Disability and Dismantling: Four Reflections in a Time of COVID-19

Rijul Kochhar

To cite this article: Rijul Kochhar (2020) Disability and Dismantling: Four Reflections in a Time of COVID-19, Anthropology Now, 12:1, 73-75, DOI: 10.1080/19428200.2020.1761213

To link to this article: https://doi.org/10.1080/19428200.2020.1761213

Four thought formations coalesce in my mind as I witness the unfolding CO- VID-19 pandemic. My personal experience of living with a disability and my professional concerns with thinking about questions of bioinsecurity and vulnerability via antibiotic resistant “superbugs” inform these peregrinations:

First, how does the disabled body deal with the novel coronavirus? No amount of sanitizing one’s hands can ignore the fact that those hands are lived on — they touch wheels, they feel the world’s physical structures and, yes, they pick up things as they wheel along. There is now a torrent of information about how to deal with this novel virus, from social distancing to self-isolation to praying for a future vaccine. But most of this discourse is able-bodied — it concerns bodies capable of these “essential measures” in the first place. There is little engagement with how other bodies should deal with this issue. For people with disabilities, the idea of infection and foreign agents spilling over into ones’ bodies is an everyday spectre. It must alert us to the luxuries of “security measures” now being advised everywhere, including staying at home. What of those who do not have a home, or cannot stay? This is not an idle question anymore, but an existential one. The disabled body can only hope to illustrate that the idea of an autonomous individual body was always a deeply injurious fiction. People are all interconnected, both by the microbial and interpersonal vulnerabilities that always haunt us and by the social and collective care infrastructures that could minister to heal broken bodies. The question of disability in a time of COVID-19 reveals the poverty and cruelty of an individualistic, as opposed to a social, reformulation of health, vulnerability and, now, being.

Living my entire adult life with microbial dangers alerts me to a second order of concerns: the silence around structural changes. I address two. The appalling collapse of health- care systems suffering decades of dismantling now reveals itself as the fundamental logic motoring the current public and epidemiological panic. If many countries around the globe had not spent years of the 20th and now 21st centuries on the wrong priorities — deregulating markets, vanishing public infrastructures of health, care, sanitation and real medical innovations — and if many countries had not championed a weird collective fascination with “engineering” the future with ephemeral clouds, artificial intelligences and other forms of social disruptions, perhaps society would have been better prepared for a pandemic or, certainly, less panicked. But government leaders frittered those moments away like so much detritus from the past. If individualized forms of care were once championed and are, today, dying, many countries will witness the birth pangs of a forcedly emergent system of (health) care that must now work for all if it works for one.

Then there is the connected paradox of our military infrastructures in the face of this singular pathogen. Taken together, military arsenals in many places — India, China, the Middle East, Europe, the United States — constitute a stronger collective military presence on the planet than at any other time in human history, crafted after much “sacrifice” of social care and infrastructures, with a generous dollop of fear, nativism and the spectre of a floating “enemy” abroad in many cultural life worlds. Yet today, as the nuclear bombs, supersonic cruise missiles and hypersonic jets remain idling, silent, comedically impotent as they confront the unfolding logic of the coronavirus, citizens must not stop asking: Of what actual use are these weapons? This must be the question that informs the world’s (possible) future, as the former colonial powers suddenly battle for what has been their taken- for-granted place on this earth. With the very tools of biosecurity infrastructures that have been marshalled to secure a “homeland,” residents of many countries must now rethink the meaning of home.

Today, as the globe confronts a truly planetary crisis, everyone might remind them- selves of a third cheery proposition: Today is only a window into the future emergencies to come. Looming are the crushing tides and fiery winds of climate change; other, more seriously debilitating  pandemics  spilling over from pathogens and nonhumans that have escaped reservoirs once held in the great forests of our planet but subsequently destroyed for profit; the increasing concentration in our cities and our prisons that now serve as helpless hothouses of bodies forcibly packed together for the virtues of unimpeded  capitalist  production.  Endangerment is collective, even if it is asymmetric on this planet.

My problem isn’t mine alone. It is everyone’s. My potential COVID-19 infection is an existential danger to each person’s immuno- compromised self. Time, bodies and places are now connected in a manner heretofore unprecedented. This necessary revelation on COVID-19’s account underscores a universal element to this crisis that demands residents of the United States and elsewhere think of problems not despite divisions but in spite of them, as problems for a planetary collective that is both here and to come. Against those emergencies at many of our doorsteps, the hidden hand of the market and the pleasurable splendors of unbounded consumption will not hold.

Yet, the biophysical emergencies to come must prepare everyone for the emergencies in our cultures that are already sprouting,   to which my mind wanders now in a fourth direction. Quick fixes are phenomenally ineffective, as astute observers have now seen. There are closed borders, social isolation and other stopgap individualized responses, the hollowing out of civil liberties1 under the pretext of a pandemic, nations increasingly under lockdown, individuals crippled by doubt as to whether they or their surroundings remain infected by the virus. Witness the general disablement of human life in the face of the sheer inability of local governments to confront an unfolding pandemic that respects no national borders. Populations are herded at home, fearful, panicked, quarantined.

This is the fantasy-come-true of a certain, already ascendant, reactionary political formation. Yet, as COVID-19 spreads, that political formation’s future ascendancy is detrimental to planetary and local health and (well) being in a manner that is revealing itself every moment with fine ferocity. In the virus’s wake, these brokenhearted measures, in bad faith, serve as a patchwork quilt of nonresponses.

Instead, structural changes need to be put in place with care and dedication across the globe. If people everywhere pause and think about how to attain a conception of history that interrogates the status quo, there might be some hope remaining. Thinking presciently in a time that ours will increasingly resemble while confronting the virulence  of fascism, Walter Benjamin, a philosopher whose thinking is nearly as itinerant as the virus, wrote:

The tradition of the oppressed teaches us that the “state of exception” in which we live is not the exception but the rule. We must attain to a conception of history that accords with this insight. Then we will clearly see that it is our task to bring about a real state of exception, and this will improve our position in the struggle against fascism. One reason fascism has a chance is that, in the name of progress, its opponents treat it as a historical norm. The current amazement that the things we are experiencing are “still” possible in the twentieth century is not philosophical. This amazement is not the beginning of cognition–unless it is the cognition that the view of history which gives rise to it is untenable.

The danger is not that everyone will fall sick. At the rate COVID-19 is spreading, it will engulf all humanity even if, for most, the symptoms are mild. COVID-19 is, indeed, the great leveler. Those who will see the bright noon on the other side of this virus’s vengeance must never stop asking: What have been the prevalent conceptions of a broken and untenable society, and what are the measures of care that will replace them to ensure that, next time, people endure as human beings? The real danger will occur if the global population is not able to analyze the historical reasons behind the multiple everyday emergencies of the present. Only grasping that history in its entirety will create a real state of emergency that might immunize global populations against future threats. The viruses to come will allow even less time for the human species to mount an immune response.


  1. https://www.washingtonpost.com/na- tional-security/justice-department-coronavirus- laws/2020/03/23/6b860018-6d01-11ea-b148- e4ce3fbd85b5_story.html

Rijul Kochhar is a doctoral candidate in history; anthropology; and science, technology, and society at MIT. His research deals with antibiotic resistance, bacteriophage therapy and bioinsecurity in the 21st century.

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