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Becoming Pandemic: Dwelling in a Lockdown

Chigbo Arthur Anyaduba

June 9, 2020

[Read by Ifeoluwa Adeniyi]

You were invited to share your thoughts in what they called a “Zoomference.” To reflect on COVID-19 pandemic and the influence on your research.

A renovation had been ongoing on your apartment balcony for some weeks. The drilling noise was dizzying. Sometimes it got so loud you couldn’t hear your own voice. Last week, you wrote a protest email to the manager. She sent you a pair of earplugs in response.

So, when you joined the Zoomference you told folks about the noise outside, which strangely they couldn’t hear from their ends. A zing, a bang, a drill, all in your head alone. You couldn’t concentrate or organise your thoughts coherently.

You began by highlighting your initial observations. Did anyone notice, you asked, how reality began to imitate fiction at the inception, especially those pandemic fictions in the genres of post/apocalyptic sci-fi, monster, alien-invasion, disease-infestation films and literatures? You were mostly struck, you pontificated, by how closely the COVID-19 pandemic mirrored prevailing fiction, how folks began to imitate situations they found in films and books, how pandemic films went viral for their supposedly prophetic visions of the present times. It appeared, you mused, that certain kinds of fiction had long been preparing folks not only to expect a pandemic but also to act in certain ways in response to it. What did it say, you asked, that folks navigated life using fiction as maps?  

But that wasn’t the beginning you had in mind.

Oh, yeah. Lest you forget. Did anyone notice, you asked, that the pandemic did not become a pandemic per se until the infections began to spread in Europe and North America? When thousands of people were getting infected in Asia and the Middle East, it was not a pandemic. It became a pandemic, a global catastrophe, you chuckled matter-of-factly, when it overwhelmed the health systems in Europe and North America.

But that was not even the main point of your reflection, you said. The drilling outside had become a piercing screech in your head. You paused momentarily to let it quieten.

Oh, did anyone observe what happened when the infections became a pandemic? you asked by way of another digression. As a pandemic, you said, it became possible for governments to declare emergencies. For a genocide scholar such as you, a state of emergency was always a nasty beast, you mused excitedly. With a relish. As though to say: Hear, hear people, this is my best territory; it gets sexy from here. Sit back and take it. And so you poured forth: Emergency was always the occasion to regularise an already prevailing state of exception, you said, making it easier for governments to exercise total power over the population, choosing who might be let in or out, who might be sacrificed or saved, et cetera. You hopped heartily from Foucault and Agamben and Gramsci to Mbembe. And when you felt sufficiently satisfied that you’d made your points by grounding them in powerful theories, you averred victoriously: Everyone could immediately see now how capital and politics (unified in the colonial capitalist state) govern our relations with our bodies, our health, our lives, and even our deaths.

You proceeded from there to describe some of the legitimating rituals that the pandemic emergency had conditioned in many Western countries: heads of government at different levels and their ministers of health and directors of businesses standing in front of the cameras reeling out infection figures and death numbers, announcing employment losses and intervention aids. These rituals were enacted multiple times daily, you said, serving mainly to regularise the pandemic emergencies and to enforce lockdowns. You ranted about the conditions of online teaching, about schools/universities embracing the terrible idea and innovating on different ways of delivering teaching online. Normalising an aberration just so they could be seen as doing their own bit. No one wanted to be outperformed. How did the colonial capitalist system manage to make folks think and act like that? you asked.

The noise outside had intensified. You could barely keep your cool anymore.

You told a joke about social distancing based on a recent encounter with an old lady. You were walking down a path and there was this old lady coming in the opposite direction. On getting closer, she put up what you considered to be an excessive performance of social distancing: she pulled out a kerchief, slapped it over her mouth and nose with such unnecessary ferocity, and then crossed to the other side of the road. You were quick to notice that she didn’t perform a similar drama when she crossed paths with a young man wearing a familiar complexion as hers. You joked that you didn’t know that social distancing was perhaps a catchphrase for racial distancing. Folks laughed. Someone said something to the effect that the pandemic was escalating racism. Some folks agreed. Some cited similar encounters they heard about or saw for themselves. You didn’t think that the pandemic was escalating racism. Racism was not like fire that could escalate or deescalate willy-nilly, you said. Well, if it was a helpful metaphor to use, you mused, maybe racism was more like a pandemic that everyone had got used to, learnt how to live with.

A startlingly loud bang outside gave you the jitters. Banging and drilling and shrilling happening all at once now. You couldn’t take the noise anymore. It was time to exit the Zoomference. But not without making the main point of your reflection, you said.

The point was that the pandemic-induced isolation precisely characterised your relation with your research (if it could be so called). As a researcher you always dwelt in a lockdown; history happened outside, elsewhere, you said. You couldn’t feel it or observe it up close. Its anguishes, its joys, its ambivalences. Never mind the piercing, deafening noise seeping through your walls. The best you could do was to speculate it from a distance. To keep yourself from getting infected by it.

Chigbo Arthur Anyaduba is Assistant Professor of English at The University of Winnipeg. He is also a beleaguered writer constantly drowning in his own stories.

The banner image was designed by Lauren Bosc, adapted from an image by Adam Nieścioruk on Unsplash.

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