The coronavirus pandemic has disrupted, levelled and altered life in radical ways. It has stymied economies, politics, society, and cultures by inhibiting personal physical contact; it has levelled the rich and poor by exposing the frail infrastructure of commodified health systems; it has redefined the public and private spaces through work from home, video conferencing and virtual spaces, while emptying out campuses, offices, and parks. Even as the mysterious virus eluded cognition, sparking off a trail of conspiracy theories and conjectures, it heightened scientific research by seeking explanations into the virus’s genetic sequence and the search for vaccines. Yet in the midst of such levelling, the elusive global trajectory of the coronavirus also spotlighted inequities. Not everyone had the privilege of working from home productively; women struggled to balance jobs with personal lives, children grappled with the loss of company. In the absence of urban public transport, migrant workers in India walked for days on end – often unsuccessfully – to their rural homes. The lack of access to laboratories, libraries, and field data hindered knowledge creation that was not related to the grand narrative of the virus. Vinay Lal’s The Fury of COVID-19 draws together these tensions of the pandemic’s new world order. It details the specific ways in which the raging coronavirus has changed the human condition by weaving together history, politics, and philosophy, situating the disease in the context of cultural histories. Vinay Lal’s characterisation of COVID-19 as a ‘singular ineluctable fact’ upholds that nothing similar has transpired in human history.
Pandemics receive the attention they do often because of the larger contexts and interests in which they are embedded. For the most part, pandemics that have been highlighted are those that have impacted the Western world. Lal cites a protracted list of pandemics spanning the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, such as the plague, the Spanish Flu, H2N2, H3N2, HIV, SARS, H1N1, MERS, the Ebola. Yet all of them have not received the same degree of attention. Many of them are ‘forgotten pandemics’, despite their intensity. The reasons vary from post war fatigue with disease and death, as was the case with the Spanish Flu that broke out after the First World War, and the H2N2 or the Asian Flu and the H3N2 or Hong Kong Flu that occurred after the Second World War, the Korean War, and the threat of a nuclear war. But there was also a tendency to remember and narrate diseases related to the world, particularly the Western world, rather than a region, as the Ebola pandemic revealed. COVID-19 has impacted Western nations, as much as, those in Latin America and Asia; it has, therefore, been characterised as unique.
Vinay Lal, The Fury of COVID-19, Macmillan, New Delhi, 2020.
The earlier pandemics did not bring the world – its economy in particular – to a total halt, in the manner of COVID-19. Lal notes how norms of physical distancing, masking, and partial shut downs did prevail during the Spanish Flu. But then trade continued and public interaction was not completely prohibited. COVID-19’s singularity does not allow for taking refuge in the comfort of universalisms. It is not a particular event that can be classified under a universal concept such as ‘pandemic’ with which it shares essential features. Rather, COVID-19’s connection to other analogous episodes in human history is nominal and could be understood as what philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein terms as ‘family resemblance’. In this tenor, Lal chronicles an array of phenomena that have repeated and reinforced themselves in the context of the present pandemic. These include quarantine and isolation, stress on hygiene and cleanliness, discrimination against the socially vulnerable, imperialist governmentality, nationalist responses, weak health systems and the active role of the transnational body, the WHO in proclaiming pandemics, often in collusion with pharma industries. The chapter on ‘Who’s Responsible: The WHO and Medical Internationalism’ is a rare account of the interventionist role of WHO whose internationalism is curtailed by American nationalism.
The Fury of COVID-19 cautions against naively invoking the history of pandemics for set answers to these challenges. ‘Family resemblance’ notwithstanding, the present pandemic has led to heightened state intervention, adjournment of trade and public movement. These phenomena are symptoms of the world being brought together through disease. Lal cites the French historian Emanuel Le Roy Ladurie’s accounts of how the plague, the invasion of the Americas, and the flu are all versions of ‘microbial unification’. This enhances the specificity of the challenge facing the human condition in the current crisis. He questions the approach of finding ‘global solutions’ to ‘global problems’ in the spirit of a global modernity; and recommends working with the ‘partial guidance’ of history to situate the present pandemic in specific cultural contexts to examine how forces such as the political, social/cultural and economic (among others) mediate it. This implies that some of the ways in which one can cope with the pandemic might also emerge in specific cultural contexts.