The Language of Crisis
By Rohitha Naraharisetty
The COVID-19 pandemic has shown that most, if not all countries lack the infrastructure to deal with not only the healthcare crisis posed by the virus, but also the secondary issues that arise out of having to take measures to contain it. States have thus far been used to dealing with security issues that involve human actions, for which institutions and machinery have been designed with prior knowledge and planning. Indeed, several countries – especially India, the 4th largest military spender in the world – spend too much on defence infrastructure because of investments in militaristic conceptions of national security in which heavy fortifications by way of armed security forces and machinery are deployed towards the protection of sovereign integrity.
The language that the media and the Indian prime minister [A1] [RN2] used for the pandemic in its early days is telling of the ways in which we have always prepared for straightforward solutions to address specific problems that are easy to understand, but are on the verge of collapse when a multi-pronged approach is required to tackle issues of human security. Calling it the ‘War on Corona’ betrays the simplistic conception of the scale of the problem; framing it in overtly militaristic terms invokes the impression of a war-like situation, where there is a definite beginning and projected end to a conflict whose dimensions are known.
However, the response to a catastrophe such as this one which requires planning on all fronts has been fashioned after the typical response to an actual war – with only emergency provisions being made available, having only one person (presumably the “head” of the family) venture outside, using physical force to keep the streets empty, rationing out food and essentials, and so on. Thinking about a virus in war-like terms results in a situation where the concerns that are typically considered secondary – such as domestic violence, labour exploitation, and so on – are indeed being given secondary or no importance at all. Several bureaucrats and politicians have been noted as saying that this is indeed similar to the sort of lockdown that occurs during a war and have asked for the cooperation of people on these terms. The Prime Minister had asked citizens, rather paternalistically, to only give up 21 days in order for us to “win” the war on corona, framing his plea in patriotic terms and calling for meaningless shows of solidarity (such as lighting lamps, clapping from balconies) that provide no material assistance to either those affected by or engaged with the virus first-hand, or those who suffer indirectly as a result of the lockdown.
In the early months of the pandemic, when its scale was still severely underestimated, the leadership sought to swoop in in a deux ex machina fashion in order to sustain the illusion of a war which is being won due to the capable hands of the ruling government. Citizens were even asked to take it upon themselves to donate – in a manner reminiscent of wartime requests for donations and encouragement of parsimonious living – to the narcissistically named PM Cares Fund, thereby allowing the government to cut a sorry figure desperately in need of ordinary citizens’ help. But with no enemy in sight to shoot at, bomb, or enact another “surgical strike” upon, with only its devastating, ever multiplying effects tangible, the government stumbled to show the efficacy of its grossly misplaced intervention and has therefore since maintained an unrelenting silence. The PM Cares Fund remains unaudited and largely unused for the pandemic, while testing has been transferred to private diagnostic companies who charge unaffordable rates for most, private healthcare costs continue to soar with no checks being placed upon them, no technological infrastructure is provided for online education, labour laws are suspended in some states, and families are in increasingly dire straits.
Fast forward to nearly three months later: India has recorded the most number of new cases in a day in the world and yet, is currently in ‘Unlock Phase 4’. Concerns over the economy have prompted the country to unilaterally suspend nearly all efforts towards alleviating the crisis; the Prime Minister himself has not addressed the nation in months, with his last televised address emphasising ‘Aatmanirbhar’, meaning self-sufficiency. Privatisation is at an all-time high, and the government has dusted more responsibility off its shoulders. Schools and colleges are forced to conduct examinations while risking the health and safety of millions. Unemployment is at an all-time high, a recession is underway and the GDP growth rate has plummeted below zero. Citing these utterly preventable reasons, the Centre has defaulted on GST payments to states, with the Finance Minister Nirmala Sitaraman calling it an “act of god”. Extraordinary failure is spoken about in the language of extraordinary factors beyond anyone’s control; a deux ex machina situation turned on its head.
The sharp contrast between the language employed during lockdown, and during the different stages of ‘unlock’ can be put down to the central government’s craven deflecting of responsibility when control slips out of its hands. The lack of understanding about the dynamics of a crisis like this is due in no small part to the overwhelming orienting of any issue, no matter how big or small in simplistic frames of reference that are not realistically applicable, but rhetorically rousing. The couching of any event in language that the Prime Minister can then condense into pithy catchphrases is a strategy he has long employed; centering himself in every issue of national importance before it goes out of hand, at which point he quietly recedes into the background and federalises blame. Indeed, this is a tactic which several populist leaders have employed in recent times. Brazil’s President Jair Bolsonaro’s flagrant apathy to the crisis is reflected by his preoccupation with the economy over anything else, pushing the hashtag #BrazilCannotStop. In the face of catastrophic death tolls and a collapsing healthcare infrastructure, he said, “so what? I’m sorry, but what do you want me to do?” It is reasonable to deduce from his attitude that in his mind, an enemy which cannot be supressed by force is an enemy not worthy of being taken seriously. A worthy opponent is one which must be tackled using force. US President Donald Trump has also famously minimized the importance of social distancing and wearing masks, encouraging scores of protestors to show up at public places, armed to the teeth – making it clear how the pandemic is imagined and how it does not correspond with reality. To take a virus that cannot be seen, heard, or touched in militaristic terms seriously would, it seems, be emasculating. Indeed, as Philippines’ President Rodrigo Duterte said, there was “nothing to be scared of.”
At the heart of these responses is the issue of control. Masculinised leaders (not necessarily male) cannot make sense of situations in which they have no control in ways which are familiar to them – using weapons, intelligence and high-end instruments of death rather than life. It is no coincidence that the most affected countries in the world are those that are led by strongmen who are constantly engaged in arm-wrestling contests rather than real impactful policy. Another thing they share in common is the divestment of responsibility to the people. Duterte has notably amped up militaristic responses in tandem with spinning a narrative of “undisciplined” citizens, or pasaways, as being responsible for the situation; in response to protests against rising hunger, he instructed police and military to “shoot them dead” if there was any trouble. Just as with the Modi government, indiscriminate arrests began to take place for violation of quarantine rules.
The neoliberal language of self-reliance, promotion of grand schemes to one’s name that involve civic responsibility alone, and privatisation drives which lines the pockets of corporations in the name of development are all strategies to ultimately accumulate sovereign power and outsource responsibility. Having amassed a personality cult around themselves as strong, capable patriarchs with a tough hand, these leaders are the least adaptable to situations which require different approaches to security and governance. For instance, UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson, similar to Narendra Modi, unilaterally imposed a lockdown using the disciplinary language of an order mandating compliance… or else. These sudden announcements without prior warning are not measured and considered responses to a crisis but reflect the importance given to leadership optics instead. Without room for questions or criticism, states and individuals were left to frantically adjust to the new situation as failing to do so would have invited accusations of risking others’ lives.
In sharp contrast, New Zealand’s Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern urged people to “stay home to save lives” and led with an empathetic response, appealing to people’s conscience and emphasising the collective humanitarian response that is required in order to overcome the pandemic. By not unilaterally imposing wartime curfews and orders and instead, giving advance notice and explaining in detail her government’s ‘alert-framework’ beforehand, Ardern treated her electorate as participants rather than subjects, and it is therefore no surprise that New Zealand was one of the first countries in the world to have overcome the pandemic almost in full. Norway’s Prime Minister Erna Solberg sought to directly alleviate the concerns of her electorate, even conducting a children’s consultation where she answered their questions and told them that it was “OK to feel scared” in recognition of the fact that growing children are likely to be the most vulnerable to fear and uncertainty in unprecedented situations such as these, even as others have infantilised their electorates by way of a response. Finland’s Prime Minister Sanna Marin, despite only being recently elected, responded with rapid testing and an early lockdown and Denmark’s Prime Minister Mette Fredericksen has, after successfully containing the outbreak, rolled out universal testing in preparation for a second wave of the pandemic. Taiwan’s Tsai Ing-Wen started one of the world’s earliest phases of testing and has recorded only seven deaths till date, despite close proximity to the virus epicentre in Wuhan. Iceland’s Katrin Jakobsdottir stood out (notwithstanding the low population density) in terms of rolling out free testing which has given everyone equal access by way of removing barriers that may otherwise prevent people from getting themselves tested. Germany’s Angela Merkel administration has also recorded declining numbers of cases due to responses which included, among others, listening to scientists and experts, rather than consulting their own cabinets not trained in the issue.
Although lockdowns were implemented in all of these countries, what made them stand out was the openness and accountability, an empathetic approach, and the understanding that the effects on people’s lives, no matter how big or small, are to be taken seriously. There is also the question of not using the vague and undefined “economy”, with a profit-centric, laissez faire approach as in most countries, to force individuals to work beyond their capacity despite the risks involved. This is a model in which the benefits of this hallowed economy come at the expense of (and never reach) the working class and significantly, women – whose burden of unpaid labour increases manyfold and who also constitute the majority in sectors which depend on care labour such as nursing, teaching, and domestic work, all of which are in much higher demand and are more taxing than ever. It is notable, therefore, that Sweden whose population is similar to that of Norway’s, has failed in containing the pandemic due to its strategy of centering the economy alongside the virus response. This may, however, lead to the erroneous and essentialising conclusion that some countries fared well because they were led by women, and others worse because they are led by men. While there is an overwhelming correlation, the difference lies not in the gender of the leaders themselves but in the gendering of their responses: a feminist ethics of care on the one hand and a hyper-masculine authoritarianism on the other. While the former is more oriented towards human security, the latter is characterised by a stubborn and tenacious hold over militarised national security language even where it doesn’t make sense and costs more lives than it saves. Paying attention to the language and tone of leaders while responding to the crisis is telling of where in this spectrum they fall, and whether they can be trusted to see their countries through this unprecedented crisis without shattering, irreversible consequences.
[A1]Would you like to qualify this as Indian? Boris Johnson has also used the same / similar terminology so one may be confused.