Facing Covid-19: My Land of Neither Hope nor Despair

by Veena Das

May 01, 2020



It was a brutal semester even before the coronavirus struck. Delhi is, after all, my beloved city. So, I had felt immensely grateful for the courage women and children showed as they came out in Shaheen Bagh day after day, to protest the notorious Citizens Amendment Act foisted on the country in 2019 by India’s increasingly belligerent ruling party, Bharatiya Janata Party. I could feel almost in my bones that new forms of protest were emerging. Glued to the news and the transfers of videos, posters, cartoons, interviews and postings on WhatsApp groups, I found all kinds of resources for my students in a class on the theme of “Conflict and Security” to decipher how new and old media combine to create greater authoritarianism even as, and at the same time, they become resources for so-called leaderless social movements to rise. There was much excitement among students as they began to research the different modalities of protest across countries and began to seriously question such terms as nonstate actors, terms that many had taken for granted in their international relations courses.

Ironically, the module on biosecurity that followed was met with relative coolness. One of the issues we then discussed was the “preparedness” of the US government to fight a flu-type lethal epidemic, were it to emerge. I now recall with an eerie feeling the apocalyptic tone of the testimony offered by Dr. Michael T. Osterholm on the United States’ preparedness to meet the challenges of a pandemic during the congressional hearings in Washington in December 2005. Many students were skeptical of the scenario building exercise of rapid, uncontrolled infection, high case fatality rates, and economic collapse that Dr. Osterholm had highlighted in his testimony.

We read Carlo Caduff’s (2015) compelling work on the controversies within the scientific community on the imminent threat of a pandemic and the mediatization of scenes of disaster, as I recall it, with a sense of cool distance, as one might sometimes discuss a distant possibility. After all, it was not easy to determine whether such predictions would come true. Or when they would come true. The best I could do was make my students consider that the problem could be reframed not as a crisis waiting to happen in the future, but as a series of corrosions of health care systems happening in the present, creating conditions of possibility for viruses that could morph into major crises. What anthropology could do, I had emphasized, was to be there, both before and after the crises. The students (or some of them) felt that anthropology was very good in critiquing the language of experts and unmasking ideologically driven pronouncements, but would anthropologists be able to offer anything of value if a pandemic struck? I maintained that I did not know what the future held, but we could act now by prioritizing the problems of health care for residents in urban slums in India, for instance, where the normal practices of unregulated antibiotic dispensing, delays in diagnosis for such diseases as tuberculosis, and frequent use of injections created every possibility that new diseases with lethal outcomes would arise (V. Das 2015)

In one of his articles on pandemic preparedness that we read, Caduff (2014) wrote, “I examine how American scientists and public health professionals presented pandemic influenza as a catastrophic event that seemed to require the construction of a political community on constant alert.” Now that it has been shown to everybody’s sorrow that the so-called preparedness was completely dismantled by the Trump administration and that even when Europe and the USA were given time to prepare, they squandered it till the devastation of the coronavirus was right at their doorsteps and even beyond - How should we orient our teaching and research to such issues?

Home made masks created out of old clothes due to lack of appropriate PPE

One issue that this pandemic has brought to the fore is that the experiences of governance vary enormously across different world regions—indeed, that the same policies such as the lockdowns will play out very differently for the middle classes and for the poor. Most policy makers, bureaucrats, and mathematical modelers, it seems, simply don’t know how the poor live, which is why they cannot anticipate their actions and consequently take variations in human behavior into account in their modelling. Decisions under uncertainty will become the norm in dealing with a virus about which we know so little, but the imperative to produce better and more grounded facts is never going to be felt with greater urgency than in the next few years to come.

I am an anthropologist, and whenever I have been hit by a disaster—personal, national, professional—I do what anthropologists of my kind do: I ask, Is there any useful knowledge or action I can produce? I now take the same questions to my students as I prepare for this year and the next year and then possibly the next. I know that the undergraduates in my classes are going to bring their experiences of massive social and personal suffering into classes next year as they did during the last recession, when incomes declined, marriages fell apart, and an alarming increase in suicides began to appear in their generation (Reeves et al 2012). How will I raise the question of what responsibilities we owe marginalized communities and yet be mindful that what might have looked like impersonal neutral questions last year will touch naked wounds that are hidden behind the clothed bodies and smiling faces of these young adults this year who are facing an unprecedented world? How do we fulfill our responsibility to ensure that students develop the competence to read and understand complicated and contrary opinions, that they do not let their love for the subtle and nuanced understanding of issues disappear on the grounds of needs for the rough and the ready in an emergency?

I offer two examples of how these questions can be calibrated as I prepare my classes for the rest of the semester and the next year. Like all others, I have already made the transition to online learning by making my readings of difficult texts available in PowerPoint presentations with my audio-recorded comments inserted. I reasoned that students are probably so distracted with various kinds of demands that they might be helped to take in my lectures slowly and in small doses. In my lectures, I include notes of regret that some of the class readings are going to hurt, but that we need to develop the ability to withstand that hurt. So, the first example of the kinds of dilemmas I will face in a course I am preparing called “Anthropology of Epidemics” is how to discuss questions of fairness, and how to avoid a slippage into moralism. In one of my classes on kinship this year, in which I discussed the changes in the slave family in 18th-century Virginia as a consequence of the development of local trade in slaves and the demand for young children as slaves, we read the testimony of a mother who had lost her two children because the master had sold them to other plantations, saying defiantly to the master that she was glad her baby died because it was “one less child you will be able to sell.” I juxtaposed this discussion with the searing examples from Death without Weeping—Nancy Scheper-Hughes’s (1992) masterpiece—particularly the words of a woman who had a miscarriage: “He can make me pregnant, but he cannot make me keep his child,” or words to that effect. These students have learned, then, that the abstract ideas of mother love, or the horror at the triage of children as mothers invest in the survival of some children and neglect others they judge are not likely to survive, is knowledge the poor bear, what I have called “inordinate knowledge,” in my work, as opposed to knowledge that is bare, pale, or merely filed. Such knowledge will mark how they learn and what they learn.

Back to the question of fairness in my course on epidemics. We will read both historical and ethnographic materials on triage during scarcity and two papers from political philosophy that argue, contra John Rawls, that the two neutral principles, that of freedom of choice and veil of ignorance, to ensure fairness do not work. To establish fairness, then, societies cannot rely on neutral or impersonal principles but have to ask how they value different moral goals, say, statistically produced fairness versus fairness to individuals. They would have to ask, How does particularity in ethics matter? If ventilators are scarce, how should priority be determined? Should old people with preconditions just be allowed to die rather than take up resources that could be used for health care workers or those with greater chances of survival? Is it possible to think of ethics as not simply a decision but a plethora of other infra-decisions—I must be mindful that among those who were denied ventilators might have been grandparents who died because they could not get access to hospitals or because of the scarcity of ventilators. I think I must add ways of relating these terrible experiences of triage during this emergency to the burden of small decisions made by mothers living in favelas and slums to let die a child while investing time and emotional resources in children they judge as more likely to survive. Should we not, as well, find ways of talking about grief, death, regret—even when, and especially when, decisions seem fair and just?

I might also want to bring in work on urban poverty and health infrastructure to show the connections between everyday experiences of health delivery and the management of a crisis such as the Covid-19 pandemic. As a concrete example, let us take the sudden announcement of the three-week lockdown announced in Delhi on March 24, and now its extension till May. As became evident within a day of the announcement, the government had made no preparations on how it would implement the lockdown, nor did it disclose how it would address the shortage of hospital beds or locate hot spots where testing might be intensified. The contradictions in government policy became evident when it responded to media reports of migrants setting out to walk hundreds of miles to reach their villages as they had no ways of making provisions for food under the lockdown (V. Das 2020). The chief minister of the adjoining state of Uttar Pradesh announced that free buses would ply migrants back home, and in response massive crowds (estimated to be 40,000 to 100,000) of migrants gathered at a bus stop on the city border, not only defeating the whole idea behind the lockdown but also increasing the risk of spreading the virus to villages on which the government would have no information. Meanwhile, there circulated videos of police patrols roaming the slums and low-income localities of Delhi, showing the way people were being cornered and beaten up.

How could the government not see and only realize belatedly that the policy of lockdown was directly contradicted by the offer of free buses to ply migrants across the border? And not only that the crowds gathered there would pose immediate risks of infection among themselves, but also that as these migrants spread out in villages, it would become impossible to trace contacts? Why did the higher-ups in the police administration neither think that policemen on patrol needed masks and gloves, nor that one stern order to the effect that anyone found using lathis (long wooden sticks) to beat up people would be suspended, or a one-day tour of affected areas by senior police officers to rein in the lower-level policemen might have constrained them from using their sticks so freely? No wonder that some economists, such as Jishnu Das (2020), are calling it the epidemic of ignorance in which epi-models fail to incorporate how human beings under different circumstances behave, and what impact this has on modeling and predictions.

I want to equip my students to read the emerging literature on the pandemic critically and to generate more knowledge about the variations in social conditions. Does this mean that as teachers we are forced to abandon our other interests, say, in religion, art, or kinship? I think this is a question that we will need to think about more concretely, but we might consider that there are already new forms of literature and art arising and that there is a new urgency to understand domestic violence, the ethics of care, the transformation of everyday life, planetary extinction, and even the reflections on Gandhi by some political philosophers. The only question is how we might learn to see what is happening before our eyes. I hope to do this kind of learning with the students as we all discover our blind spots and our areas of ignorance.

I come to the graduate students. What should we tell them? Shall we say to them that their interests in kinship, or religion, or art, do not count anymore? In my own university, there was quite a buzz last year about “nonacademic” jobs. The ill thought out and completely Eurocentric articles on academic precarity had created just the right atmosphere to claim that only instrumental knowledge, which can show its immediate relevance, counted. Covid-19 has shown, tragically, that it is impossible to know in advance what kind of knowledge is to be characterized as academic, what as nonacademic, or instrumental. If policy makers, for instance, were paying more attention to the academic work done by social scientists on the impact of everyday forms of governance on vulnerable communities, we might have avoided the temptation to assume that if a model works in one place, it will work equally well in all others. The lockdown worked in China because once the government realized the massive failure resulting from its suppression of information, it used what infrastructural capacities it had to mitigate the harshness of the lockdown in Wuhan. Apartments lying vacant as result of the boom in construction industry were used to house those under quarantine; local-level party workers delivered food and medicines systematically to those quarantined or in isolation, mitigating some of the harshness of the measures, though systematic studies on this aspect are still to come. In India, implementing the lockdown without the requisite infrastructure created massive hardships that we are yet to fully assess.

So, I want to say to the graduate students, don’t get lured by the idea that some “nonacademic jobs” are just waiting around the corner to grab. Instead, try to reorient your work to speak to the demand for more knowledge that the pandemic has generated in terms of local-level variations, the false assumptions behind models that we need to not only criticize but also learn to understand as forms of decision-making under uncertainty. We would do well to recall that anthropology had to be reinvented in the late 1980s and early 1990s, when many anthropologists realized that the new forms of warfare, the genocides, the silences around domestic violence were a sign that they had been blinded in their work by the apparent peaceful or harmonious picture of social relations painted by what was then known as the “consensus” theory of society. I remember how difficult it was to shift from speaking of social conflict to speaking about violence. But anthropology changed, its assumptions about the social changed, and its methods changed. I would say to graduate students that this is a moment of thinking anew, and the challenge is worth taking.

We all need to learn how to read the works of others, such as data scientists or mathematical modelers, who are often outside our comfort zone. In turn we might want to ask ourselves, How shall we make our work accessible to them? This is going to be my project with the graduate students—to help devise methods that will allow new way of addressing whatever issues they want to research, to open themselves to the work in other disciplines, and not to think of anthropology as their jagir, something they own. Through my own ongoing collaborations on tuberculosis in India, I have learned that we can best collaborate when we have concrete problems before us that require us to collaborate—that without the knowledge different disciplines brings to the situation, we will be imprisoned in our cocoons. Sometimes our questions are immediate. In the case of tuberculosis, for example, we have asked such concrete questions as: If this new diagnostic technology is free, why are doctors not prescribing it to their patients? Sometimes these questions are more abstract—is there a different way of speaking of the human when human existence is put in jeopardy? Is there a relation between the human and a human that we must think anew?

I am a realist. I know that I belong to one of the “vulnerable” groups, and indeed, in the triage of hospital beds or ventilators, I would rather that a younger person with more life to live gets priority over me. Yet I do what I can to survive. I know that in these times the young will have to face issues of job precarity, familial losses, some shrinking of the world. I say keep the fire burning in you—remember that you can make your labor and your love for learning count for you in many different ways. In my generation, we survived different kinds of catastrophes in our lives—partitions, displacements, untimely deaths, suicides, political emergency, addictions, sexual abuse. Your catastrophes are different. But small acts of fidelity to yourselves done every day will sustain the ability to care and to live in a way that truly matters for you. I have to believe that.



References:

Caduff, Carlo. 2014. “Pandemic Prophecy, or How to Have Faith in Reason.” Current Anthropology 55 (3): 296–315.

Caduff, Carlo. 2015. The Pandemic Perhaps: Dramatic Events in a Public Culture of Danger. Oakland: University of California Press.

Das, Jishnu. 2020. “India’s Response to Coronavirus Can’t Be Based on Existing Epidemiological Models” ThePrint, April 6, 2020. https://theprint.in/opinion/indias-response-to-coronavirus-cant-be-based-on-existing-epidemiological-models/395275/.

Das, Veena. 2015. Affliction: Health, Disease, Poverty. New York: Fordham University Press

Das, Veena. 2020. “Charity Alone Can’t Win This War against the Poor” Deccan Chronicle, April 6,2020 https://www.deccanchronicle.com/opinion/columnists/060420/veena-das-this-is-a-war-on-the-poor-that-charity-alone-cant-win.html.

Reeves, A., Stuckler, D., McKee, M., Gunnell, D., Chang, S. S., & Basu, S. 2012. “Increase in State Suicide Rates in the USA during Economic Recession.” The Lancet, 380(9856), 1813-1814.

Scheper-Hughes, Nancy. 1992. Death without Weeping: The Violence of Everyday Life in Brazil. Berkeley: University of California Press.


Cite As: Das, Veena. 2020. “Facing Covid-19: My Land of Neither Hope nor Despair.” In “Covid-19 and Student Focused Concerns: Threats and Possibilities,” Veena Das and Naveeda Khan, eds., American Ethnologist website, May 1 2020, [https://americanethnologist.org/features/collections/covid-19-and-student-focused-concerns-threats-and-possibilities/facing-covid-19-my-land-of-neither-hope-nor-despair]


Veena Das is the Krieger-Eisenhower Professor of Anthropology at Johns Hopkins University.