When the walking began in Delhi, Indian author and activist Arundhati Roy drove to Ghazipur on the border between Delhi and Uttar Pradesh. The walking people were all scared about this new evicter on the block. He was a big, bad fellow who stole jobs and left them starving, they told her. The media moguls and the political mandarins were calling his tactics virulent. They named him COVID. It was pandemonium. This was only the beginning, though.
First came the lockdown, then the great walk home and, finally, death. 138,122 deaths and counting, to be accurate. There were those the man killed himself: bare hands on the neck, knees weighing down their lungs. But there were also many that died homeless, scared, hungry and un(ac)counted (for)— those that he had evicted.
It was not just India, however. Apparently, the man had global accomplices. Soon there were orders to stay at home across the world. Anybody who left their house was in danger of becoming a victim. All the biggest leaders and all their knights and men could not catch the bad man and his co-conspirators.
“The tragedy [was] immediate, real, epic and unfolding before our eyes. But it [wasn’t] new,” Roy wrote.
There had been big, bad men like him before, and there will be more to follow. You see, big, bad men are not anomalies. You cannot just kill them and be done with them. Big, bad men breed in specific habitats. They require damp, capital-hungry, economically fraught and politically ruinous conditions for their survival. They feed on division, greed and alienation.
When Roy spoke to the walking people, the COVID crisis was still to come. There were only 2,000 confirmed cases and 58 deaths in India. She wrote of its coming, saying, “If and when it does [come], we can be sure it will be dealt with, with all the prevailing prejudices of religion, caste and class completely in place.” She was right.
The crisis came, and now they say it’s nearing its end. They have found the right gun with which to shoot the big, bad man. It took time and a lot of dollars, but they say it is here at last. They are armed and ready to take him and his fellows out. Well, some places to start with. The questions now become: Will the crisis end with the death of the big, bad man? And as we return to normalcy, will the pre-pandemic world welcome us with open arms and an unchanged smile? Do we even want to return to normalcy, with its ever-growing class divisions, lack of health care provision and promise of an inevitable climate catastrophe?
Roy warned us of this. “Nothing could be worse than a return to normality. Historically, pandemics have forced humans to break with the past and imagine their world anew. This one is no different,” she wrote. Roy called the pandemic “a portal and a gateway between [this] world and the next” and welcomed us to walk through “with little luggage,” ready to imagine another world. The pandemic offered us an opportunity to do better than we had in the past and to change the status quo.
Now, one year into the crisis, with hope looming on the horizon for an end to coronavirus, the world stands as it did, if not worse. More than a million people have died worldwide. Tens of millions have lost their jobs and stand facing a disrupted global economy strung with recession, and many more have lost key life opportunities, including access to health care and education. But the situation was not any better before. Even before COVID erupted, the global 1 percent controlled almost 44.8 percent of the world’s wealth, the world’s allegedly number one liberal democracy hosted 22 percent of the world’s prison population and a climate catastrophe was imminent by 2030, to name a few things that were wrong. COVID laid bare all the issues with our broken system and invited us to mend the world piece by piece. Supply chains broke down and necessary medical supplies ran low. The pace of trade slowed down. Businesses, recreational facilities and even educational institutions shut down. Amid all the chaos, we lost the opportunity to reimagine the world. The portal of change opened and closed, and we failed to walk through it.
Global leaders everywhere prioritized tax cuts for billionaires rather than providing necessary economic relief consistently to those who needed it the most. Coronavirus shutdowns were often infrequent, late and implemented incredibly poorly. Where states could, they benefited from the biopolitics of the virus and used excessive force against marginalized peoples. And to make matters worse, your local conservative neighbor refused to wear a mask and his kid had a get-together, ironically naming it a COVID party. The pandemic happened and we all let it unravel before our eyes.
Now the big, bad man might die, but we lie in wait of the next pandemonium-causing danger to erupt. It is only the beginning, though. There is still time to force open the closing portal and walk through it “with little luggage, ready to imagine another world. And ready to fight for it.”
IMAN IFTIKHAR is a sophomore in Morse College. Her column runs on alternate weeks. Contact her at email@example.com.