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Mainstream, VOL LVIII No 38, New Delhi, September 5, 2020

Privatizing the Pandemic: A Neoliberal Remedy? | Arindam Roy

Friday 4 September 2020


by Arindam Roy

It may be a strange coincidence or an irreversible logic of capitalist accumulation that our Prime Minister’s latest address to the nation of infusing confidence and self-sufficiency among his fellow countrymen in the wake of Covid 19, where he called for ‘Atma-nirbhar’ Bharat has a striking resemblance with the worldwide neoliberal way of managing the pandemic by ‘privatizing’ it. If one follows the trajectory of the pandemic of Covid-19 and its attendant responses globally since its outbreak in December 2019 to its present state of havoc, claiming almost four lakhs lives across the globe,it may not seem to him surprising at all as itcan uncover a subtle neoliberal pattern of externalizing/privatizing the pandemic.Reflections abound as plethora of platforms props up every other day to deliberate upon Covid 19 and its probable impact on us. But among the crowd of instructions, opinions, experts suggestions what is amiss is the neoliberal dimension. This piece argues that very handling of the pandemic, starting from its outbreak to its present state of ‘privatizing’, is out and out driven by the logic of capital. Hence, the initial desperation of the bewildered humanity to combat the pandemic either in the form of social distancing, isolation, quarantine, de-congestion, or in the form of a complete lockdown have presented an apparentunited efforts of all the stake holders involved, including public sectors, private entrepreneurs, civil society, media, citizen’s forum. But the reality that lurks within the visible projection of the united war on the pathogen unfolds itself when the said efforts eventually cost the process of capital accumulation very dearly. The unmasking of the very social optima, as it were,involved in the neoliberal governance was only a matter of time. The phase-wise relaxations on the lockdown rules or on the Covid protocol without corresponding de-escalation of the disease is anything but surprising as itis closely associated with the interest of the market. Going by the same logic, the privatizing of the pandemic can be seen as the only obvious conclusion. From the encouragement of opting for home quarantine in place of hospitalization to the latest coinage of acquiring ‘herd immunity’ to bring down the number of susceptible by putting only ‘risk-population’ under quarantine is not only indicative of the hollowing out of the state in the neoliberal governance, but the grim reality of health sector. In fact, on a closer look, it can be easily argued that public sector was never really involved in this war as such, barring impositions of some restrictions that required the trustworthiness and authenticity of public authority. Mostly, the curative approach in place of public health approach was handpicked in the global fight against the pandemic. There is no denying that curative approach constitutes an inseparable part of public health but without preventive, and public interest clauses it can hardly handle the epidemic of this magnitude. Hence, as a booster dose of social optima in the fight against the pandemic of the Covid 19, public health institutions have been brought to the fore in neoliberal governance in addition to private and civil society institutions. But as per the logic of neoliberal governance, the dose of social optima cannotbe a permanent arrangement. In fact, in the neoliberal scheme of thing, be it in social sector management or in disaster management social optima have an instrumental rationality.That is, afterabrief stint,Pareto optimality is supposed to determine the social sector.Hence,the relaxation in the war on the pathogen is too obvious for the neoliberal governance as the pandemic has multi-sectoral implications, which goes far beyond the physical causalities and seems to have sucked economy, society and polity into its pernicious fold.

There is no denying that we are in the middle of neoliberal governance when the pandemic hits us.So unlike what would have been the normal state response to it in case of welfare governance, here the response is markedly different as public health sector is partnering with a host of stake holders like private health sector, NGOs, civil society,and so on. However, such partnering of the public sector in the present governance dispensation should be taken with a pinch of salt, as the public sector which appears to get much room for leveraging, does not in any way mean the autonomy of public health. In fact, in the present neoliberal dispensation health sector presents huge market potential. Hence,the occasional tinkering with social optima by showcasing public health sector, neoliberal governance has sought to garner much coveted legitimacy for market to sustain.Therefore, the handling of the pandemic in the initial phase by collective means with public sector at the helm of affairs to its eventual departure from it at present, leaving individual fighting his/her own battle in market driven society, constitutes the crux of neoliberal remedy. However, that said does not anyway mean that neoliberal governance leave you, at least visibly,all alone in the wilderness. In fact, market along with corporate sector, media and obviously the crony state will remain ever vigilant to guide you relentlessly on what products you need to buy from the market to stay alive. A typical version ofmarket benevolence! Any cursory glance over the television commercials these days would have validated the above statement. Starting from the commercials selling liquid soaps, sanitizers or toiletries to those of health drinks the market is all set to equip you with adequate sanitization and hard immunity. Needless to point out that such market benevolence is intrinsically associated with the nature of capital to explore possible avenues of profitability and market potential.But then a serious puzzle begging our attention, i.e. who is going to take care of those individuals who do not have the capacity to pay heed to the so-called benevolent instructions provided by the market for the want of purchasing power. In fact, complying with the neoliberal conditionalities, the neoliberal governance remains literally clueless about this ‘surplus humanity’ who have been perenniallyleft out at the margin in capitalist order and made to suffer a life on ‘informal survivalism’.The plight of homeward exodus of migrant labourers across the country in the wake of sudden lockdown or technically speaking the ‘reverse migration’ may be a case in point. Despite several reporting (Hindustan Times March19, 2020; The Deccan Herald: March, 21, 2020: The Times of India: April 15, 2020; Economic Times March,24, 2020, The Telegraph, April 16, 2020)of surplus food reserveof a whopping 3,09,76,000 metric tonsof rice, 2,75,21,000 metric tons of wheat and 2,87,08,000 metric tons of paddyin the Central Pool for Current Year 2019-2020 (FCI as of March 2020)in government granaries in India,the neoliberal governance has literally incapacitated the state to such an extent that it failed to release any emergency food grain to the stranded migrant laborerswho have been looking for the rickety public distribution system and forced them to sustain their lives on charity. In fact, the capitalism in this neoliberal phase, leaves no opportunity of accumulation of capital goes by, even if that might be an epidemiological nightmare like Covid 19. The initialhiccup notwithstanding, the capitalist order in this casevery quickly absorbs the shock and capitalizing on the disaster byexpanding private health sector, pharmaceuticals industries, and so on. However, it would be too radical and extremely unfair if we wishfully think that the epidemic is a handiwork of capitalism. In fact, epidemic of any kind wrecks havoc for the prospect of capitalist development. If we trace the origin of public health, we can establish a positive correlation between birth of public health and capitalism as the birth of public health was basically a capitalist response to the epidemic which had decimated the working population to a great extent. Indeed, capitalism contains an indomitable spirit of enterprising and capacity to bounce back from any adverse situation. Be it post-Caterina New Orlean or Covid affected India, we can experience this spirit of capitalism to expand. The hugely expanding market for soap and hand sanitizers across the globe alone can corroborate the fact. In this context a book by Naomi Klein, The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism deserves special mention.Drawing on the (in) famous prescription by the most prominent boy of the famous Chicago Boys, Milton Friedman, Naomi Klein has heralded the birth of disaster capitalism by illustrating the indomitable spirit of capital accumulation in her famous book The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism.Klein with great detail has demonstrated how post-disaster disorientations of the people have been maneuvered by capitalism for its own expansion and made people to swallow the bitter pill of market fundamentalism.

However, amidst the pervading gloom and a deep sense of insecurity amidst the pandemic, if there is any silver lining, it is the very dynamics of capitalism itself. On the face of series of market debacles across the globe, capitalism was desperately in search of an alternative market to thrive. Hence, it cannot afford to ignore either the so called ‘bottom of the pyramid’ forever or the huge virgin rural market across Asia , Africa and Latin America. In fact, capitalists realize that engaging them in addition to fixed urban consumers in the market system by specially customizing the consumer productsin accordance with their needscould have salvaged already sagging growth of capitalism. C.K Prahalad has dealt with it at length in his famous book The Fortune at The Bottom of the Pyramid. Drawing on several cross-country case studies, Prahalad has demonstrated the financial viability of the poverty or what he called BOP market for capital accumulation. Unlike the traditional welfare principle of philanthrophy and providential (ism), a whopping 4/5 billion people at the BOP, as Prahalad viewed, may revolutionize business practices. Hence, the need of the hour is to get out of old prejudices regarding poor. With special reference to toiletries especially sampoo, Prahalad has shown that sachet-ization of rural market would multiply the sale of shampoo as BOP people have choices, demands and brand consciousness Hence, the fear of exclusion of a substantial portion of our society for the want of adequate purchasing power under the neoliberal remedy of ‘privatizing the pandemic’ can be minimized to a great extent as dynamics of capitalism itself demands them as potential market as Prahalad has reminded us that poor could have been a huge market had we customize the market in accordance with their needs.

Dr. Arindam Roy
Assistant professor, Dept. of Political Science, The University of Burdwan, West Bengal, India Email Id: arindambu.du[at]

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