Quarantines, lockdowns, and pandemic fatigue could be considered things of the past by many of us now. However, what about those whose lives it changed forever? Or those who are still living with its consequences? Depending on where we come from, our reality differs. The Coronavirus shutdown looks heavily different when viewed from the class perspective.
It would not be an inappropriate analogy if one were to compare today’s world with a shopping mall. A global economic system, which has thrived on exploitation since its emancipation, has reduced the vision of the world to the pursuit of profit, even when humanity gets ambushed into taking refuge in their houses. The lucky ones could still pursue a career, access medical care more easily, and get out of the hushed mayhem safely. But there were people already at a loss, off the back of their social standing, who witnessed the pandemonium racketing at the highest pitch, which shaped the grim reality of their lives during the pandemic.
The trailer of the film Bheed (I have not watched the film) illuminates the chaos that ensued after the abrupt announcement of lockdown all over the country. There was no time given to prepare or secure some funding. Of course, the most vulnerable classes took the worst hit. Left with no income or aid, migrant workers decidedly trudged back to homes on foot, travelling thousands of kilometres without food, water, and shelter. But instead of experiencing relief at finally reaching home, the suffering did not end as the workers took with them the infection that engulfed all aspects of their lives and life itself.
Besides the unemployment caused because of the inefficient strategies of the government, the health sector also faced a crisis. The pandemic witnessed the dangers of an unequal society where generic public health decisions are made at a highly centralised level and applied universally to people and communities in all sorts of different situations. WHO reports highlighted the lack of preparedness as one of the significant factors in the struggles experienced by healthcare facilities. Items including PPE kits, hospital equipment, and sanitization supplies were in short supply. Many healthcare workers surrendered to the virus as waves came one after the other. There was stigmatization and a lack of psychological support in addition to the lack of infrastructural support.
Despite the dismal scene in the hospitals, some people made fortune during the lockdown. The likes of Elon Musk grew wealthier by $1.3bn each day when the incomes of 99% of the world’s population reduced from March 2020 to October 2021. On one hand, the ten richest men in the world saw their global wealth double following a surge in share and property prices that further widened the gap between the rich and the poor. On the other hand, World Bank figures showed that 163 million people had been driven below the poverty line. Only the haves were benefitting from the stimulus provided by governments to mitigate the impact of the virus.
In their book, Research in the Time of a Pandemic, Dr Rhiannon Firth and Professor John Preston elaborate that pandemic policy has a major role in creating inequalities that did not exist before. It privileges a ‘middle class’ type of ‘self-making’. People who can work from home, consume online, have the resources to self-isolate and are involved in ‘checking’ themselves and others (in terms of complying with the advice) are considered the ideal middle-class subjects of the pandemic response. On the contrary, people who work outside or with others, consume in shops, can’t comply with isolation for economic reasons and don’t ‘check’ themselves and others are the working class ‘spreaders’. That is not a result of the pandemic but that of pandemic policy. New class inequalities are created by the action of government, businesses, and even charities.
Naomi Klein most famously put forth the theory of Disaster capitalism, which states that neoliberalism is composed of ‘shock doctrine’ policies, which would otherwise be unacceptable under ‘normal’ conditions, steer through in times of crisis. The theory shows us that there is nothing that cannot be exploited to turn a profit. While the public is too distracted to respond adequately, shocks and disasters will – given half a chance – be turned into opportunities for profit-grabbing and the corporate restructuring of societies. That is what happened during the pandemic too.
The general public got distracted while tackling the conspiracy theories about the virus that abounded here and there. Conspiracies arise because of the lies our governments concoct, including the promise about prioritising us foremost. Similarly, by preventing people from meeting their needs collectively through property laws and repression of movement, the state creates conditions which produce individualistic subjectivities. Thus, it becomes clear that:
“Disasters serve to magnify crises of capitalism, but it is capitalism that produces disasters, not the other way around.”
Covid-19 highlighted the disguised realities of social and economic life that often skip our attention. Despite the metamorphosis of contemporary capitalism and the ease it offers a certain section of the society, the Coronavirus crisis served as a stark reminder that the crux of human activity is intrinsically material and embedded into the socio-economic basis of production. The failings of capitalism as a system based on the material exploitation of nature and of racialized global working classes were made distinctly perceptible.
The inequitable allocation of resources simply renders the vulnerable sections of society more vulnerable in situations such as the Covid-19 lockdown. Particularly in a country like ours where the majority is dependent on daily wage on-site work. Even the health sector came crashing down due to the inefficacy of the state to provide relief timely. If anything, the pandemic relied more on self-organised volunteers and individual and collective actions to prevent the spread of the disease, such as wearing masks, avoiding crowds, and respecting others’ space.
Alisha Uvais is a student pursuing English Literature from Jamia Millia Islamia.