Monsters are no longer criminals because they violate natural law; criminals are monsters because they violate the norms of society.”
Brad E. Foucault Studies 1 (2004).
Much has been written about the coronavirus and its impact on global communities. Almost every continent in the world has been affected by the viral infection and millions of people have directly or indirectly been affected by the power of the virus. Humanity is indeed facing one of the most dangerous and difficult natural disasters in recent history. Yet the struggle against this natural disaster has brought up unpredicted threats and uncertainties through which the freedom of human and their daily livelihood are being challenged.
With the emergence of the viral infection, the less privileged people in the lower level of the society have been heavily affected and are being continually isolated and left behind. Writers and columnists in leading papers are pointing out how some women’s lives are at risk at home due to their abusive partners during lockdown.
India already faces a humiliating humanitarian crisis of migrant workers. Recent news has confirmed that the ‘long march of India’ has already taken 20 human lives while walking in hunger and being confronted with other ailments and road accidents. Beaten by police and finally walking hundreds of km on foot without food, these labourers have died without seeing their families before Covid-19 hit their lives. Similarly, thousands of free trade zone workers who were released from their workplaces without being paid their monthly salary are forced to leave the main cities. Over six million people in Syria, displaced due to civil war, will face another round of humanitarian catastrophe if the coronavirus spreads rapidly. Reputed British journalist Emma Barnett argues that the coronavirus has given the UK Government authority to control ‘pregnant bodies of women’. The vulnerable sectors of the society such as children, women and especially elderly citizens of counties are facing life and death choices amidst the crisis.
The coronavirus outbreak has created social instability and unrest between communities, and it is evident that the marginalization of certain social groups, the elderly from the young, women from men, the healthy from the unhealthy and the fit from the unfit are becoming apparent in the current situation.
According to experts’ advice, social distancing and self-isolation would be one of the key preventive measures to curb the spreading of the virus. City dwellers and middle-class citizens are obediently complying with those rules imposed by the medico-judicial system of the country. But what about other strata and people who are in temporary living and earning daily wages in cities and urban areas? Have they been able to follow what the Government suggests to curb the pandemic? The news reporters and the army officials give continuous instructions on how to behave during the lifting of curfew, such as how to maintain one-metre distancing between individuals.
“The coronavirus outbreak has created social instability and unrest between communities, and it is evident that the marginalization of certain social groups”
But the reality is that as soon as the curfew is lifted, the hungry citizens cram into local markets. What they think about is how to find a lump of food and how to get a Government subsidy or support given for the lower-income community. The working-class of New Delhi and adjoining areas have been stranded on roads and have started to march a hundred kilometers to find their home countries. Nearly 70 million Syrian refugees are getting exposed to the viral infection and the social distancing appears to be cynical for those who live in confined refugee camps. Have we thought about how these people, who suffer the most in this coronavirus crisis, perceive the danger of the pandemic? Have we ever able to understand what they need and how they perceive the choices of living and death? As seen so far, they are not interested in rationally understanding the danger of coronavirus; their main problem is to find some food for their families. Hunger is a much stronger need than the feeling of fear or death.
Amidst these chaotic social situations, the creeping of military and bio-political operations is beginning to emerge through the disguised biomedical discourse. One Facebook user posted a banner and stated that the President does not need 225 parliamentarians but has the military systems to launch the war against the corona outbreak. As seen in this sentiment, the people invite the ruling regime to be use the military mechanism to fight the virus infection. Thus, the coronavirus outbreak is transformed into a ‘war against terror’.
Writing an article to the London newspaper, Guardian columnist Nick Kohen writes ‘Temporary” powers in an emergency have a habit of becoming permanent. Just as tyrannical governments, from Hungary to China, are using the pandemic to impose more controls, so democratic societies will need to show a liberal response to the virus (Cohen, 2020).
After a few weeks of curfew and measures imposed to curb the coronavirus pandemic, it has been proved that the medical and political procedures that have been introduced to isolate people and practicing social distancing are not effective solutions for the problem the Sri Lankan society faces at the moment. Everyday virologists and medical experts circulate information and talk to the masses but the spreading of the coronavirus is still increasing. This large-scale human catastrophe has developed into a major social outbreak where medical or political instructions can only do a limited service to the public unrest. Nobody can deny the fact that there won’t be other social and psychological catastrophesto be unfolded in the coming weeks. But so far the current government has not proven that it has a clear vision, understanding or good faith to tackle such social outbreaks. Rather the governmental regulations are messed up with its strategy to curb the virus through religio-medical-judiciary salad bowl.
The medical system and the authorities appear to believe that providing the scientifically proven truthful facts about coronavirus and the proposed measures to curb the viral infection would provide the correct solution to cure the disease. However, it appears that people are not following those instructions or not interested in following rules and regulations proposed. Every day, a lot of people are being captured as those who have overruled the curfew measures. Others who gather at government secretariats or local markets fight against time to buy some essential food items.
As we experience on a daily basis, people who are selling household items loaded in their wooden carts do not seem interested in Government regulations or coronavirus prevention methods. They act and sell their items to the public who are hiding because of the possibility of being infected, in their dens, and only coming out to buy some vegetables, fruits or other essential items. Those vendors appear confident and are merely covering their faces with a piece of cloth, while keenly involved in the selling and buying business. What makes these people fearless? The medical doctrine may not be able to answer this question.
In the South Asian region where the so-called democratic governments are beginning to battle against the corona outbreak, societies are becoming more militarized and anthropocentric. The ideological mechanism functioning through the Governments and private media is that it is the people’s responsibility to comply with the medical and judicial regulations imposed during this difficult time. Those who do not comply with these medico-judicial systems will be prosecuted and punished. In this discussion, I would like to recall Michael Foucault’s theorization of how a regime could be operated as an oppressive system to impose its bio-judicial structure to govern. Foucault provides the term dispositive to denote how the institutional and physical systems enhance and maintain power relations and control the exercise of power over society.
In this sense, the current medico-judicial system imposed to curb the coronavirus outbreak has further operated as an oppressive power to suppress marginalized and underprivileged people in the country. As seen in the Indian example where thousands of migrant workers marched to find their families in faraway villages and died along the way without being infected by COVID-19, the majority of Sri Lankan workers who earn a living on daily basis are confronting a more complex and life-threatening social catastrophe before they see the fatal consequences of coronavirus.
“But the reality is that as soon as the curfew is lifted, the hungry citizens cram into local markets. What they think about is how to find a lump of food and how to get a Government subsidy or support given for the lower-income community”
Currently, the medico-judicial discourse of this country merely understands the human body as homogeneous physicality and as abiological entity where a viral infection affects and infects a vulnerable body. Further, it does not understand that people have different bodies and existences, and tries to follow the measures and procedures to discipline and policing human bodies. Therefore, the fight against COVID-19 is becoming a war against an unseen monstrosity. This monstrosity appears as two-fold headed creature: one head is the disguised virus and the other one is the non-compliance human body to the medico-judicial system. In this biological warfare, as the coronavirus pandemic unfolds day by day, the sovereignty of the governance is strengthened through the medico-political and judicial measures imposed to curb the two-headed monsters.
Through this biological war, the tyrannical power of the political leaders is becoming centralized and people of a different race and color, women and other marginalized communities in the society are being isolated and removed for the main medico-political discourse for the betterment of a healthy and biologically fit ‘nation’. This is what the coronavirus is teaching us today.
The author wishes to thank Sachini Senevirathne, PGIE,
Open University of Sri Lanka who helped to copy edit this paper.
Saumya Liyanage (Ph.D.) is Professor in Theatre and the Dean of the Faculty of Graduate Studies, University of Visual and Performing Arts, Colombo, Sri Lanka and can be reached on email@example.com