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VIEW: A racialised pandemic and its necropolitical aftermaths

VIEW: A racialised pandemic and its necropolitical aftermaths

VIEW: A racialised pandemic and its necropolitical aftermaths
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By CNBCTV18.com Contributor Sept 16, 2020 5:36:55 PM IST (Published)

The coronavirus has not only emphatically reminded humanity of its eternal fragility but has engendered a very significant rethinking of the Anthropocene.

Authored by: Samrita Sinha and Subhashis Sinha

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As the world today is reeling under the diabolic spell of the coronavirus, it is interesting to note the unspooling of global politics in the backdrop of its raging. The virus has not only emphatically reminded humanity of its eternal fragility but has engendered a very significant rethinking of the Anthropocene. The very ambiguous and indeterminate nature of the virus which has left the scientists and medics perpetually baffled throws a very disturbing light on the fact that at the heart of the Anthropocene is the very precarity of the human position.
In the epistemic history of humanity, the predominant concern of all discourses has been to privilege and consolidate the human position at the cost of liminalising non-human others. As civilisation has progressed this politics of ‘othering’ has entailed the commodification of nature and the non-human other to pedestalise the category of the human. The history of this phenomenon of othering has often been underlined by colonialist overtones.
In this age of neoliberalism and globalisation a new face of colonialism has emerged which involves the aid of technology to strengthen not only the position of the human but also to perpetuate the politics of absolute global supremacy, considering the conjectures of the coronavirus being a potent tool of China’s biowar, born in its laboratories.  However, colonialist issues such as racism can hardly ever be overlooked while ruminating global politics in the wake of the coronavirus.
As the COVID-19 speared its head in China in December 2019, and made its way to colonise the minds and bodies of people all over the world, concomitant with its march unspooled racial politics as well as regimes of Necropolitics. Two important ideas can be gleaned from these theorisations of global politics—one is how in this global tension between the Western and the South Asian countries, there is a tendency to racialise the coronavirus as having been originated in South Asian China. This racialisation of coronavirus is an enactment of a Western colonialist imaginary that is premised upon notions of Western supremacy and looking at its South Asian ‘other’ as a perpetual source of pollutant.
Way before the emergence of the coronavirus, certain Hollywood films like Contagion have focussed upon representing a racialised unknown deadly virus originating from Macau in China. This racist representation of South Asia fuels an imagination where South Asian countries collectively are looked upon as spaces with questionable practices of hygiene in culinary practices given the fact that in the movie Contagion the virus spreads from a handshake with the chef of the restaurant. Before the fatal handshake, in a little background scene, the chef is seen handling the pig that ate the virus-infected piece of banana that the bat had dropped as it hung from the columns of the pig shed.
What is interesting to note is how certain hygiene practices that of a non-western culture are represented from an overtly racial angle. In the movie, the fact that a master chef of a fine dining restaurant in Macau is seen handling the dead animal with bare hands is a blatant racist normalisation of dubitable ethics of hygiene that of a South Asian country. By extrapolation, a similar racialisation of the coronavirus as exemplified by the several accusatory diatribes by Donald Trump has further fuelled a colonialist pathology of scepticism and disbelief collectively projected onto the South Asian countries.
The second idea is predicated on Cameroonian philosopher Achille Mbembe’s definition of Necropolitics as a predominant form of biopower, that is, the way hegemonic regimes of power insidiously control all forms of governance of life. Mbembe’s theory is a critique of the contemporary world-order that is deeply entrenched in war and capital.
Hinged on war and capital as the predominant tools of sovereignty, Necropolitics is a “distribution of death” rather than enhancement of life, the “new and unique forms of social existence in which vast populations are subjected to conditions of life conferring upon them the status of living dead”. Mbembe’s theorisation of the necropolitical is predicated on the idea of sovereignty whose “central project is not the struggle for autonomy but the generalised instrumentalisation of human existence and the material destruction of human bodies and populations”.
In this context, the idea of necropolitical dimensions of biopower can be extrapolated to understand how in the quest for global power, First world countries from the western world attempt to control and manipulate the governance of life of developing and/or Third world countries. The omnipresent quest for certain dominant western countries to play the proverbial peacemaker in local South East Asian political arena-be it the Jammu and Kashmir issue or the Taliban brokering endeavour, is a form of biopower often imbricated in Necropolitics. Furthermore, new global politics with China seeking political opportunism by violating border protocol in the Galwan valley has further brought to light how war is sought as a consolidation of political power.
A further case in point is how in the wake of the coronavirus, sovereignties all over the world have been enacting necropolitical regimes in the treatment of the subaltern. Closer home, one can think of of India’s migrant labourers as the disposable other, where the pandemic turned into a tragic drama of repopulation and exodus for them. With the economy virtually grinding to a halt due to the lockdown, the migrant labourers had no option left but to return to their villages.
The government’s total lack of prior consideration as to working out the structural logistics of their return, no income in the cities which benefitted from their services during hay days and no means of transport during the initial days, there were scores of migrant labourers who had no choice left but to walk thousands of kilometres to get back to their villages-in many cases the journey was cut short by their untimely death, due to unbearable hardships of dislocation. Further dichotomous politics of subaltern treatment was foregrounded when amidst much fanfare, the Vande Mission flights were initiated to get back stranded Indians from abroad whereas the migrant labourers in India were left to work out their own devices to get back to their native places before media intervention and exposé of the matter.
To conclude, the rethinking of the Anthropocene should entail a poignant interrogation about how the hierarchies of human privileged social and racial positions inform it bringing about dehumanisation of the subcategory of those reduced to less than human. As one watches the endless stories of the suffering of the migrant subcategory ensuing in the wake of the coronavirus, one is impelled to ruminate how a tiny virus has succeeded in exposing multiple modalities of global politics at the levels of a global biowar, the eternal vulnerability and finitude of the human condition, the question of social, racial and global positions of privilege and the myth of globalisation as erasing all boundaries and barriers to success and progress.
—Samrita Sinha is Assistant Professor in the Department of English at Sophia College for Women (Autonomous), Mumbai. Subhashis Sinha is a talent and organizational change specialist. The views expressed are personal.
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