Why it is so hard to shut everything down for 14 days and beat the pandemic
“Why cannot we just halt the world for 14 days and beat the coronavirus?”
In many of our minds, this question pops up whenever we see governments across the world struggling to manage the Covid-19 pandemic. Even in Bangladesh, in separate phases, the government has tried to impose “lockdown.” Many adjectives like hard or complete were added as a prefix. But the measures did not add up. Many disharmonies among different segments of the administration became noticeable as well.
Nonetheless, in understanding why we could not just “shutdown” completely, we must think at various levels. An immediate reason is the prevailing inequality in the world. Because of the unequal resource distribution pattern under capitalism, inequality has soared. Even though the world has gathered immense wealth, it stays in the hands of the few while the rest only contribute to the production of wealth while remaining deprived from the benefits.
I can refer to many statistics which portray the existing inequalities, but I will rather use a more experiential example. Every time a new lockdown period is announced in Bangladesh, we find streams of people leaving the city of Dhaka. People leaving Dhaka, in cramped mass transports, echoing statements like “the city is not ours.” It can be argued that these people were not properly informed about the risk of mass travelling, or did not trust the authorities about the threats of Covid-19. Yet, the rush of people out of the city shows that, for most of the inhabitants, Dhaka is not inclusive.
People perceived that daily necessary goods would not be available in Dhaka once the city was locked down. So, it seemed better for them to leave Dhaka temporarily -- or permanently in some instances.
On social media, many of us criticize people for violating social distancing. Though in many cases people act negligently, we must not forget that the world has become so unequal that while some people may afford to stay within the confines of their homes for months, it is impossible for some even for a day. No work means no food for many people in the country. Therefore, lockdown in the truest sense is hardly possible.
There is another issue we must consider as the pretext of inequality. As historian EP Thompson has argued, the advent of industrial capitalism in the late 18th and early 19th century has forced people to abandon “task orientation” and focus instead on “time orientation,” so to speak. In industries, workers must perform particular tasks within a certain amount of time. For increasing production rates, the production system is broken down to a minute level.
Hence, a worker only performs a segment of the complete tasks needed to produce something. This enables continuous production around the clock in different shifts. This has also allowed the continuous expansion of production and consumption, ie, capitalism.
The difference can be illustrated by an example: Anthropologist Maurice Bloch has written about the rural Malagasy people who do not have a capitalist time-orientation and do not distinguish between when they start working and when they end it in a day. These subsistence farmers do not differentiate between “work” and “leisure” either. Everything they do from waking up till sleeping again is part of their subsistence work. There is no perceptual difference between playing a musical instrument, working in the field, or catching a fish in the streams. All these are considered a part of their life.
But capitalism has introduced a separate orientation towards life where we strictly differentiate between work-time and leisure. This difference emerged as we started to “sell” our labour power for money. If we look further back, selling of labour power began when a segment of the population gathered monopoly over the means of production and the rest only had their labour power to sell -- a situation that Marxists call the original accumulation. Since then, we started to believe “time is money.” The transition to capitalism and its “time” orientation cause a dual repercussion.
Firstly, it enables expansion of production and ultimately more exploitation of the workers. A worker who sells his/her labour power for a specific amount of time does not get any share of the surplus values being produced. Thus, wealth keeps accumulating at the hands of the capital owners and perpetually the workers stay vulnerable for exploitation across generation.
Secondly, the time-orientation creates mental stress and trauma. Besides, material deprivation and continuous toiling push us to believe work is the only way to come out of misery. However, we do not realize, our work in the capitalist mode of production enables the capital owners to remain the despots they have turned into.
Additionally, because of the widespread profit motive, small/local enterprises are replaced by larger companies globally. This has created another dimension in our inability towards complete lockdown. An example will clarify -- many of us are furious with the fact that Serum Institute is barred by Indian government from exporting vaccines overseas.
However, Serum Institute is facing difficulty itself in vaccine production due to its inability to get raw materials from the US. Overall, the production system is so dispersed and connected at the same time that it is almost impossible to impose a complete lockdown.
Overall, capitalism is not only about economic activities, but also socio-politico-moral ideas. One aspect is discussed in relation to our orientation towards time and work. Besides, capitalism has a stronghold, as it fundamentally generates an idea/vision about the “future.” Everyone, from the workers to the investors, calculate the “future” in terms of production or income/profit. Not only our personal conduct, but political developments are guided towards vision of the future abundance. Ironically, the rich become richer and poor are deprived.
To sum up, for a fair future we must let go the profit or growth-oriented vision of a “future” that has long been the hallmark of modernity.
Mohammad Tareq Hasan is an anthropologist and teaches at the University of Dhaka. Currently, he is working as a research fellow at the International Institute of Asian Studies (IIAS), Leiden University, The Netherlands.