Authors: N.S Abhilasha and Aishwarya Bhuta
The COVID-19 pandemic has dealt a devastating blow to lives and livelihoods across the world. No nation-state, be it rich or poor, strong or weak, rogue or failed has been spared by this unanticipated catastrophe. A superpower such as the United States of America has had to kneel before the mighty crisis, while other European giants the likes of Italy, Spain, UK, and France have also been forced to lay their arms down. At the same time, the small island nation of Cuba has been exemplary in extending international medical support to severely affected Italy as well as Qatar, South Africa, Algeria, and Venezuela. Such contradictions compel us to engage into a critical interrogation of the idea of development itself.
The Age of Improvement
It is useful to look into the origins of modernization before we analyze development in contemporary societies. The 1550s mark the onset of the early modern period. The eighteenth century was called the Age of Improvement. Empirical sciences such as botany and geology enabled human beings to see, classify and replicate natural resources. Desired improvements could be brought about by dominance over natural and human resources in order to produce crops and commodities of the highest economic value. To improve was to be able to see and use every tree of well planned, neat-looking forests, as Richard Drayton observed in Nature’s Government (2000).
Science with its power of reason aided Europeans to colonize unknown lands, but there was no dearth of challenges for them. Epidemics, famines and earthquakes followed in quick succession. Serious investments in medical science started only by the mid-nineteenth century. One of its objectives was to rebrand their image as benevolent rulers. Scientific societies with ‘experts’ were appointed in-charge of surveys and documentation. However, there was little emphasis on basic amenities such as nutrition, safe housing and sanitation in the colonies. Private interests of mine owners, plantation owners and traders invariably held a sway on scientific pursuits.
Modern State and Welfare
The late twentieth century saw increasing movements for independence and growing demands for equal rights. A welfare state is one where social services such as education, health-care and nutrition are considered to be rights, i.e. citizens need not depend on market forces for the same. But the newly formed governments could not undo the image of mai-baap (guardian). In The Three Worlds of Welfare Capitalism (1990), Gosta-Esping Andersen argues that there are no welfare states without conditions. If the welfare measures are exiguous or of poor quality, then the privileged do not hesitate from approaching private service providers. In contrast, when social assistance is provided to those who ‘demonstrate’ the need for it, the beneficiaries must bear social stigma. Moreover, inefficiency in mapping mobile labour results in many migrant workers being omitted from receiving their share of social assistance.
The ongoing lockdown illustrates how migrant labour is commodified and dependent on capitalist market forces. A long chain of contractors, sub-contractors and petty bureaucrats stand between the government and the worker. In India, the relief measures announced by the central and state governments have been not only tardy but also grossly inadequate. A stark contrast is visible in case of professionals and students stranded abroad. Special flights and quarantine facilities are arranged for their repatriation, while poor migrant workers are forced to walk thousands of miles in scorching heat to return home. Class and caste are important factors that shape the interactions between the state and the people.
The Malaise of Modernity
Development and modernity cannot be studied in isolation. Rationality, reason, secularization, advancements in science and technology, and the capitalist mode of production are the features of contemporary modern societies. While Marx located the source of the problems of modern industrially advanced societies in capitalism, Weber attributed these to increasing rationalization and bureaucratization. As social interactions come to be governed by calculations and methodical procedures, we see the world trapped under an ‘iron cage of rationality’. It is astonishing how the industrially advanced Western countries could neither anticipate nor avert the spread of the contagion despite being home to the cream of the world’s research centres and institutions.
What unfurl before us are both the juggernaut of modernity as conceptualized by Anthony Giddens as well as Ulrich Beck’s ‘risk society’. As argued by the former, modernity has emerged as a potent force nearly impossible to tame. Further, the pandemic has exposed our risk societies wherein the central concern remains not inclusive development but the prevention, management and control of risk; in this case, that of mass contagion. Scientific communities all over the world are rushing to manufacture a vaccine against and cure for COVID-19, with little success so far. Even if a vaccine is discovered, its effective distribution will be a huge challenge given the inequalities of access.
The Development Conundrum
Development has been an uneven process with some developing at the cost of others. In The Myth of Development (1999), Vincent Tucker traces the beginning of the development discourse to the end of the Second World War (1939-1945). Proclaiming that it had achieved the highest level of economic and cultural evolution, the USA soon began urging the ‘left out’ countries to ‘catch up’. This process of catching up or ‘development’ was to be achieved at two levels – economic and intellectual. Backed by the might of rich and developed countries, international development agencies began providing loans and aid under the pretext of helping the ‘underdeveloped’ countries harness technologies and institutions for accelerating economic activity. Besides, Western educational institutions continued to strengthen their hegemony over knowledge production.
The post-War period witnessed rapid growth and expansion, especially in the two immediate decades from 1950-1970. But as J. R. McNeill notes in Something New Under the Sun (2000), this period also marked an uncontrolled experiment on the earth. Greed for cheap energy forced countries in perpetual conflict, a prominent example being the Gulf War of 1991. More subtly, the West defined the one-dimensional path of progress in culture and knowledge, education and politics, religion and community. Forcing the underdeveloped countries to follow the path charted by the developed countries without considering the unique historical experiences of the former gave rise to what A.G. Frank called the ‘development of underdevelopment’.
Pandemic and Biopolitics
The pandemic has legitimized what Foucault termed as biopower, or the mass control of bodies and populations. Science and technology have become indispensable tools for controlling nature and human thought. The state has established complete dominance over our lives through its various institutions, mainly bureaucracy and military. Instances of police brutality are surfacing every other day during the lockdown. Added to this is the power of technology which facilitates round-the-clock surveillance. The Indian government is trying to mandate the download of the Aarogya Setu contact-tracing application notwithstanding several apprehensions regarding violation of privacy.
Human life can scarcely remain untouched by larger socio-political processes and strategies. This crisis has endangered life itself, making biological life the object of power. The state emerges as the sovereign authority governing every aspect of our public as well as private lives during the pandemic. While the urban upper and middle classes can work from home and be safe inside their gated communities, migrant workers are left with neither work nor home. The logic of biopolitics considers some lives to be dispensable and less equal than others.
Be it for ‘improvement’ in the eighteenth century or for ‘development’ in the twentieth, natural resources and the poor have been exploited as means to greedy ends. In their scramble for development, the most powerful countries of the world have shown little regard for anything, be it the weaker countries or the environment. The COVID-19 pandemic has shaken our belief in the technology-empowered invincibility of human beings. Despite unparalleled advancements in medical science, millions are being infected by the novel coronavirus and thousands have lost their lives. Why are the most developed regions the worst affected? Are ecological disasters and diseases the dialectical repercussions of development?
Epidemics and pandemics have been a part of human history since ancient times. While diseases such as smallpox and plague have been subdued, new infectious ones are emerging. Nevertheless, public health has not received the attention it deserves. The exoticization of diseases tends to dominate our daily discourse rather than holding our governments accountable for their structural failures.
Amartya Sen emphasized the instrumental as well as constitutive values of freedom in the conception of development. Freedom from hunger, morbidity and early mortality are not only instrumental to other freedoms, but also constitutive of the larger development project. Universal access to education and healthcare facilities promote general well-being and are pivotal to growth and development. The dominant idea of development rests on a paradoxical combination – more control (bureaucratic, technological and military) and less freedom. One way to resolve the paradox is to heed Sen’s advice of development as freedom – to ensure substantial freedom through quality education, healthcare, political participation, and social security.