The right time to be alarmed

Published: Mar 13, 2020, 05:01 IST | Rosalyn D'mello | Mumbai

Capitalism turned the earth into a single-use entity and us into products; how we respond to the planet's retribution in the form of Coronavirus will determine how the future world order is rebuilt

People wearing face masks travel on the Metro, in New Delhi on Thursday. Pic /AFP
People wearing face masks travel on the Metro, in New Delhi on Thursday. Pic /AFP

picThese days, as the Coronavirus unsettles the normality of our lives, I think back to the many times when, as a feminist, during some form of friendly debate or heated discussion, I'd rallied against the machinery of capitalism, against the spread of its enslaving reach.

I'd preach against how its systemic nature compelled us to experience our own lives as subservient to the profit margins of an over-privileged few; where the average human body had been reduced to mechanical labour, where human rights were completely divorced from the advancement of capital. I don't know whether to feel vindicated or alarmed.

My evangelical calls for dismantling systems of capitalism were usually met with counter-lectures about its impracticality. That it was too late now to reform the global economy.

If we look at the current scale of the Coronavirus pandemic, how it has no intention of discriminating between first world and third world, how its virality reveals how inter-connected our lives are, and yet, our lack of care and concern for each other, we should be able to register this seismic structural collapse as a wake-up call.

The author, George Tsakraklides, is on point when he writes that this virus is revealing just how sensitive and interdependent the economic system of the planet is. "It is a Jenga tower, hastily built and prone to collapse if just one of the bricks is pulled out." Tsakraklides is the author of various books that deal with the subject of climate change, his most recent being, "Disposable Earth", which contends with "how and why we gave the planet an expiration date."

On March 7, he published a post on his website titled, "The Virus that dared to stand up to Capitalism" in which he suggests that the current pandemic is very much a form of retribution by the planet against our over-consumptive, exploitative systems.

"The planet has begun to deploy its most sophisticated arsenal towards climate change: biological weapons. And it is paying back humanity with the same token: we tried to choke the planet in CO2, it is now trying to choke us with a virus that is a respiratory pathogen. Isn't it... vironic?" he asks. It's a very brief piece, and you can find it online easily, and he succinctly sermonises about how we became consumers, and how, increasingly, our demand for single-use goods transformed the planet into a single-use entity, and how we, too, have become products within this framework.

It sounds alarmist, but if there was ever a moment in the history of humanity where we should indeed be alarmed, it is now, for, how we choose to respond to the catastrophe can set the tone for how we begin to rebuild the economies that are already collapsing.

Do we continue to champion capitalism in all its combinations and permutations? Or can we actively begin to imagine systems that are not exploitative, that can function in harmony within a larger ecosystem?

I read an article today, about how livestock dealers in Karnataka had begun burying chickens alive because the demand for the birds' flesh had dropped exponentially because of fake news that was being circulated linking its consumption to the Coronavirus outbreak. Dealers had realised it was too expensive to hold on to the birds because a kilo worth of feed cost more than a kilo of chicken. If we're not able to see the inhumanity of this, then we are beyond saving.

The planet has been trying to tell us for years that we have over-saturated it with our colossal demands, excessive greed and gross over-production so that the schism between needs, wants, and indulgences were totally conflated; so that even the terminologies that were conceived to resist the capitalist infiltration were appropriated by its structures. We have arrived at a present that feels apocalyptic. It is the first time in recent memory where the existing world order might be rewritten, because of the unprecedented scale of cumulative losses that will be colossal because of the nexus between capitalism and other evils.

If we are looking for spaces to exert our agency, it is within these very systems. If the company you work with is not permitting you to work from home, even though the nature of the work you do makes such a move viable, you must find a way to collectively rebel and argue for better labour rights.

We have to fight this present virality as a collective, and not as frightened individuals. We must hold ourselves responsible for how we might potentially endanger other people, knowing that we could be carriers of contagion without actually manifesting symptoms. Never before has it been so vitally obvious how our individual salvation is intricately linked to each other and the salvation of the planet.

Deliberating on the life and times of Everywoman, Rosalyn D'Mello is a reputable art critic and the author of A Handbook For My Lover. She tweets @RosaParx

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