The enormity of the corona pandemic crisis demands that we rise above current stereotypes and perceptions. This transformation has to occur in two forms. We have to acknowledge that the Corona crisis has unearthed much deeper and fundamental problems. The first is a crisis of imagination and cerebration. The stereotypes used to evaluate the crisis at the policy level have become obvious and predictable. It highlights the need to view India as a knowledge society and make experiments in pedagogy part of the democratic and cognitive imagination.
A philosopher friend of mine suggested three examples, beginning with something playful. We need a graphic novel of the epidemic to help us visualise key moments of decision making. Second, we need to make future studies a part of everyday pedagogies. Futures, as cultural anthropologist Margaret Mead and peace research scientist Johan Galtung have suggested, should be taught in schools, so that scenario building gaming exercises, heuristics and systems connectivity become intrinsic to the way in which all students learn.
My friend added that we also need to rethink the city as a continuous learning system, the way Patrick Geddes and other sociologists have suggested. We have to rethink the city with every catastrophe. Our incumbent politicians and policy wonks seem to have forgotten the migrant and informal economy, with devastating consequences. They have to go beyond poverty to understand vulnerability. Indian society owes an apology to our migrants if it has to recover as a democratic imagination.
Moreover, there’s need to look beyond society and the city as learning organisations, at questions of time and memory. Within a few weeks after a crisis, society goes back to old ways and habits. We will pretend the Corona crisis never happened. The need is not for monuments or memorials. It’s for feedback of mnemonics so that we can start correcting errors. Such transformation requires a new idea of economics. It is time to disembed economies the way anthropologist Karl Polayni suggested: disaggregate the formal economy into sub-sets such as the informal, tribal and crafts economies and use systems theory to create differing connectivities between parts and whole. The deficiency of latter day economics is that the whole is less than the sum of its parts.
The pandemic has demanded that people learn to work at home. But no one except architect Gautam Bhatia has suggested differentiation between house and home, between a residence and productivity and conviviality of the family that stays within. As many anthropologists have suggested, there’s need to venture beyond the linearity of timetables. Progressive societies have to be open to the idea of multiple life cycles to avoid confusing old age with obsolescence. Both healthcare and democracy need revolutions in philosophy and the social sciences. The tragedy is general acceptance that all that a crisis demands is a return to normalcy, when the old normalcy won’t be available.
The silver lining of the Coronavirus pandemic and the prolonged national lockdown, is rising awareness that Indian democracy has to go beyond the conventional ideas of electoralism, vote banks and majoritarianism. Democracy has to be an inventive imagination which recreates the idea of citizenship. Citizenship is not just about entitlements, it has to be seen as a combination of inventiveness and heuristics for future learning.
Therefore to rethink citizenship, we have to reinvent civil society as a locus for new cognitive experiments. We have to view crises differently, not as alien or infrequent catastrophes, but as rhythms of normal life and living. We have to deliberate what happens to various types of citizens in crises. How do we redefine the refugee, the migrant, the unemployed, the aged, even children, with their distinctive vulnerabilities, in a crisis? We need to rethink citizenship beyond certification of residency and sedentary identity.
I am reminded of a scene in Antjie Krog’s book on postaparthied South Africa’s Truth & Reconciliation Commission. In The Country of My Skull (1998) she invoked an African philosopher to posit that societies have to invent a new idea of strangers everyday, to learn new forms of hospitality and caring. The definition of citizenship needs a sense of generosity which it lacks currently. This requires us to go beyond the formality of law and political economy to a moral economy of trusteeship and responsibility.
In school and college curriculums of the post-Covid age, ethics, a missing item in the crisis, must be brought back into policy. Our society desperately needs moral repair and healing. It’s sad that the Coronavirus crisis has not been viewed through the lens of ethical imagination. We are confronted with policy illiteracy for which a revolution in education is the answer. We need a new generation of educationists of the calibre of Maria Montessori and Jiddu Krishnamurthy. We also need to remember words of South African author J.P. Donleavy who famously wrote that future is a different country, in which we will have to behave differently.
(Shiv Visvanathan is director of the Centre for the Study of Knowledge Systems at O.P. Jindal Global University, Sonipat)