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Lockdowns And Capital In The Age Of Coronavirus

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Former Prime Minister of Pakistan Yusuf Raza Gilani once said on TV, پرائم منسٹر اس ملک میں یا اوپر جاتے ہیں، یا نیچے، یا اندر یا باہر. میں نے تو گھر آ کے دو نفل شکرانے کے پڑھے کے میں گھر آ گیا ہوں (Prime Ministers in this country either go up [gallows], under [grave], in [prison] or out [exile], I am just grateful that I made it back home). He did have his son abducted soon after relinquishing his office, but then he also got him back. So, all told, he did come out ahead.

Pakistan certainly doesn’t have a good record when it comes to treating its former Prime Ministers, though it is still unusual for a sitting Prime Minister to be humiliated by the state as emphatically and brazenly as happened to PM Imran Khan on March 23rd, 2020.

A former sitting Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto may have had her brother knocked off by the police, but even in that tragedy the element of public humiliation and a spectacle of complete impotence was not as poignant as the imposition of a complete lockdown in the country, announced by a grade 21 officer of a defence service. That too, less than 24 hours after the Prime Minister said that there won’t be a lockdown.

The lockdown has precipitated interesting (online) conversations with friends and family, with most PTI inclined friends carrying over recently discovered proletarian sympathies during the heady days of Aurat March into the debate on lockdown. While Aurat march was elitist aunty phenomena, according to my PTI friends, lockdown too was deemed anti-people, especially poor people.

The irony of sharing the pro-economy sentiments with the likes of Boris Johnson, Donald Trump and Jair Bolsonaro was clearly lost upon all of them. In the face of the Coronavirus epidemic, the way I see it there were three possible strategies:

(1) do nothing—also known as herd immunity—and take the hundreds of thousands or millions of death it may involve (preferred by Boris Johnson);

(2) vigorous testing, monitoring and isolation of suspicious cases (followed by South Korea); and

(3) Extreme social distancing though lockdown to suppress the infection and buy time for the health system to build capacity and also for scientists to develop vaccines and cure (belatedly followed by Italy & France). China implemented a combination of strategies 2 and 3. If there’s a fourth strategy that I am missing, then I would certainly like to learn about it.

Of all of these strategies, the second one would have been least socially and economically disruptive but would have required the type of planning and capacity in the system that countries like Pakistan had not invested in long term, nor did they psychologically think that they were capable of even in the short term. After all, Imran Khan does not tire of pointing out why Pakistan can’t do any of the strategies because Europeans can’t do a good enough job and hence, we certainly cannot. In other words, we cannot possibly do anything as well, or better than Europeans, or the so called developed countries (never mind Cuba which has done an amazing job). Our existence and actions are tied in a dyadic inferior relationship with the ‘developed’ West where our capacity to do anything must be in an inferior relationship with the West.

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For our sins of buying into the neo-liberal mantra of export led growth, deregulation, mass production, mass consumption, and hollowing out of the state, we have the lockdown with all of its perils for the working poor and the vulnerable. In a country with close to 50% malnutrition rate, the fatal consequences for the malnourished of COVID-19 infection are, however, real and numerically unthinkable. The charitable amongst us are trying to help the poor, while the government of Sindh for now seems to have a more state centric model of helping out—though I am unclear on the details. The upshot is that till the late 1970s Pakistan used to have universal food rationing, where everyone was entitled to minimal rations. It was part of the social contract that the state will at least provide food to all. How useful would that system have been at this time, is not hard to imagine. In these neo-liberal times though the state’s only contract seems to be with the rich and their right to grow richer still.

In these lockdown times, I have somewhat been taken aback by everyday conversations around how undisciplined, rakish, and irresponsible we Pakistanis are. And this coming, not just from the privileged middle and upper classes as expected, but even from the working poor. Today the eminent Marxist Geographer, David Harvey reminded me, that working people all over the world have been:

“socialised to behave as good neo-liberal subjects (which means blaming themselves or God if anything goes wrong but never daring to suggest capitalism might be the problem). But even good neo-liberal subjects can see that there is something wrong with the way this pandemic is being responded to.”

A Pakistani’s relationship to the state, especially in the peripheries of the state is that of oppression and terror. The experience is also of the state favouring the rich and its ideological allies—the religious lobby. From the humiliation of poor lockdown violators in Karachi, to overnight release of Maria B’s husband for endangering countless lives through their actions, or the state’s obsequiousness in the face of its favoured religious right for closure of mosques for prayers, there is ample confirmation, that state has not changed its colours.

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Why should the people trust it? Even when it seems to be acting out of their best interest? Yes, it is annoying, but reasonable, when my PTI friends can’t bring themselves to trust the Sindh government in its actions during the pandemic, because of its longer term governance failures. It is equally annoying, and reasonable for the people to not trust the state, given the state’s longer term behaviour in favour of big capital and its use of religion to gain legitimacy. After all, in the UK or US state sold consumerism and alcohol centric leisure lifestyle as foundational identity tropes to the people. In Pakistan, the state sold religiosity as foundational. So, excuse the state and the people if they can’t respectively bring themselves to close pubs, bars or mosques, or the people can’t bring themselves to stay away from them in this pandemic.

I hope that the Corona pandemic abates, with the success of suppression, invention of vaccines, or cures, or even higher temperatures. But can one wish for things to go back to ‘normal’, if that normal was perverse? Can one wish for the return of the normal which in no small measure has brought us to where we are? We cannot absolve capital of environmental damage that may have precipitated the mutations that brought Coronavirus to us.

We cannot forgive capital for its evisceration of the state and the social welfare covenant. We should really be hoping that this disruption is the end of that ‘normal’. Instead, we should be imagining and struggling for a new and more just, anti-capital normal after Corona.

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