Understanding the Trajectory of Epidemics: From Political Economy and Historical Perspective 

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Recently history of a medical science professor Frank M. Snowden (who is emeritus professor at Yale University, USA) in his book, “Epidemics and Society: From the Black Death to the Present”, which appeared in 2019 has reminded that if we look at epidemics from the historical and political economy perspective view, most of the epidemics (like tuberculosis, plague, and Spanish influenza of 1918, Smallpox, cholera, Ebola and AIDS, etc,) had been seen as a product of ‘Industrial Revolution’ and the modern capitalist/imperialist model of development which had achieved tremendous economic growth(without equity and social justice) at the cost of environment and natural biodiversity.  It is to be noted that due to influenza which took place in the late 20th century, in which around one crore 80 lakhs Indian people died and one-third populations of European countries were completely ruined. In this respect, while giving an interview to The Hindustan Times over Skype from Rome, on first May 2020, Prof. Snowden (who was also mildly affected by Covid-19 but, now has recovered after he  went through quarantined) said:

“The 19th Century was the era of industrial revolution and it created diseases transmitted via the oral/fecal route, cholera and typhoid, because industrialisation meant the sudden flooding of European cities by populations from the countryside for whom no preparations had been made and who overwhelmed the urban infrastructure. There was no clean water supply, no sewer systems, and huge dangers of contaminated water or food. Society at that time created an environmental niche for diseases like cholera and typhoid to exploit”. (See, “Humans provide the conditions for epidemics to Flourish: Frank Snowden”, The Hindustan Times, dated 1 May2020, accessed on 11th May 2020)

While commenting further, Prof. Snowden has said that Covid-19 is the first pandemic took place in era of globalization (based on neo-liberal capitalism) that encourages unrestraint economic growth at the cost of environment and biodiversity. To explain the points, Prof. Snowden says:

“I would define Covid-19 as the first pandemic of globalization. The niches it exploits are massive population growth, crowding and megacities; an industrial model that encourages rapacious growth without counting the environmental cost. By destroying biodiversity and animal habitat, we are bringing human beings into relationships with animal reservoirs of disease that human’s hardly encountered in the past”. (See Hindustan Times, op., cit)

In other words, epidemics, as mentioned above, have had not been created by ‘nature’ and the ‘divine force’ (albeit, as conservative and clergy groups across religious belief systems have had often underlined) but, the product of particular kind of the ‘socioeconomic’ systems. Take for instance, an industrial bourgeois economic model based on ‘neo-liberalism’ and ‘market fundamentalism ‘which have promoted human greed and desires.   In this respect, Prof. Snowden has also said that without understanding the ‘historical change’ and ‘development’ like wars, revolutions, we cannot understand the spread of epidemics properly. As he writes in his introductory chapter,

This hypothesis is that epidemics are not an esoteric subfield for the interested specialist but instead are a major part of the “big picture” of historical change and development. Infectious diseases, in other words, are as important to understanding societal development as economic crises, wars, revolutions, and demographic change”. (See Prof. Snowden, “Epidemics and Society: From the Black Death to the Present”, Yale University Press, 2019, p-2)

However, rather than seeing the epidemics as the product of modern industrial developments based on an unequal and exploitative capitalist/imperialistic order, (which has been created by the ruling political class for their own vested interests), a section of media and communal forces have recently entirely blamed a particular religious organization for having organized a religious congregation (especially the Tablighi Jamaat, an apolitical organization which was established around, the 1920s by Maulana Ilyas in Mewat region, now located in Haryana) and targeted the Islam and Muslim community as a whole, for spreading the Covid-19 in the context of India.  However, when the US President Donald Trump arrived in India (along with his representatives, a meeting was organized at Ahmadabad at Gujarat) with more than 5 thousand representatives; around one lakh of people were gathered at the stadium along with USA representatives.  To remind that in the last month of February 2020, Coronavirus has been already transmitted in several developed countries; it is ironical to note that rather raising the negligence on the part of the ruling government; a section of communal and corporate electronic media have entirely blamed Tablighi Jamaat for spreading the virus.

Unlike earlier epidemics mentioned above (which were first spread among the working-class) but current corona pandemic have first spread among the neo-rich middleclass (who are mostly living in the advanced countries), then it has been transmitted to India’s poor and vulnerable. As a result, they are ‘doubly discriminated’ one the on hand from threat of virus and for being materially deprived on the other. Yet, lethal viruses are not transmitted at community level (barring few incidents of postive cases).

In this easy, my discussion will be confined to the Indian context. Given the huge challenges in all walks of lives especially confronted by India’s poor and migrant workers, I would like to argue that Mahatma Gandhi’s idea of ‘sustainable development’ based on the model of ‘humanist approach’ (not industrial and unrestraint capitalist based development which has created huge inequality for the sake of enhancing profit and human greed of a few wealthy class) which stresses on ‘human needs’ and not greed, as modern civilizations had promoted under the pretext of development and growth, devoid of social justice, and equity. I think Gandhian Socialism along with the Young Hegelian Marxist approach of development (which focus on the basic needs of human being, not at the cost of nature and environment) seem to be relevant to address the livelihoods, of the migrant workers and daily wages labourers mainly at the time when they are leaving from megacities (like Delhi, Mumbai, Pune, Ahmadabad, and Surat etc., after the trains haven started from 12th May) and returning to their respective villages. However, given the present socioeconomic conditions of diverse social groups, Gandhian’s model of development and his constructive economic programmes is relevant for addressing the concern of agrarian society and the village community. But it is a herculean task to implement Gandhi Concept o’ ‘Gram Swaraj’ (village self-rule) especially  to address the decline of rural and local basic cottage industries, as a result of a faulty policy of neo-liberalism adopted by successive ruling parties since 1991.

To note that four decades of neo-liberal economic policy have had badly impacted on traditional based village economy and increased ‘agrarian distress’ to a large extent among framers. As a result, several lakhs farmers have committed suicides so far, as highlighted by a noted journalist like P. Sainath who has produced good works on rural economy and poor farmers of Maharashtra. In other words, four decades of neo-liberal policy, adopted by the India ruling establishments (earlier by the Congress Party and now more aggressively by PM Modi government from 2014 onwards) had benefited to the’ gated colony’ of the urban neo-rich middle class and ruined the lives of millions of workers and subaltern masses to a large extent. However, the fact cannot be denied that agriculture, the base of the rural economy is more eco-friendly with the environment and nature than the industrial sectors productions. That is the reason why still the village community is largely unaffected from coronavirus in comparison to megacities like Delhi, Mumbai, Pune which are the most affected zones of the Covid-19. After corona pandemic, debates around the fate of neo-liberalism and unfettered capitalism based on the bourgeois capitalist world order has been extensively critiqued by left and progressive-minded economists like David Harvey, Vijay Prashad, and Nobel laureate Amartya Sen. Left-leaning economists are saying that neo-liberalism and global capitalism as an economic system has now reached at the zenith of crisis, amidst the corona pandemic. To note that threat of the Covid-19, is a universal in nature and entire humanity is facing unprecedented challenges from all walks of life.

The economists have underlined that the current crisis is more dangerous than the ‘Great Depression’ and recession which took place in the distant past during the 1930s and 2007-08 respectively. Hence, if the current crisis is global in nature, it is not possible to overcome through adopting the policy of ‘protectionism’ and ‘economic nationalism’ in isolation or at the individual state level.  Amid crisis, it is time to forget for a moment to maximize individual-based interests and profits (as classical economists and utilitarian’s had earlier foregrounded) and therefore, it is crucial to conceptualize an ethical based global governance for the sake of the ‘collective actions’ at the global level (which is maybe possible through ‘Gandhian Socialism’ and Hegelian Marxism. however, It is not possible under the neo-liberalism and capitalist globalization) to counter the ‘Coronashok’ that has created huge economic and social unrest among subaltern masses. Given the huge challenges posed by the Covid-19 national lockdown-3.0 in the context of India (which have posed challenges for ‘livelihoods’ of millions of migrant workers and extremely poor); it is relevant to search for an alternative path based on the idea of ‘sustainable development’ as also recognized by the United Nation organization (UNO) which strive for maintaining a proper balance between environment and economic development.  In doing so, it could reduce level of pollutions and industrial waste, to minimize the danger of epidemics in the future. In other words, growth and development is needed for survival but not at the cost of environment and biodiversity only to fulfill human desires and greed.  While addressing the just concluded NAM (Non-alignment movement which was initiated by our first Prime Minister of India, Jawaharlal Nehru and other third world leaders) meeting, PM Modi has also hinted that in given sad situations (take for instance, amidst Covid-19,), we (mostly developing countries) have to find an alternative to the current globalized bourgeois economic order and it is time to adopt the human-based social welfare policy, as hinted by PM Modi. Still, the BJP government is following the centralized and command economic model of neo-liberalism (which is imposed from above) not able to chalk out concrete national strategy to deal with the huge challenges in both economic and healthcare system in times to come.

To conclude here, while drawing historical insights (especially the history of the epidemics in the so-called industrial and advanced countries in the 19th and 20th centuries, as stated above) from the works of Prof. Snowden and others, it is now high time to think of, a model of development which fulfill the needs of the human being (especially poor and vulnerable) without further exploiting nature and environment, as historically done by advanced industrialized countries.

To not that the socialist-oriented countries like Vietnam, Venezuela, and Cuba (even Kerala in context of India, currently ruled by Left political parties) are not so badly (baring few instances of Covid-19 patients) affected by the fatality of coronavirus because of these countries having good public health care systems and social security safety for the workers, the poor and old age at large.  In short, the spread of epidemics, as stated above can be understood better, if one could look at from the perspective of the political economy and historical context, as also hinted by Prof. Snowden in his writing( especial in Epidemics and Society: From the Black Death to the Present,2019). Given the present crisis, amidst Covid-19 national lockdown, thinkers like Karl Marx particularly Young Hegelian Marx along with the Mahatma Gandhi’s insights of ‘humanistic development’ (especially his focuses on making the village economy, as a self-independent unit of development) together who had broadly advocated agenda of ‘human liberation’ without exploiting of environment and biodiversity will be much needed today to deal with the health care system and socioeconomic crisis in the post-COVID-19 world.

Let me end here by underlining that from the political-economic and historical perspective (based on ‘human reasoning’ and ‘scientific temper’); we can understand the trajectories of epidemics, as stated above and including Covid-19 in times to come rather than relies on superstitions and divine theory, as traditionalists and conservatives often put-forward. Given depressing and extremely difficult situations, we have to counter the dominant narrative of neo-liberal economic policy based on global capitalism (which often exploits human labor, nature, and environment for making more profits). Therefore, it is a need of the hour to build up ‘humanistic approach’ grounded in ‘Gandhian socialistic’ pattern of sustainable human development with dignity rather than accept blindly four decades-old crisis ridden neo-liberal economic policy in the post-COVID-19.

The author is a Research Scholar at the University of Delhi      




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