Responsibility in Viral Times: A Note from India

Responsibility in Viral Times: A Note from India

Ramya K Tella

The global spread of COVID-19 has drawn attention to the need for governments to take action with a sense of urgency. India was formally placed under a 21-day lockdown on the 25th of March. While the lockdown, as a public health measure, has been an important dimension of a national effort to curb the spread of the virus, the process by which it has been enforced raises significant concerns about the emergent modalities of ‘responsibilisation’.

Responsibilisation, in this context, refers to the process by which individuals, rather than the institutions of state, are entrusted with the responsibility for critical actions that pertain to the control of COVID-19 and the maintenance of personal and collective health. This transfer of responsibility rests on a set of core assumptions that frame the implicit and explicit rationalities of the state. For instance, and this can be evidenced from its response in recent weeks, the state has operated from the premise that the Indian people, treated monolithically, are socially and economically secure, healthy, able-bodied and have access to communication technologies. In so doing, it has discounted the experiential realities of the majority of the Indian people for whom these assumptions are not only inaccurate, but have also brought in their wake the violent enforcement of individual responsibility.

Where the protection of the lives of all Indian citizens ought to have been paramount, the lockdown has emphasised with startling clarity the observance and weaponisation of an institutionalised class binary by the Indian government. A widely publicised call for the nationwide cessation of physical movement has, over the past few days, translated into a forced movement by ousting, of migrant workers. As accounts of their arduous and fatal journeys home start to pour in, the central government continues to demonstrate that the interests of the poor are simply outside of the cognitive scope of governmental duty. In the state of Haryana, a notification to arrest and detain migrant workers who continue to be on the move out of necessity, stand to reinforce carceral formations in the face of a growing public health emergency. The process of responsibilisation that is currently underway has made it possible for there to be a complete absence of governmental accountability and a paradoxical normalisation of arbitrary actions that are taken in the name of public safety. The emerging technics of virality have further ensured that the televised performance of Hindu nationalism via state owned channels comes prior to the protection of the right to life itself.

In hospital wards, where the simultaneity of virality and vitality has been experienced most closely, a number of frontline healthcare workers, frustrated by the lack of personal protective equipment (PPE), took to Twitter earlier last week to ask for the prioritisation of improved working conditions over political theatricality. Indeed, the momentary distraction that acts of synchronous clapping or plate-and-spoon performances bring, will likely, and perhaps very soon, give way to a sense of foreboding that cannot be replaced overnight with hope. Healthcare workers in various Indian states have found that they are unable to report to work and/or return to their homes after the completion of gruelling shifts as their personal safety is threatened by neighbours and roving police personnel. But what is perhaps most insidious about the present approach to COVID-19 has been the instilment of a false sense of hope premised on individual responsibility, rather than a governmental duty to ensure citizens are institutionally protected in times of viral risk with access to food, water, shelter, healthcare and the assurance of safe passage.

While global conversations around COVID-19 have seamlessly normalised the usage of the phrase, ‘social distancing’, the socio-political circumstances of India show that the widespread uptake of the term also feeds into pre-existing vocabularies of exclusion. In combination with a history of the recent present that speaks loudest to the institutionalisation of communal and caste violence, the uncritical usage of these languages within developing assemblages of illness and health further reinforce practices of discriminatory sociality and surveillance by the state. By drawing lines around the sphere of the home and creating the space for the formation of neighbourhood watches, what is assuming shape before us is a dual tactic of the criminalisation and invisibilisation of vulnerable individuals. The ‘civic monitoring’ initiative recently introduced in the city of Bangalore, for example, enlists citizens in the facilitation of the state’s surveillance of quarantined individuals; the appeal by a Member of Parliament to be a ‘vigilant volunteer’ in the process runs the risk of endangering the personal safety of already persecuted minorities.

To contemplate COVID-19 and its spread, given the current state of knowledge about the virus, is equally about following the ways in which state narratives about the aggressive termination of microscopic agents travel together with a larger design for the infliction of unimaginable pain on the poor. Forced movement in the face of sealed borders, shortages of food, police brutality on ousted people, and the withdrawal of critical modes of transport (trains and buses) by the state speak to an institutionalisation of neglect. Further, as statistics tracking the spread of the virus in the country point to a rise in the number of positive cases despite low levels of testing, the response to the pandemic has effectively drawn attention to the various framings of security, body and state that are currently in circulation. The past week has seen cases of COVID-related surveillance and vigilantism directed at healthcare workers, individuals in isolation and unsuspecting public coughers and sneezers. These have resulted in instances of physical violence, social ostracisation and stigmatisation. The social and economic consequences of the applications of viral knowledges need to be centred in ways that prioritise the interests of those who are most susceptible to illness and harm. There is as yet much that is uncertain where the scientific knowledge of COVID-19 is concerned, but while precautionary measures continue to be of utmost importance, the slippages between the taking of precautions and the instinct for violent enforcement are a significant cause for concern.

In a world of diverse entanglements, the emergence of COVID-19 has made it necessary to revisit and reframe more-than-human interactions from the perspective of building a stronger foundation for the delivery of essential services. Processes of responsibilisation not only place the burden of action on individual citizens, but also significantly limit the space for holding the concerned state actors to account. There is now an urgent need for a viral sense of empathy, action and justice, not only to deal with the health crisis that we are currently faced with, but also with the longer-term planetary crisis, under the shadow of which the vulnerable are doubly exposed.


Ramya K Tella is a researcher with an interest in Science and Technology Studies. They hold a doctoral degree in Geography from King’s College London.