How the Covid story must be retold

Shiv Visvanathan
Shiv VisvanathanMay 26, 2020 | 10:35

How the Covid story must be retold

The virus seems to be both a literary and scientific disaster which we need to re-read and invent in the years to come.

The Indian scientist CV Seshadri observed that an event should be seen through three lenses. The first involves storytelling. Storytelling is an art form which becomes even more tragic when the storyteller disappears along with the story. One can think of the Narmada Dam in this context. One loses the sheer magic, the tension of anticipation, beginning “once there was”. The second perspective, more valid today, is usually scientific or ecological, and centres around paradigms as theoretical frameworks for problem-solving. The emphasis here is on the faith and logic of scientific or medical ideas. The third level is one of discourse combining myth, language, philosophy, and explores the world view and theory around the event.


The Covid-19, as a public event, deserved all three interpretations but was seen more through an act of policy or through a paradigmatic frame. As a result, the discussions around it are becoming more impoverished.

Losing the plot

The pandemic is presented as a policing problem and its effects evaluated statistically. People discussing the future, usually the technocrats, see their own world mirrored Covid-19 and argue enthusiastically for artificial intelligence. Corporations seeking to control of the economy, talk of investment, of working at home, but rarely see the tragedy of work and the city.

The stories of vagrants, marginals and migrants are lost or pulverised to a lowest common denominator narrative. (Photo: Reuters)

The language of cost-benefit analysis pervades it, but the language, the politics of suffering is lost. The number and economics need a Karl Marx or a Karl Polanyi to estimate suffering. Our economists speak more like chartered accountants of death. The stories of vagrants, marginals and migrants are lost or pulverised to a lowest common denominator narrative. A man cycling home to Bihar gets run over, two women die of a heart attack walking home from a pilgrimage, migrants protest of lack of food and northeast students in Delhi university hostels get harassed, we treat all these as sociological categories, as types rather than as human being.


In fact, the entire informal economy is neither paradigm, discourse, nor story, except in the writing of Jean Dreze or of the Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sangathan. The travails of migrant workers, which is one of the epic events of modern India, is completely lost in the narrative.

The new normal?

Apart from the impoverishment in the public narrative, this is the second kind of erasure, a friend of mine, a lawyer, dubbed it, the missing interstitial narrative. It stands between the private and the official of public. It’s a narrative about fears, anxiety, and loss.

Fear is seen as a medical symptom reduced to panic in hospitals, but the normalcy of fear and pain is lost in the Covid-19 narratives. As a housewife said, there is no place to be afraid by a language which is neither paranoid nor fundamentalist. She claimed her fears about her little daughter, or about her elderly mother, were not something that echoes outside. They have converted old age from poetics to a form of dull policy-prose. The refrain goes, everyone above seventy onwards is vulnerable, and therefore dispensable. Old age has no individual resilience or identity. It is captive, ironically, to the absence of storytelling. When in fact, the old were great storytellers keeping myth and folk tale alive. As one woman said, smallpox had its Shitala, a goddess duplicate, but Covid-19 as a secular thing has disembedded it from a folk tale.


As a result, little about Corona, except boredom, remain within memory. The oral memory of Corona disappears as the society boasts of its coming digitality. It’s strange that as we become a highly organised information society, the memory becomes a casualty, and with it the richness of storytelling. It seems a strange thing to say today that Corona reflects the impoverishment of storytelling. It lacks even a proper encounter with arts or photography. As a teenager remarked, one hopes the Corona gets a graphic novel with icons. Something has happened to the imagination of disasters.

Susan Sontag, the American literary critic, who wrote Illness as Metaphor, coined the term ‘The Imagination of a Disaster’. She used it to refer to the vocabulary, language, the myth, the folklore of a disaster, and its ability to generate a framework of meaning and understanding. There is an emptiness to the pandemic. It is, what I would call, a McLuhan’s nightmare. Marshall McLuhan, a Canadian communication expert, claimed that each medium of communication becomes an extinction of the body. Orality and typography, created in a different matrix of narratives. In the virus, one sees society quarrelling between orality, textuality, and digitality, and remaining articulate in all three.

Lack of narrative

We need a new social contract, reworking relations between a society which is oral, textual, and digital. This also needs a deeper articulation of the varieties of time and a new language for fears. When one listens to technocrats discussing the virus, one would think it is a piece of plumbing gone wrong. Neither IBM nor Microsoft quite captures the fate of the virus. They need to go beyond the market to understand it. We have to see the virus, not just as a fact of biology, but as a piece of the cosmos and find the language to articulate the relationship. Democracy is often a failure of the imagination, expressing itself as a failure of rights or ethics of storytelling. The virus seems to be both a literary and scientific disaster which we need to re-read and invent in the years to come.

(Courtesy of Mail Today)

Last updated: May 26, 2020 | 10:35
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