On March 11th, the World Health Organization (WHO) identified COVID- 19 as a global pandemic and alarmed individual nations to take necessary measures to combat it. Having originated in China, it was this very same country that, albeit severe, imposed an immediate lockdown and managed to effectively deal with the virus in the country. Its stringent method of surveillance that had already been fully functional, especially to control and suppress any voices of dissent, could be used to its own advantage in keeping a check on people. Using smartphone apps to track down the spread of the virus in countries such as China and India, facial recognition systems in Russia, police robots on the streets in Tunisia to keep a check on the virus, and South Korea using wristbands, while drones launched over affected areas in India, technology emerged as one of the effective tools to completely enforce the lockdown. While it proved to be an effective tool to combat the pandemic, Foucault’s analysis of power in Discipline and Punish, where he discusses the role played by surveillance wherein an individual becomes a mere object of information rather than be seen as a subject of communication, reveals how surveillance contributes to the proper disciplining of the people.
In elaboration, the method of surveillance introduces order by instilling in peoples’ minds the consciousness of being continually under watch. This induces within people, the desired effect of creating subjugated beings and is the way in which modern societies work. In The History of Sexuality Foucault discusses biopower/the power over an individual's life and collective bodies to produce docile subjects in the name of enhancing mortality among individuals. Giorgio Agamben, in early February, alerted the world to this biopolitics in the time of COVID that would do the work of disciplining the state’s subjects and thereby eliminate any form of deviance. Although he is seen to make problematic remarks with regards to the severity of the disease, his outlook – as he condemns the method adopted by most of the government to combat the disease- cannot be negated. For biopolitics in the name of “national health security” could become the new normal and just refuse to go away, creating an effect of degenerative human relationships in our globalised world and giving us a new oppressive reality.
Millions of people lost their jobs crossing the 2008 global inflation mark, which was accelerated by parameters of class, caste, colour, gender and degree of development. In underdeveloped and developing countries of the Global South, the socio-economic minorities who mostly earned their income on a daily basis not only lost their source of livelihood but also died of hunger. The lockdown imposed in India on March 25th within four hours caused immediate unemployment of the marginalized community- many of whom had temporary jobs and no job security, at different levels. For instance, the migrant crisis, which still awaits acknowledgement by the country’s main judiciary, was largely homogenised as one community from a lower class, even though within that there were intersections of caste/ class/religion/gender that affected every individual separately based on their social identity.
Frank Snowden in the 2018 book Epidemics and Society: From the Black Death to the Present discusses the mass hysteria in the aftermath of epidemics such as SARS and Ebola. In this book, Snowden asserts that fears and anxieties resulting from highly transmissible diseases often lead to scapegoating and mass hysteria leaving a considerable impact at their wake, huge enough to bring about historical change and development. Snowden’s interview conducted in the midst of this pandemic wherein he states that the main role of an epidemic/pandemic is to “hold up a mirror to society in the periods of crisis to showcase the vulnerabilities” further illuminated the inherent flaw of major capitalist/neo-imperialist governing systems. Moreover, Snowden’s structural revelation that is well-grounded in socio-political realities reveals that in the predominance of a crisis when a country/region is going through mass hysteria, political leaders are lured to play on the rhetoric of nationalism (as seen post 9/11), racism, and anti-religious sentiments to create the sense of pure community, a binary of us vs them that would relegate all of the evil to them and thereby increase the vote banks to sustain the incumbent governance for longer. This had already begun in the U.S where Trump, in many of his press conferences during COVID called it the ‘Chinese virus’, and cases of racism were immediately reported across the country. While in India where the extremist right-wing government was already playing on the rhetoric of ethnic nationalism, Muslims, who are the religious minority, began to be assumed as inherently evil foreigners, as if condemning them as “foreigners' ' wasn't enough. They were made solely responsible for the diseases’ widespread, especially with their reference to the members of Tablighi Jamaat who met as a group prior to the announcement of the nationwide lockdown.
With the world being led by such populist leaders, who are always seen to play the blame game and enhance it via the vehicle of social media, its cruel capitalist agendas remain invisible to the public eye. Not because it is hidden but because it has been overshadowed by their enormous mass appeal. Such capitalist agendas further catalyze the distortions of inequality, by which it privileges the higher class/caste/race/gender. Moreover, its exploitation of nature based on the colonial premise of situating man at the top over everything else- also has its own hierarchy wherein the white man is placed above the person of colour, while the person of colour is in turn always a man who is placed above women- and thereby justifying nature’s exploitation, has pushed the entire world into a crisis of an unprecedented level.
As the hope of a humanitarian world turns slowly disappears, the re-emergence of this same imperialist capitalist model becomes evident in the way it is opening up its economies in a hurry to compensate for the losses incurred during the global lockdown. Both developed and developing countries have leaders who, despite their enormous public appeal, seem indifferent to public health and the deteriorating socio-economic conditions. As they are constantly looking for ways to make a profit, neglecting accelerated poverty and unemployment, they also become our central destructive forces behind nature’s exploitation. This is harming us in an irreversible way, for even though the future will bring forth a time that will be difficult for all of us in terms of unemployment and socio-political disasters, the negative impacts of neo-imperialist capitalism, which would become more aggressive in the aftermath of the pandemic, on climate, is more dangerous and requires more attention, according to Noam Chomsky in his interview with Varsity. The effect of such governing systems will always benefit the rich upper-class/caste people and further marginalize the socio-economic minority that is spread across people belonging to a certain race (eg: African-Americans), gender (women/trans/ queer), caste ( lower –caste people) and religion (mostly Muslims given the way Islamophobia has become a global concern now). In the midst of this, the need for a better world characterized by inclusivity in diversity and environment-friendly commerce appears as a farfetched dream that is slowly waning as our capitalist imperialist leaders continue to soar high with their popularity.
About the author:
Mehnaz Noor is a graduate of Presidency University and is in the process of completing her post-graduation from Jadavpur University. While her interest lies in the role played by Islamophobia in the rising nation-states, it has pushed her to look into various governing systems around the world and its politics that sustain a neo-imperialist capitalist model via subjugation of certain sections of society from the marginalized community.