How are we going to collectively remember the year 2020? It was a year of unprecedented and unanticipated crisis. It was not an economic crisis, even though it did have an economic dimension. It was a crisis that threatened the collective medical health of the entire humanity.
When was the last time the entire world was gripped by a crisis of such magnitude? The World War II comes to mind. It was a global crisis which gripped all of humanity. It was a political crisis brought about by the expansionist drives of the political leaders of Europe. Over 50 million people died on the battle fronts and in the genocides. Many disappeared and could never be traced. Europe and the rest of the world experienced unprecedented violence and brutality.
But the War also turned out to be a great democratising experience for Europe. It established responsible and accountable governments. It helped to bridge the class divide by bringing different classes closer to one another. It triggered a phase of economic affluence. Interestingly, the maximum benefits of the post-War period went to the vanquished in the War — Japan and Germany. The War was followed by decolonisation in Asia and Africa. The world as a whole benefitted as the real threat of a Fascist takeover of the world was averted. A better future burst forth from beneath the thick crust of the War. How does the current crisis fare in comparison?
Unfortunately, the picture beneath the surface is as gloomy and depressing as it appears on the surface. There is, however, a silver lining. Because of the global nature of the crisis, all nation states have come closer. After environment and terrorism, the pandemic has become the third major issue which can be tackled only through global cooperation.
But having blurred the national barriers, the current crisis appears to have sharpened the class barriers. The experience of the current crisis, unlike that of the World War, has been very different across the class divide in India. For the upper crust of the 10-15 million (or so) of the labour-extracting, decision-making, institution-heading elite with secure salaries and accessible resources, the experience of the crisis was nothing more than an inconvenience, albeit a huge one, or at best an ethical dilemma. It was a kind of a trade-off between comfort and safety. Letting the domestic help come from outside and do all the work brought about comfort at the expense of safety. Keeping them out was possibly safe, but it brought the nuisance of having to do all the domestic work. Apart from this, the availability of provisions, online supplies, TV, Internet and Wi-fi ensured that there was no existential crisis for the Indian elite.
Not so for the large majority on the other side of the class divide. For them — unorganised labour, domestic help, daily wagers, street hawkers, migrant labours, nomadic people, rickshaw pullers, urban poor — the pandemic was nothing short of a life-changing experience. For those living below the social equator, the crisis destroyed their whole universe. Those who were hoping to break out of the poverty grid have had their dreams shattered. They had played their part in running a system which let them down badly. The crisis may have been generic and uniform, but the concrete experience of the crisis was not. It was uneven and differentiated, particularly along the line of class.
It was partly for the differentiated nature of the experience that the crisis ended up reinforcing prejudices. Muslims were particularly at the receiving end of it and were stigmatised as the villains of the pandemic. The crisis, instead of creating new solidarities as such events often do, only ended up reinforcing the stereotypes and social prejudices. The whole society took another step backwards.
Then there was the glee of the environmentalist — the feel of fresh air without pollution, clean rivers, peacocks dancing on the street, happy jungle and the contented environment. Finally, we had found the solution to the huge environmental problem. If all human activities can be stalled, and all the humans locked in, pollution can be prevented and we can achieve the pristine purity of the world. Viewed from the vantage point of the vast majority in India, this glee was in very bad taste. Poverty continues to be our greatest polluter.
The pandemic clearly had a medical, a socio-economic and an epidemiological dimension. The three ran parallel to one another without any meeting point. They suggested three different prescriptions. The medical prescription was society-neutral and human-blind: Whatever can be done to flatten the curve, should be done. The epidemiological perspective took a certain amount of human loss for granted and worked towards minimising the loss. It is the socio-economic perspective that should have played a greater role in the formulation of the policy. That might have gone some way towards preventing a long-term catastrophe. In the end, the real crisis of 2020 was not so much what happened, but what it has led to, and will lead to. The real crisis starts now.
A transition society, with a precarious grip on resources and economic development, cannot afford to lose time in its march towards affluence. The process of wealth generation, poverty reduction, and of people gradually shifting from poverty to some kind of comfort and security had been going on for the last three decades. That has been pushed back by the pandemic. That is the real bad news of 2020.
There is going to be no collective remembering of the year and the pandemic. It will be a fractured memory divided across the impenetrable class barrier.
This article first appeared in the print edition on December 30, 2020, under the title “A year of fractured memory”. The writer is a historian at the Ambedkar University Delhi