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The Corona model of inequality

Sukumar Muralidharan | Updated on April 10, 2020 Published on April 10, 2020

Lining up: Migrant workers wait to board buses back to their hometowns following the lockdown   -  SANDEEP SAXENA

Apart from putting the public health system under humongous strain, the Covid-19 pandemic has exposed how hollow India’s promises of freedom and equality have been

Freedom is an indivisible, though not an untrammelled, human entitlement. An individual’s “freedom to do” as his will dictates is limited by the need to be mindful of another person’s “freedom from” force and coercion. In philosopher John Rawls’s terms, “a well-ordered society” is one where all citizens accept a certain conception of freedom and justice, and live their daily lives in the presumption of universal consent.

Where such a consensus does not exist, a tutelary agency enters, typically the nation-state using the power of law. Its tutelage is exerted as an affirmation of equality before the law, not as an exception. Its purpose is to bring all citizens to the state of “reason” where they respect the principles of a well-ordered society.

As the world fights a lethal pandemic, a Member of Parliament from India’s ruling party injected into the public discourse, yet again, his considered opinion that a certain religious faith was undeserving of democratic rights. He was perhaps not widely heard, since he was platformed by a niche news outlet, not seen beyond a limited circle. But the spirit of his remarks was already internalised within media commentary, on the streets and in the highest policy circles.

Word had got around that the congregation of a certain faith in the national capital was singularly responsible for the spread of the virus in India. Official briefings, hobbled for authenticity by a serious deficit in testing statistics, focused on an easily identifiable scapegoat, creating a category of infection defined by attendance in the Delhi congregation.

Differences are also accentuated through a cycle of national rituals ostensibly designed to prop up morale. The unwilling are under unstated compulsion to participate, since abstention is stigmatised as a weakening of the collective will.

Nobody is safe from the virus, but by late-March a distinct category of vulnerability began emerging from the US, where those at the frontline of treatment could momentarily step back and take stock. African-Americans are one-third the population of Louisiana state, but dying five times more. Similar grim statistics have emerged from Michigan and Illinois, two other seriously afflicted states.

The conflict between “freedom to” and “freedom from” has been resolved in the context of the pandemic, by the dilation of social spaces. Two individuals will no longer share the same social space long enough for infection to develop. But there are millions — the newly unemployed queueing up for the dole in the US, the migrant workers thronging India’s highways on the long trek home — who are unable to keep body and soul together in those dilated social spaces, except through abject dependence.

How is equal protection ensured in a context of wide and growing inequality?

In Rawls’s terms, this would be a derivative question of how “equal citizenship” is secured. His solution lay in the “difference principle”: That the “higher expectations of those better situated” would only be justified if they “work as part of a scheme which improves the expectations of the least advantaged members of society”.

Society though was unable to return to that state of innocence — the “original position”, as Rawls put it — that would efface all traces of inequality. Other thinkers such as Isaiah Berlin have struggled with the question and come up with ambiguous answers: Poverty is not in itself a violation, rather it is a circumstance that prevents a person from enjoying the fruits of freedom.

Against this distinction without difference, political philosopher GA Cohen has argued that the lack of means — embodied in money — is an absolute denial of freedom. Those who argue otherwise are prey to the fallacy of regarding money as a “thing”, rather than a social relationship. If unfreedom is a state of being liable to “interference” by other people, a lack of money signifies precisely that.

The money economy is expression of a social relationship of command over material resources that leaves many millions out. Among the limitations on freedom, one more basic than social norms is the human being's corporeal existence, which makes his material sustenance an absolute necessity.

If a global pandemic calls for a global response, the clear trend today is for every country to go it alone. The US has announced a $2-trillion stimulus to retrieve its economy — a gigantic package of almost 10 per cent of GDP. Crafted with expedient speed, the stimulus draws upon the extraordinary privilege the US enjoys as owner of the world’s reserve currency.

Without any such privilege, Japan is believed to be preparing a stimulus that could total 20 per cent of GDP. And when China steps in with its economic restorative, the volume of new money pumped into the world economy could be enormous, potentially transforming global currency parities drastically.

The global community is today challenged to ensure that the emerging new parities are more responsive to the imperatives of equality and justice than the one visibly fraying and collapsing today.

Sukumar Muralidharan   -  BLink

 

Sukumar Muralidharan teaches at the school of journalism, OP Jindal Global University, Sonipat

Published on April 10, 2020

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