Covid-19 —on Politics and Poetics, Words and Worlds

Pandemic comes from the Greek word pandemos. Demos means the population and pan means everyone. A pandemic is when disease (dis-ease) spreads across large populations and geographies.

Things are out of control and often times, we feel powerless. Solastalgia (solace + nostalgia) is the feeling of distress associated with environmental change, like how I feel homesick even though all I’ve been at is home. Corona is Latin for crown. From Sri Lanka to America, democratically elected leaders are acting like crown-wearing monarchs as they exploit the pandemic to tighten their grip over democratic institutions.

The more anxious we feel, the more we long for security. The military is deployed to make us feel safe and the soldiers, as they do, have come armed with their military metaphors. They are in the frontline of their war against Covid and they intend to combat their invisible enemy.

Virus comes from the Latin word for poison. There’s a deluge of information coming at us from all directions and it’s overwhelming. The WHO has referred to the disinformation that has accompanied the COVID-19 pandemic as an infodemic. The term going viral is based on the way that viruses spread. Like a virus spreads across the body; rumour and conspiracy have permeated across the body politic. In Sri Lanka and elsewhere, conspiracy theories are scapegoating Muslims and other minorities for being bioterrorists that manufactured the virus and the vectors that cause its spread. The propaganda machine continues to create spectacles and scapegoats. Lines between patriots and traitors are delineated. Conspiracy is derived from the Latin word conspirare which means to breathe together (what can be more sinister than a group of people standing in a circle, holding a private meeting?).

The more complexity and confusion there is, the more we look for easy answers. Lies are simple. They give us simple patterns of cause and effect.

Muslims and others are denied burials for their dead, contrary to WHO guidelines. Necropolitics is the politics of life and death that decide who may live and who must die. For some (bodies), even mourning the dead has become an act of resistance.

One of the central emotional responses during a pandemic is fear. This kind of fear can un(mask) our basest qualities and lay the groundwork for violence. HIV was designated the gay cancer. The Bubonic plague led to the murder of Catalans, clerics and homeless people, and instigated pogroms against Jews. We know that right-wing extremists including the Nazis won a greater share of the votes in parts of Germany that suffered larger numbers of flu deaths in 1918.

Trauma is the Greek word for wound.

There’s emphasis on going home, staying home, being safe but home is not a safe place to be for every(body). Victim comes from the Latin word for a sacrificial animal. Some (bodies) have to be sacrificed for the “greater good”.

We are constantly asked to stay alert. Alert comes from the Italian phrase “to the watchtower” — like a panapticon designed to allow a single guard to watch all of the prisoners, without the prisoners being able to actually verify whether they are being watched at any given moment. Even when they are not being watched, they are still disciplined.

Words can shape the world and be shaped by the world. May we continue to find the words to stand up to power and to radically care for one another. May we find the words we need to recreate and reorganize our world(s).

Senel Wanniarachchi

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