Covid-19 and the crisis of infrastructure: notes from India’s lockdown

At the time of writing (27.03.2020), it is day four of the general lockdown ordered by the Indian government to contain coronavirus transmission. Confined in my Kolkata flat, I follow the live tickers of different newspapers and platforms in India, Germany and Italy. The indecisiveness of the Indian rulers and the contradictory nature of their actions in these days, it occurs to me, have a counterpart in Europe. And so have the insecurity and fears of many Indian citizens: also in Europe, people are asking themselves questions about the protection, help, responsiveness and ability to act of the state, and they have to conclude that it can do little.

Why is that so? Is it possible that the government has done something wrong? Why are state-owned hospitals insufficiently equipped? The simultaneous surfacing of perceptions of vulnerability and sheer defencelessness in many and very different parts of the world must be taken seriously. It is essential to provide viable answers to these questions, before catastrophist, defeatist, populist, right-wing and xenophobic positions completely take over. Worldwide, panic buying, border closures and attacks against those presumed to be responsible for the pandemic — particularly Asian-looking people — have become common.

In recent weeks, various commentators have remarked that, especially in the West, the fear of the coronavirus has led people and governments alike, to cut back on accustomed freedoms and comforts that they would never have been able to accept or enforce in the face of the deep and much-enduring crisis represented by climate change.

Of course, the measures adopted to tackle coronavirus are only finding acceptance because of their supposed temporary nature. While some of these seem to presage a full-fledged surveillance society, others regulate a standard of living that many already feel is socially and environmentally incompatible. A closer analysis is needed to ensure that these latter interventions do not just feature as exceptional measures, but contribute to constructive discussions and substantive change.

In ancient Greek, the word krísis stands for a precarious situation, uncertainty or need and at the same time, for a turning point, escalation or decision. The coronavirus pandemic can be perceived as an infra-structural crisis.

It is "infrastructural" in the sense that the restrictions on mobility and daily life introduced in the last months, ultimately aim to protect one infrastructure from collapse, and to support another infrastructure to function at its best. Namely: the health infrastructure — hospitals should not burst at the seams — and the research infrastructure — universities and research centres are hoped to jointly develop suitable medicines.

The biological threat to human life posed by the virus might not be as high as Ebola or SARS, but, as the recent alarming increase in deaths signals, it is significant. In addition to this, what the reports from Lombardy, Madrid and New York show, is that a collapse of the health system must be avoided at all costs. In other words, the vulnerability that many people are suddenly aware of these days relates to the (in)ability of our institutions to manage an unforeseen demand in the health care sector.

Of course, there is also the fear that the preventive measures will affect other infrastructures, especially those supporting the food supply chain. In many of the dramatic scenarios flooding social media these days, the disruptions to mobility negatively affect the labour market, the economy and the stock market, leading to further ailments, and potentially further instability.

The invisibility of the virus — the fact that we cannot see it, how it moves, how it attacks, and whom — naturally foments these fears. I'm talking about an "infra-structural" crisis to reflect that very fact. Infra in "infrastructure" does not merely refer to something that is "below" or supports something else, but to what is under a particular structure, often hidden by it.

Most infrastructures are, for various reasons and in different ways, invisible or infra-visible. I look down from the balcony and see the ground, but not the cables, pipes, subway, sewers, that run below it. If I look out of the window, I see the ensemble shop-neighbour's house-trees-sky, whereby I hardly notice the electricity poles and cables.

Looking just a little further away, cars and passers-by define my view (although they have become rare here too), while I ignore the street as such... It is perhaps also because of this infra-visibility that we have not "seen" the grave implications of the reforms and cuts in health infrastructure dictated by the logic of austerity for years.

With this, I come to the turning point inherent in the term "crisis". The actions of most governments, particularly in the initial phase of corona contagion, revealed a deep disbelief, partly also stubborn rejection, vis-à-vis the possibility that normality could be disrupted.

Deviations from normality are difficult to accept for most people, but for the state — and this globally, with very few exceptions — normality today means, above all, the customary functioning of the economy. Whereas the burden of containing Covid-19 lies mostly with the general population — and their sense of responsibility and solidarity — many governments have been impressively quick to announce aid schemes to help businesses. It is however highly uncertain whether these interventions will serve to protect jobs, especially in the low-wage sector.

Interestingly, very few politicians are talking about the extensively dilapidated health care system. This would admittedly be out of place at the moment, but everything suggests that the subject will be prominent in public debates for months to come.

And here we have an opportunity. The coronavirus crisis is sure to accelerate a reconfiguration of representations, such as security, predictability, planning, "normality" and "progress", which has been developing for several decades thanks to the work of anti-capitalist thinkers, decolonial writers and indigenous communities, feminists and LGBTQ+ groups.

But it also makes it possible to reconcile the critique of capitalism (particularly the critique of neoliberal austerity policies) with the environmental movement's demand for a respectful economy that does not exploit nature. The horror has already become collective, springing, on the one hand, from the inadequacy of the health infrastructures, and on the other, from the devastating consequences of humans' predatory attitude towards flora and fauna — the new coronavirus is said to have evolved in an illegal market for wild animals. These strong reactions must now be channelled in the right direction.

It could be argued that the conditions of both political struggle and of dealing with, or surviving, a crisis such as the current one, are enormously unequal in regions as different as India and Europe.

Yes, the differences and diversities are real, concrete, material. But the awareness that no borders, no nation-states and, of course, no wall can stop something as microscopic, as invisible, as natural, as a virus coming from the other end of the world is taking shape everywhere.

The dreaded crisis of our infrastructures and the helplessness of our governments are the signs of a deeper crisis — that of a world system organised according to the logics of capitalism. If there is any chance at all in this grim moment, it is that we get a kick in the ass to rethink our ways of living together, taking into account human and non-human concerns.

Elisa T. Bertuzzo lectures on critical urban studies and postcolonial theory in the MA Programme “Spatial Strategies” of weißensee school of art berlin, Germany. Her latest monograph Archipelagos: From Urbanisation to Translocalisation explores circular migration and its impacts on built and unbuilt habitat in Bangladesh and India.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Corona Times' editorial stance, or the position of any institution.

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