COVID-19 and Migrant Workers in India
By Avani S. Ashtekar
Thinking about an epidemic, while we all are living through one provokes a vulnerability to be confronted. Human life as well as death is quickly and singularly associated with individual biological conditions in the Coronavirus’s context. Human mortality, as we are made to think about it by mainstream news portals and other information systems, is only linked to a bacteriological and viral entity that encroaches upon the body and feeds on human life –however, viruses and bacteria do more than simply modifying immunological information of the body and becoming entangled in etiological pieces of evidence.
As an epidemic renders morbidity as a part of the collective consciousness, it also exposes and at the same time reproduces injustices in socially lived places, within diverse contexts. Although viruses do have a “frighteningly arbitrary [tendency in] selection of victims” some populations at a micro and a macro or global level, are unequivocally more vulnerable (Rosenberg 1992, 296). In India for example, there is an ongoing exodus of migrant workers. As the daily wagers are hiking on foot on highways and jungles in the excruciating heat to reach home – the epidemic for them plays out differently, and quarantine means mass displacement instead of stagnancy within domestic milieus, making the active marginalization visible.
As we consider that an epidemic can mean different things to different people, in dissimilar geographical positions, and at distinct temporalities while inspiring the adoption of unique survival strategies, can we ask and even attempt to suggest a uniform understanding of what an epidemic is while capturing the varying realities of the populations and their lived experiences? How can we demarcate a singularized comprehension of the virus, when the realities are plural and polar? These questions may be of significance however, we need to understand an epidemic and the shock-waves it sends out by decentering individuals as ‘choice-bearers’ and instead look at states that intensify the imprints, that the disease(s) can leave on the human body which is made vulnerable.
In Merrill Singer’s (2010) essay, Ecosyndemics: And the Coming of Plagues of the Twenty-first Century he defines a syndemic in a “biosocial framework,” where “diseases interact synergistically” (25-26) and impact and infect bodies, and collective meanings of heath or the state of being healthy, by intermingling and crystallizing of two or more diseases, or epidemics. In this process, the interactions between the diseases rather than the individual sub-set of symptoms, become pivotal, and “co-infection” creates a palimpsest of layered oppression among subjugated groups (Singer 2010, 27). Instead of dissecting an epidemic into its various symptoms, its virus or vector, and its consequences on social, biological, characteristics, might it be useful to view them in a conglomeration along with the other disease(s) which already sap the body? In the process of doing so, we cannot remain oblivious to the effects of structural violence and other diseases on the body systems. In the Indian context, COVID-19 can be seen as an additive to the diverse pre-existing conditions like malnutrition, and others such as living in constant stress and compression. This is even more heightened for the migrant workers who are currently walking across state borders to reach their homes.
The nature of interaction amongst the factors becomes even more pernicious for the workers, as they carve out their long paths in the hottest month of the year of India. Singer in his essay points to faster rates of global warming, as “the poor migrate to megalopolises” where “ever-growing, concentrated populations are created and placed at risk of swift-moving infections” (32). In India, the migration of the poor due to COVID-19 is reversed, and there are different ways in which this configures. An urban exodus is used as a means to disproportionately criminalize them, like spraying them with chemical disinfectant liquid, moreover, the migrants become subjected to the extremely high temperatures. This can cause heat-strokes, and wearing inappropriate footwear like rubber-soled flip-flops often causes heat boils, many have rashes from the synthetic fabric of their clothing due to friction too. In this way, the migrants share an additionally oppressive relation with these material objects which adds a layer of subjugation, apart from the external factors. Something as intimate as clothing gives rise to a diseased condition.
The anthropocentrically (over)produced heat along with socially generated oppressions implicates that the syndemics and ecosyndemics in fact, cannot remain distinct subsets but overlap in the bodies and lives, here of the migrant workers’ which has “direct, indirect, multiple, interacting, and significant” (34) consequences, threatening mainly the structurally disadvantaged. Although Singer calls these disease “coterminous,” (35) in this case instead of being absolutely coextensive, they act together asynchronously as they affect and infect the human body, with different intensities at unique points in time which is constantly dominated by social structures that are hierarchically concretized. The migrant’s body is now made to become a host to a “supersyndemic” (Singer 2010, 30). The condition of a “supersyndemic” (30) is dynamic and fluid and exceeds the traditional meaning of what an epidemic may consist – apart from biology it is also the social relations that consist of it. This allows us to have an expanded understanding of an epidemic as an entity which when it comes even seemingly in contact with a human body, whether infecting it or not, can intensify the previously existing conditions and marginalize an individual or a population further. An epidemic acquires a social life of its own, and the narratives of the experiences suffer from lethal discourses from those in power.
In my attempt to conceptualize what the characteristics of an epidemic may consist, Charles Rosenberg’s tripartite dramaturgic model was of significance (1989). In India, it is significant to suggest that in fact, two different temporalities of the same model circulate(d). While a part of the Indian population followed the three acts of epidemiological pattern linearly, the migrant workers did not experience it in the same manner and temporality especially due to a lack of information.
As “Act I” “Progressive revelation” (3) unfolded, it created an equal amount of awareness and panic amongst people. The “Act II – managing randomness” (4) was a violent and instructional response of the state and affected populations disparately. As the lockdown was announced, with only four hours in advance the task of urban dwellers to store up essentials was relatively simpler than those who were forced to make the decision to travel thousands of miles to their home towns and villages. We can begin to see how migrant workers slip away from the linearity of the model, and swing in between the Acts I and II, as the workers attempt to understand what the virus is and accept its predominant presence, they are constantly revealed to the consequences directly unrelated and at the same time linked to the virus while walking – like dehydration, starvation, and excessive fatigue, while also being subjected to the government’s (in)action as well as managing the randomness and unpredictability of the situations they face. In the deviation of the second act, the disparities become painfully visible and necropolitical in nature. Various times some migrant workers were not allowed to enter their home-towns or sent back or away from the borders.
Similarly, Act II and “Act III – Negotiating Public Response” (7) meddle as well. The special Shramik trains were announced finally in the first week of May to transport the workers to their home states. However, Karnataka state’s chief minister canceled them because multiple builder corporations expressed that the mass departure of the workers would slow down or completely halt the construction work that must jump-start after the lockdown ends. There was resistance and fortunately, the order was taken back. Embroiled in capitalist schemes of dispossession and dehumanization, we see the many gradations and tiers of the multiplicity of characteristics of an epidemic that cling to the socially marginalized communities, which may remain obscure if we insist on a model of a linear form.
The “Act IV” proposed by Adriana M. Garriga-López and Carlos E. Rodríguez-Díaz suggests a “phase of resolution” or “the establishing of the narrative” (91) to grasp the characteristics of an epidemic. This phase emphasizes the making of a narrative or a meaning-making post-epidemic, which is unique to each community, however, this does not have to be limited to the decline of the epidemic as narrative making is continual. Can we say that an epidemic is only what we remember from it? The fourth act becomes complicated as the authors suggest when we think about ‘who’ participates and ‘how’ they do in the course of remembering (Garriga-López and Rodríguez-Díaz 2019, 91). Significantly, but not solely, the Coronavirus discourses are presently dominated by those in positions of power. Active operation of the “narrativization” of the Coronavirus began for the government of India, within days of the quarantine period: The Prime Minister requested the nation to thank essential workers, first with claps and clamoring, in the following weeks by the lighting of diyas and phone torches, and most recently when the military showered flowers on frontline workers (Garriga-López 2020). In considering ‘who’ remembers and ‘how,’ government also gives meaning to a ‘when’ and ‘for whom’ this narrative is produced. Within the modes of the subjectivity of understanding an epidemic, there are constant interactions between these elements that are forming, de-forming, and re-forming a volatile “discursive field,” where the epidemic risks becoming a socially dictated memory itself (Foucault 1972, 28). The attention that the acts of the government receive, systematically fractures and conceals the narratives of the migrant workers, like the deaths of 14 migrant workers who were killed under a goods train, as they were exposed to bare life.
The spatial power dynamics also play a role in the making of the narrative, as much in present as in the future. Pathology induced spatialization reifies hierarchies of power, the body of the homeless migrant worker is criminalized, even though the homelessness it is a byproduct of the state’s choices. This spatialization offers a highly subjective “telling of the story.” (Garriga-López and Rodríguez-Díaz 2019, 90). As the workers are forced to the exterior – of the home, the home-city, and the home-state, they become storied instead of being story-tellers, by the government, and by us via Instagram, Facebook, and WhatsApp forwards. Paradoxically, as we are confined within our homes, our reach is pervasive by being connected to the virtual networks, as we move within the virtual spaces, whereas the workers on the outside are rendered stagnant due to the inability to voluntarily move and also by them being disconnected the networks. Thus, the relationship enforced upon an individual that is to be shared with the state evolves differently within the context of an epidemic. Criminalization is heightened and reflects a certain embodied understanding of a body that not only is or could be infected but one that could also infect. The narrative shifts quickly from the virus to the stigmatized potential infector.
Even when the individual is a temporary host, and the vector is permanent in the environment, the state’s politics are concentrated on the body. This is internalized and the epidemic also becomes a part of the embodied memory. Thus, as Garriga-López and Rodríguez-Díaz suggest, in the making of the narrative there are “discursive battles,” (91) implying not only the difficulty of the making of a narrative, but also sustaining it in the collective memory. To conclude, the virus and its discourses thrive on the unaccountability of the government in India, like in many other parts of the world. In the case of the migrant workers, they forced into a subjugation and perform it by the movements which interplay with the “supersyndemic” conditions, however, their actions constantly alter, mold, and memorialize the epidemic in ways that might show us if not what, then how an epidemic becomes what it does.
Foucault, Michel. The Archaeology of Knowledge and The Discourse on Language. Translated by A. M. Sheridan Smith. New York: Pantheon Books, 1972.
Garriga-López, Adriana. “What is an epidemic?.” Last modified May 5, 2020. https://adrianagarrigalopez.com/wp/2020/05/05/what-is-an-epidemic/.
Garriga-López, Adriana M and Carlos E. Rodríguez-Díaz. “Becoming Endemic: The Zika Virus Epidemic and Gendered Power in Puerto Rico.” In Gender, Health, and Society in Contemporary Latin America and the Caribbean, edited by Ronnie Anthony Shepard and Shir Lerman Ginzburg, 83-91. Lanham: Lexington Books, 2019.
Rosenberg, Charles E. “What Is an Epidemic? AIDS in Historical Perspective.” Daedalus 118, no. 2 (1989): 1-17. http://www.jstor.org/stable/20025233.
Singer, Merrill. “Ecosyndemics: Global Warming and the Coming Plagues of the Twenty-first Century.” In Plagues and Epidemics: Infected Spaces Past and Present, edited by D. Ann Herring and Alan C. Swedlund, 21-37. New York: Berg, 2010.
You can respond to the author in the comments below or email her at: Avani.Ashtekar17@kzoo.edu