Kolkata: Pandemics and politics have been shaping each other since the times of Moses to the Modi regime. The Hebrew God helped the Messiah on Sinai with plagues to tame Pharaoh Ramses II. A cosmopolitan modern God has helped our messiah on Raisina Hills to turn the tides that was increasingly flowing against him across the land, at least temporarily, it seems.
We know very well that a virus cannot multiply without entering a host body, great contagions cannot continue without a hospitable socio-political environment. It is marked by ghettoisation, poverty of body and minds, physical and moral filth around, fear and hatred of the unknown lurking in the dark and resignation to rules set by the powerful bullies, both corporal and political pathogens.
Let us have a cursory look down the history to understand the nexus between the deadly killing agents today—corona and hate-virus, one ‘natural’ and the other – man-made. Both are now ruling the roost in our global village and Indian neighborhood.
Myths and religions
Apocalyptic visions of all major religions and their scriptures, be it of Hellenic-Roman yore and Semitic Bible, Quran, Torah or Indo-Aryan Gita, they are full of scary descriptions of pestilences, famines, wars and great chaos being part of God’s or His various form’s arsenal to take His final revenge on a wayward mankind on the doomsday. So far, we have been punished for our periodic sins collectively before our fervent mercy petitions have eventually reduced His anger and the Most Merciful has given us another chance for survival. More often than not, we incurred the wrath of the Creator or the regional benches for retributive justice, which the master of the roster presides over for not following the divinely ordained social-political system of the day and its moral-ideological as well as legal rules.
True, kings and emperors as well as prophets/avatars intermediating between the celestial Supreme command and its earthly representatives were expected to follow certain covenants on the hierarchy of power under and above the Sun. But Agamemnons, Caesars and Pharaohs were not punished for waging wars, ravaging and plundering distant lands, slaughtering defeated races, famishing them and making them slaves. The ensuing pandemonium set theatres for pandemics among the vanquished that suited the victor’s murderous politics in the name of the Divine and his pantheon.
Sometimes the pathogens did not discriminate between the two sides and wiped out marauding armies as well. But mostly it was considered a professional hazard for conquerors. The Most High cut down his self-proclaimed deputies on earth to their sizes only when they tried to be at par or parallel to the Supreme authority. At, least, that’s the way new Prophets claimed to have decoded His will.
Closer home, the evil of child death once visited the land of honey and milk ruled by our Lord Rama. But it was neither caused by his alleged war crimes (though there was no Geneva Conventions at his times) during his war with Ravana, nor for abandoning his wife, Sita whose abduction by the demon king had triggered the war. The divine penalty was imposed for a social-political crime of a lowly-born Shudra ascetic who was in deep penance in order to reach heaven in his earthly form. He was asking for a privilege only to be aspired by the most pious of the Brahmins, the highest-born in the Hindu Varna hierarchy. The most magnificent and righteous Rama swiftly cut his head and our ancient ‘dharma’, the codes for social-political hierarchy, was instantly reaffirmed.
Our gods were so pleased that the sky reverberated with their paeans to Rama. The dead Brahmin child whose father had complained of the evil’s eye on the realm was immediately restored to life. Similarly, Gita in Mahabharata and Manusmriti cautioned about divine retributions including wars, pestilence and famines if the homo hierarchicus Hindus loses divinely sanctioned structural equilibrium.
In historical times
In the Columbian era, the Spanish conquistador Hernan Cortes and his companions who were suffering from a ‘disease of heart which could be cured only by gold’ had general Luck and Smallpox at his side in subjugating Aztec empire of Montezuma in Mexico through guile and barbarity. The Iberian and other European ‘mad rush for gold, god and glory’ in north and south America for centuries not only ended the ancient Inca, Maya and ‘Red Indian’ civilizations but also wiped out a substantial part of native population by exposing them to smallpox, chicken pox, diphtheria, typhus, influenza, measles, malaria and yellow fever, then unknown to the ‘new world’. As the marauding armies marched, they carried the infectious diseases to distant tribes and villages. Natives died in thousands as they had no immunity to these unknown pathogens.
The plunderers and murderers thought the epidemics as the sign of the overlordship of the Christian God over the heathen gods and goddesses. If that was to be considered an aberration to high Renaissance humanism that was to follow, think of 18th Century European colonizers who had deliberately distributed smallpox victims’ rags to unsuspecting native inmates of their jails and other places of hospitalities. Understanding Viruses BBC documentary 2017 is one such documentations that offer glimpses of shocking DNA of colonial modernity. It has later mutated into most malignant biological or virus wars in 20th century and is continued to these days in the name of free world and national security.
The chilling connection between genocidal politics and pandemics is not a cynical proposition. According to the aforesaid documentary, though the smallpox has been eradicated through a determined global effort, its virus strains have been kept alive in two containers at Washington and Moscow since the Cold War era. These modern-day Pandora’s boxes are being sustained, despite pressures from international bodies of concerned experts in the name of bio-diversity!
It’s not that Europe was always God’s own continent. It did suffer from the periodic ‘scourges of God’ in the form of black plague in 14th century to Spanish Flu pandemic in the fag end of World War I. In case of the middle age mayhem by the plague, it was rats as well as Jews and lepers who bore the brunt of the rustic anger. It is now said that they had substituted for kings and feudal lords as well as Church leaders whom the affected peasants could not lay their hands on. The political rivalry among colonial powers that triggered the First World War spread the influenza pandemic in 1918. It devastated further not only Europe and America but also killed many Indian soldiers of British Indian army and their families after the carriers came back home.
The scourge of consumerism and developmentalism
Postcolonial world is no paradise. Tribal-religious civil wars among warlords, often the proxy players for former colonial powers had heralded famines and pestilences in poorest countries, particularly in Africa as Ebola and Zika outbreaks few years back had underlined. Even in peace-time, it is now well-established that unhygienic, densely populated urban and peri-urban poor localities where people are forced to live with poultry, pigs and other animal carriers of the pathogens and exposed to vector insects are the hotbeds of contagions. The fear of infections and political considerations have compelled the global and national elites of developing democracies to pump in money in public health projects in poor neighborhoods in last decades. But both our lived experiences and global data points to the sheer discrimination between the allocations for public health and education in one hand and maintenance of war, police and bureaucratic machineries as well as for periodic corporate bailouts. If ‘socialistic’ states failed to stop siphoning of funds in public health, the prevalent privatization by laissez faire governments has opened the floodgates for new bloodsuckers.
Further, scientists have now proofs that the proliferations of new deadly mutants have closely followed the political economy of the endless plunder and rape of mother Earth. The insatiate corporate greed and mass consumerism are devouring rainforests and other tropical flora and fauna in the name of industrial development, urbanization and good life. Wanton destructions of natural habitats of both biggest and smallest life-forms including viruses as well as exponential growth in slaughtering of almost all species of wild animals for meat delicacies is now threatening the extinction of humans at the top of the food chain. It is now evident that the mushrooming of ‘wet market’s in China and greater Indo-China and Japan has increased the transmission of the microbes from these hapless creatures to their devourers.
Mass migration within borders and beyond, unprecedented in human history has increased global connectivity phenomenally which is at best a mixed blessing. It has expanded the capital and labour market while turning the human transmission chain unbreakable, thus making the spread of pandemics a matter of weeks.
Further, the Police-States under one-party rules and other forms of dictatorships have been sitting on the tinder boxes as the recent Chinese experiences have proved time and again. The controllers of the huge industrial-military- party machines there have suppressed the conscientious whistle blowers since SARS and Swine Flu outbreaks in 2003 and 2009 respectively. Its latest victim is a young doctor, Li Wenliang in Wuhan, the epicenter of the latest pandemic. The brave young medico who along with his friends had warned about the new corona virus in early December faced police harassments and party censures before he died of the infection.
If China’s president and ruling communist party boss Xi Jinping is looking for scapegoats to save his position at the top of the pyramid, his US counterpart Donald Trump has tried to the hilt to embarrass his country’s great trade rival by blaming the ‘Chinese virus’ for the world’s trouble. It’s another matter that the Uncle Sam has gifted the mankind napalm bombs, Agent Orange and many other chemical and biological weapons, let alone the most horrific atom bomb, the ultimate destroyer. Nevertheless, Trump chose to use the opportunity to close more doors to products and persons undesirable for the US; Chinese and Iranians and other Muslims.
Russia’s Vladimir Putin, the new uncle Joe is all set to be the life-time Tsar but did not sound so mean. Like our homegrown holder of ‘56-inch chest’, the macho tyrant is availing the godsend in running roughshod over his domestic opponents while going ahead with his mega shows of popular support. All other variations of patriarchal, populist and nationalist demagogues of far right in Europe and elsewhere are using the latest pandemic to raise various kinds of walls among peoples based on segregation of ‘us and them’. These are likely to stay even after the fury of the ‘natural’ pathogens reduces for the time being.
Modi is no Moses
Like Moses, our redeemer wants to lead us to a promised land. But he has proved himself more akin to the haughty and tyrant Pharaoh who did not care for hungry and sick millions but for building colossal monuments and orchestrated spectacles dedicated to his vainglory while dividing his subjects between slaves and cronies only to be subservient to him. At a time when the free-run for his chariot was almost stopped on many corners of the land, the Corona outbreak has come as a godsend for our demigod and his Man Friday.
Now they are playing the roles of Lord Rama and Lakhsmana or Lord Krishna and Arjuna again on TV screens, but not from the stables of BR Chopra. However, they have not bothered to deliver on the regime’s responsibilities to provide for the basic needs of the citizens to fight both hunger and the disease. The masters of China are reportedly ensuring that supplies reach to their citizens during forced lockdowns in cities.
No doubt, the enforced social distancing breaks down the transmission chain for the ‘natural’ pathogens. But it also helps the man-made microbes to break the diffusion of resistance against the social-political contagion, unless we as individuals and communities sanitize ourselves against the both when in forced or voluntary quarantine.