Telling the Story of the Pandemic

How does one tell the story of a world under the reign of terror of the coronavirus? While authoritative accounts are yet to congeal, a curious genre of storytelling is emerging.

This is one that (probably unwittingly) mimics that of the self-consciously self-reflexive anthropologist. It begins with a declaration of the subject position – I am an upper-caste, middle-class, cisgender woman based at an elite University – and a tacit if not overt acknowledgement of the structural privilege that comes with it. Such positioning is, of course, vital as we need to consistently demolish the hoary anthropological trope of being a “fly on the wall” or the idea that the account that follows is unmediated by the authorial self. In some cases, however, it is as if a frank acknowledgement of the self allows for the writer to then continue to write as she would have always done. Surely the point of being aware of and openly acknowledging one’s privileges and very particular positioning in the world is to allow it to transform ones thinking and writing? The limit of self-reflexivity is that a critical challenging of the epistemological parameters of the anglophone mainstream from which it emerged – and continues to dwell in – isn’t always in evidence. Instead, a specific brand of ethnographic reflexivity comes, oftentimes, to serve as a mere fig leaf that allows for the airing of unexamined positions. How many of us have not read a monograph and complained about precisely such an instrumentalization and perversion of the reflexive turn?

In a similar vein, there is  a sudden rush of writing on the pandemic that begins by saying, “I know I am privileged because of X, Y, Z reason (home to shelter in, stable income, good health, minimal caring responsibilities, etc.)”. This position established, the articles go on to make claims relating to the resurgence and healing of nature. I am using nature here broadly to include the “return” of nonhuman animals and birds as well as the cleansing of air, land, water and the reduction of noise pollution.

What, one might ask, might be the problem with such a form of telling the story of the pandemic? Aren’t the animals in the videos that we are all watching on social media or reading about in cooing news items, “emissaries of hope and possibility, letting us dare to dream of a better world when this nightmarish darkness is gone”? In line with the push to “study-up” in anthropology, isn’t it also important to capture what an exemplar of this pandemic-genre-in-the-making in the New Yorker described as “how the world looks from inside the silver lining”? In my opinion, such a form of telling the story of the pandemic – the world is nightmarish and I know I am privileged but let’s look at wondrous animals reclaiming the earth and breathe in the cleaner air, listen to the sounds of silence, and learn birdwatching – is deeply problematic. It is noteworthy that much of this form of writing on the pandemic is well-intentioned and, in fact, reaches for a greater earthly consciousness. Yet, there are questions of facticity of these accounts as well as their temporality. These ways of narrating the pandemic are also riding on a breath-taking privilege that they mistakenly think by merely acknowledging (“I know I am lucky *but*…”) they are overcoming. On their own these criticisms – of falling prey to fake/misleading news or even being the musings of the 1% – don’t really warrant a serious engagement. What does occasion the writing of this essay though is that such narratives mimic traditional modalities of describing the world and are, thence, inimical to the development of a radical climate politics.

Let us first take the nonhuman animal accounts. Right from the start of the imposition of lockdowns, we have been seeing – or thinking we are seeing – images and videos of animals returning to spaces recently emptied out by humans. These range from fishes in the canals of Venice to dolphins on the shores of Mumbai to inebriated elephants in China to goats in Welsh towns. Much of this is, as we eventually find out to our collective dismay, fake news. But even those stories that are real – for animals are behaving in somewhat different ways than before due to human quarantining – the interpretations of these sightings follow similar logics. The pandemic is being presented as a time to relish the “return” of animals to lands that have been so unjustly snatched away by humans. While there is no doubt that humans are colonising more and more space on the planet, this account is troubling for several reasons. In the first, it isn’t as if these nonhumans don’t even in non-pandemic times inhabit the very same spaces. Much research has established the fact that animals are very much part of the urban with even large predators like leopards and tigers thriving in human-dominated landscapes. Arguably, all that we are witnessing on those viral videos and stories that are true, is a movement further afield and at times of the day when animals normally wouldn’t venture out as such.

Consider also those animals that are suffering due to the absence of humans – the starving monkeys in India and Thailand or the deer in Japan. Both these sorts of effects – of seeing animals wandering in human-dominated landscapes and the negatively impacted ones that are, such as lonely garden eels, missing human company – should be read as indicators of our deep and complex entanglements with nonhumans. These are indicators of how profound the effects of human actions are and how they are coming to powerfully shape the planet. This, in other words, is what is meant by life in the Anthropocene. If anything, this should be a moment to reconsider human relationships with animals and understand that the pandemic “emerges out of an increasingly dysfunctional relationship between human communities, other animals, and the broader environment.” The real story of this pandemic, especially when viewed in relationship to animals, is that we humans are the beasts who have caused this particular zoonotic disease as with several in the past and – in all probability – others in lying ahead in the future.

 

The “animals are flourishing in the absence of humans” also has a deeply troubling history, one that has played out – with not a small amount of violence – in much of the world. Implicit, if not explicit, in these narratives of animals enjoying spaces devoid of human presence is the long shadow of a still-strong tenet of conservationism – that humans and animals cannot co-exist. In order to preserve animals and birds we need to carve out spaces of pure wilderness in which no humans can continue to live. The impact of the American wilderness movement and Northern brands of environmentalism on the global South are by now well-documented and critiqued. A belief in the creation of pure animal spaces devoid of any human presence in order to protect wildlife has had hugely deleterious effects in, for instance, India. Adivasis and other marginalised communities have been removed – through active coercion or by the making of false promises of ‘rehabilitation’ – from newly-designated national parks and sanctuaries, especially those created to protect charismatic mega-fauna like tigers, elephants, and rhinos. Not only is the injustice of such actions condemnable, but also there is no evidence that humans and animals cannot, in fact, co-exist in the same space with equanimity (Saberwal et al 2000).

 

Finally, these feel-good stories of the increase in tiger sightings in the Sundarbans or the happy wanderings of frolicking baby elephants and pretty pink flamencos seem to entirely forget – and thus do the work of effacing – that we are in the midst of the sixth mass extinction. Stories of nature reclaiming the planet can end up diverting attention away from not just from the rapidity of species extinction, but also from the more worrying news items of the day. For instance, in India the Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change has been swiftly and silently pushing through policies and programmes that will cause even more environmental and wildlife-related catastrophes. Perhaps it is the types of acts that the pandemic is conveniently providing a cover for that should merit greater attention than dubious feel-good stories?

 

The second sub-field of this resurgent nature narrative is one that focuses on bluer skies and cleaner air. There is no denying that there has been a massive drop in air pollution with Delhi, for instance, seeing its air quality improve extraordinarily. But, yet, to celebrate the Air Quality Indexes (AQIs) and wax eloquent about being able to see the Himalaya in distant Indian cities due to the clearing up of the smog is to feed into a dangerous account of the story of the coronavirus. In the first place, the drop in air pollution doesn’t mean carbon emissions are globally down. One estimate notes that even with the world at a near stand-still, carbon dioxide emissions are down only 5.5% when they need to be cut by at least 7.6% annually to avert the most dangerous climate threats. This piece also makes the important point that many of the accounts that are pointing to clearer skies and cleaner waters as evidence of the differences being made are conflating air and water pollution with carbon emissions. They are also focusing too much on the issue of transportation (20% of total global emissions are caused by travel) and individualised personal actions, instead of wider structural changes that need to be urgently made. Much like the animals are returning stories that can serve to hide the reality of rapid mass extinction, this extolling of cleaner air is overlooking the fact that the current situation is still not adequate to the combating of the climate emergency.

 

There are two further aspects of this “purer-air” and “healthy AQI” discourse that I find ethically, intellectually, and politically problematic that I lay out through a focus on India.

 

The first is a consideration of the cost at which this cleaner air has been arrived upon in India. The number of dead and seriously ill due to the coronavirus are obvious enough. In addition, there are an estimated 120 million seasonal migrant labourers who have lost their livelihoods due to an ill-planned and hastily imposed lockdown by Modi in India on March 24. As is the wont with Modi’s governance style, there was no preparedness in evidence for what is the world’s largest and harshest lockdown. The poor and vulnerable – especially those millions of people who work in towns and cities far from their homes – were left abandoned within a matter of a few hours. As all public transportation was also suspended, we are seeing heart-rending images of masses of migrants walking on foot to their homes located hundreds of miles away, carrying their meagre possessions and small children on their selves. The visual imagery of this mass exodus mimics the displacement of the Partition. What is unfolding in India is an epic humanitarian crisis that has been brought on, willy-nilly, by a callous state form that, somehow, didn’t see or remember hundreds of millions of its poor and vulnerable citizens. To date, at least 383 people have been killed due to the sheer brutality of the lockdown. It now appears that hunger might kill many more than the coronavirus will in India.

 

In a particularly gruesome incident on May 8, 16 migrant workers in the state of Maharashtra were mowed down by a train. They had been walking for ages towards a station in order to get a train that they hoped would take them home. Exhausted, they had fallen asleep on some rail tracks. Scattered rotis on the tracks remain on as testaments to their presence and tragic fates. As a newspaper headline on this incident ran: “sorry, we have run out of all words today.” Whenever we are able to conjure up some words then surely it is the killing of these 16 unnamed humans that should be a central story of the pandemic? What must also not be forgotten is that the cleaner air that the middle classes and rich are now inhaling in big Indian cities is being paid with quite literally through the blood of the poor. In such a scenario, to say “I know I am privileged and how very dreadful that poor people in India are adversely affected *but* let’s enjoy the clean air in Delhi or Bangalore” is simply unacceptable.

 

Celebratory narratives of lower pollution levels in this period of the Indian lockdown also play into the hands of a long-standing debate, which pits ‘development’ against ‘conservation’. A variation of this very same thinking is one that we now see politicians, policy-makers, the media voice all the time in India – that the objectives of saving the environment and moving the economy along (“economics” versus “environment”) cannot ever be co-terminous. After all, this cleaner air and lower noise levels have been achieved by bringing all economic and other forms of human activity to a grinding standstill. My proposition is that this genre of resurgent nature writing ends up subtly re-enforcing these flawed dichotomies: between what is development and what is conservation and sharpens the divide between economics and the environment. The pandemic and the climate crisis that we are submerged in should, instead, be pushing us to radically reform the very terms of this debate. Development should be redefined – for instance through a turn to degrowth – to not stand as something that can only ever be attained through the destruction or at the cost of the preservation of nature, resources, and biodiversity.

 

The pandemic should awaken us to the fact that there can be no development without conservation as the destruction of the planet is precisely what has brought the world to its knees through this pandemic. If the environment continues to be harmed at the pace and scale at which it currently is, then there can and will be no humans left to construct and speculate on matters ‘economic’. As Arundhati Roy has pointed out this pandemic is a portal, and we can walk through it dragging along with us the dead ideas and practices of today. “Or we can walk through lightly, with little luggage, ready to imagine another world.” To be able to imagine this other world we need to carefully consider how the story of the pandemic is being constructed in this very moment.

 

To restate, this pandemic has emerged from the destruction of nature that is wrought by a thinking premised upon dichotomies of development/economics VS. conservation/the environment respectively. Indeed, we have been taught these debates in precisely such terms in sociology and anthropology syllabi and we continue to work and think through these very categories. The pandemic and the climate crisis it is borne of should alert us to the fallaciousness of such thinking and push us to discard these worn out conceptions.

Donna Harraway has made the point, drawing from Marilyn Strathern, that “It matters what matters we use to think other matters with; it matters what stories we tell to tell other stories with…it matters what stories make worlds, what worlds make stories (2016: 12).” In the emergent literature on the Anthropocene and the climate crisis, there has been a repeated call made to find new ways of telling stories. The reasons for this injunction to devise new storytelling techniques couldn’t be clearer than in the beastly tale of the coronavirus pandemic. How we shift scale in our stories – from the planetary to the particular – and construct and narrate these tales is not easy, as is evident even from this brief essay on the problems with one genre of telling coronavirus stories. Connections between seemingly disparate phenomena need to be traced out; new ways of communicating have to be constructed; unproductive older categories discarded; our different audiences have to be awakened to the reality of the climate crisis; and radical new forms of inter-disciplinarity to be practiced (Mathur, in press).

The title of this essay has an invisible question mark attached to it at the end. It is not aimed at prescribing a story of this pandemic. Rather it is aimed at gently cautioning against a genre that is gaining currency that carries with it shadows of scholarship that are in urgent need of subversion. Telling stories of a healing nature might make for cheerful reading in these dark times, but such tales are ultimately inimical to the birthing of the very progressive climate politics they hope to espouse.


Nayanika Mathur is Associate Professor in the Anthropology of South Asia and Fellow of Wolfson College at the University of Oxford. She also co-directs a ‘climate crisis thinking in the humanities and social sciences’ research network at Oxford. Her first book, Paper Tiger: Law, Bureaucracy, and the Developmental State in Himalayan India (Cambridge, 2016), is an ethnography of bureaucracy that engages with questions of transparency, paperwork, welfare, and state failure in India. Her second book, Crooked Cats: Beastly Tales from the Anthropocene (Chicago, in press), retells the story of big cats that make prey of humans in India in the shadow of the climate crisis.


References

Haraway, Donna. 2016. Staying with the Trouble: Making Kin in the Chthulucene. Durham: Duke University Press.

Saberwal, V., M. Rangarajan, and A. Kothari. 2000. People, Parks, and Wildlife: Towards Co-existence, New Delhi: Orient Longman

Mathur, Nayanika. In Press. Crooked Cats: Beastly Tales from the Anthropocene. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

This post originally appeared in Somatosphere in a forum on COVID-19

railway tracks