pandemic as mirror


The Coronavirus/ COVID-19 Pandemic is a complex emergency, a term which was used a great deal two decades ago to capture the reality that bad things rarely happen in isolation of other bad things. When disasters are layered over conflicts which are layered over structural inequalities, for instance, you have a complex emergency.

What we are seeing, with this pandemic crisis is precisely such a situation—where a pandemic situation has suddenly descended upon us, where we were already dealing with a spectrum of conflicts, the consequences of disasters, large-scale displacement and human rights violations, plus structural inequalities, necessitating severe responses like lockdowns, which have set in motion a humanitarian crisis of perhaps equal proportions. Each of these individual situations is the product of governance failures, and together they seem to be crumbling at our feet like a Jenga tower.

Most humans, even those who have lived through the World Wars, the Great Depression, other famines, long-term conflict and other crises, are wont to say they have not seen something like this in their lives. They haven’t. This is an unprecedented concatenation of the worst circumstances.

But we do know some things about complex emergencies, and while it may be too late to prepare for this one, it is not too late to think about reconstruction on the other side. And the first lesson of other complex emergencies is that there will be another side—we will survive. Most of us who contract the disease will recover.

We will be traumatized by the experience, having lived with fear, isolation, hunger, neglect of chronic health conditions and bereavement. The grief we feel will be as much because our lives and livelihoods have proven so precarious as it will be for the people we lose—to death and to displacement. There will however, be a post-pandemic generation, the children who are witnessing and experiencing crisis for the first time and be formed by this experience in the choices they make. If they guide our reconstruction, we too will make better choices in the aftermath.

The pandemic crisis itself holds up a mirror to who we are, and a great deal of our trauma does and should come from the very ugly picture we see. The beating up of doctors by patients; the sexual harassment of a doctor on her way to work by the police, and the ethnic or communal colour we access easily to depict any situation, tell us that the civilization human beings preen about is quite unpleasant.

Just as clearly, it holds up a mirror to governance failures. We have put humans and satellites in space and revolutionized how they communicate, but our governments—in our names—have failed to put people first and to listen to their needs. Ideological agendas on modernization and development and abstract theories of growth were more attractive to us than the kind of ‘Basic Needs’ model that Sri Lanka adopted in the first post-colonial decades, and the result is that, around the world, we face this pandemic ridiculously, tragically unprepared.

We are telling people to wash their hands but in 2020, for most of humanity, water is a luxury. For the lucky few, the shortages are seasonal. For the vast majority, they are perennial. The next piece of advice, to drink water frequently and stay hydrated, makes no sense to people who still do not access clean drinking water. Recommending the use of hand sanitizer is like asking people to eat cake if there is no bread.

Containing any epidemic depends on hygiene and sanitation. You just have to walk our roads to know this remains on a to-do list we have misplaced. One of the primary functions of municipal government, garbage collection and sanitation are casualties of politicized service delivery.

The richest and the poorest countries are both facing shortages of personal protective equipment, ventilators and just, hospital beds. What is being made available for quarantine and isolation is so unsanitary that people are running away from those centres, preferring illness and the culpability for spreading the disease.

But nothing captures the failure of the state as hideously and heartrendingly as the flight of migrant workers in India, on foot, hungry and without water, to their rural homes across this continent-sized state. This shining India of business pamphlets and political rhetoric was built by them, but in this crisis, we see them as we have left them—homeless, without the social security of an assured income, with no social infrastructure to feed them and in the context of impending economic deterioration, no livelihood. After more than seventy years, too many Indians still depend on daily wages from physical labour.

We pay for our failures when in desperation, migrant workers pack the last buses and walk in large crowds towards their homes. The physical distancing that we are seeking to enforce is cancelled out by their frantic flight, in which their only security, is a crowd of other desperate people.

Hindsight, they say, is 20/20. 2020 is the year we are being forced to look at ourselves very clearly. This is who we are.

Who are we going to be? Every disaster has the potential to be an opportunity but in reality, every disaster has been a failed opportunity. We learn nothing. When a disaster destroys everything locally and gives a chance to rebuild, we pontificate for a moment about the lessons it teaches us and then proceed to rebuild the world as it was before the disaster. We measure our resilience by our ability to replicate.

This lockdown is showing us how much we depend on each other on a day-to-day basis. As Thich Nhat Hahn says, we inter-are. Every single thing we enjoy or experience is a complex of many factors and the labour of many. As those chains of care and labour are disrupted by the lockdown, we are experiencing privations some of us were privileged to forget. When the pandemic passes, as it will, we must find and foster our most compassionate selves. Kinder interactions, not taking each other for granted, being aware of our privileges and practical measures to help each other, are a point of departure.

The enormous gulf in access to basic needs—water, food, sanitation, health-care as well as education—should embarrass and fill us with shame. We must abandon our many vanity and ideological projects and channel our resources and fast-track the work it will take to fill those gaps. People must live in cleaner better conditions, with access to water, food and jobs. Our government hospitals may in many ways be better than small private hospitals but they are too few. And we have neglected our last mile, primary health care centres. Our schools neither educate our children nor train them for the job markets that await them. Around the world, not just in India, we have played fast and loose with people’s lives.

The gulf in access is defined by systemic inequalities—class, caste, community, ethnicity, region. Politics, like a different species of predator, thrives on differences and inequalities. For the social and political elite of any society, there is a greater interest in maintaining hierarchy than in destroying it. The result is that some of us in this lockdown are waiting for online delivery services to resume while the lucky among the rest will still be able to work, delivering essentials to those who can afford to order them. For the rest, there will be no work, money, food, home or survival. Each of us must take responsibility for creating this human tragedy and in the post-pandemic world, social justice must be as important as physical reconstruction.

Since the second half of the twentieth century, we have largely taken as axiomatic the idea that modernity and development involve urbanization, industry, commerce, technology and services, and our main political differences have been about how to get there. In the last four decades, we have come to live lives that one hundred years ago, were the stuff of science fiction, and many of us spend and consume more than we ever thought possible. We have celebrated the growing middle class everywhere and the burgeoning market it represents, for the goods and services we make and sell for profit. In one fell swoop, the pandemic has revealed the precariousness of our charmed lives. The risks we were encouraged to take—credit, loans, EMIs—now seem like follies as jobs will vanish, incomes will fall and savings, if any, will be depleted. In a matter of months, the middle class will slip into the ranks of the working poor and the working poor will be further impoverished. We must not and cannot return to this tenuous model. We need to re-center human beings and their needs on the next round.

Some of the good news we are reading right now relates to improved environmental conditions, from better air to the return of animal life, including peacocks, to parts long abandoned. This is something our very young have been vehemently advocating and that we had just begun to heed in the face of air we could not breathe and glaciers melting in front of our eyes, as well as the frequent visitation of climate change disasters. On the next round, ecological conservation and sustainability must be completely non-negotiable. Some memes around the pandemic have underscored this—Mother Nature sending us back to our rooms in punishment, for instance—and if we do not learn, we will be the stupidest species ever.

As the pandemic has spread, countries have learned from each other’s responses. The lockdown is now the most common response to the pandemic. It is remarkably similar to military curfews, used in conflict and riot situations. In many parts of the world, including India, curfews and restrictions on public gatherings have come more and more frequently, and these are enforced by the police who stand guard, use lathi/baton charges, riot equipment, preventive detention, tear gas and other tools to do the same. In the first days of the lockdown in India, we saw many incidents where the police conflated curfew and lockdown.

The police came under a great deal of criticism for this but by pointing only to the police, we miss the larger reality. If the pandemic is unprecedented in our lives, it is also true that we have not seen an authoritarian moment like this in recent global history. Around the world, majoritarian, populist and autocratic governments have been inclined to use the coercive resources of the state to silence opposition, especially from civil society and the public. Most humans now live in and are accustomed to living in militarized police states and so our response to the pandemic has been enforcement, even with violence.

On the political front, our governments talk TO us and not WITH us. There is little consultation on decisions in the kind of emergency for which the idea of ‘national’, all-party governments were invented. The pandemic arrived in India to disrupt what had been a wonderful democratic moment when citizens were on the streets defending the Constitution of India. The need to lockdown for the pandemic has been a gift to those who would like to have stopped the protests but had still not reached the point of impunity where they could have done so by force. In the name of crisis response, we will see the easy erosion of the rights—from movement to free speech to privacy—we have worked so hard to win and preserve. We must not relax our vigil now.

This applies most of all to gender justice. The experience of every historical crisis we remember is that women are called on to bear its heaviest burden and then banished in the moment of restoration. Across caste, class and community, the toll of the pandemic is going to be greatest on women in many ways.

Existing disparities in access to nutrition and health-care will mean their immunity to infection is probably lower. We were already talking about a double burden but it has intensified with the lockdown as women have to provide more for the household with strained resources. Gendered household roles mean that they will have no respite and if they are professional women, they are also supposed to be performing full-time professional tasks at home with less infrastructural support (fewer computers, interrupted power supply). As more women work in the domestic, informal and unorganized sector, they will have lost their livelihoods and may never be able to build back, better or otherwise. In the aftermath, they will again have to struggle to get credit and it will be harder for them to pay it off.

We are reading about the rising cases of domestic violence as women are shut in with their abusive families. But all forms of sexual and gender-based violence rise in complex emergency situations—domestic violence; incest rape and child sexual abuse; molestation; child marriage and forced marriage; trafficking and sexual assault. Greater policing is not an answer to these, nor is fast-track, after the fact, justice. Treating women—and gender minorities—as human beings is.

Rooting out patriarchy must be an important element in the post-pandemic world. This begins with taking cognizance of people’s experiences as they are, not as we extrapolate them from some idealized location of a male with privilege. It involves listening to all voices equally. It involves consultative planning and reconstruction design—and consultation is now rare in politics. It involves a commitment to gender and social transformation—we will rebuild better, as the disaster risk reduction practitioner community says. Most important, this should not be done as patronage but by creating the institutional channels for meaningful participation by all sections of society in politics.

Whether we transform the world at the end of this complex emergency or transmute this emergency into a different one, with a different mix of tragic ingredients, this is the time to reflect, discuss and plan. A return to the status quo ante would simply be a failure of humanity.

This article was originally published on 04 April 2020 on

Swarna Rajagopalan is a an Indian political scientist, and the founder and managing trustee for the Prajnya Trust.

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