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Urvashi Butalia, Author and publisher

By Urvashi Butalia

Portrait of Urvashi Butalia;  she has long gray-black hair and smiles into the camera © Urvashi Butalia It’s difficult to say anything with any certainty about what the long-term effects of COVID 19 are likely to be. This is a disease that is a health emergency across the world and yet it is so deeply politicized – we hear much more about it from political leaders than we do from health professionals or even, say, Health Ministers?
It’s also a disease about which there is a huge amount of information floating around in terms of daily updates on the numbers, discussions about ventilators, about the mean age of patients and so on. And yet, not only do we know so little about it, but there’s also a huge amount of fake news and also so much suppression of the truth.
For totalitarian regimes, or even those pretending to be democracies, this provides the perfect opportunity to gloss over the real scale of the problem as China did in the early days, or as the US did more recently, spread nonsensical information – as India did a week ago – such as that noise vibrations made at a particular time in a particular phase of the moon or drinking cow urine, will cure this illness. Or that it only comes from foreigners and cannot be locally spread. This happened in Italy in the early days with the Chinese being targeted, it takes a different form in India with Indians congratulating themselves that this is not an ‘Indian’ disease but a ‘foreign’ one. So while its impact on the body is physical, there are other ways in which the consequences are deeply political – in, for example, the hardening of nationalisms in a deeply globalized world.
In India, it’s also something that has revealed class divisions in such a sharp way. As I write, there are hundreds of thousands of informal workers (people on whom we, the middle classes and the rich, depend for everything in our lives – house construction, plumbing, delivery services, telephone repair, car cleaning and so much more) are crowded together at the border of my city, Delhi, waiting to go to their villages. They have no work in the city because everything is shut down, their landlords have thrown them out, their contractors have run away, and basically no one cares. They have no food, no water and they are fully at risk because there is no question of social distance or even masks. The lockdown is a luxury the rich can afford, for the poor, there’s nothing.
A question that comes to me again and again is: could there not have been a more humane way to do this? Did the State not know this would happen or did they not care? Surely it’s not so difficult to arrange for buses for people to travel, or to provide food and shelter. So yes, human life was put first in this crisis, which is an important thing, but in our context we have to ask another question – which human life, whose lives?
There are other things we need to think about: just as the economic lockdown negatively impacts the poor, so also this crisis will have long ranging implications for women. Evidence from China, Malaysia, Indonesia already shows that levels of domestic violence are rising as tensions and anxieties rise; helpline services have slowed down, their resources being pulled into the larger emergency, so even if women wanted to report, it’s difficult to do so; for those working women who are now being forced to stay home, their burden of work has doubled as the household effortlessly slides into the old pattern where the woman is responsible for the home.
Across the world, the least documented workers are women workers: what will happen to them? With travel restrictions they cannot travel home. As incomes dry up, they cannot send money to their families. It is well known that across the world nearly 95% of care givers are women. They’re in the frontline and they are vulnerable. But while states think of all the equipment that is needed to treat patients, we forget to ask, who will care for the care givers? And if masks and protective gear are important, so also are sanitary pads for women care givers for with markets closed, where will they go to buy these – why are these not ever considered among emergency supplies. With industry shutting down, manufacturers of contraceptives have also had to close down, what will this mean for women?
I think we’re able to ask these questions because today we know more about infectious diseases than we did in the past, we know more about the links between illness, the economy, governments and freedom of speech. Never before has freedom of speech been so important, this is not a time to hide things, but instead to be transparent, to be open to criticism and to learn from each other. Yes, governments are talking and banding together, but it’s a tentative, hesitant banding, still mired in the old patterns of power.
For our leaders, so many of whom are authoritarian, this is the perfect opportunity to consolidate their power, to bring in even more stringent surveillance, to ensure a compliant people. For example why is there no discussion open to the public among our political leaders of the different models followed by different countries – say Japan as compared to the UK or India? Can we not learn from these?
You ask if this will be a game changer in terms of global solidarities. I’m not sure, I hope it will, but frankly I don’t have much hope. It’s odd to think of a moment that closes off all borders turning into one that opens them up! Yes, we’re all in the same boat, rich, poor, white, black – as an Italian friend of mine said to me, ‘this is the first time that my generation of white Italians is beginning to understand what racism feels like’. So maybe this will lead to a better understanding of class and of other forms of difference. Similarly, perhaps this moment will help us – particularly the middle classes and the rich and wealthy – to become less profligate about mindless and unnecessary consumption, more in tune with nature, and more alert to our own privilege. But I somehow doubt our leaders will put their political ambitions aside and focus, for once, on the people. They’ve not done so in all the years they’ve been ruling, why would they start now?
At the level of people, of reconnecting with nature, discovering a balance in our lives, I think if this happens, it will be on a small scale (and I would love to be proved wrong). By and large I think we will slide back into our old ways, and things will be worse because almost certainly the politics of emergency will influence the politics of the everyday. This is a golden opportunity for dictatorial regimes to build compliance, to draw people into a fold where they think questioning is a crime and compliance is all. I remember being asked by so many of my neighbours why I was not clanging pots and pans to ‘chase away’ the virus on the day of our self curfew asked for by the prime minister. Such a clever choice of words – self and curfew.
Will industry resurface with a conscience? An equally difficult question to answer. If their past record is anything to go by, it seems unlikely. They’ve not begun talking now, when there is such an opportunity on their hands, once the crisis passes, it will be even less likely that they will.
What I do know is that small struggling businesses like ours – independent publishing – will almost certainly die and although we are a mere blip on the profit horizon, the loss of voices like ours means the loss of something vital for our society and our world, the small voice, the marginal voice, the voice that is often the conscience and the subverter of the dominant narrative. A world where only this narrative prevails is not a world worth living in.