Pandemic Discourses – A Global Contagion Demands Global Perspectives

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By Sakiko Fukuda-Parr, Manjari Mahajan, and Mark W. Frazier

As the inaugural issue of Pandemic Discourses goes online, 4.7 million cases of COVID-19 and nearly 320,000 deaths have been recorded by the World Health Organization. The waves of cases and deaths have been closely followed by mounting economic losses, leaving governments, communities, and individuals scrambling to find appropriate responses. Yet, even in this uniquely global moment, popular discourse around the pandemic has remained trapped within familiar terms.

Media coverage has to a large extent focused on experiences of the United States and Europe. The frameworks developed to respond to the pandemic have also been US/Euro-centric, frequently inward-looking and isolationist, paying scant attention to expertise, knowledge, and capacities elsewhere. The experiences of other parts of the world, even when taken into account, often serve to cement prior prejudices. In response to this lopsided discussion, Pandemic Discourses aims to foster a more expansive dialogue that encompasses voices from the global South, including China, India, and beyond.

The pandemic has emerged as a contested terrain of competing forms of expertise, data, and narratives of how to understand disease, science, and society in the face of enormous uncertainty. This blog space will share reflections from scholars, political leaders, artists, and others. Through this diversity, it will hope to show how different narratives bring to the forefront variable and contested understandings of the problems at stake, and how different forms of expertise produce diverse forms of knowledge to inform public reasoning, public policy, and public trust.

We begin the blog with three articles that epitomize these aims. These contributions, from Brazil, China, and South Africa, reflect on the nature of global inter-connectedness revealed through the pandemic and the responses to it, and envision new, more democratic and sustainable futures.

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President Lula of Brazil (2003-2010) and Brazil’s Foreign Minister Celso Amorim (1993-94; 2003-10) reflect on why a global response to the pandemic cannot depend on 20th-century institutions as these institutions have been undermined and captured by interests of powerful countries and corporations. Lula and Celso call for a new order, based on “true principles of multilateralism,” with countries of the South proactively creating new alliances.

Biao Xiang, Professor of Social Anthropology at Oxford University, comments on mobility as the “key tool in containing this pandemic” and the ensuing contradictions given that contemporary economies are trapped and dependent, gyro-like, on high-speed mobility.  These contradictions are apparent in China, where the economy is characterized by dematerialization, casualization, and logistification – three structural features that build on the mobility of workers.  Yet these are the very conditions that also leave workers insecure without sufficient social safety nets.

Carlos Lopes, writing from South Africa, warns against giving in to narratives of “catastrophism,” notwithstanding the serious socio-economic consequences that are anticipated. Instead, he points out that “African intellectuals are calling for a different discussion” that seeks to implement the game-changing reforms that have been postponed, such as a more sustainable economy, development of domestic pharmaceutical manufacturing capacity in the South, smarter uses of technology, among others.

In the coming weeks, we will publish articles that situate the pandemic in the history of global health, the politics and complexities of relief in India amidst a lockdown, and the prospects for “pandemic socialism,” among many others.

We hope these perspectives will not only expand our collective understanding of the pandemic, but also shine a light on the diverse political, economic, and historical factors that have brought us to this moment.

Sakiko Fukuda-Parr, Manjari Mahajan, and Mark W. Frazier are Co-Editors of Pandemic Discourses.

This article first appeared in Pandemic Discourses, a blog co-published by the India China Institute and the Julien J. Studley Graduate Programs in International Affairs at The New School.

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