For this day, our dear Prime Minister Narendra Modi suggested a voluntary curfew of twelve hours termed the “janta curfew” (people’s curfew), as one way of initiating “social distancing” to “break the chain” of the ongoing pandemic. Quite typically of him, he did this over a television address “to the nation” sans any interaction with the media. In his address, the “leader” delivered various sermons to his “people” and one specific instruction – to come out on their respective balconies at around 5 in the evening and clap or beat utensils in unison (for five minutes precisely) to express solidarity and gratitude to the medical staff who were at the frontline of fighting this “war.”
Having slept through this act of expressing national solidarity, I woke up today afternoon to a barrage of Twitter posts about my fellow Indians having taken their beloved leader’s words a little too seriously. In various parts of the country, the five o’clock event had translated to a celebration of sorts with people turning out in crowds in apartment colonies and at road-crossings to clank their utensils and have a bit of a dance and sing-along while they were at it. The Prime Minister’s call had turned out to be only too successful. There was solidarity galore. But maybe not so much of social distancing. A little later, the Whatsapp forwards started coming in (see figure 1). Turns out, this was the utter genius of Narendra Modi to have suggested this 12 hour (self-imposed) curfew (on a Sunday) followed by the acoustic experiment of the collective banging of pots and pans. The experiment did much more than scaring the neighborhood dogs away. It also apparently cleansed the atmosphere of every tiny bit of microbial nuisance by generating, quite literally, “good vibrations,” as NASA had apparently also confirmed. The cosmic balance was finally restored. And apparently a lot of people, even seemingly educated ones, want to believe in this.
Even till some years back, there used to be a sincere fascination in postcolonial nations like ours with something called “the cultivation of scientific temper.” Modernizers associated with the post-independence planning state hoped to pursue developmental objectives on scientific lines and with the aid of science and technology for the best results. But they also hoped for the general public to pick up on the presumed rationality of scientific thought and practice. As someone dabbling in histories of science and technology, I have always presumed that this fascination has died a natural death. Thus, it was rather difficult for me to imagine that the woeful inadequacies of India’s public health system would inspire any degree of confidence exclusively in the “science” of biomedicine for a significant part of the Indian population, who have had dealings mainly with the most invasive side of biomedical intervention. Consequently, India has for a long time seen the large-scale popularity of what is nowadays termed CAM (Complementary and Alternative Medicine) or Traditional Medicine. Perhaps the disaster of COVID-19 more prominently marks out the uncertainty that continues to haunt biomedical practice, this time on a global scale. And in the wake of this ongoing pandemic, histories and historians of modern science will have to further attune themselves to this constitutive element of uncertainty in scientific practice and also in scientific existence.
Yet seeing the events as they unfolded today, I wonder if there is some scope still to bring the older question concerning the social emplacement of scientific understanding and reasoning back into the picture vis à vis our appreciation of uncertainty. For uncertainty itself perhaps requires a certain form of (scientific?) reasoning for its comprehension. We certainly do not yet know exactly how we can save ourselves from the universalization of this pandemic. But we can perhaps still get a grasp of how we will most definitely not save ourselves from this. As of now at least, this reasoning, the bare minimum practice of a conceivable scientific temper, if I can call it that, might be of more use to us than the hope for the invention of a cure or a vaccine for the novel coronavirus. Or the hope that pots and pans will clang COVID-19 into oblivion.
– 22 March 2020
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Ritam Sengupta is finishing his Ph.D. in Social Sciences at the Centre for Studies in Social Sciences, Calcutta. He is based out of Kolkata, India. His doctoral project deals with the history of electrification in colonial and postcolonial India over the twentieth century that attempts to foreground transitions in energy regimes as one key to thinking the political and economic transformations in the region in this period. One part of the project, developed while undertaking a fellowship at the MPIWG, concerns the history of the arrival of electricity to the northern Indian countryside as the energetic basis of irrigation from underground resources.
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The Teach311 + COVID-19 Collective began in 2011 as a joint project of the Forum for the History of Science in Asia and the Society for the History of Technology Asia Network and is currently expanded in collaboration with the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science(Artifacts, Action, Knowledge) and Nanyang Technological University-Singapore.