Last month Haymarket Books hosted an interview with novelist and activist Arundhati Roy and moderator Imani Perry about the Covid-19 health crisis and its implications across the globe on public health, human rights, and policymaking.
The interview explored Roy’s ideas in her widely-quoted essay published in the Financial Times. In it she writes: “Historically, pandemics have forced humans to break with the past and imagine their world anew. This one is no different. It is a portal, a gateway between one world and the next.”
As the pandemic has unfolded, it further exposed the jarring injustices of our human society. In India, after Prime Minister Modi gave the public only four hours to prepare for a full lockdown, millions of workers were left stranded in cities and forced to walk hundreds of miles back to their home villages. Roy found these workers were being accused of spreading the virus and turned back at state borders. Others faced abuse and humiliation by the police and the public.
In the Indian government’s attempts to quell the virus, something else surged – totalitarianism, mistreatment, and police brutality. This undue flex of state power as a response to the health crisis has resulted in ostracization and humiliation for workers, and this pattern can be observed in other parts of the world.
Roy explained the space of a city acts as a depoliticizing force, pointing to how city-dwellers can be more easily surveilled and therefore controlled.
In the talk, Roy explained the space of a city acts as a depoliticizing force, pointing to how city-dwellers can be more easily surveilled and therefore controlled. This is compounded by the changes in supply chains and the disappearance of subsistence economies that have accompanied the modern era of globalization and capitalism. Roy commented in the talk that India’s strongest revolutionary movements originated in agrarian villages, yet as the environment in the countryside becomes destroyed, millions of people are funneled into cities in search of work.
Roy emphasized that increasing government digital surveillance and electronic data collection are a significant threat to the freedom of citizens. She explained that in response to the pandemic, Modi asked Indians to download an app called Aarogya Setu that so far has 50 million users and has been heavily criticized for its lack of privacy protection. The app is meant to reduce the spread of Covid by notifying users if they have come within six feet of an infected person. In one report, a woman who had been in self-isolation for weeks with her family was forced to leave her home and relocate to a quarantine center due to a complaint originating from the app. Adding to this, there is also the risk that people with the virus may be criminalized if they are out of their homes, yet many who become infected may never experience symptoms, and would therefore be unaware that they have Covid given that the virus can be asymptomatic.
Human society has experienced pandemics in the past, but this moment in history is particularly significant, and our choices are therefore all the more important. Currently, we are facing a pandemic within the context of new developments in technology and surveillance compounded by the heavily burdened and degraded state of the earth due to advanced capitalism.
We desperately need to dream and imagine new possibilities so we can make new choices. We are collectively faced with a need for deep feeling, solidarity, and action.
Roy suggests that we need to return to the wisdom of the land. In a beautiful analogy for the shift in consciousness that will be required of all of us in order to emerge from this crisis with renewed vision, Roy recounts a story of her activist work against illegal mining: “Bauxite is a porous stone in the mountains that works as a water tank. When it rains, it stores the water, and then the mountains let the water out and it nourishes the plains where food is grown. In one imagination, the bauxite is worth nothing in the mountain – you have to take it out of the mountain, you have to sell it and make aluminum. In another imagination, the bauxite is only worth anything in the mountain. Can we leave the bauxite in the mountain? Can we arrive at that intelligence?”
As Roy notes, the Western imagination is limited and steeped in the idea that war and annihilation must be a part of democracy and freedom. We desperately need to dream and imagine new possibilities so we can make new choices. We are collectively faced with a need for deep feeling, solidarity, and action.
“Now more than ever, we need to feel each other’s feelings, fight each other’s battles, feel, and write, and not protect [just] ourselves, [but] protect other people,” Roy said.
And fortunately, there are some recent examples of this. Roy points to the massive nonviolent women-led street protests against the anti-Muslim citizenship laws passed in December as “an exhilarating moment” where “people came out to defend an idea of India, of diversity, of secularism… [in] a florescence of resistance that filled your heart”. It is exactly these moments of heart-filling florescence that will be precious and important allies for visioning and preparing for the future ahead.
Roy tells us to travel with little luggage through the portal of this pandemic. This is an urgent call to leave behind the old ideas of capitalism as the cure and its newer mutation of money-as-God that have so infected the entire globe, archaic vestiges of a human society that has been at its foundation structured by colonialism, slavery, indentured labour, exclusion, and elitism.
This quarantine offers us a unique opportunity for organizing – with many people isolating at home and laid off work, we have the time to reflect on the world and choose our next actions. Maybe that is a community garden. Maybe it’s advocating for better policy such as sick leave and hazard pay, or increased government spending in healthcare. Maybe it’s speculative fiction workshops to push our imaginations to dream up the alternative futures that we so desperately need. Maybe it’s healing and meditation circles to recover from the pain and heartache from this pandemic. We need all of it. Each of us has a unique offering to the world, and we need everyone in this.
As Roy reminds us, we are all co-creators of this, and every, moment. How shall we proceed?
“We’ve got to walk towards this portal with power and say we don’t want this earth to be destroyed. It’s not going to be given to us like cut fruit to eat. We’re going to have to fight for it,” she said.