Romila Thapar, Historian
By Romila Thapar
Epidemics are not mentioned as being frequent in past centuries. The literature from Asia has fewer references to devastating epidemics than that from Europe. In Europe the epidemic that brought the maximum disaster was the plague epidemic, the Black Death during the fourteenth century. It is said by some that the plague came from Central Asia or from China and travelled along the Silk Routes, and perhaps with the Mongol armies invading Europe, and on the ships of the Genoese merchants trading with the East. Curiously it did not spread in Central Asia but did so rapidly across Europe and later it tore across the Islamic world. It would be ironic if the economically flourishing Silk Routes also had a role in devastating the wealthier players in these economies. Travel and communications were slower then and open to fewer people and yet it raged across vast territories.
There were many outcomes. Half the population of Europe was decimated particularly those that lived in the sub-human conditions of urban concentrations. Diseases of other kinds were also rampant. The deaths of close kin meant a severe disruption of family life. There were economic upheavals in many countries and it took a few decades to return to economic stability. Religious fanaticism, astrology and superstition of various kinds were strengthened. Attacks were directed at particular communities, such as the Jews who were projected as being responsible. It also gave form incidentally to a body of finely honed stories such as those included in the anthology, The Decameron of Boccaccio. The spinners of these tales were people in self-isolation away from plague-ridden Florence. In a sense it is all only too familiar and has an echo of a replay.
In our globalized world where we are all in each other’s pockets, we can assume that disease spreads fast and observes no borders. Globalization was meant to knit societies together for mutual economic benefit, so close together that the worst disease traversed the earth with speed and ease, ensuring the collapse of our economies. Was globalization not meant to be improving standards of living, eliminating poverty, providing health care for all, educating everyone and upholding human rights and social justice? May we ask what happened? Can globalization be defended as a continuing future form? Today all our aspirations are being cremated daily and one waits for the devastation of the earth.
Will there be enough thoughtful people left to be able to start all over again? How will they begin? What will be their priorities? Will they be able to re-establish what we aspired to – ethical societies that were nurtured on being humane. Or will the devourers of these norms that have been so active in recent history because we have permitted them to be active, continue to hold us to ransom and prevent us from rethinking the pattern of society along lines that we may want. Will the invisibility of that which we fear and the absolute uncertainty of what may happen tomorrow, ever completely fade away?
The crisis at the moment is seen just as that of the epidemic and our concern is how to remain safe from it. This is legitimate. But it is not a crisis only of the epidemic. It is also a crisis of human behaviour in situations of extremities. This will reveal itself as the days unroll and the lifting of the lockout is pushed further away. The lockout means many problems with no answers. With closure of work, those with salaries and regular incomes will merely feel the deficit, but those dependent on cash coming in every day will not have the money to buy food. How many hundreds will go without food and will it only come to them when there are food riots ? Where will these riots take place – the urban slums, in the congested heart of cities, on the roads where migrant labour is trying desperately to walk to their villages to stop dying of hunger. A shortage of food could bring famines in many areas and also black-marketing in food. Again those with incomes will survive and those without them will perish.
There will be no jobs for many millions across the world and those economies that cannot lift themselves out of the depression will collapse. Those that have an income will want normalcy but normalcy without paid labour is no longer possible. Politicians will start using lockdowns as political solutions ensuring that they remain in power even if the power is not worth remaining in. Forms of totalitarianism will flourish. Those that sing of society will only sing of sorrows.
What will normalcy mean? It will require that those who survive learn again what is meant by death with dignity, no matter in how horrible a condition. Let it not be said that so many died that they could not be buried in individual graves. If we are concerned with the dignity of life we have to be concerned with the dignity of death. The crisis will be a water-shed as we shall have to question the assumptions on which we thought that we were living better and better lives. In fact we were living hopelessly decrepit lives. Normalcy will only be recognized when we change to living differently. Globalization will go and the focus will be on countries being made self sufficient, perhaps even communities being able to care for themselves. This means massive decentralization of knowledge, of services, of communication and patterns of living. We shall have to ask whether the seeming safety of digital communication and contact is in fact illusionary, and will we have to go back to face-to-face contact. Will global solidarity have to break and gave way to local solidarity for a start.
We are calling for social distancing and more and more of it. Ironically some societies like the Indian have in-built social distancing as envisaged in caste. Will this be intensified ? The form it will take will be a greater use of technology and anonymous machines in human activities and a greater reliance on artificial intelligence. The human will be excluded to the maximum degree.
The virus of Covid-19 will of course not go away, but it will and gradually after decades, be marginalized, and will become part of the range of many diseases that continue on earth. It will surface in an ugly manner from time to time. Will we recognize that this pandemic is a historical disjunction that actually requires us to evaluate what we call human civilization, both as the articulation of humanity and in its relation to the earth we live in ; and that in the process of this evaluation should we not be activating the pursuit of making the human condition more humane?