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View PointOpinion: Think of a number, any number

Opinion: Think of a number, any number

Published: 17th Jun 2021 1:16 am

We now experience a fear of large numbers: the numbers left unvaccinated, the numbers of the “positive” and the numbers of the dead. So we stopped counting, as recent reports show. Added to this is the ongoing debate over the appropriate gap between vaccine shots, the efficacy ratio of the various vaccines and the percentage of the population that will need to be vaccinated to ensure a degree of safety for the collective.

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A national destiny writ in numbers, it would appear.

Anxiety of Incompleteness

Some years ago, the anthropologist Arjun Appadurai argued that the majority fears the minorities – essentially, a fear of small numbers – because the presence of the minority prevents the myth of “completeness”, where the pure majority is sovereign. He termed this an “anxiety of incompleteness”.

If we were to tweak Appadurai’s formulation a bit, we can argue that currently, in the midst of the pandemic, we retain this anxiety of incompleteness in one specific realm: the unfinished project of vaccinating the entire population. As scientists and epidemiologists argue endlessly over the timing of the first and second shots of the vaccine, it would seem that by the time the nation finishes vaccinating everybody once, it is already too late for the second.

Numbers – dodgy, manipulated, incomplete – are a measure of things. Thomas Crump in The Anthropology of Numbers defines “measure” as: “the conceptual means by which two different entities can be compared in numerical terms. Once established, this means provides a unit in terms of which a numerical coefficient can be assigned to every member of the class to which the measure is applicable.”

The “measure” of a nation prepared to “open up” is determined, it appears, by the numbers: of the vaccinated, of the infection rate, of oxygen plants, the empty beds in hospitals, the dead. “The Vaccinated” is a measure, ostensibly, of those who can now lead “normal” lives. The larger the number in this category, the greater the safety of the nation as a whole. In short, our national self-perceptions are confirmed or contested by statistics, and hence the rise of what the economist William Alonso termed “statistic watching”.

Democracy’s Number

The sociologist Paul Starr in “The Politics of Numbers” offers three connections between numbers and democracy. First, the use of population data in distributing representation. Second, the greater willingness of democratic states to make statistics public. Third, the po­tential value of statistical information in the presentation and evaluation of competing claims for legislation.

This is a useful way of thinking about the current crisis in statistics, because it seems as though biological citizenship – anthropologist Adriana Petryna’s concept where your rights as citizens are determined by the degree of your injuries (she is studying Chernobyl’s victims) – is quantifiable.

The distribution of vaccines across the country, region-wise, city-wise, demographically organised, cost-wise, is a measurable index of how the process, billed as the world’s largest vaccination campaign, proceeds. Interest groups who represent the case for various segments, the outrage of smaller (and bigger) states about iniquitous distribution of the vaccines by the Centre for political reasons signal the link between representation and numbers.

The refusal to make the Covid stats either accurate or public, calls into question the neoliberal state’s obfuscation of the state of the crisis. Reports of under-testing, under-reporting and falsified data have appeared for several months now. Effectively, this mitigates the anxiety that there is a crisis, but on the other hand generates an anxiety that the state no longer cares to tell us what exactly is wrong. (The state, in short, has done a number on its citizens!)

Insurance, treatment, compensation for negligence cannot be accurately claimed because we simply do not have the numbers to make a statement about the state of the pandemic.  Starr claims that “liberal democratic government may be particularly hospitable to statistics is its receptivity to diverse interest groups”. But what if the interest groups can no longer rely on the state’s statistical machinery and output? Who adjudicates between competing claims from interest groups?

Think of a number

Undercounted and Hesitant

In a response to the widespread charges of undercounting of minorities in the 1980 American Census, a full conference was held to discuss this politics of numbers. In the Introduction to the Report of this conference, demographer David Heer wrote: “Where a group defined by racial or ethnic terms, and concentrated in special political jurisdictions, is significantly undercounted in relation to other groups … members of that group are thereby deprived of the constitutional right to equal representation …deprived of their entitlement to partake in federal and other programs designed for areas and populations with their characteristics.”

With our fear of large numbers, we undercount the afflicted, the dead and the unprotected (assuming that the vaccine is protection).  Reports about vaccine hesitancy also alert us to the number being done on us. This, in part, is seen and projected as the reason why many remain unvaccinated (numbers, of course, vary!).

When we say “vaccine hesitancy”, it implies agency on the part of the hesitant to take the vaccine. It suggests free will, where the individual has decided on this course of (in)action that potentially endangers her/him.

Yet, how is it possible to ascertain that those who have not taken the vaccine are really “hesitant” and not thwarted by CoWIN, availability and prices? That is, labelling the “unvaccinated” as “vaccine hesitant” is to create a categorisation that enables the state to shift the responsibility to the individual rather than introspect, or admit, the flaws in the distribution. It is as though the large numbers of the unvaccinated all exercised their agency and decided to stay that way.

As the magicians say, “think of a number…any number…”

(The author is Professor, Department of English, University of Hyderabad)

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