Flattening the Curve or Flattening Life? Public Service Announcements in the Pandemic

We employ a feminist political economy lens to explore the impact of the current pandemic on vulnerable communities in the United States and India. We examine three epidemiological public service announcements—social distancing, sheltering at home, handwashing—which are necessary to protect and save lives. However, we argue that the PSAs are deployed in an uneven social and economic terrain that deepen structural inequities across gender, caste, race, sexuality, and class. This expression of hierarchies during the pandemic also reflects the failure of global capitalism to provide for people and life. Ultimately, communities have stepped in with an emphasis on relationships of interdependence, and we see in these actions a potential way to form transnational feminist solidarity. 

“The biological virus afflicting individuals is also a social virus. Its symptoms—inequality, callousness, selfishness and a profit motive that undervalues human life and overvalues commodities—were for too long masked by the hearty good cheer of American exceptionalism, the ruddiness of someone a few steps away from a heart attack.” (Viet Thanh Nguyen 2020)  
 
In this paper, we examine three epidemiological public service announcements (PSAs)—social distancing, sheltering at home, and handwashing—from a feminist political economy perspective. The PSAs adopted by national governments are necessary from a public health perspective to protect and save lives. However, when deployed in an uneven social and economic terrain they deepen what B R Ambedkar (1916) referred to as “graded hierarchies” in terms of which lives matters more than the others, who can access healthcare, which bodies are exposed to greater risks and fatality; who can shelter safely and cannot; who can access clean water, sanitation, food, liveable income and other resources in order to survive the pandemic.  
 
Feminists have argued that life and life-making, that is, social reproduction, which includes all activities that reproduce life every day and generationally should be at the core of economic and social decision-making. During this global pandemic, we see the continuation of the devaluing, underpaying and non-paying of essential work and workers who produce and reproduce for individuals, households and society. Caregivers, teachers, parents, garbage collectors, healthcare workers, meat packers, farm workers, the incarcerated, continue to fall under the shadows of capitalism’s constant quest for risky labour extraction from the working classes. This market fundamentalist framework continues to atomise and separate individuals into “each person for themselves” also generating a racialised market eugenics within a pandemic. Since the PSAs do not account for structural inequities of race, class, gender, caste or sexuality, they “flatten lives” much more than “flatten the curve.” 
 
The epidemiological PSAs assume that they would adequately protect all populations. Following Bakker and Silvey (2008), we comment on the multiple inequalities that make social reproduction particularly difficult for some in the current pandemic. Despite vast differences in historical conditions and contemporary contexts, working-class Black and Brown communities in the United States (US), and lower-caste Dalit households in India appear to operate under immiserated conditions. As Naidu and Ossome (2017) suggest, this indicates the conditions of both differentiation and homogenisation of reproduction under capitalist exploitation. 
  
Markets and states have failed to secure conditions of life under the pandemic, whether in the form of protective equipment, basic needs (food, shelter, employment), or adequate access to healthcare and other forms of care before or during the pandemic. The burden has instead been imposed on already exhausted unpaid household labour (Moore 2015), which as feminists have argued has typically been gendered. This existential crisis, the crisis of social reproduction, both before the pandemic, and particularly during it, however, has produced a moment which is rife with positive transformational possibilities. 
 
Chosen communities (some more explicitly political than others) and collectives have stepped in with an emphasis on mutual reciprocity and the primacy of life and dignity before and during the pandemic. These actions reject economic self-interest in favour of relationships that emphasise our interdependence. In these chosen communities, we see instances where individual isolation, despair and shame are transformed into collective action and solidarity. We see ways in which individuals and communities challenge injustice, resurrect democracy, and emphasise the indivisibility of rights that are simultaneously social, political and economic.  
 
As feminists of colour based in the US, we understand the gendered dimensions of the virus as inextricably bound to simultaneous oppressions of race, caste, class, sexuality, and the exploitation of global capitalism. We offer examples from India and the US, but do not make claims to a comparative study nor do we intend to glide over the differences between the two contexts. The two countries are located differently in the global power hierarchy with different historical trajectories and sociopolitical contexts.  In highlighting structural inequities that have exacerbated the effects of the pandemic in both countries, we do not claim to offer a complete analysis. We merely provide illustrations of the utter disrespect for life and life-making under capitalism even if the specific manifestations of disrespect and lack of concern for people are contextually specific. We thus see an urgent need for a framework that connects the processes and apparatuses that produce and intensify structural inequities as well as the need for decentring capitalism and profits and centring life and equity. This, we believe, is the basis of a transnational feminist solidarity agenda. 
 
The PSAs: The biomedical response, emerging from an industry imbricated within global capitalism, to the pandemic was to proclaim three PSAs: social distancing, shelter at home, and wash your hands. The political, economic, and social response was that “we are all in this together”—the assumption being that the pandemic affects everyone equally. We examine a few instances of the impact of the PSAs on the working people in both countries.  
  
Social distancing: Exposure to COVID-19 has been found to be extremely high in incarceration facilities due to lack of social distancing, inadequate hygiene and health care not only for the inmates but also correctional staff and their communities. While official estimates a toll of less than 1,00,000 deaths, a recent ACLU report estimates that the actual numbers could be as high as 2,00,000 counting 23,000 inmates and 76,000 in the broader community (Ofer and Tian 2020).  
 
US policies on “crime” have resulted in 2.2 million people in federal and state prisons and locally run jails with Black people disproportionately represented at 40% of the incarcerated population in 2010 (Sawyer and Wagner 2020). About 20% of the total incarcerated population are undertrials primarily due to an inability to pay bail bonds and they constitute among the poorest third of society (Sawyer and Wagner 2020). Being poor has also been criminalised by the prevalence of debtors’ prisons, which is particularly harsh on low-income single mothers of colour (Choudhury 2018). Mass incarceration serves to discipline a racialised, gendered and classed population that may be surplus to the needs of capital (LeBaron and Roberts 2010). Similar to the US, the most marginalised sections of Indian society, Muslims, Dalits and Adivasis, who constitute 39% of the Indian population account for 55% of the imprisoned population (MHA 2016). About 68% of those imprisoned are undertrials. 
 
While mass incarceration derives from historically specific conditions in the US, Julia Sudbury (2005) notes that 9/11 expanded the scope of the “global lockdown,” that is, it increasingly legitimised the expansion of carcerality to combat the “resistance to neoliberalism and criminalise alternatives to market dependence” (cited in LeBaron and Roberts 2010). This is true in India, which has taken extreme measures to suppress dissent against an authoritarian Hindu majoritarian state intent on privatising all public and common resources. The frequency of arrests of public intellectuals, civil rights activists and students under anti-terror and other draconian laws even during the pandemic should be viewed as a continuation of policies that have criminalised resistance to land dispossession, and destruction of livelihoods and nature since economic liberalisation in the 1990s, and more recently criminalising opposition to othering Muslims.  
 
The continued incarceration of lives, some particularly during a period of social distancing, lays bare which populations need to be controlled or are considered disposable and irrelevant under global capitalism and increasingly authoritarian governments.   
 
Shelter at home: Home carries with it, multiple meanings and impossibilities. In addition to providing refuge and belonging, homes and dwellings can reproduce life and community. Homes or shelters can also be spaces of interpersonal violence. If one has access to these vital assets and spaces, shelter at home can make a significant difference in surviving a pandemic. But the PSA, assumes that one has a home, a home that has separate rooms, and is structurally sound and safe.  
 
Considered to be one of the harshest and most disorganised responses to the pandemic, 1.4 billion Indians first experienced the largest global lockdown starting on 24 March. The national lockdown generated a massive crisis of survival and reproduction for an estimated 120 million inter-state and intra-state rural migrants living in precarity even before the pandemic (Palaith 2020). They instantly lost their daily wages and livelihood, ability to live in urban areas, and were scrambling to get home to their villages. The labouring classes, both migrants and non-migrants, many of them Dalit and Adivasis, have faced humiliating and potentially life-threatening encounters with the police for not “sheltering at home” in cities  they did not have a  “home.” For gender non-conforming and LGBTQI individuals in the global South, who are overrepresented in the informal sector, lockdowns and curfews have exposed them to greater violence at home and increased hunger, starvation and loss of daily wages. 
 
For Indian-administered Kashmir, the COVID-19 lockdown was preceded by an additional 11-month lockdown enforced by the central government (since August 2019) following the abrogation of its special status under the Indian Constitution, arrest of political leaders, silencing of the media and heightened militarisation. Ordinary Kashmiris have had to shelter at home against a brutal military occupation. 
 
Shelter-at-home is also impossible for the homeless and those facing evictions in the US. Two  thirds of the US homeless population live outdoors. Black individuals are three times more likely than whites to experience homelessness. The vulnerabilities for the unhoused have become more extreme. Shelters have been full or closed and the challenges of maintaining social distancing make them hotspots. Homeless individuals increasingly have to contend with not having access to toilets, places to shower, access to hygiene and hand washing and places to sleep (Project Home 2018).  
 
As incomes decline or stagnate, many families simultaneously face evictions, homelessness and rising housing costs. One in four Americans pay 50% of their income as  their rent. Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, approximately 3,00,000 evictions per month were filed in the US. As the number of new unemployment claims grows (over 48 million), newer eviction and foreclosures catalyse the next housing crisis. Evictions exacerbate intergenerational poverty and disproportionately impacts low-income Black women and Latinas, particularly women with children. The loss of housing as an asset or shelter has profound implications for individual, community and neighbourhood well-being and economic security (Durana and Desmond 2020), which is exacerbated during the crisis. 
   
Wash your hands: The PSA for washing hands needs to be located in socio-economic conditions imposed on marginalised working-class racialised and lower caste communities in India and the US. Plagued by environmental racism (Bullard 1993) and racial capitalism ( Ranganathan 2016; Pulido 2016) the capitalist system has subject them to inadequate infrastructure and lower health outcomes. 
 
As the situation in Flint and Detroit illustrate, working-class and predominantly BIPOC (Black, indigenous and people of colour) communities and households not only experience water shutoffs (1,41,000 in 2014 and 23,000 in 2019) but also suffer the grave consequences of water contamination (Ranganathan 2016). Similarly, 13% of indigenous communities have no access to clean water compared to 0.6% of non-native households—the consequences of a capitalism that appears unwilling to create and maintain basic conditions for life (UN News 2011). While Detroit residents experienced a temporary reprieve from water shut offs, it did not  resolve the crisis of reproduction that lack of clean water for drinking and washing hands generates both before, during or after the pandemic.  
 
In India, cities are often segregated by caste (Sidhwani 2015) with lower-caste Dalit residential areas often lacking access to piped clean drinking water, in-house toilets and other basic infrastructure. Moreover, this PSA also needs to be contextualised in the caste-based notions of purity-pollution. Despite legislation banning employment in manual scavenging (cleaning city sewers and septic tanks) work, government data shows over 54,000 Dalits (possibly an underestimate) were forced to engage in this obnoxious and hazardous work in 2019 (Sen 2019) due to social compulsions and lack of economic options. This group of people are now called upon as “essential workers” to keep Indian cities clean in the midst of COVID-19 but work under hazardous work conditions for low pay without basic protective equipment, and with the additional risk of contracting the virus. In addition to the threat to their lives, they are forced to carry with them the stigma of “morally degrading” work, as Gopal Guru (2016) notes and the additional perception of being potential transmitters of COVID-19. 
 
Flattening the curve: Our use of the PSAs as a heuristic device demonstrates how COVID-19 has unmasked existing fissures in societies and further consolidated social, economic and political hierarchies. While the pandemic touches everyone, it disproportionately affects those who continue to be systematically placed in circumstances of greater risk and exposure, and thus subjected to harmful outcomes. 
 
Increasing privatisation of social reproduction has squarely imposed the burden of providing labour for everyday survival and care of individuals and society on the same racialised and gendered bodies that typically belong to the working classes. This is reflected in the work of the domestic population, but also the precarious working conditions of immigrants in the US who work low-wage jobs, many in food production sectors, are therefore deemed “essential workers'' risking their lives to support society and economy and yet face the existential threats of being detained in crowded for-profit detention centres, deported back to conditions of extreme violence and economic immiseration or contracting the virus at their workplace or detention centres. With India’s stricter national lockdown, it is the vulnerable population—Dalits, Adivasis, Muslims and women from these communities—who have borne the brunt of social, economic and health impacts of the virus as both essential but disposable workers. 
 
The contemporary labour market whether in the US or India comprises a high percentage of low-waged, low-skilled and sometimes high-risk jobs. With rates of unemployment rivalling the 1930s, further attacks of labour legislation, and the rise of the gig economy, the labour market is not expected to provide dignity or a decent standard of living.  During the pandemic, India’s lockdown has been among the strictest in the world, whereas attempts to arrest the spread of the virus have been relaxed in the US, both states have employed authoritarian tactics to pander to the demands of capitalists without mitigating varying degrees of worsening conditions for the working classes. In fact, several Indian states have suspended protective labour laws to boost industrial production impacted by the pandemic.  
   
The unwillingness of the state to provide for a decent life and life-making has forced people to rely significantly on family households. However, households themselves may be constrained in their ability to adequately engage in life-making due to socio-economic inequities, they may reinforce the gendered burden of reproduction, or make life dangerous for some due to their commitment to racialised heteronormativity. In other words, capitalist exploitation is co-constitutive of gendered, race- and caste-based oppressions.   
 
In the face of the failure of the institutions operating under the diktat of capitalism to sustain life, chosen communities have stepped in the time before and during the pandemic. Community members raise funds and pressure prison officials to get Black women out of prison on Mother’s Day so that they can visit loved ones; water protectors and advocates in Dharavi, Standing Rock, Flint and Detroit come together to fight for safe affordable water; LGBTQI activists and advocates from the global South and North develop a transnational mutual aid infrastructure; activists manage to get detainees out of ICE custody or incarcerated persons out of prisons to protect from the spread of the virus; community kitchens in Indian cities and along highways offer nutritious food to migrants who have lost their jobs; marginalised women farmers in the global South and North grow and cook nutritious food to provide for families who have lost their daily income; women in Ohio challenge anti-choice legislation enacted during the COVID-19 crisis; farmworkers, teachers, healthcare, sanitation and delivery workers demand safe working conditions and thousands of workers strike for Black lives; communities members show up in Minneapolis and cities around the US to demand justice for the loss of Black lives. When epidemiological PSAs have failed to account for structural inequities that impede life-making, communities have stepped in non-biomedical ways of flattening the curve. Through collective action, they are sustaining well-being by increasing social, political, economic inclusion, community sovereignty and health. These methods of flattening the curve extends life, places gratitude and solidarity at the centre for those who systematically suffer.  
 
These collective actions stitch the political, health, social and economic fabric in ways that radically make disposable and despised lives possible and vibrant. This kind of collective intervention is vital but should not be taken for granted. As we demand moratoriums on the cancellation of rents, and student, household and national debts, life and life-making demand a “human rights and intersectional-based approach” for universal food security, healthcare, information, education, social and political equity, water, sanitation, income and financial security, anti-violence measures, decarceration, decriminalisation, and destigmatisation (IAW Communications Unit 2020). It also demands recognition that individual struggles be rooted in structures that require collective solutions that are both sensitive to the local context and also recognise the global nature of our struggles. By examining the PSAs under COVID-19, we show how the working classes in seemingly uneven and unrelated topographies are fighting for survival and life under the pandemic. The solution to this crisis of survival and reproduction created by capitalism requires the centring of equity and life and form the basis of a transnational feminist agenda.

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