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‘A Pandemic and the Politics of Life’ review: A raging virus and its impact on the marginalised

Dr. Anthony S. Fauci, who led the fight against COVID-19 for the U.S., recently told The Indian Express in an interview that a shutdown “for a few weeks” could help to end the cycle of transmission in India, which crossed the 4 lakh mark in daily new cases last Saturday. The shutdown, he said, will provide the time to take “immediate, intermediate and long range steps” to bring the situation under control. If things are desperate in Delhi with people scrambling for everything from oxygen to life-saving medicines to a slot at the crematorium, several other States are also registering a steady climb in cases and showing signs that the health infrastructure is being overwhelmed.

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How did shutdowns impact India when they were imposed in 2020? Did they stop the spread? How was life affected? In A Pandemic and the Politics of Life, Ranabir Samaddar, who holds the Distinguished Chair in Migrations and Forced Migration Studies of the Calcutta Research Group, attempts to answer these questions. He studies the outbreak as an epidemiological crisis, compounded by economic, social and political factors. He looks into the “phenomenon of the politics of life,” which emerges from the “conjunctures of history when life and death become the most crucial issues of social life.” In one chapter, Samaddar focuses on the migrant as “a figure” of the calamity and traces COVID’s effect on the poor. “The virus is at the centre,” he writes, “creating levels of difference — a specific kind of bordering exercise.”

Question of priority

Informal workers in the service sectors, including maids, care-givers, construction workers and labourers, found themselves in an “appalling condition” when they were made redundant following a COVID-led lockdown last year with no social safety net whatsoever. With migrant workers not a priority, a logistical step by the state to fight the disease becomes a nightmare for them — “they may turn the wheels, but are never the main consideration.” This leads him to raise several questions: What kind of society will be better able to prevent the outbreak of another epidemic? What new policies and new modes will widen the social bases of care and protection? What will be the new politics of responsibility?

The public health infrastructure, points out Samaddar, is not equipped to “accommodate what in refugee literature are called ‘persons in limbo’ — in this case, informal migrant workers.” Invisible in the public political sphere, they are left to fend for themselves. In India, States have responded differently to the pandemic. Some like Kerala, he points out, “demonstrated the value of social mobilisation with disciplined organisations working at various levels, and a government working at tandem.” During the lockdown, Bengal saved the informal sector and agrarian society from hunger and malnutrition. “Both Kerala and the Bengal experiences showed that political will matters.”

‘Century of pandemics’

Samaddar calls the 21st century a “century of pandemics” with the SARS (severe acute respiratory syndrome) outbreak in 2003, “logged as the Chinese pandemic”, followed by H1N1 swine flu (which originated in Mexico), the H5N1 bird flu (Asia), MERS (Middle East Respiratory Syndrome), and the Ebola virus in Africa. A myth was propagated that these diseases were ‘foreign’ to developed civilisations, broken only by the sweep of COVID-19 that first reared its head in China and spread quickly through a globalising world. Did these diseases lead to a change in health policy in countries like India? According to Samaddar, the Indian state has always taken its cue from the Atlantic world. Even when it was obvious that “mobile diseases were here to stay, affecting Indian populations in large numbers,” the state retained the belief that ‘foreign’ diseases would not affect India to any great extent. The fallout has been devastating, “the virus was mobile but our public health infrastructure was centralised and static.”

A Pandemic and the Politics of Life; Ranabir Samaddar, Women Unlimited, ₹450.

sudipta.datta@thehindu.co.in


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