The crowd in the time of lockdown

Long confined to the realm of the imaginary, the idea of the “next pandemic” was fuelled by what scholars referred to as the “emergence of emergence”, where emerging infectious diseases shifted the course of epidemiological reasoning marking a new direction in global health policy. Framed almost exclusively in anticipation of an inevitable event, and through a hysterical mingling of science and fiction, it fabricated a pervasive climate of anxiety and apprehension in the twenty-first century, leading to an obsession with catastrophic forms of diseases. One cannot help wonder what these ‘pandemic prophets’ are now thinking as their predictions come to pass in the present. With 10 million cases and half a million deaths across more than 200 countries, Covid-19 is as close to an apocalypse as we can get. 

The extreme virulence of this outbreak notwithstanding, could these seers, however, have foretold the manner in which this historical conjuncture has unfolded, i.e., even though we might have been waiting for something to happen, sooner or later, did we really think it would be like this, at this particular moment? For, despite a decade of activities around a billion-dollar pandemic preparedness industry, involving syndromic surveillance, sentinel watching, unscrupulous data mining as well as an overwhelming emphasis on modelling simulations, what is astonishing is the way in which the temporal urgency of the pandemic has hastened a crude form of survivalist response based not on any scientific rationale or sophisticated knowledge. Instead, masking a persistent sense of being unprepared against an exaggerated norm of preparedness, the only form of political action that could be galvanised quickly was the imposition of a lockdown and its rigid expectations of confinement. Even though enforced in its own distinctive modes in each country, it came to be seen as a universal human experience. Against much speculation about the causes and consequences of Covid-19 as well as its risks and prospects, lockdowns gained traction as a persuasive course of action, both in terms of preventing and managing the pandemic. In short, it has become a new regime of truth spanning scientific, governmental and socio-cultural beliefs. To the extent that by May 2020, more than half of the world’s population had been living for weeks under some form of lockdown. 

While this is not completely new with such forms of epidemic control dating back to the sixteenth century when cordon sanitaires were often established to contain disease outbreaks, there is an underlying unease as to how something such as a lockdown with its stringent actions and extreme fallouts, associated more with a carceral state and its prison-industrial complex came to be ratified so quickly and with such ferocity as the global health response to the pandemic. In fact, there is almost a mytho-cosmological reverence in the way lockdowns were invoked with media reports extolling them as a corrective exercise, restoring interspecies balance between nature and humankind.

A series of image-events highlighting not just empty streets but also frenzied accounts of urban rewilding through the appearance of feral animals in the middle of the cities became a new kind of visual metonym for a possible post-pandemic new world. To borrow Caduff’s observation, lockdowns create a fantasy of control that overestimates and overreacts. As he astutely points out, lockdown is a mechanism not simply for prevention but for redistribution of negative effects which are unfortunately shifted away from hotspots of public attention to less visible places. It is thus not surprising when press reports around the world marvelled at the way prominent city centre locations remained eerily quiet but outside of these ‘dead zones’, there was still a dogged pursuit of pre-lockdown routines. 

This reminds me of my own city Chennai in southern India where important landmarks such as Marina Beach or shopping districts such as T Nagar were enthusiastically photographed in their conspicuous oddity, stripped of their characteristic ‘crowd’ while marketplaces such as the wholesale Koyambedu Market as well as local street markets continued to mill with retailers and shoppers, revealing a predilection for culturally situated habits and practices. As lockdowns demand a complete transformation of our agency rendering any kind of sociality as unthinkable, especially the economic variant, street markets have emerged as everyday forms of counterpublic, even as they are harshly censured as Covid hotspots. Thus, much fuss is made about Koyambedu Market being responsible for a third of the infections in the regional state of Tamil Nadu. It is considered as the quintessential spillover ground zero whose liminal spaces, generally not known for their cleanliness, became zones of contamination.

If, for many, its continued function is untenable, it is a remonstration of its association with crowd and congestion, even though urgent calls for the closure of the market shows little understanding of how food supply systems work in cities. Wholesale markets such as Koyambedu Market are not only important ‘marketplaces’ in an economic sense, serving as more than a link between producers and consumers or the peasant and the state, but as anthropologist Jane Guyer remarked decades ago, they convey a well-articulated socio-economic structure put in place by the bureaucratic reason of state authority. But with a distribution system where regularity, predictability and accurate synchronisation are at a premium, crowding and congestion understandably run amok in such spaces. What is ignored during crisis periods such as the current pandemic is the fact that they are more than some kind of subsistence system, cutting across several scalar thresholds to absorb excess precarious labour. As an entangled space with its unique human and social capital system, shutting down Koyambedu Market means not only disrupting the everyday supply of fruit and vegetables for a city like Chennai, but also seriously hampering significant linkages between horizontal networks of people and vertical supply chains. 

Against the vein of exasperation several media reports have expressed against Koyambedu Market as the epicentre of Chennai’s pandemic with associated calls for its closure or at least some form of regulated ‘distancing’, the intention here is not to undermine quarantine efforts which are epidemiologically necessary or fuel any kind of denialism against the serious nature of the epidemic itself but to echo AbdouMaliq Simone’s point that livelihoods at markets are staked on uncertain workings of density, one that is not just about population numbers and physical proximity but equally the co-existence and proliferation of different economic transactions. The stereotypical crowd in the marketplace is more than an immanent condition of spontaneous or random interactions. Instead, it is emblematic of a particular social form that provides a majority of the marginalised population with a calculus of economic exchange. Imposition of new rules governing social distancing and conduct overturns the necessity of this crowd and their eventualities into a dispensable contingency, thereby destabilising whatever security of livelihoods could be had through this format. Through a reversal of normativity, the necessity of a lockdown demands an efficacy that rests unrealistically on constraining popular forms of the multitude in Indian cities, especially assuming the worst of the crowd and its many conditions of possibility. 

With a probabilistic economy of anticipation set in place in the build-up to the pandemic, lockdowns assume a moral authority that is in direct conflict with the moral economy of the crowd, one that historian EP Thompson had identified as not simply utilitarian but an investment in important values and structures that is neither social nor economic. Through a recalibrated necessity that is rhetorical rather than pragmatic, lockdowns command an asociality that prohibits marketplace gatherings and their associated crowd, ignoring completely the complexities of their motive, behaviour and function. The only means of recovering their stability and integrity is to rework their functioning logic, one that now derives from a contingency that has been sidelined by the moral necessity of a lockdown. And, it is thus that we find ourselves in a situation where lockdown becomes banal and the crowd appears bizarre. So, does the persistent presence of the crowd, in its now contingent form, sabotage the lockdown? I don’t think so. On the other hand, has the moral authority of the lockdown made the moral economy of the crowd expendable? Definitely yes!

About the author: Dr. Pushpa Arabindoo is associate professor in Geography & Urban Design, Department of Geography, University College London. She is also a co-director of UCL Urban Laboratory

This text appeared originally as a podcast in UCL IAS’s Talk Pieces’ series ‘Life in the Time of Coronavirus’.

The cover photo is credited to Manisha Mondal;

Suggested further readings

Arabindoo, P. (2020). “Pandemic cities: Between mimicry and trickery.” City and Society

Barker, K. How to survive the end of the future: Preppers, pathology, and the everyday crisis of insecurity. Trans Inst Br Geogr. 2020; 45: 483– 496.

Hudson, J (2015), The Multiple Temporalities of Informal Spaces Geography Compass, 9, 461– 481. doi: 10.1111/gec3.12221.

Several authors (2020). “Series: Dispatches from the pandemic.”

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