‘The COVID Spectrum’ review: Living in quarantine under the shadow of COVID-19

Literary Review

Literary Review

In 2020, as COVID-19 became a global experience, writers from around the world responded to it, trying to make sense of a 21st century pandemic and its aftermath. Edited by Ilan Stavans, And We Came Outside and Saw the Stars Again highlighted the fact that a rampaging virus had brought about “the collapse of a hierarchy of principles” the world had embraced till then. Though as Stavans pointed out in the introduction, the misfortune arrived when the essential tenets of globalisation were already being questioned, with “tariffs imposed, borders closed, immigrants seen with suspicion.” While some writers saw it as a time to recalibrate and start afresh, others argued that paranoid dystopias (of Franz Kafka, Aldous Huxley, George Orwell and Yevgeny Zamyatin) had become the “gross and brutal reality” of our time.

Reconfiguring boundaries

All of 2021 passed in a haze of lockdowns, new deadlier variants, the race for vaccines, hospitalisations and deaths, and the new year dawned with another highly contagious, slightly milder variant on the prowl, leading to case surges around the world. The COVID Spectrum is an anthology of essays from several countries on a disease that has plunged countries into an unprecedented crisis. In their introduction, the editors, Kanchana Mahadevan, Satishchandra Kumar, Meher Bhoot and Rajesh Kharat, all from the University of Mumbai, write that the essays “examine the possibilities of reconfiguring boundaries imposed by symptoms such as the ‘infodemic’ and forced separation.” Some of the ‘neo-normals’ that remain include quarantine, virtual worlds, surveillance, fragile health systems, while questions have been raised about “inequality, authoritarianism, welfare, trauma and sustainability.”

In his foreword, the Slovenian philosopher, Slavoj Zizek, contends that today more than ever, egalitarianism is not just a vague ideal but an urgent necessity — vaccines for all, universal healthcare, global struggle against the global warming. He cites the example of Ugur Sahin, BioTech’s CEO, a Turk living in Germany whose company invented one of the early COVID-19 vaccines. In an interview at the end of 2020, Sahin said, “At the moment, it doesn’t look good — a hole is appearing because there’s a lack of other approved vaccines and we have to fill the gap with our own vaccine.” Zizek says this was a “wonderful moment when the CEO of a company wanted his competitors to get stronger because he knows that only together can we win the struggle against the pandemic.”

Theory and experience

The first part, ‘Theorising the Pandemic’, has articles on diverse issues around COVID-19, from adapting to the virus, conspiracy theories, fake news, the fundamentals of care. In her essay, ‘The Limits of Responsible Caring in the COVID-19 Pandemic’, Joan Tronto, writing from America, says given how unpredictably the virus affected people, humans could not deny their mortality and the sense of vulnerability this knowledge produced. Yet, she adds, that from this vulnerability came another revelation, i.e., “the profound awareness of the fact that not all people were equally vulnerable. Some are at much greater risk.”

Narratives from Cuba (Vinay Lal), Hong Kong (Ada Kot), Mauritius (Basantsingh Deerpaul), Kathmandu (Raji Manjari Pokhrel and Prathama Raghavan) comprise the second part, together with reflections on lessons from COVID-19, how to keep young children safe and dealing with the aftermath. In his essay, ‘The Great Reset?’, Zizek quotes the German philosopher Jurgen Habermas observing in April 2020 that “there never was so much knowing about our not-knowing and about the constraint to act and live in uncertainty.” Zizek points out that Habermas is right when he says that this “not-knowing” does not concern only the pandemic, but even more its economic, social and psychic consequences. Will the post-Corona universe be just another future or something new ‘to come’? According to Zizek, in the midst of “existential uncertainties” we have to change our economic life so that it will be able to survive lockdowns and emergencies that await us. “We need to do what is impossible.”

The COVID Spectrum; Edited by Kanchana Mahadevan & Others, Speaking Tiger, ₹799.

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Printable version | May 22, 2022 10:08:48 am |