To those of us following the course of the pandemic via hourly news updates, Vinay Lal affords a unique lens to look at covid-19. His excellent new book, The Fury Of COVID-19: The Politics, Histories, And Unrequited Love Of The Coronavirus, provides a long perspective into our present through a historian’s eye. Is covid-19 really as unprecedented a crisis as we think? How did the Spanish flu of 1918, which felled 12-20 million Indians, end up as a “forgotten pandemic”? How did countries like Cuba and Greece fare far better in their response to SARS-CoV-2, which causes covid-19, than the superpowers?
Lal brings his vast and eclectic erudition to bear on these questions, and much more. From pestilences in the Middle Ages to 17th century English politician Samuel Pepys’ plague diaries to the pneumonic plague outbreak in Surat in 1994, nothing escapes his attention. Racial profiling (of the Chinese community in contemporary Prato, Italy, for instance), enduring caste prejudices, political mismanagement and xenophobia are subjected to razor-sharp analyses. Edited excerpts from an email interview:
This book was written on the heels of time. What were the challenges of writing this history of the present?
There were a number of difficulties in writing about something that is unfolding before one’s eyes. First, the guidelines that were being given were often changed. The World Health Organization (WHO) is supposed to lead, not follow, but most countries had devised their own guidelines—halting air traffic, shutting down schools, and even rules about masking—before the WHO could step in. What one might call the “science” behind the coronavirus was also far from certain. For the first few months, the WHO and most countries were insistent on holding the view that the virus could be transmitted through fomites (i.e, surfaces). By mid- to late-summer, the view on this had changed and a literature had begun to develop on transmission through aerosols. No sooner had the ink on the paper dried than the data had changed. That was the greatest challenge in writing the book: how to make one’s reflections and writing on the subject hold while everything on the ground was changing by the day.
As a historian familiar with global responses to earlier pandemics, are you at all surprised by the course of covid-19 in nations across the world?
As I have suggested in the book, though there are epidemics and pandemics in the past that have accounted for astronomical loss of lives, on orders of magnitude that almost dwarf the present pandemic, the present coronavirus pandemic is unusual in that we have never seen the world economy shuttered on this scale at any point in the past. That is truly unprecedented.
Sweden opted for “herd immunity”; the US opted for a highly decentralised approach and, some would say, Donald Trump’s White House washed its hands off the whole thing and left it to the states; India chose to impose one of the strictest lockdowns in the world; Cuba utilised its experience with community medicine to tame the virus. One could go on in this vein. To some extent, the path chosen by each country was also dictated by what one might call the contours of the country’s own national history and the disposition of its people. But there is also much that is common in the path taken by each country to mitigate the virus. I am not surprised that though we speak of globalisation, there should have been no coordinated global response, and certainly the WHO was incapable in this crisis of formulating and leading such a response.
In a scientific sense, the world is much better prepared to tackle a pandemic now, as the recent announcement of a vaccine, one of the quickest ever in human history, shows. Yet our collective social reaction to covid-19 has been far from salutary, thanks to capitalism and the market economy. What does this say about the form of modernity we are living through?
We are already seeing what can be called “vaccine nationalism”. Britain is flaunting the fact that it is the first country to provide emergency approval for a vaccine that may now be administered to its people. The Americans are accustomed to thinking of themselves as more deserving than others, certainly as first among equals, and are unhappy at being pre-empted by the British. But it would be naive to think that science is simply a neutral, so-called “value-free” enterprise which transcends borders. Science is as much shaped and vitiated by nationalism as anything else. There is no question we are speaking of investments and profits running into the billions, considering the fact that, in principle, we have to think of vaccinating everyone on earth. The profit motive has moved pharmaceutical companies to be especially energetic as much as any disposition to do good or glorify what is called “science”.
What the pandemic says about modernity, and the moment we are in, has many other dimensions, among them the indisputable fact that it is also human greed and self-aggrandisement that has led us to this pass. I hope, though I am not particularly optimistic on this score, that the pandemic will help us move to lowering consumption and make us more attentive, wherever we may be, to the imperative need to address climate change as well as the fundamental question of whether human life can be sustained without increased levels of cooperation and understanding between people.
A critique of American exceptionalism runs through your work. Do you think the global hegemony of the US has defined the overall course of the pandemic and its impact on different parts of the world?
The US has unquestionably been humbled. It is a sight to behold. The US is the richest and most powerful country, home to most of the wealthiest people in the world, and chock-a-block full of scientists and researchers who are lauded globally. Its universities are the envy of the world. And yet the US has by far the largest number of infected people in the world and it has registered the largest number of deaths. It is a blessing that most other countries did not follow the US, as they often do in most matters; and it is striking that the one country whose leader wholly emulates Trump and who, like Trump, boasts of his masculinity, is the one that has paid the greatest price after the US. Brazil, under Jair Bolsonaro, has displayed a similar chauvinism and cavalier attitude towards the virus as the US. And much like the US, Brazil has seen its racial minorities, indigenous people, and the most marginalised suffer the worst. I will go so far as to say that between the coronavirus and the greatly poisoned political landscape, 2020 will go down in history as the year when the US began to unravel. This is the real beginning of the end of American hegemony and pre-eminence, at least in many spheres of life and in the imaginary of people around the world.
The untold suffering caused by demonetisation seemed to have been forgotten soon enough, and not just by the supporters of the government. Do you think the current dispensation will also recover from its handling of covid-19 in a matter of time?
One can never predict political outcomes of this kind with certainty. I do agree that the Modi government appears to have come out of one fiasco after another largely intact. Demonetisation was an absolute disaster. The government will use the pandemic as a pretext for the economic collapse but, as is shown by a study that was released last year before the general election and which the government sought to suppress, the unemployment rate was already higher at that time than it had been at any time in the last 40 years. No major country’s GDP has shown such a precipitous dip as India’s and it has to be said that the situation is far worse than has been made out by the government since we cannot capture the suffering of common people just through GDP.
The Indian people have either been very forgiving since none of this appears to have dampened the spirit of Modi’s followers, or one could say that Modi is still being given the benefit of doubt. One could also say that the state has marshalled all its tremendous resources to silence dissent. But once enough people start going hungry, unemployment figures remain high, and the tens of millions see their dreams withering, the end will come for the present political dispensation—as it must.
Would covid-19 have a long-term effect, say, on the next decade of the country’s future?
Covid-19 will have a long-term impact on the future of India and indeed of every other country. The unemployment rate in India is staggering. The economy is stagnant. These are important indicators but nevertheless conventional ones. What is just as unfortunate is that the present political leadership has shown itself to be utterly hollow, bereft of anything that can remotely be called “imagination”. You can build a Hindu Rashtra but if it is built on the foundation of a swamp, what good will it do? Even in the midst of the pandemic, the government’s priorities appear to be directed at silencing political dissenters. As far as I can tell, there is no real strategy for thinking about the future of the country. We will have to look to people’s movements on the ground. I think the people of India do not merely have resilience, but also the wisdom that is part of our civilisational inheritance.