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Staying at home on planet earth

The pandemic tells us that the right to shelter and habitat is an urgent and essential one, for humans and other creatures

Right now, more of humanity is likely at home than at any other time in history. From India and China to the United States, from Norway and Denmark to South Africa and Argentina, governments have told their people to stay at home, to slow the spread of the coronavirus. Billions held in place for an indefinite time: the implications of these radical measures will take time to unravel. What does home actually look like for different people? And what will come of our relationships with the wider world outside our doors?

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Home means many different things, as does the command to remain there. Lately I’ve been talking often with a family of textile workers in the industrial town of Tiruppur. The lockdown came so suddenly that they lost the chance to go back to their native place. Each family in their worker colony has one tiny room of their own. The children have been playing in the common courtyard. With police wielding batons on the streets, everyone is afraid to set foot outside. The factories are shuttered, wages suspended, and people are getting by as best as they can.

Staying at home brings into focus the question of whom we consider our own, whom we take shelter with. A community checkpost has gone up on the edge of a village I know well in the Cumbum Valley. Panchayat workers are taking turns at the wooden gate, asking everyone to wash with soap and water, turmeric and neem, before they enter the village. The post is near the Dalit quarter on the outskirts of the village: isolated and disparaged in almost every matter, but included within this new collective boundary of cleanliness.

Migrants caught in impasse

Governments around the world assert home as a place of safety and shelter. This idea assumes that one has a viable home in which to stay put, that food and fresh water are accessible, that survival doesn’t require one to leave or flee. In recent weeks, many countries have seen a surge in domestic violence. And lockdowns at national and regional borders have caught millions of migrants in an existential impasse. The coronavirus may ravage densely packed refugee camps around the world, but people have nowhere else to go. The United States is turning refugees away now at its own borders, without giving them the chance to appeal for asylum.

Also read: COVID-19: Work from home, a difficult strategy for non-IT companies to adopt

Within America, where I live with my family, many rely on online portals to the world beyond, juggling virtual meetings with lessons for kids, peering by video into the homes of others. Such distance is a privilege. Others, especially minorities and the poor, must still expose themselves: caring for the ill, harvesting food and delivering necessities, maintaining the infrastructure that lets the rest of us hunker down. The pandemic has also brought homelessness and eviction into focus, the simmering crisis of affordable housing in so many American cities.

“Shelter in place” orders now govern many American localities. The language recalls the nuclear terrors of the Cold War era; people are advised to ‘shelter in place’ when the environment itself is hazardous, when simply being outside risks exposure. This idea helps explain why some in America, including the President, have blamed the pandemic on a “foreign virus.” There is racism in such language, akin to the way that Muslims have been blamed on social media for the spread of the virus in India. There is also a certain way of thinking here about the world beyond: as a space of uncertainty and threat, home as refuge from a dangerous world.

Recent lockdowns come on the heels of an intense drive for security in everyday life. On a daily level, wealthy Americans and others elsewhere have already been armouring up: retreating to fortress-like homes, moving about in tank-like SUVs, walling themselves off in many ways. “Americans are in fear,” the security manager at an exclusive gated community in Florida told me a couple of years ago. The streets there were already strangely isolated and still. When the current pandemic passes, how many will remain afraid to go outside?

Kinship beyond family circle

In my urban neighbourhood in Baltimore, social life sputters on. Here, staying at home hasn’t meant just staying indoors. People seek out parks and open space with kids and dogs, calling out to each other from a distance. It’s springtime; with the cars and machinery idle, you can hear the songbirds more clearly, even the toads chirping from the flood control ponds that they’ve recently occupied. For the American toad, Bufo americanus, it’s mating season. Just as social restrictions have ramped up for us, they’ve begun to congregate by the water.

It’s hard not to feel wistful, seeing these knots of toads clamber over each other with such abandon. Our own instincts pull us now in contrary directions, together for solace at this harrowing time, apart with concern for our most vulnerable kin. This may prove one of the most serious social challenges of our lifetimes. But it is also a chance for us to reflect on kinship and connection, beyond the span of the family circle. For it isn’t enough, we are learning, just to take care of our own, as if we were islands in the world.

Epidemic diseases like COVID-19, avian influenza, and Ebola are zoonotic, crossing to humans from other animals. They are often sparked by ecological instability, by the destruction of natural habitat and the cramming of animals into wildlife markets and scarcely inhabitable factory farms. They are symptoms, in other words, of a crisis of homelessness in the animal world, magnified by global networks of trade and resource exploitation. As economic activity slows to a crawl, pollution has been clearing in the industrial centres of Asia, Europe, and North America. Gutting environmental regulations to kick-start the economy – as the United States and China have done now – will only make the world more dangerous to everyone’s health.

Sense of a common fate

The COVID-19 pandemic is a boot camp in ecological awareness, a reminder that the well-being of any one person is tied up with ever so many others, both family and neighbours and those we’ll never meet or know. This sense of a common fate, a truly planetary predicament, is a rare and crucial thing. It is manifest in the many mutual aid networks and progressive political measures that have taken shape to meet the needs of vulnerable populations. Such resources will matter for other serious problems like the climate crisis, which will provoke new waves of homelessness and displacement. So much will turn on our ability to dwell on the deep ties between our lives and others elsewhere, the forms of kinship that we may nurture.

In April 1970, the first Earth Day was inspired by a photograph from Apollo 8, an image of the Earth as a fragile blue ball in the vastness of space. Many hoped this vision of a vulnerable world would catalyse environmental consciousness and bring a planetary healing, dissipating the rancour of social and political antagonism. As the 50th anniversary of this moment nears, in 2020, we seem to be edging even closer to ecological catastrophe. And yet the alternative remains, the chance to take the earth itself as a place of collective shelter.

In a world of stark inequality, this will have to be more than the idea of a common planetary home. We need to think carefully about what home has been for particular people, and how to build and maintain more generous structures of belonging. The pandemic tells us that the right to housing, to shelter and habitat, is an urgent and essential one, for human beings and the countless other creatures we share this planet with. Securing this right will help to avert the ecological crises to come, and we may find ourselves at home in the world once again.

Anand Pandian teaches anthropology at Johns Hopkins University

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Printable version | Jul 13, 2020 11:22:49 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/lead/staying-at-home-on-planet-earth/article31333984.ece

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