The COVID-19 pandemic is serving as a moment for grand epiphanies, writes Salman Sikander
Marxist philosopher Georgio Agamben wrote that the ‘State of Exception’ is one in which subjects are included and yet excluded from general rule of law. Agamben writes that subjects are in a zone of complete in-distinction between fact and law, bare life and politics, and inclusion and exclusion. Law is suspended in the name of “protection” and “freedom” of the people, and ironically, this state deprives of them of their basic rights and their freedom. When this state of exception becomes permanent, it forms the basis of totalitarian regimes and enables them to flourish.
Today, in the time of coronavirus pandemic, this ‘state of exception’ can be seen in the videos of police violence on people who breach lockdowns. It becomes more pronounced when we see the countries which have suspended rights of people for their own protection.
The COVID-19 pandemic has also revealed how rights of certain segments in Pakistan have been determined by this permanent state of exception. I am talking, in particular, about students and workers – the building blocks of any state and society. No state can afford to completely exclude and alienate these two vital segments. But in Pakistan, and indeed many other states, they have been excluded yet included, i.e., the state only makes use of their bodies but in return deprives them of basic rights promised to them. Their voices are ignored as if they do not exist. They are overlooked as if they are spirits which cannot be seen.
Take the example of how the government and university administrations are treating the coronavirus pandemic. Educational institutes have been closed, factories have been given strict guidelines and healthcare workers were asked to lead the fight from the frontlines. Yet students, workers and frontline medical staff are all protesting these days. Why?
Students are being forced to attend online classes in a situation when not all of them have access to the internet. Millions of students across the country are protesting and boycotting these classes. Yet, no one is hearing them. It is like a scene from a horror movie in which spirits try to talk to humans, but humans don’t even know these spirits are present around them. In theory, education is available. In reality, the students are being denied their right to education.
We also see public healthcare workers – being hailed as heroes of the nation –protesting for the protective gear, which is the bare minimum that they need in order to lead the fight from the frontlines without becoming casualties of this pandemic. The state has responded to their demands by arresting them and is compelling them to treat patients without safety kits as their patriotic duty.
And while the ruling elite watch the collapsing global economy with great trepidation, workers are being laid off en masse and have been cordoned off in congested neighbourhoods, unable to access food and rations to survive this lockdown. They have begun protesting on the streets for their basic right to bare essentials.
The COVID-19 pandemic is serving as a moment for grand epiphanies. Students are once again calling for restoration of student unions as they have become painfully aware of the absence of any representative platform that can negotiate and liaise on their behalf with university administrations who are charging exorbitant fees but barely providing any education.
Similarly, the silence of private healthcare providers in this crucial time is deafening. For long our public healthcare system was neglected in favour of private, inaccessible medical facilities. Yet, our public healthcare system is bearing the brunt of this crisis, even though it is widely acknowledged that our hospitals are in a woeful condition and not equipped for managing mass infections. Now, more than ever, we need a strong public healthcare system and ensuring welfare of medical staff is a vital first step in the right direction.
Pandemics reshape lives of people and change the course of history. The events which are unfolding in our country during this pandemic are not ordinary because they have potential to bring a radical change in our society. It remains to be seen whether this permanent state of exception can be broken by the exigencies of this historic moment.