Now It Is Come to Distances and Both of Us Must Try: Proximity and Distance in the Pandemic

Illustration of Paromita Vohra
Paromita Vohra | Illustration (detail): © Nik Neves

For India, the pandemic repeatedly ruptured the media narratives of progress, shining futures, and digital transformations. Yet, it created remarkable connections and alliances – sometimes of support, and other times of political protest.

By Paromita Vohra

We reach for art and conversation, because the media ensures forgetting. The dominant image of the pandemic when it took serious hold in India in the summer of 2020, is an apocalyptic one - long lines of migrant workers, suddenly made precarious by an unplanned national lockdown, walking home to their villages in the blazing sun, on highways shimmering with heat and dryness.

The mainstream media strove to underplay this and keep the images out of the public domain. This distancing of people from the complex realities that surround them, a function mainstream India media, has served assiduously in the last decade, in turn serving a political project of distancing communities from each other and creating a polarized political discourse.

Characterised by care and togetherness

Just before the pandemic began, the country had witnessed a historic public protest movement against a new citizenship law. Protests throbbed with creativity and an emotionally resonant politics that led to a surge of new solidarities among diverse groups of citizens, hitherto distant from each other. The political language it created was characterized by a more polyglot and experiential articulation, rather than a derivative ideological expression; and the politics of care and concern, expressed through common kitchens and an outburst of poetry, books and love, all of which have been at a remove from cultural visibility in a neo-liberal economy. These interplays of distance and proximity were to be played out many times during the pandemic.

While it is true that the question of communitarian divisiveness has been a preoccupying concern for many in the last decade, the constant proximity of this question has sometimes served to distance the discourse from the socio-economic meanings of the global economy. A man died while running to the station for a long-awaited workers’ train because there was no local transport. People cried helplessly as they were apprehended by police on highways and turned back.

Metaphorical and material distances

The images of workers walking home with belongings and families, a rendition of precarity dramatically fused the metaphorical and material distances within our society. The need of the workers to go home was expressed in terms of care – that they would rather die surrounded by their loved ones, and that, in the absence of any systemic framework for their care, they had a greater chance of survival even within severely impoverished communities.

The central government distanced themselves from this situation by resorting to a performative and obscuring unity: asking citizens to collect at windows and bang on plates to dispel the virus-demon in a show of unity. But this unified image was to bring closer to visibility the prosperous and compliant citizen, over the citizen who was precarious or protesting.

Distancing the working class from the system prosperities

This impassive distance between the government and poor citizens who essentially subsidise the notion of the global economy, indeed the working-class person’s distance from the promised prosperities of the system, was filled spontaneously but systematically, through an opposite politics of care. Large numbers of citizens’ groups organised themselves to provide meals for workers: neighbourhood groups, political parties, religious organisations, individuals. Their politically polyglot messages streamed through social media feeds and WhatsApp groups, collecting sanitary napkin kits, providing boiled eggs and rotis (bread) to walking workers, starting community farms, supporting artists, trans-people, sex-workers. Even domestic workers who still received salaries and retired pensioners took it on themselves to feed 3 or 4 families in their proximity.

Protests amid benign solidarity

In the Monsoon session of the Parliament in September 2020, as the country was slowly opening up again, the government more or less denied the past crisis with the statement that “No such data is maintained” on deaths and difficulties of migrant workers and frontline workers by relevant ministries and hence “the question of compensation does not arise”. The media and government worked to make the questions and images of the first wave recede not only from public memory, but from public record, bringing the prosperous, compliant citizen into its embrace, while distancing all who countered this as anti-national.

However, data was maintained by different organisations and citizen’s groups like the Indian Medical Association that announced that 382 doctors aged 27-85 had died from COVID-19, or a group called The Stranded Workers Action Network, which put migrant deaths at 972 between April-June 2020, and several others. 

In the winter of 2020, a farmer’s protest against new farm laws, gained momentum and grew into a huge site of protest on the borders of Delhi, India’s capital city. This protest too was marked by heterogeneous solidarities between communities and classes, and the caring politics of food, hospitality, art and sharing that thrived alongside political speeches and demonstrations, attended despite fear of infections.

The growing distance between the government and its people

In April 2021, the second wave of the pandemic took the country unawares, and images and information about the lack of hospital beds, oxygen, and even space to cremate bodies turned the public discourse into horror. This played out strongly in the capital city and revealed that in fact the government was distant from citizens in general, and not only poor or dissident. It was unable to, or refused to, mobilise systems of public health care, and the distance between Centre and States was revealed in the active blocking of State efforts to care for their public.

The distance between governments and citizens – what neoliberalism likes to call ‘small government’ – was yet again filled by citizens. WhatsApp groups, Twitter and Facebook emerged to connect patients to beds, to source oxygen, money and varied kinds of help that were needed urgently. For many citizens who volunteered to do this from home, the proximity to other people’s suffering and tragedies was unprecedented. Many were the calls for help, which were followed up in a matter of hours: the patient has died, we no longer need a bed.

Interpersonal proximity with a sense of caring

When confronted with the deep need of workers to go home, in 2020, the Finance Minister dismissed this need as “emotion”. But in the collectivities, organisation initiatives and constant encounter with the suffering of others, what did emerge was a proximity to care and to the idea of personhood over simple citizenship. The gap citizens filled was also a gap of compassionate connection over the idea of digital networks and power politics.

These collectivities signal the slow growth of a new political language. In the recurrent gathering of unlikely solidarities, there is a political heterogeneity, a churning political conversation and reframing that draws deeply on the idea of care, which is so distant from the language of governments and corporates. The acts of solidarity, in the face of administrative shortcomings must be seen as acts that build political confidence in a new articulation of connection and care.