Notes from a lockdownMeasures taken to fight this pandemic show that our approach to policymaking must be humanistic as much as it should be scientific.
At a time like this, a columnist is pressed to say something ‘unique’, something that hasn’t already been said. But what words of wisdom can one offer in an unprecedented situation—in an extraordinary period of our lives? A writer’s first instinct is to critique the response of the state in tackling the pandemic; there have been far too many of those to add anything substantial to the debate. Should Nepal be testing more for symptoms of Covid-19? Of course. Can Nepal even do it? The only people qualified to answer this are public health professionals who specialise in epidemiology. As an individual unqualified in the medical sciences, my only observation so far has been that in the absence of testing kits and a health infrastructure that could barely rise to the challenge (while more advanced health systems across the world have collapsed), Nepal has done well to restrict the number of cases as low as it has. But it is still too early to say whether the lockdown has worked to restrict the spread of the pandemic.
One commonality I’ve found across most nations is that the state’s response has been critiqued widely by their people—be it India, the US, Italy, the UK, China, or ours. The reasons are specific to each country, but barring those who support a government from an ideological perspective, people do not trust their governments to be doing a great job at controlling the pandemic. As healthcare systems have been pushed to their limits, the pandemic has made people question their governments’ commitment to health infrastructure (and to their own wellbeing).
The critiques reveal how tenuous the link between the state and the citizen is in the modern day. While the state is generally said to be working for its citizen, there is enough evidence to suggest the state has, in most countries, been oriented towards the welfare of its capitalist class, and that the ordinary citizen—the blue-collar workers, the migrants, the working-class professionals—are far removed from the state’s decision-making process. Token displays of support—for example, airlifting students and professionals out of a country—help to reaffirm the influential urban middle class’ support to a government, but they do little to convince the citizen the state means something to her. Further, as more citizens throng to return to their hometowns or villages, and as states make it explicitly clear their return is unwanted (and perhaps also unwarranted—but who can overpower the human instinct for home?), the link that guarantees a citizen’s belief in the state will continue to weaken. Nationalist slogans may invigorate a population once in a while, but they will do little to affirm the links once broken.
Despite citizens losing belief, the state will continue to grow stronger after the crisis. The widespread use of technology in tracking the epidemic has already engendered fears of surveillance, but equally important is the powers the state can give itself at such a time. The state already resembles an unapproachable monster for many who fall between the cracks—migrant workers, marginalised individuals, etc.—but the callous manner with which security agencies have treated such individuals in our part of the world emphasises the fact that the state does not belong to them. What we, the urban class, forget is how quickly the state can turn on those it once supported; how quickly we too can become the marginalised if state power in these times goes unchecked.
Further, those clamouring for isolationism, even before the crisis, will draw unprecedented moral support from the pandemic. We now know education is no guarantee against ignorance and xenophobia; already there are indications the crisis will bring more out from the woodwork. The shadow-boxing between the great powers has continued unabated despite the pandemic; this is likely to continue and could shape alignments in new ways. But there is also hope. The world is rejuvenated by stories of heroes, some named, but mostly unnamed. Healthcare professionals are the vanguard in this war; but individual tales of giving and generosity continue to foster hope that the human capacity for good is not dead yet.
Finally, beyond tales of nature reclaiming its space in the absence of human activity, one gets a sense of how little we matter to the planet. For, as we have seen, the earth will bounce back if we leave it undisturbed, like the patch in our gardens we hadn’t tended for long and now has several wildflowers growing in it. It is us who are more vulnerable, more fragile, than this body of rock we live on, this pale blue dot we call home. If we continue pursuing unchecked consumerism that allows conglomerate capitalism to flourish, there will be many more pandemics, many more crises in the future.
My personal hope is that we emerge from this crisis with a few lessons. The first is the importance of both scientific and humanistic approaches in policymaking. A lockdown is scientifically suited to control the pandemic, but why did policymakers not think about what this would entail? The second is a more concerted effort towards strengthening our social infrastructure. The health sector has long been ignored (just as our education sector has been) and left at the mercy of private hospitals that have proved ineffective during this time of crisis. We cannot allow this to continue. The third is the need for a push towards digitisation of services, emphasised by the current halt in all economic activity. The final lesson, I hope, comes from the question I started with: who should the modern state belong to? Is it only intended for the oligarchs and urban classes that shape modern industry and services, or should it also serve those who do not have the same access to the state as the rest of us do?
What do you think?
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