COVID19 and the transformation of social spaces

By Shiveshwar Kundu

The Coronavirus pandemic has unleashed a cycle of fear and anxiety among citizens around the globe. The virus has claimed lakhs of lives and events are moving at breakneck speed. Countries around the globe are busy scrambling and reshuffling their resources to paint a picture that things will be in control in the coming time. In some way, this is as if a war is going on – not political – but in some sense an indirect, silent war to alter the social equation between individuals. The contenders in this war are pathogens and humans.

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I belong to a fortunate middle-class social zone who has not witnessed any man-made war or such havoc as a natural calamity but I am for the first time facing a situation where day to day life is completely suspended. The current developments forces us to think on the plethora of out of the box concerns, like, What does this suspension of normal life mean? What does it entail? Who can afford this suspension? Is it easy across the irregular social sections to abide by the government order to sit in their respective houses or to work from home? Does the suspension of everyday life also suspend politics as conventionally understood? What new equations are developing in this regard?

This is not the first time human beings are dealing with something deadly but the uniqueness of this pandemic is its alarming spread rate in the age of advanced information and communication tools and that too in an interspersed globalized world. In this regard, I want to highlight some major repercussions which we humans have to face due to this ongoing pandemic. Firstly, there is no sense of geography to strategize our endeavors as it is the case with any conventional catastrophe. The enemy during any man-made chaos is nearly visible but this is some different form of enemy with different orientations and features.

While economy and other sectors are set to face unparalleled reforms, the nature and magnitude of this crisis will have a magnanimous impact on the psyche level of humans across the world. This pandemic has broken the prevalent definition of external-internal threat and has, in a way democratized the zone of threat. I can be equally dangerous and deadly for my family members in the same way as any other probable unknown infected person. We are bound to lose more trust and faith for our fellow beings owing to the threat in the coming time. We will always hold doubt toward the next person in any form of public space.

Secondly, apart from the suspicion related to the aspect of formal touch, life will be more and more privatized and individuated. The sense of responsibility which generally accrues from the participants will be affected and we will tend to make our presence in the virtual world more often. Many households are even restricting themselves from using any form of print media like newspapers, owing to the transmission capacity of the virus through it. Even during our essential groceries, while paying money to any shopkeepers we are trying to avoid any physical contact with them. On similar lines there has been a huge outsourcing of education and social gatherings in the virtual world through various apps. Till there would be a medical breakthrough or even in post corona society we will increasingly avoid large gatherings due to the fear of transmission of any unknown pathogens.

One of the social practices of elites in Japan hikikomori has already shown us the process of forming acute social compartments in society. According to this practice, millions of upper-class people in Japan have chosen to end all social contact, often refusing to leave their homes for years. According to some experts, this practice should be counted as one of the reasons for which infection rate in Japan related to this pandemic is quite low.

Thirdly, like any other crisis, this one will fully exploit the perverted form of emotions within an individual. As this virus has suspended daily activities of people, at the same time it has fanned economic scarcity especially among the poor. From naming the crisis as ‘Chinese virus’ to other racial slurs that are constantly being used in virtual social spaces against a particular race and ethnicity has put the same social groups at risk. This will be exacerbated by the economic crisis that the world is yet to witness which will even fan disgust, hatred and animosity among people.

Till now, we were apprehensive about the withering of democracy due to the rise of demagogues across the world. This crisis will lead us to the required changes in our social spaces which will even make our political system complicated toward transparency and accountability. One could argue that populist leaders are more prone to flourish in these circumstances as they are in direct contact with the public through electronic media. Hardly there is any scope for checks and balances, debates and discussions, the entire set up rests on the goodwill and generosity of the leaders at the helm of affairs.

However, among all these precarious and pessimistic scenarios there are at least some sigh of relief, firstly, it comes from the pattern of division of power. The anxious public in these situations looks up to authority to take over and regulate their life. The relief is we are in a way more connected in terms of real politics with our local leaders or regional leaders than any central leaders or ministers. As for a large country like India, the entire government system is put to test. So we can see central leadership in the country is connected with public through the virtual media but the state and local leaderships are more able in fostering real connections.

Secondly, taking cue from the above development, it can be argued that this may lead to localisation of authority. This crisis situation has brought forth the required churning in the machinery of local self-governance. More than the office of the Prime Minister, Home Minister, as was the case few months back, local officers in the form of Chief Minister office, Panchayat office, BDO, SDM, DM are seen as the major threads through which people are thinking of getting any respite.

We have seen many Chief Ministers of Indian states known for their strong stands with the vulnerable and they are now successfully forging direct relationship with the public by involving themselves on the ground. Service delivery mechanism for the poor has become the rallying cry from top to bottom strata of the administration with the local administration being its face.

These unfoldings can only give us a sense of hope that a post-COVID world will be overenthusiastic to develop a safety net to deal with this sort of pandemic in the future. For that to happen, health infrastructure, universal basic income, and other amenities to rescue the vulnerable will have be the rallying cry of any form of democratic politics with more devolution of power. At the same time how we will deal with the changing social equations that is rapidly transforming would be our main concern?

Shiveshwar Kundu teaches ‘Political Science’ to the undergraduate students of University of Kalyani