A new 'normal'
Rather than using enforced quarantines and lockdowns, the Coronavirus crisis can be better met by inculcating awareness and responsibility amongst the citizenry
A 'novel' Coronavirus can never be a better choice than being a self-isolated, distanced and separated soul. A planned quarantine is more than a planned vacation to a remote island, as one is left only to imagine how one cannot go on a vacation after the virus spreads. As a first, it is not just isolating the infected but the non-infected must also remain at a distance from each other to snap any possible transmission line. This is the new social norm of 'social distancing' that keeps oneself and another safe. It is like disentangling deep interconnections that the whole twentieth century had developed at the end of the second decade of the twenty-first century by being 'social' in a new way by distancing oneself from the closely connected neighbourhood and even bloodlines.
Coronavirus' moral fibres could be completely downed by this newfound technique of quarantine and social distancing. The embodied goodwill of both the infected and the non-infected with their intentional love for distancing from the collective identity to the corner of one's own room marks a new form of mahakaruna or the great empathy towards oneself and another. Empathy for the other is not by putting oneself in the shoe of the other but by imagining how the other would get infected by my touch and in my profane presence. If I am free from the virus, I act as the healer companion. Am I now not separating medical test and surveillance from the 'policing surveillance' that the State does compulsively on me? I am the mirror who would pre-emptively detect and neutralise the virus much before the State can get into action, with my consented and conscientious 'social distancing'.
Indeed gone are the days of state-controlled mortality, in which states failed many a time during Spanish Flu, Ebola, SARS, H1N1 and in so many other outbreaks. The failure of statist surveillance prompts this purely individual-centric social distancing, which is like 'touching' someone without contact or touch. "Touching without touch", an idea that philosophers like Merleau Ponty, Jean Luc Nancy and Jacques Derrida talked about, would now remove the viral touch.
Coronavirus, in that prolific sense of untouchability, makes us untouchable from its spread by tinkering with social aggregation or collection of people as a purely short term measure. In the long term, the social revives itself in its desired conviviality and companionship, while right now it moves into a terrain of a desireless, or niskama karma of isolation. Social distancing, in the sense of being niskama karma alludes to the heuristic intuition of a result, which is, confining and blocking the virus, in case it entered in some identifiable places in India. This is how we can see our own vulnerability by avoiding the spread and transmission of the virus. Withdrawing ourselves from parties and sports is a reflex action against the spread. This is how we become more 'social' without being a 'socialite' in the midst of the pandemic.
In bioethical terms, the spread effect could be neutralised by creating immunity among the humans such that both the infected and the non-infected respond to a deeper ecosystem of harmony. Indeed, the post-human part of the outbreak comes into play here, as human-human transmission acts like an autoimmune host for the virus. Such transmissible autoimmunity through droplet infection is a novel spread that creates a death knell for those crossing man-made barriers. Case in point is the China-Italy connection through garment industries. Gucci and Prada having a large number of Chinese citizens working both in Northern Italy and in outlets of Italian garment industries at Wuhan. As the virus spread from Italy to the rest of Europe and from China to several other continents, it showed the dangers of being interconnected in a post-industrial world.
Looking back at India, lockdown and banning crowds in public places is bringing down small business and transactions, affecting common people. Individuals, traders and workers affected by such a state-controlled lockdown need to be adequately compensated on a real-time basis. If such a framework of justice and compensation cannot be evolved, a large segment of Indian people would prefer risks as their livelihood will be in danger. Justin Trudeau's package of compensation is an ideal example. In contrast, the Government of India's initial declaration to provide financial succour to the virus affected families and its rollback on hindsight shows a certain lack of thinking. The language of ban and crackdown creates panic among the common man who needs to endure and battle it out. Removal of essential services by making it inaccessible by using force would only create fear and helplessness. The combined impact of quarantine, ban on public services and utilities could have been better placated if there are enough means to detect, test and quarantine. In the absence of full medical infrastructure and need-based mechanism of response, especially non-availability of Polymerase Chain Reaction (PCR) kit for testing autoimmunity and antiviral drugs would leave the spread dependent on mere environmental control.
The identification of the irresponsible behaviour of an Oxford student in Kolkata raised alarm on the need for quarantine and self-isolation. The approach taken by the Government of West Bengal in asking for individual responsibility is a method of seeking consent for isolation and not by the application of coercion. Such Epicurean morality needs to be cultivated on the whole to contain the virus by making people more responsible, instead of just locking down a running economy. Mamata's creation of a corpus of 200 crores is a commendable effort for other state governments to emulate. Protection of small people and the common man by sensitisation and by enhancing a sense of responsibility is what Bengal prioritised as a precautionary measure. The rest of the country must begin here. A total lockdown without access to public good would inflict bigger harm than even the intransitive hope that a large segment of Indians carry with the confidence of not being infected.
The writer is an author, political analyst and an Associate Professor of Philosophy at North-Eastern Hill University, Shillong. Views expressed are strictly personal