By Shahnawaz Afaque
Coronavirus emerged at a local wet market in Wuhan, China just last December and it has taken not more than a couple of months to spread worldwide. As of now all the 195 countries are affected by Coronavirus which is declared a pandemic by the WHO. Europe seems to be a hotbed of the pandemic with five European nations – Italy, Spain, Germany, France and UK making it to the list of top-ten most affected countries, while the United States is witnessing an ever growing number of positive cases that is multiplying at an exponential rate. China on the contrary has been able to control and minimise the spread of Coronavirus, while Asian nations like South Korea and Singapore have been able to deal with the epidemic very effectively earning the praise of netizens around the world.
As evident, geopolitical tensions have unfolded around the pandemic in which the Eastern world led by China clearly has the edge. In a press conference earlier this week, the US President Donald Trump referred to the pandemic as “Chinese virus” giving it a racial angle. This was in response to the Chinese diplomat’s claim that the US Army implanted the virus in China. The pandemic could certainly alter the balance of power in favour of a Chinese-led Eastern world as the West seems to collapse under the spell of COVID-19 outbreak. This also indicates rise of closed totalitarian regimes and an ever powerful State as people grow more sceptical of unhindered globalisation and free market, which are now supposed to be the carriers of Wuhan virus worldwide.
Leading global thinkers predict that Coronavirus would change the trends of geopolitics for this century at least. Stephen M. Walt, an International Affairs professor at Harvard University writes, “The pandemic will strengthen the State and enforce nationalism. Governments of all types will adopt emergency measures to manage this crisis, and many will be loathe to relinquish these new powers when the crisis is over…in short COVID-19 will create a world that is less open, less prosperous and less free.” The Coronavirus crisis has pressurised governments to enhance surveillance and undertake draconian measures to control the outbreak. The Indian Government too, under PM Narendra Modi’s leadership, has taken strict measures to contain the outbreak as reports of ‘community spread’ are emerging from across the nation.
The Railway Ministry of India has suspended all rail services indefinitely, while a nationwide lockdown has been imposed for next 21 days. Life in various cities and across the nation has come to a complete halt. Prime Minister Narendra Modi addressed the citizens of India and urged them to observe 22 March as a ‘Janata Curfew’ day, as people voluntarily observed quarantine by staying at home. His next address on 24 March asked for a stricter lockdown of the entire country for next 21 days. While the Prime Minister’s call has been well received by an overwhelming majority of Indians, the opposition leadership has failed to raise the real problems facing the substandard and unprepared health sector of the country. All these measures to control the pandemic have given the Indian Government an opportunity to explore newer dimensions in state control of population via surveillance and lockdowns. As it is expected, a regime that has made its way up to the top by appealing to people’s nationalist sentiments and by employing iron fist measures to crush voices of dissent, would never let go of its newly acquired sense of undisputed power and control when the pandemic ceases to exist.
Robin Niblett, a British specialist in International Relations, describes the pandemic as “a straw that breaks the camel’s back of economic globalisation.” He further writes, “…proving to their citizens that they can manage the COVID-19 will buy leaders some political capital. But those who fail would find it hard to resist the temptation to blame others for the failure.” If we look at the context of recent political developments in India, COVID-19 comes amidst a polarised nation that has witnessed communal riots in the capital city just a month back. Massive agitations have been taking place in various cities of the country for more than two months now against the controversial citizenship law passed by the government. As the Coronavirus crisis intensified in India, the Central government as well as many State governments imposed lockdowns and outlawed public gatherings. Shaheen Bagh and similar protests once again came under national limelight as media channels ran coverage of these protests followed by heated discussions on it all day.
The Nation is yet to overcome the Coronavirus outbreak and the world waits to see how a nation of 1.3 billion people tackles the crisis with its poor health facilities and lack of awareness. If the Government fails to contain the outbreak, there is a possibility that the nationalist government might make the anti-NRC protesters the scapegoat for its own failure. This could mean further alienation of the Indian Muslim community as an ever powerful BJP government might put the blame on them for their own failure in containing the pandemic. This could have a fatal effect on all voices of dissent in the country as the State emerges out of the Coronavirus devastation ever more powerful and ruthless.
The citizens under the Coronavirus spell have for the first time experienced State control of their everyday lives. A significant population of them seem to support the new role of the State, in which we get to see a re-energized Sovereign that has inherited the transcendence of religion, the sovereignty of which is further reinforced by the people in that democracy. Such a situation of ‘exception’ also reinforces Carl Schmitt’s notion of political theology. Carl Schmitt was a German political theorist in the early twentieth century, who advocated a theological justification for the modern Nation State in his work Political Theology. He argued that the political could only be understood in the context of a friend-enemy binary, wherein the manufacture of a political enemy is essential for a thriving polity. Much of xenophobia, racism, and islamophobia today could be understood in this light.
With the tarnishing of the aura of western brand, it seems highly unlikely that the liberal regime could sustain itself, let alone come out of the calamity victorious. People are depending on their governments for protection against the virus, and given the opportunity to experiment with all the ‘Emergency’ powers that the situation demands, the persistence of totalitarian regimes is inevitable after the pandemic recedes.
Shah Nawaz Afaque completed masters in Political Science from Jamia Millia Islamia in 2018.
Cafe Dissensus Everyday is the blog of Cafe Dissensus magazine, based in New York City and India. All materials on the site are protected under Creative Commons License.
Read the latest issue of Cafe Dissensus Magazine, “Poetics and politics of the ‘everyday’: Engaging with India’s northeast”, edited by Bhumika R, IIT Jammu and Suranjana Choudhury, NEHU, India.