Mainstream Weekly

Home > 2023 > The Coming of the ‘Waves’ and the ‘Normalisation’ of the ‘Viral’ | Prothoma Rai (...)

Mainstream, VOL 61 No 28, July 8, 2023

The Coming of the ‘Waves’ and the ‘Normalisation’ of the ‘Viral’ | Prothoma Rai Chaudhuri

Friday 7 July 2023


by Prothoma Rai Chaudhuri*


The Coronavirus has unleashed a pandemic whose consequences and implications go far beyond the parameters of the medical sciences. In creating global terror, in paralysing human civilisation, and in receding and letting the world breathe, quite literally, unmasked, the virus has been so much more than a micro-organism, invisible in itself but with conspicuous manifestations in societal settings. As the 2023 world has progressed towards a semblance of normality, memories and practices of the ‘new normal’ of 2020-2022 have continued to dominate pandemic and post-pandemic discourses, establishing that fear, trauma, loss, and an indefinite sense of insecurity about human life itself will lurk supreme in human interactions and conceptions of human superiority hereafter. A comprehensive ‘Coronavirus directory’ appears to be distressingly mandatory and unnecessary at the same time; overwhelmed human beings can hereafter only live through the pandemic and the pandemic-like times by claiming to be in possession of knowledge even as what there is to know changes rapidly.

The seeming return of the Coronavirus in the form of the ‘fourth wave’ in June 2022 in an apparently ‘post-pandemic’ world and since then its recurrent periodic resurgence for brief periods of time in known and semi-known forms in October 2022 and again in early 2023, with varying degrees of virulence, prompts us to look into the ‘virus question’ all over again. The narrative concerning the ‘viral’ till now brings before ourselves questions both conventional and much-rehashed, as also deeply unsettling ones with disturbing implications. Without lengthening the introduction to our discussion below, we can safely observe here that by now it is amply clear that the pandemic is as much about the virus, as it is about human beings, societal modes of interactions and forms of organising our lives, and about how we resuscitate values, distinctly human, in life and in death. It is not accidental that the chief of the World Health Organisation declared “with great hope” on May 5, 2023 that Covid-19 is no longer a global health emergency even as we continue to remain indefinitely cautious and exasperated, suspicious and caught unaware, masked and distanced, paranoid about sanitising ourselves and all surfaces around us. This statement, somewhat under-reported in the media, comes with a not-to-be-overlooked caveat, that is, occasional casualties are expected to continue all the same because of the virus though. We nonetheless hope that its scope and intensity have been arrested.

It is prudent to proceed with a disclaimer. This article does not seek to contest or critique in even a remote way the existing medical-scientific research which has been or is being conducted on the Coronavirus, the findings, the medical guidelines, the relentless service of the health department staff led by the medical professionals, the immense preoccupation of the microbiologists and virologists all over the world on the question of the pandemic whose sheer human cost is staggering, even without including the economic impact and the long-term financial decline. Had it not been for their selfless efforts to spread awareness and give humanity a sense of direction since the last days of 2019, we would not have been reading or writing on the pandemic anymore after the first few weeks of the lethal outbreak.

A basic eight-fold criteria, well-known to us by now, work to identify a pandemic. As listed by scholars, these are wide geographical extension, disease movement, high attack rates and explosiveness, minimal population immunity, novelty, infectiousness, contagiousness, severity.[1] This article is however none of these. It is rather a commentary about the virus and the pandemic from a non-medical perspective precisely because so much of the pandemic is, as is clear by now, also about the continued significance of human existence and sociability, about human knowability and the discursive domain of man-state and human-non-human relationships, about the possibilities of a future, about the uses of technology, about life, living, thinking, saying, and doing, about spaces and boundaries, about control and surrender, about unforeseen forms of authority and newer forms of discrimination and prohibition.[2] We think it is appropriate that we pause to consider some of these issues briefly here.

On Adjectives Hitherto Troubling: The ‘Viral’ as the ‘Normal’

The first two months of 2023 have witnessed a supposed return of the Coronavirus waves, with the crucial difference that this time we do not seem to have a count for which wave this is, or an exact idea of what the ‘disease burden’ is at present, including the number of casualties from it. There could scarcely have been a better indication of how things have changed from the earlier waves of the pandemic, or the extent to which there has been a normalisation of the ‘viral’ state as a part of our everyday lives.[3] During the heyday of the crisis, the state administration had struggled to impose the use of masks by people at large. The all-too-familiar narrative during 2020-2021 of an ignorant or an indifferent population which requires conspicuously loud awareness campaigns and benevolent coercive state intervention in order to make it comply with the obligation framework of a state and its public policies of epidemiology has been replaced by voluntary use of masks in public places by people showing even the mildest symptoms of the disease so much so that one could argue with conviction that the readiness to wear a mask is now a signifier of an ‘enlightened’, ‘pandemic-educated’ person, a responsible member of the civil society, who does not need to be pushed into observing the basic canons of a global health emergency.

The mask is now connotative of a new hierarchy of civic sense and responsibility---those who use it are likely to command respect and place themselves as respectable individuals, invested in the collective good health of the public sphere, themselves conscientious and committed, those who do not are clearly the deplorable contrasts, the inevitable ‘other’ of civil society, the unaware, uneducated, irresponsible, the ones to be kept distance from at all public places. The emergence of ‘mask zones’ has been a natural development---the airport, the railway station, the doctors’ chambers/ nursing homes/hospitals, the examination centres are spaces marked by the un-coerced use of the mask, as a result of which the traveller, the patient and the medical staff (from the radiologist to the sweeper, from the medical receptionist to the pathologist), the examinee is understood and expected to be masked. The mask is a sign of his/ her current identity and preoccupations. The masks on their faces are no longer a cause for general panic

The Crowning of the Third Wave

The official acknowledgement of the third wave of the pandemic in India in January 2022 and the nearly convergent scenario globally seems to have brought a few realities before us. At the risk of sounding decisive about an actor whose nature and activities have been perplexing the most dedicated and competent brains we may conclude that it has formally inaugurated the era of contingent knowing. This is a process contra the story of human progress since the beginnings of the early modern times and it hits at the whole edifice of post-Enlightenment epistemology by permanently displacing the ‘absolute’, the ‘certain’, the ‘observed’, the ‘known’. It displaces learning as we have known it for centuries; it introduces a process of enquiry which is an end in itself because by the time the answers to the questions have been found or thought to have been found, it is time to change the questions themselves. It upsets the serialisation of knowledge which can only happen when new knowledge builds on accepted pre-established knowledge. It encourages the tentativeness of knowing, ensuring that we learn everything about the virus directly as well as about the virus-led world indirectly on an ad hoc basis.[4]

The trivialisation of knowledge systems is manifested by the series of incessant questions asked by everyone to everyone particularly during 2020 to 2022, and answered in turn by all to all, for every one of us had access to exactly the same sources of mediatised knowledge and at the same time none of us knew for certain the course of incidents to follow. In desperation we turned to experts in different fields, medical, political, psychological, only to discover that they were more conflicted than we were. Shall I need a vaccination certificate to enter somewhere? Will a RTPCR be required for travelling? Will a test seventy-two hours before flying suffice? Shall I be required to self-quarantine? Even if I am asymptomatic shall I still be tested? What will happen if I test positive? Will the state quarantine me? Do I need a test at every inter-state border? Will country X accept a specific vaccine dose as valid? Will the vaccine keep me safe for only six months? Is the new variant of the virus not factored in by my vaccine? Do I need a booster shot? Am I eligible for a booster shot? Should I opt for an antibody injection? Such questions galore, so do the answers. The world revolved around such questions between 2020 and 2022, and given the glorious uncertainty of the virus in question, these can resurface at any time and hold humanity ransom.

In apparent continuity with pre-pandemic times when we seemed to know what to know and how, we found an array of answers to these questions. However the only destabilising difference during the pandemic was that the answers were not meant to signal any finality, any certainty, any act of comprehension. Rather these were contingent palliatives, essentially temporary in nature, intended to pacify the questioner and push the person to a newer set of questions which are to be encountered next. The answers obtained today turned out to be notoriously slippery tomorrow and did not build on foundations of progress but were only channels which facilitated the arrival of more questions. The only ‘knowledge’ which seemed to count as ‘definitive’ is a knowledge of numbers---how many? How many affected? How many killed? How many affected twice? How many hospitalised? How many released? How many released but suffering from the long-term effects of COVID? How many in cities? How many in villages? How many in France? How many in Italy? Followed by a self-assuring affirmation that in India ‘it is far less’. How many vaccinated? How many fresh infections? How many with co-morbidities? How many above the age of sixty? How many between thirty and forty-five? And then, just to ensure that not even a catalogue of numbers can make us ‘knowledgeable’ we were given to understand that many of these numbers are manufactured, manipulated, suppressed, in short, plainly false.[5] The last hope of ‘knowledge’ also goes away caught between claims and counterclaims of experts, regimes, people considered as opponents of regimes, social media ‘news’ and social media ‘jokes’, ‘authentic’ reporting, ‘biased’ coverage, news channels with specific leanings, over-information, under-information, awareness drives, and ultimately, the unaware people.

New Virus, Old Cure

What, then, is this virus? We may recall that sometime during the second wave in the second half of 2021 there emerged some medical findings which insisted on the fact that there is just no medically enlightened cure for the disease. It became disturbingly common to come across medical writings which countered the existing lines of treatment and revealed that the administered drugs were not meant to address the virus in the first place and that the only cure was to take ample rest, drink large quantities of fluid, eat well, sleep more than usual, have a protein-bolstered diet, and a vitamin-mineral rich supplement, in short, an age-old standard way in which a patient suffering from any disease would be treated at home by conventional homely wisdom of the elders and the experienced, non-medical laymen. What exactly was happening to us then in the last two years?

There was supposedly a deadly virus attacking us all and all that we could do in response was to retreat to millennia-old classical common-sense cure. Not to speak of the fact that if resting and eating well lay at the heart of the recovery then, shamefully speaking, how many individuals from the underdeveloped world including India, and more specifically how many women from such countries could afford the cure?[6] For a change then the treatment to COVID-19 would be unattainable to millions not because of how costly medicines were or how ill-equipped the health infrastructure was (although ironically both of these are harsh truths for the same people generally as also for this particular case for those whose conditions have aggravated and they have required hospitalisation, oxygen, specialised treatment etc) but simply because long and frequent hours of sleep and an egg-chicken-milk-green vegetables diet is an unheard of thing for them. What, after all, is this virus then? A joke? A deadly joke? An insult? A way of further underlining the distinctions between those who can ‘rest more’ and those who must not ‘rest more’ in order to feed themselves and their families? Between those who can accessorise their masks, redo their wardrobes with one rack turned into a ‘mask-sanitiser zone’ and those who must carry only one overused worn-out mask, usually inadequate and inappropriate to the severity of transmission of the infection, somewhere on their person so that they may enter some of the ‘no mask, no entry’ spots for their own livelihood? A revelation of our ‘insides out’? Is the virus merely a metaphorical fear? A panic that we all ought to face given either the dwelling of evil inside us or at least our complicitous uncaring selves in the face of ghastly evil? Is the virus a cosmic microbial punishment? An extra-terrestrial conspiracy? Is it a way of telling us that for all the violence perpetrated at the societal level on targeted groups of people, all the injustice done systematically and ignored by us collectively, the aggressor might have caught the infection from his potential victim? Is it a way of reminding us that no matter what the level and reason of arrogance and bigotry is, some cases of vulnerability are invariably shared between the powerful and the powerless? [7]

The Virus ‘Dies’

Strangely enough the menacing spread of the virus seems to have brought an ‘end’ to it. Its non-medical death is now increasingly clear to us all because since the third wave it is the dominant factor in our discussions only by default, only by way of comparison to what its previous fatal forms have been like. In other words, after having been a synonym of death in 2020 and 2021 and unleashing panic and mourning for humanity at large, the ‘death of the virus’ has possibly happened. It is now ‘normalised’, ‘regularised’, undeserving of any special attention and arrangements, having given rise to a shattering ‘new normal’ for mankind in 2020, it is by early 2022 a part of the ‘new normal’ itself. Standard one-liners accompany formal events: all COVID protocols to be followed. Human history has appropriated it, accommodated it. An online parallel to practically all aspects of activity has been established, from education to jewellery purchase. Weddings have been cut down to COVID numbers. Food delivery has been modified to suit COVID realities. Frequent fliers know there is a COVID-specific instruction to abide by. Truthfully or otherwise, every tourist attraction spot knows it must claim to be regularly sanitised.

Even social media, the only point of salvation for so many of us, have lost interest in it. Long gone are the Dalgona coffee days. The sarcastic memes are also a matter of the past. The massive role that social media had during the second wave in India is almost forgotten by now. Idle netizens are tired of the lacklustre but mysterious variants of the virus. It is common to find people testing positive on Tuesday and negative by Friday. The only redeeming point for us has been to go the blue-tick celebrity way. Posts abound, with astounding imitability, declaring ‘I have tested positive. Anyone who has come in contact with me over the last five days is requested to get tested.’ Announcement and a sense of social responsibility both get taken care of thus. ‘Just a mild fever’ is a routine comfortable declaration for us since the third wave. ‘Me too’ is a slightly amusing affirmation in our social interactions now, a willingness to conform, to bandwagon; ‘slight cold, a little cough, weakness’ are no longer causes for worry. Rather they are part of an inclusive vocabulary. The third wave and thereafter is an indication of how comforting it is for mankind to collectively affirm what it believes to be ‘unremarkable’ symptoms of common cold and influenza. It is a new form of solidarity, a new form of unity and homogeneity.

Interestingly, amid such widespread but non-threatening infections which we believe affected all, for a person to have been totally uninfected is not just strange but also unacceptable. How could he have not got it? That is the somewhat annoyed question mixed with a tinge of distrust from us that the till now lucky person must deal with. The sense that accompanies the question is, the person who has not been hit by the virus might just be in possession of some secretly mysterious preventive trick. You have not had COVID even once? Is not an innocent question. It is a question which barely conceals the incredulity of the situation and the disbelief of the questioner. Conversely the deaths which are occurring now do not deserve either any attention or any sympathy. He must have had co-morbidities, is a conclusion we are adept at drawing, hence indicating that if someone has died in the third wave, it is his responsibility, his fault and not that of the virus. To put it simply, the virus has been ‘tamed’ and is ‘under control’. If you are still unable to negotiate it, then something must be wrong with you. The triumph of the non-human has in that case turned out to be temporary. Mankind has once again found out a way to ultimately prevail over the non-human. This is certainly not an insignificant development in the discourse created by the rise of the Anthropocene.[8]

What utility does the virus have then? It appears that it is time for us to accept that it is a part of the ‘game’ now: a convenient excuse, a standard reference point for future global scares. As a part of the ‘game’, it is perhaps a ‘game-changer’, with a brooding sense of ‘ominous’ policies and ‘malevolent’ designs surrounding it.[9] And within the sovereign space of the state, it might just have a special role assigned to it to be the reason for cancelling an unwanted public event, for disallowing a gathering that threatens the structure of power, for forbidding fair trial to a dissident, for discontinuing democratic scrutiny wherever necessary, even while it is reinforced as a reason to accost someone, prevent entry to some place, enforce biometrics on unwilling citizens, enquire into the private details of one’s medical record, and ask in a tone of non-negotiable command, haven’t you taken the vaccine? An answer in the negative is not an option.

(Author: Prothoma Rai Chaudhuri, Ph.D., Faculty, Department of Political Science, St Xavier’s College, Calcutta. She has edited a book on alternative understandings of medieval Indian politics and philosophy entitled The Crescent Has Its Own Stories (2022). Her earlier publications include her research on the sexual minorities in West Bengal, enquiry into the limits of liberalism as an ideology, the contestation between the Hindu Right and the Christian missionaries through educational campaigns in West Bengal. She writes literary fiction for a niche audience internationally under the pen name Shrutidhora P Mohor.)

Notes and References:

1. Pandemics---A Very Short Introduction, Christian W McMillen, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2016.
2. Pandemic! COVID-19 Shakes the World, Slavoj Zizek, OR Books, New York, London, 2020.
3. An unconventional coverage of the early part of the first wave of the pandemic is found in The Virus and Us, Prothoma Rai Chaudhuri, published by India Fights Corona, Social Innovation Think Tank of India, May 28, 2020. Available online and last accessed on June 21, 2023.
4. The Price of Panic: How the Tyranny of Experts Turned a Pandemic Into a Catastrophe, Douglas Axe, William M Briggs, Jay W Richards, Regnery Publishing, New York, 2021.
5. Zizek, op.cit.; Axe et al, ibid.; Ten Lessons for a Post-Pandemic World, Fareed Zakaria, W W Norton and Company, the USA, 2021.
6. Zizek, ibid., Chapter 2 Why Are We Tired All The Time? pp. 18-24; The Burnout Society, Byung-Chul Han, Redwood City, Stanford UP, 2015.
7. Zizek, ibid., Chapter 1 We’re All In The Same Boat Now, pp. 11-17.
8. The Climate of History: Four Theses, Dipesh Chakrabarty, Critical Inquiry, volume 35, number 2, Winter 2009, pp. 197-222; The Anthropocene Reviewed: Essays on a Human-Centred Planet, John Green, Ebury Press, New York, 2021.
9. The Precipice: Neoliberalism, the Pandemic and the Urgent Need for Social Change, Noam Chomsky, interviews taken by C J Polychroniou, Chapter 26 We Must Not Let Masters of Capital Define the Post-COVID World, Haymarket Books, Chicago, Illinois, 2021, pp. 213-220.

ISSN (Mainstream Online) : 2582-7316 | Privacy Policy
Notice: Mainstream Weekly appears online only.