That human bodies survive because of and with microbes is an established, if unpleasant, truth. Every body is a microbiotic community. But what the pandemic has also revealed is that entire states and nations are in close habitation with microbes. Indeed, abstract notions of national borders, safe locations, ‘home’ and ‘outside’ have come to be defined in terms of the prevalence of microbes – the virus, to be accurate – in the area. The movement of peoples and things, the regulation of mobility and the intensity of exchanges are determined by how, and how fast, states and people have dealt with the virus.
Scientific and social understandings of the world of bacteria, viruses and their replication have influenced policy, politics and public perception. In the case of the last, we have come around to rejecting the idea that humans are the centre of the universe as not just myth.
Two key features stand out in the 2020 rise of a special kind of state: mobility and speed. But before that, some attention to the nature of the state across the world.
There were calls for global cooperation, sharing of data and research findings, collaborative initiatives to find the vaccine, among others. The dynamics between what the philosopher Roberto Esposito would identify as the communitas, with its obligations to the members of the community and immunitas, which is the freedom from those obligations, became complicated.
Critics, philosophers, philanthropists and the ubiquitous politician all called for mutual and moral obligations in the war against Covid (naturally, the military metaphor is something we cannot avoid, as a race). The desire to secure the borders of one’s community, noted Esposito, was the impetus behind sovereignty-discourse and practice. With the pandemic, this paradigm was severely tested.
When Stefanie Fishel titled her 2017 book, The Microbial State, it may have sounded not just alarmist but also hyperbolic. Fishel, whose area of expertise is International Relations, proposed that
“politics [is] immanent to the biospheric rather than the anthropic: we humans live in many overlapping worlds and experience many globalizations depending on where we find ourselves geographically. These politics are involute, composite, often discordant, but entangled within and supported by the biosphere we share; a biosphere that is quickly becoming unable to support much of the life we see on it today.”
Surely, Fishel’s prophetic analysis has proved right.
Through much of 2020, the world of humans, the world made by humans, has been tottering precisely because of the biosphere in which the worlds exist. The worlds are supported by the biosphere, but in 2020, that support was not only taken apart but new and unexpected interruptions entered the system. Immunological models of the body, and of the state – which is historically a very old mode of regulating immigrants, and which worried about contamination by ‘other’ racial bodies – collapsed all around us.
Politics between states altered swiftly. Borders were closed, the cordon sanitaire invoked and peoples’ movements monitored. The effort was apparently to keep infected bodies from crossing over. But this can also, in the context of the microbial state, be interpreted as a viral-microbial politics (microbial because, with the onset of Covid, other infections, caused by bacteria, also appear in the affected bodies). The effort is the regulation of microbes and viruses as much as it is about the movement of human persons.
If we wish to invoke more biological metaphors for the state of international mobility, we can think of, perhaps, the year that just ended as the year of motility. 2020, then, was marked by the human race’s attempt to control the motility of forms of life (and nonlife).
This also meant that legitimate human travel – not refugees, evidently – was also a scary idea for the microbial state: human bodies suddenly appeared as carriers and conduits for motility. The closing of national borders, the regulation of all travel, the shutdown of airports and transport systems were unprecedented and we were witness to the full-fledged manifestation of the microbial state.
A New ‘Race’
From the very beginning of the pandemic, there was speed. The tension between mobility and motility also engaged with and produced a different kind of race: the race to the enactment of hygiene regimes, the race to create a vaccine and another (odd) kind of race as well to which we now turn.
In the midst of the global health crisis where even developed nations found their health services unable to cope with the intensity and speed of the virus’ motility, the race to identify, isolate and treat the affected meant that the human culture of speed was in full flow. The speed of testing for the affected, the speed of ensuring medical care, and the speed (and direction, thus making it a vector) of research in the world’s laboratories were all vectorial aspects of the human campaign in 2020.
Statistics appeared everywhere: the rising numbers, the rate of infection, the rate of ‘flattening’ of the curve, the mortality-morbidity rates. This was followed by more socially inflected analysis of the racial, age-related and ethnicity-related rates of infection, treatment, access to healthcare, and other aspects. Arguably the microbial state was merging with the statistical state across the world as data collection and analysis reached incredible highs.
In the midst of the above, there was also the speed with which epidemiologists, public health professionals and researchers were publishing papers. Soon, this speed of publication was matched by the speed of retraction, charges of poor research and denials. In May-June 2020, the Lancet and the New England Journal of Medicine, two of the most respected journals in the field, retracted Covid-19 studies, at the request of the authors themselves, but perhaps spurred by the Guardian’s investigation into the data. The race, so to speak, was not always to the swift.
Now with the vaccine to hand and the long-term effects of those affected by the virus remaining to be seen, humanity also faces the prospect of a mutating virus. Once again, the speed and spread of the mutation and the new strains locates human efforts at the intersection of motility and speed. How many can be vaccinated, how long does the antibody last in the human form – these are, again, questions of the new order of temporality and motility, inscribed firmly within the larger frame of speed. As the virus continues to evade and jump borders, the characteristic tropes to describe the year just done, must be motility and speed.
In the future, there will have to be speed.
(The author is Professor, Department of English, University of Hyderabad)
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