Who Fears, Lives: Masculinity in the Times of COVID-19

Who Fears, Lives: Masculinity in the Times of COVID-19
Corona se darna naheen larrna hai (Coronavirus is not to be feared, it is to be fought), exhorts a mellifluous feminine voice on the universal mobile ringtone in Pakistan these days. Meanwhile, the Chief Minister of Punjab announced a Shaheed (martyr package for professionals ‘fighting’ Covid19, as the PML-N just below the headline declared, ‘Tiger force a political gimmick’ (See below). By the looks of it, our testosterone riven war against a virus is in full swing, complete with soldiers, tigers, martyrs, and even obligatory foreign aid in weapons for this war: personal protection equipment (PPEs), ventilators, testing kits etc. Except that I don’t understand: how does one fight a molecular wisp of Ribonucleic Acid (RNA) or DNA? Especially since the only thing that doctors can evidently do in fighting this enemy is to administer paracetamol, or then pump air into patient’s lungs and pray that they don’t collapse.

What is wrong with a society when the only idiom it can find to honour those who serve and protect it is that of war and violence? During my research work on gender and violence in urban Pakistan I learned quite a bit about Pakistani toxic masculinity. It has some of the following distinguishing characteristics: (1) it is a reaction to cultural and economic evisceration; (2) it is terrified of the feminine (sexuality in particular); (3) violence is its language; (4) the state more than the religious right intentionally produces and promotes such masculinity. All of these attributes of toxic masculinity are on display in Pakistan’s ‘fight’ against Covid19. But what does it matter?

The question of toxic masculinity and its deployment in this Covid19 epidemic matters materially and culturally. It matters to what type of society we emerge as at the other end of this crisis and how prepared are we for the next one. There will be a next one. There always is. A crisis probably not of the same type scope and intensity, but something totally unexpected, that shouldn’t be.

It matters culturally, because when we glorify, wars and struggles we privilege a masculinist, individualist conception of self and society. That individualist conception is corrosive towards social solidarity and empathy, which are building blocks of a humane society. In the toxic narrative, we humans have been thrived because we successfully fought off to the elements as a species. A converse of that conception could be that we are successful as a species because we take care of each other. We nurture our children to adulthood, help the sick and the weak to recover and thrive. The biggest evidence of our success as a species was when in the fossil records they found a human who had lived a long life despite having a broken pelvic bone earlier in his life—the person survived because someone took care of him. And who does most of the caring and nurturing? The women do. Why shouldn’t the living breathing healthcare workers be celebrated for who they are—healers, caregivers, nurturers? Why do they have to turn into warriors, and those too dead one (martyrs) of some violent fantasy, to be revered? Is it because those are feminine attributes and we are a society of brave men?

The healthcare workers in Quetta and the rest of Pakistan rightly declared: they don’t want to be martyrs. They want to be doctors, nurses, paramedics, who go to their jobs, with proper PPEs, save lives, and come back home alive. But our society, somehow must make a martyrdom enterprise of everything, from going to school to saving lives. We must not emerge at the other end of this crises with the same death fetish that we have at the moment. Otherwise the next crisis will be worse.

It matters materially because the approach of the Pakistani state to Covid19 pandemic is entrenched in what we in hazards research call ‘The Command and Control Approach’. This approach is modeled after the European hierarchical model of authority, typically found in modern militaries and their twin sisters, corporations. Under the model, multiple strands of authority within a society are assumed to be flattened and supposedly replaced by a single authority where orders from the top of the pyramid get unproblematically filtered down to the ground. The approach is also known for its technological fetish, obsession with limiting corruption, equating of emergent behaviour with criminality, militarization of responses and the assumption of social dysfunctionality in a crisis, which must be controlled by strong central authority. This approach is consonant the masculinist ethos of the state and hence deemed to be almost intuitive.

There is also an alternative within hazards research, known as ‘The Problem Solving Approach’. This approach involves recognizing the diversity of the social linkages and power centres within the society and working with them in a problem solving mode. The approach puts a premium upon gaining public consent and then using that consent to tether the state and the society in a partnership. The approach unlike the command and control is human-centred instead of techno-centred; it channels emergent behaviour instead of suppressing it, and focuses on the most vulnerable and building back better, instead of numerical objectives alone. Needless to say, the type of communicative, empathic, and adaptive skills required to successfully implement a problem solving approach are most often equated with the feminine.

I have argued elsewhere that having a functional local government is a prerequisite for an effective disaster response, including to the present pandemic. Almost all examples of successful management of hazards and pandemics, including the present one from Cuba to China, and from Kerala to Taiwan involve presence of local community level presence of activists and state structures. Those local actors can draw upon local knowledge, social capital and trust to mobilize communities to do the needful, from practicing social distancing, providing rations, arranging evacuations, disseminating information, to identifying people eligible for testing. None of these things require being a tiger or a martyr. What that does require is sharing power, trusting the people, and giving the people a reason, for once, to trust the state.

Fear is a good thing, even if to toxic masculinity it is feminine. I am happy to be effeminate and alive. It is reasonable to fear this virus. It is sensible to fear infecting others including your loved ones. There is no way one can fight it, except by not getting it. So, drop the jingoistic nonsense. To the tigers, we are very impressed, now go home and stay there. To Buzdar sahib, nix the martyr fund and use the money to get PPEs to the doctors. To the state, trust the people and work together to help, protect and heal. If you have to fight something, fight your fragile ego.

Daanish Mustafa is a Professor of Critical Geography, Department of Geography, King’s College, London. His research interests include water resources, hazards and development geography.  Email: daanish.mustafa@kcl.ac.uk.