Reverse Swing: The new global untouchability virus
It is impossible to be selfish or crudely nationalist in this situation. It has to lead to the rapid realization that we all breathe the same oxygen and come in contact with the same viruses on this globe. Attempts to think in terms of just ‘my country’ or ‘my state’ or ‘my district’ can turn out to be monstrous blunders.
A few days ago I had a meeting with a senior IAS officer, who is heading a top institution. As it ended, I got up to leave and put out my hand for a farewell shake. He jerked back his hands and recoiled as if he had seen a hissing cobra. I got the point. The Covid-19 scare has made untouchables of us all. If the caste system in India is one of the most execrable of body-related social injustices accumulated to levels of historic criminality, the Coronavirus has just provided it impeccable justification. Across the subcontinent and amongst the diaspora, upper-caste apologists are newly glorifying the ‘namaste’ as an emblem of ancient Indian wisdom, now endorsed without an iota of Imperial irony by Prince Charles himself.
Discriminatory Brahminical taboos have, overnight, turned kosher. Don’t touch anyone or anything touched by someone else. Constantly keep sanitising your hand. Don’t even touch yourself on the nose, mouth, eye. Keep enough distance from the person near you so that even his/her shadow does not fall on you. Sharing food, eating from the same plate or leaf, or sharing a glass is a strict no-no. And there is nothing more dangerous or discredited today as public displays of affection like touching or hugging or kissing. Wonder what contemporary dancers would do with the technique of contact improvisation?
And, they have just discovered a clinical term to describe this new set of behavioural regulations – sanctioned social isolation or more disturbingly, social distancing.
A new global untouchability is on its way to getting institutionalised, taking its basic template from an over 2,000 years old Indian model. Manusmriti might yet become the revered treatise on the body and social hygiene, on the pretext of the necessity to exercise epidemiological prudence.
This is a new epidemic of individualised ‘gating’, as distinguished from community ‘gating’. For those who belong to the upper-middle class and above, this inaugurates a new era of extreme individuation and self-withdrawal into a cave or a plastic suit for months, taking recourse to home-delivery survival mechanisms like Amazon and Zomato and other service providers. We are swiftly tumbling into the fate of the average American who is born in a megalopolis, studies in a multiversity, works for a conglomerate, and feels lonely.
All this is indicative of a new moral and political crisis which is only likely to exacerbate the extremely atomising tendencies of late capitalism within which, more than cooperation and community, it will be accelerated private hoarding that will dominate with increasingly sophisticated personal fire-walls and insulation devices that will help build a cordon-sanitaire around each one of us. Shopping malls, multiplexes, and universities will soon be passe – with all human exchange shifting online. Large-scale temple, mosque, and church festivals will find virtual spaces as the chimaera to safety until, of course, a virtual virus hits the virtual space.
The early 20th century Italian Futurist and Fascist apologist, Filippo Marinetti, had anticipated the desire for ‘metallization’ of man as a future ideal. Its spin-off in popular culture at the very centre of capitalism spawned metal-body super-heroes like Superman, Captain America, Iron Man and such, as the fantasized shields against inter-stellar viruses. Somehow, they were slow to anticipate, in the face of a deathly terrestrial virus, the imminent plasticization of man in aseptic hazmat sheaths of poly carbon and polyvinyl, which now suddenly has people chanting praises to plastic.
Social media, inevitably, is also replete with graphic suggestions of how to have sex in the time of coronavirus by maintaining a rigorous 1.5 meters distance between the faces of the partners. Delightfully, this too had been worked out in the Kamasutra a good millennia before civilization visited the West. The only difference now will be that everyone will have to dress up (as opposed to undress) top to toe in latex suits.
From a socialised animal, the homo faber is rapidly naturalizing the idea of homo heirarchicus and revalidating the condemnable caste system. The pandemic is generating a new anxiety amongst populations to withdraw from the web of interdependence and behave like Robinson Crusoe did as the sole occupant of an island. We are suddenly found to be fatally contagious and vulnerable. Half the world that can afford it, is turning rabidly survivalist, hoarding food, medicine and essentials for private benefit. Three millennia ago, the Pharaohs in Egypt did it, sequestering themselves in atom-bomb proof and antiseptic shelters like the Pyramids with all that they needed in Earthly life. And, then, mummifying themselves for a possibly better afterlife.
Of course, this power and ability to withdraw from social circulation is a mark of one’s elite status. For many people, economic compulsions will over-ride the fear-induced compulsion to self-quarantine. For most, it won’t even be a choice. For those advantaged by class, the temptation to convert it into a new caste privilege of measured social distancing will be real.
Faced with massive crises, most governments urge their citizens to take individual action. We have gone through recurring cycles of this. Food crisis – forego one meal a day. Financial crisis – exercise fiscal prudence. Climate crisis – reduce your carbon footprint by reducing individual consumption of fuel, water, power. Covid-19 – wash your hands as often as possible. It is useful advice, but hey, is that not water profligacy in contexts where even drinking water availability has shrunk?
Will our governments accept that this pandemic is not a factor of individual behaviour but, in fact, a political problem and not something that can be reduced to a more aggressive Swacch Bharat campaign? Will the government have the courage to initiate more substantial work stoppages in crowded sectors, accompanied by adequate wage compensations and income cushions for workers and companies? Will free medical testing and treatment be made available to all without discriminating over religion or caste?
The spectre of Covid-19 is as abstract and deniable as climate change. But it is also illustrative of the complexities of our networked and interdependent world. As they illuminate Chaos Theory with the theorem: When a butterfly flaps its wings in Shanghai, it can cause a storm in San Francisco’, so too when a flight takes off from Wuhan, it can lead to a rash of high temperatures in Wayanad. It is impossible to be selfish or crudely nationalist in this situation. It has to lead to the rapid realization that we all breathe the same oxygen and come in contact with the same viruses on this globe. Attempts to think in terms of just ‘my country’ or ‘my state’ or ‘my district’ can turn out to be monstrous blunders. Faced with this sort of a crisis, the tendency to want to blame it on the eating habits of one group of people or the sanitary conditions of another and imagine oneself as impeccably resistant by drinking or sprinkling oneself and others with gau mutra can only be self-deluding, if not downright dangerous. It does not need Einstein’s brains to figure out that we can be successful in ‘public’ health only if we do not attempt to focus merely on our ‘private’ health.
As and when the coronavirus recedes, it will be interesting to see how we come to terms with this newly discovered love of untouchability and social distancing.