to handle the huge medical and social crisis with declining and overburdened public health systems. The National Health Service in the United Kingdom has seen a high percentage of deaths among doctors and medical staff of the so-called BAME (Black and Minority Ethnicity) as they are at the frontline of treating the disease. While at one level, this may be the consequence of a structural racism, as has been alleged in some quarters, it is perhaps true that with declining investment in public health, there has been white flight towards more lucrative forms of medical practice.

The different ways in which nations and states have responded to the pandemic is probably also revealing of underlying understandings of the relation between states and populations. The question of why Spain, Italy, France chose lockdown while Sweden, USA and the UK went for herd immunity could well be a productive one. While in Sweden, opting for herd immunity meant a much higher number of deaths compared to the region (two times higher than Denmark and five times higher than Finland), the argument made that other nations were merely deferring the problem of community illness remains valid. In the case of UK and the USA (the former then backtracking and imposing social distance rules while in the latter it remains a matter of controversy), there may have been an underlying “thanatopolitics” in the words of the philosopher Robert Esposito; a politics of letting die. A form of eugenics, where the weakest and most vulnerable were abandoned (along vectors of age, wealth or race) offers us insights into the fault lines that rive society.

In countries all over the world, state investment in public health has been declining; for instance, in China public spending on health is 50% that of Bulgaria or Brazil, which is truly alarming. And given that the emergence of China as the workshop of the world has meant that places like Wuhan, the epicentre of the pandemic, are hosts to masses of migrant labour, the fact that only 20% of them have medical insurance is a time bomb. In China the shortage of medical facilities and overcrowding, queues for assistance etc., have led to increasing attacks on medical staff – a recent survey showed that 85% of those polled had experienced violence in the workplace.

In India, while lockdown and social distancing were preferred over herd immunity, it is important to consider the reasons why this might have been the route adopted particularly in a society riven by caste and ethnic prejudices. The Epidemic Diseases Act of 1897 had to be amended in 2020 to protect frontline health workers who had become targets of violence. Significant numbers of nurses are from Christian communities in southern and North East India, and prejudices about colour and physical features played a significant role in these attacks.

A woman walks past a mural by US muralist Kyle Holbrook with health workers and Joseph "Joe Exotic" Maldonado-Passage wearing a mask in Wynwood Art District in Miami, Florida. Credit: Chandan Khanna

Affirmative biopolitics

It is an important question as to whether an “affirmative biopolitics”, as Esposito terms it, will come out of the crisis with an emphasis on public health and cheaper medicines, the latter most certainly would involve a fight against pharmaceutical companies. The question of social distancing, a rather paradoxical formulation, since the idea of society is by definition constituted by proximity and intimacy, raises another set of questions about the rending of the veil. We have mentioned the abandonment of labour, the racial and ethnic attacks on those seen as vectors of the disease, and resistance in certain quarters in the USA to social distancing seen as an abbreviation of individual rights. In every society, social distancing has moved along the fault lines of existing hierarchies; in India most obviously on lines of caste and class.

Those on whom the burden of distance has fallen disproportionately have been domestic labour, labourers in the informal sector, and those engaged in tasks involved with the removal of dirt and garbage. In one sense, social distance has involved the exacerbation of existing social distance, which is the very premise of a caste society.

In democracies while there is a presumption of the existence of liberty and equality, the promise of fraternity has always been disrupted by the existence of a hierarchy of belonging on the grounds of race, ethnicity or caste. Within Europe, which has been seeing itself as under siege from the incursion of Islamic immigrants, the pandemic has raised questions of the visually different citizen (Murray, 2018). The veil has disrupted the regime of visuality governing democracy and the idea of the abstract citizen in France for example where we have the piquant instance of the possibility of being fined both for not covering one’s face during the pandemic, as also covering one’s face with a veil which would serve the same prophylactic purpose as a mask.

The USA has seen a disproportionate number of deaths of African Americans arising from the most part from an actually existing social distance if not gulf which condemns most of them to a marginal existence. In Uganda, there have been attacks on gay and transgender people as an extension of social distancing. In countries as diverse as Serbia, Togo, Cambodia and Azerbaijan, there have been calls for the social distancing of members of the political opposition as if they were agents of contamination.

If the pandemic has widened always already existing distance characterised by the absence of fraternity within democracies everywhere, the question arises as to what the social landscape will look like after the devastation of disease. Will we be looking at an accelerated process of desocialisation, the emergence of a bare life in which the illusion itself of “society” has been abandoned?

Masks and democracy

What about a further presumption of democracy: the individual citizen? The wearing of the mask has raised questions of the loss of individuality, of a faceless society, revealing yet again the presumptions that underlay the western prejudice against the veil. If western societies are the standard bearers of individual rights, and the face (visible to and resisting state surveillance at the same time), is the marker, what does this loss of face mean? Underlying this of course is an ableist discourse based on the possession of sight and the existence of the face as allowing for recognition. For those differently abled, it is less the face and more the tread of the foot, the timbre of the voice, and the odour of the body that is a marker of individuality.

Be that as it may, the wearing of masks in democracies has been a method of showing protest as in the Occupy movement (a disidentification with the idea of citizen and state); a way of showing support as in the support shown for India’s Prime Minister, Modi, by those wearing a mask with his face on it (an identification with the leader); but both also about showing a mode of an alternate collective subjectivity.

However, what characterises most societies is the invisibility of certain groups as a matter of course so that the mask merely creates more categories of non-identification. The invisibility of Dalits in the public imagination in India is a stark example. For those who are marked even before their entry into society – caste preceding birth and outlasting death as the social theorist Aniket Jaaware put it. Does the wearing of a mask then allow anonymity transforming the terms of the politics of recognition into the inability to recognise being the premise of equality?


Covid-19 has made us reflect on the human condition, the connection with unknown others, in our own societies as much as elsewhere. From Wuhan to Washington, from Johannisholm to Johannesburg, the virus laughs at national borders and travels through human hosts. Virality is however, trumped by nationality as nations put into place more and more restrictions on travel and movement and the body remains marked as ever by colour, class and caste.

However, even as our collective breaths are being attacked, a newer politics and a newer sociality may yet emerge. A white policeman kneeling on the neck of a black man and denying him breath, a commonplace phenomenon of choking practiced by American policemen, has led to the revival of Black Lives Matter and worldwide outrage against racism, colonialism and forms of genocide of indigenous people.

The politics that has resulted in the destruction and bringing down of statues of representatives of white power has been inspired by the last dying breath of George Floyd. The coronavirus and its attack on our breathing allowed his struggle to breathe to become a worldwide metaphor.

We have been both reassured and alarmed by the succession of images that represent the passage of the virus through the world. Images of the wave – suggesting a coming tsunami – as much as the reassuring bell shaped curve – suggesting origin, rise and final demise, and the elusive search for the flattened curve and patient zero work with the eternal optimism of the human spirit. This too will pass, we say.

However, there are many questions that we need to ponder on. We have begun to realise that life is more than the regulation of populations and the actions of the state and that we need to attend to the singularity of lives themselves. The fundamental inequality of lives has been impressed on us by the pandemic and its movement through the fault lines of our societies. Will the virus prompt us to produce a more compassionate social theory cognisant of biographies rather than only of biopolitics as Didier Fassin has asked recently?

A health worker in Mumbai waits to screen residents of a building. Credit: Punit Paranjpe/AFP

Yet again, will we begin to engage with the hubris of the technological fix and realise that with viral epidemics geo-locating apps cannot possibly track the movements of carriers who may be symptom free? It is not only about the unknown unknowns but as Christopher Bollas puts it “the unthought unknown”. The virus should allow us to think anew and afresh and not fall back on the habits of theorising that we have inherited, and which have benefited from hindsight. What would it mean to think with the contingency of the present, to think with the ongoing and the incomplete? Finally, we need to ask the question of endings as much as that of origins. Do pandemics end? Is the discovery of a vaccine another notch in our knives as we enter the imponderabilities of existence?

In March 2016, the WHO Director General precipitately announced the end of the Ebola crisis resulting in a humanitarian crisis as international funds were withdrawn from the region. We must remember that smallpox is the only human disease to have been ever internationally eradicated. Polio is still with us: once universally epidemic now it is locally endemic to Africa and South Asia. AIDS has never ended. Tuberculosis has not either, it is just “no longer part of the epidemial imagination of the Global North”.

If we are to generate new thinking, we must remember the words of Georges Canguilhem, “disease is not a variation on the dimension of health; it is a new dimension of life”. And healing cannot be merely a sanguine return to a previous state; it is rather to be thought of as a new state that is indelibly marked by the experience of the disease.

Viruses are good to think; but only for those who are willing to engage with the shock of the new.

Dilip Menon is Mellon Chair of Indian Studies, University of Witwatersrand, Johannesburg, South Africa and works on histories of the global south. He has recently edited Capitalisms: Towards a Global History (Oxford, 2020).

This article first appeared on Thesis Eleven.

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