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Mainstream, VOL LVIII No 26, New Delhi, June 13, 2020

What the Novel Corona Virus Possibly Taught Us? | Amit Chaturvedi and Shashank Chaturvedi

Saturday 13 June 2020

by Amit Chaturvedi and Shashank Chaturvedi

When it comes to understanding the social and psychological impacts of a crisis of the kind that the COVID-19 pandemic is turning out to be, we see that science and research have made only preliminary advances in the field. About a couple of decades ago, Michael M.J. Fischer, the renowned Professor of Anthropology at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, in his groundbreaking book Emergent Forms of Life and the Anthropological Voice, was prophetic. Fischer convincingly argued for an urgent need to redesign methods of studying cultures in the contexts of modernisation and globalisation. In a highly complex, ultra-networked globalising society as ours, he highlighted the pressing need for science to come to terms with informatics, biological innovations and new media in a way that novel forms of life and events may be brought within the grasp of human understanding. Developments at the global level, as have been witnessed during the last few months happen to be nothing but a glaring realisation of most of his observations on technology, medicine and popular culture.

Bruno Latour, another prominent French social scientist in his influential books such as The Politics of Nature and We have Never been Modern rallied for transcending the conventional nature-culture binary and questioned the fundamental assumption of modern knowledge systems – namely, the anthropocentric realm of human knowledge wherein human ‘rationality’ is poised as the sole route to human emancipation. Latour proposed to ‘recall modernity’ so as to mend some of its philosophical presumptions. He argued for a ‘re-introduction’ of modernity for ensuring the peaceful coexistence of all stakeholders, including ‘nature’ itself. What we have today, in the name of objective knowledge about human endeavor and nature, is basically, in Latour’s terms – a ‘hybrid – a mixture of nature and culture. The ‘truth’ about Corona appears to be not very far away from the ‘hybrid’.

Multiplicities of Prescriptions

During the last six months, the world has been witness to a multiplicity of claims – all of them rational and objective in their own terms, which may not be seen as lying very far off from each other. From using cow urine, sanitizers, anti-malarial drugs to chanting specific mantras and verses (the list isn’t exhaustive) – we have been subjected to a plethora of folk and scientific precautionary and healing prescriptions. Interestingly, the said prescriptive sources have not been static. One that suggested the use of sanitizers as a precautionary measurea month ago today makes it sound as not so essential. The sanitizer has over the weeks been substituted by the soap. The change in such prescription may most likely be attributed to the relative unavailability of sanitizers in the market or the scientists’ finding that excessive use of sanitizer may cause skin cancer.

The value of theoretical contributions notwithstanding, the COVID-19 pandemic has also placed us in a situation where a good number of generic responses have become available. Moments of crisis, it has oft been said, are also blessings in disguise – for the reason that they bring human societies back to a moment of realisation. They yet again bring home the point that human agency is pathetically limited in comparison to the overarching forces that include the natural as well as the supernatural. It is not uncommon these days to hear individuals talking about the limitations of the human potential and the indispensability of the immense, unsurmountable force that is ultimately in charge of, and, dictates human and earthly affairs. The recourse to nature in the Rousseauvian or the opposite sense is one major throwback from the state of human life today.

Another point worth noting in the variety of public responses is simply that of Ati – extremities. Ati Sarvatra Varjate – extremes are always, everywhere prohibited – thus goes the Indic piece of wisdom. A global crisis of the kind that we face today brings home the other realisation that humans have gone to the extremes of their limits – uncontrolled destruction of the ecosystem and a pledged continuance to carry on with un-meditated designs of rampant misuse of resources of all kinds – material, spiritual, human and extra-human. When one speaks telephonically to the members of her family (as all other means of communication are practically unavailable) to hear from them that this was bound to happen (ye to hona hi tha) – one begins to understand the virus as the act or duty-bound to bring our individual and collective misdoings and misgivings to the fore in the cataclysmic sense – call it Pralaya, Qayamat or the day of judgment. “The final act” in Islam as has been claimed by Mohammad Iqbal, to quote Francis Robinson “is not an intellectual act, but a vital act, which deepens the whole being of the ego and sharpens his will into creative assurance that the world is not just something to be seen and known through concepts, but to be made and remade by continuous action’.

Where We Go from Here?

Inbuilt in all these assumptions are of course, elements of social class and caste. An elected Prime Minister asks in a nationwide address that citizens observe a nationwide, self-imposed curfew and at the stroke of 5 p.m. these supporters begin clapping and banging their metal utensils and the unreflective middle class taking the advice as an order is another poignant throwback to the eras of barbarism. Added to this incapacity of the modern nation-state is the undying desire to activate vote bank politics that of course only thrives at the cost of the dignity of vulnerable social groups as women, poor, migrant workers and minorities.

The genre of responses notwithstanding, a few points should be surely considered as valid and worthy of further thought. Firstly, people the world over are extremely disengaged with authority of whatever kinds. It is owing to this disengagement that they are all looking for the new age, all-powerful leader whose commands they wish to publicly follow. The second point is about the drastic levels of decline of popular faith in modern science and its procedures. Look at any number of WhatsApp forwards regarding the Corona virus and you get to know of the morbidity of the state of public education and awareness.

Where does one go from here? To the middle ages, to the ancient Indian tradition, to the postmodern situation – one can’t say. We think we are all, were always meant to be, here. The way ahead is anybody’s guess!

[Amit Chaturvedi teaches at Himachal Pradesh National Law University, Shimla and Shashank Chaturvedi teaches at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Patna Centre.]

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