The Contagion of Government

Migrant workers walk with their children as they look out for transport to return to their villages, in Ahmedabad

By Mithilesh Kumar

The terms of engagement that define the relationship between the pathogen novel coronavirus (Covid-19) and the government is in the form of a war. However, to imagine that these are the only two belligerents against each other may be only a partial understanding of the political and life processes unfolding in the present. There is a third entity, a territory if you will, that these two belligerents are fighting over to conquer. That territory is the human body doubly identified as the host and a citizen by the belligerents. This is not to say that it is only the human body that is the host of the virus but it is definitely the only body that is diagnosed as infected and hence diseased once the body is claimed by the virus. The host body once diagnosed with Covid-19 which has been proclaimed as a global medico-political crisis immediately turns into a territory over which the medico-political pathogen and the government enter into a battle. This battle over the body rages long after the body has been declared as “cured.” A “cured” body is the one where the virus may have left but leaving traces. Traces so important and potent that a “recovered” body could be made extractive and mined by the government for its anti-medico-political pathogen properties. It is an epic battle that has continued from the time knowledge about pathogens and governments, whose one of many functions is to declare a pandemic, have existed. It can even be said that it is only when these belligerents (pathogens and governments) engage in a “war” that pandemics are created. It is quite clear from the above argument that the “unprecedentedness” of the current event is nevertheless marked by a colonial exploitation, extraction, and governmental process.

The metaphor of war in the governmental management of Covid-19 has been extensively commented on, most notably, in the case of India, by Ranabir Samaddar in his introductory essay of a book titled Borders of an Epidemic: Covid 19 and Migrant Workers (2020). When Michel Foucault inverted Clausewitz’s proposition to claim that politics is war by other means, the former was opening an investigation into governmentality and bio-politics. In the micro-studies of power that Foucault initiated into sites such as prisons, clinics, factories, etc. where institutional and infrastructural powers are arranged osmotically in the exercise of the government lay bare the mechanism of power and resistance. In the process, a network (or rather mesh) of power is created. At the moment when a government-recognized pathogen-led pandemic strikes, these sites and networks of power are mobilized and activated more intensely in the manner studied by Samaddar and redeployed both on the body as well as the body politic. The interesting thing, the argument of this article goes, is not only that it has happened all over again with distinct temporal-spatial and contextual inflections which define again the changed politics-as-war scenario for us. A more interesting aspect of this war also lies in new ways politics-as-war has completely transformed the topography (both in geographical as well as anatomical sense) as well as the territory over and for which objective politics-as-war is waged. One of the ways in which this has manifested is that government is increasingly operating and adopting the same strategies and tactics of expansion and mutation as the pathogen. The government, so to speak, becomes equally contagious. Let us try and trace how this has happened.

In order to make a case for government as contagion, it is important to let go of the desire (both liberal and authoritarian) for a well-planning, efficiently calculating and coordinating, and seamlessly executing government. One has to make a concession that government is not only an intrinsically messy affair but also an essentially expansionary affair operating on the frontiers of ‘science’ of expert knowledge and the ‘art’ of politics the objective of which is to operationalize power in relation to political subjects and production of subjectivities. We will have the occasion to mention some instances of the messy and expansionary practices of government. When the government recognized the belligerent pathogen and declared war it was done so in a conventionally linear manner based on expert scientific-bureaucratic knowledge. Government in India performed a range of manoeuvres that included a combination of surveillance, technology, and the tried-and-tested element of brute force nowhere more evident than the lathis of the police. The initial strategy of contact tracing and deployment of Aarogya Setu app overriding concerns of data security and privacy was perfecting what was already available to the government. It helped that there was an allied concept of a “super spreader.” This latter figure could be an individual or a community as was seen in the case of the Tablighi Jamaat incident. The Tablighi Jamaat incident was used to trace the “network” of this missionary institution and what was interesting in the whole episode was the ways in which an equivalence was sought between the alleged conspiratorial even “rational” plan of the missionary institution and the spread of the virus across the country. What was insinuated was that instead of a random spread of virus, it was possible to see the spread as based on rational calculation using the well-entrenched networks of the institution. This also checked with the insinuations of a well-planned biological warfare. This period was used to mobilize and consolidate all the existing infrastructure and networks of governmental power and scaling them up manifold. Social distancing and lockdown became the preferred mode of extending control over the individual bodies of “the people” and checking the belligerent’s advance over this territory. However, as the virus spread through one body to another based on its own dynamics and as it became increasingly evident that science of government articulated in policy was proving to be ineffective, the government adopted the pathogen mode of power which seemed to lie beyond the frontiers of the discursive and material powers of political and scientific experts and into the territory of citizen (and non-citizen) bodies. The tipping point came when the migrants started walking back to their homes as cities closed down and sealed their borders.

A fair amount has been written on the “migrant crisis” that exploded in the face of the government. One of the oft-invoked historical event was that of partition of India and the displacement of population on both sides of the newly created sovereign borders. In a way, this was understandable as images of workers and their families walking thousand of miles in dire conditions came from across the countries. Although, one of the most important historical events surprisingly never got recalled which to my mind could have been also pertinent. The historical event and the image were that of the indentured workers—the girmitiyas. This is not only because most of the migrant workers who walked were from the same geographical region which became the source of indentured workers under the colonial regime. The indentured workers of the 19th century were also a result of the then colonial government’s backed “agreement” between the workers, capitalists spread across colonies, and of course the government. The workers were also promised return which in most cases proved illusory if not downright fraud committed on the workers by the nexus of colonial government and rapacious capital. What happened during the pandemic was also a result of the complete breakdown of the tenuous agreement between the migrant, the city, capital, and government. Of course, this agreement was lopsided in favour of capital and government yet it was necessary for the circulation and accumulation of profit. Perhaps the government made the rational calculation that the agreement will hold and backed by the moralizing exhortation by the leader representative of the government, workers would stay put. This rational calculation failed miserably. Once it was confirmed that there would be no “rational” response from the worker on the lockdown and the indenture has been broken, the only response possible was of letting the migrant walk with variable intervention from the side of the government. In short, the government abandoned any semblance of rational calculation and corresponding policy outcomes. This war was to be fought by other means against the belligerent pathogen and the means to fight the war was to renew the claim on those bodies which carried or potentially could host the pathogen. Let us for the sake for inventive nomenclature identify the bodies over which both pathogen and government laid claim to as body-territories. It also may serve the purpose of underlining the colonial and extractive nature of the war between the government and the medico-political pathogen.

One of the many moves which the government adopted, a more interesting one was to first contest and subsequently deny the incursionary presence of the belligerent medico-political pathogen over some body-territories. In this it was widely helped by the medical experts’ ability to detect co-morbidities along with the incursive virus. As a result, the body-territory claimed by the pathogen was discursively if not materially reclaimed. It also made sense as figures of death and infected could be simultaneously kept in check through the identification of co-morbidities. Several commentators pointed out that diseases such as TB, encephalitis, diarrhoea, etc. kill more and have been doing so through the years and poor are more vulnerable to them. The government though had the precedence of planning and managing these ‘known’ diseases and death notwithstanding their efficacies. These were not aliens who had invaded or illegally settled in the body-territories. In fact, government co-inhabited on the body-territories with these known and identifiable medico-legal pathogens and used them to deny the exclusive claim of Covid-19.

Perhaps the more interesting aspect of the war for body-territories is the way government mined them for resources in the war. If social distancing and segregation of individual bodies was at one end of the strategy of containing the belligerent medico-political pathogen, a government driven medico-political strategy of plasma therapy on the other established intense bodily intimacies between the “cured” and “diseased” bodies. The entire process was a strange combination of the coercive and the agential. It was based on voluntary donation of blood by cured patients but was used as a principal mode of managing the disease in many states and in which the Delhi government took the lead. There is no other way to understand this strategy than the power appropriated by the government to invade the body-territory much like the pathogen as well as use the former’s exploitative and extractive powers. The government followed the belligerent medico-political pathogen and quite literally entered into the veins of the body of its citizens. Prison and clinics operated on the body. It was possible for the government now to invade and administer inside the body without necessarily appealing to the agency of the infected body. A body infected both by the pathogen as well as the government.

Without insisting on it too much, there is a case to be made of thinking the post-Covid-19 society as a “viral society” based on how governmental forms of power over the social and political body has been reconstituted. Covid-19 pathogen and its battle with the government over body-territories is being conducted at a scale that goes even deeper than the capillary, the micro-scale at which Foucault exhorted us to study the operation of power. A micro-scale at least equivalent to that of the medico-political pathogen and a surreptitiously invading government power operating on and within the bodies of their subjects.

Note: The author wishes to acknowledge the webinar series on “Contagion Design: Labour, Economy, Habits, Data” organized by Institute for Culture and Society, Western Sydney University, Australia where the discussion among presenters and participants helped in the formulation of some of the ideas presented here.

Mithilesh Kumar is an Assistant Professor at Christ (Deemed to be University), Bangalore, India.


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