The future of the left since 1884

The precarity of pre-existing conditions

Looking back over lockdown in the United States and Bangladesh, Elora Halim Chowdhury makes the case for a transnational feminism that emphasises our interconnectedness and interdependence.


Long read

Covid-19’s path and the measures adopted to tackle it illuminate far-reaching social and political inequities. The rate in which the virus travelled across borders – national, urban to suburban, industrial and agricultural, race, gender and class, citizen, migrant and refugee, professional and daily wage worker – brought into sharp relief its stunning spread as well as the tremendous asymmetries of our lives. These differential border crossings have been the consequence of unfettered capitalist development and accumulation. In other words, the pursuit of progress, and the mindset and policy of unrestrained, exploitative and unsustainable growth, has led to deeply unequal consequences. Indeed, feminist scholars in particular have pointed to capitalism as the virus, humans as its agents, and the ensuing pandemic and its faultlines as being caused by the relentless greed, plunder, individualism and ‘progress’ in the age of the anthropocene.

When we choose to not heed the signs of devastation wreaked upon the earth by ever-increasing encroachment into natural habitats; when we choose to dismantle national pandemic teams, or deem it unnecessary to stockpile emergency medical equipment because they are not ‘profitable’ in the here and now; when we choose to build and sustain national economies on exploitation and oppression of disadvantaged and minoritised populations here and elsewhere in the global south, the shocking but not surprising, slow but sure consequence is that all of us – that is, humanity – are brought to our knees.

In this moment, we might reflect on how we – humanity  – arrived here and what kind of future might we strive for on the other side of Covid-19. What we can say for sure is that the principles of capitalist growth must be stopped and an alternate way of living – emphasizing a care ethic and economy – has to be imagined.

Looking back over lockdown

From the outset, I followed the responses and coverage in my two contrasting ‘homes’ – the United States and Bangladesh. Those early days of lockdown that moved so quickly are worth reflecting on; they gave much insight into the inequalities of today and hold important lessons for confronting global inequities in the future.

A series of unfathomable blunders by the highest office in the US initially resulted in the country having the highest number of Covid-19 cases as well as deaths in the world. New York City, which was the epicentre, had been ravaged, with the most deaths – as well as job losses – occurring among African American and Latinx communities. Similar patterns then emerged in Boston, Chicago, Detroit and New Orleans in which unemployed and underemployed communities living in less than adequate housing, facing lower life expectancies, without access to nourishing and affordable diets – and thus suffering from ‘pre-existing’ socio-economic and health precarities – were worst affected.

Dr Anthony Fauci, the wise director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases since 1984, responded to the bleak racial inequity and higher numbers of death and disease among African Americans by saying, “There is nothing we can do about it right now except to give them the best possible care and to avoid complications.” In a similar vein, during a webinar on the South Asian response to Covid-19, Dr Srinath Reddy, president of Public Health Foundation of India, when questioned about the sensibility of the stern lockdown and its murderous consequences for migrant labour, responded that the time for post-mortem of such policies was later; efforts in the now needed to prioritise healthcare. In response to the glib ‘not now, later’ response by authorities, American Studies scholar Lynnell Thomas poignantly asked, “That begs the question, when can we do something about it?”

Following the course of action in the global north, Bangladesh instituted a lockdown in late March, initially calling it a “general holiday”, a clever euphemism that enabled a lockdown without specifications regarding legal responsibilities. That is, there was no attendant recognition whether the ‘holiday’ falls under the guidelines of the 2018 communicable diseases act or the 2012 disaster management act covering restrictions around worker lay-off. Experts in South Asia questioned the sensibility behind Bangladesh’s approach given the vastly different national contexts existing between Europe, America and South Asia and pointed out the need for prioritising local approaches in thinking about strategies to combat a pandemic about which so much remains unknown.

In the context of Bangladesh, where 90 per cent of the working population are engaged in the informal sector, what did social isolation look like? Middle to upper-classes maintained the strict curfew-like imperatives, having planned for and purchased supplies to hunker down for the duration. Their service staff – drivers, cooks, cleaners – were released from their duties with, one hopes, advance salary payments. Many of their populations live in close quarters in the urban slums, often crammed 10 to 12 in a room. They do not have running water, let alone secure and sanitised living conditions. There was an exodus from the city to the villages. This exodus included migrant populations of daily wage earners and factory workers.

Eighty-four per cent of the country’s export income comes from Bangladesh’s garment industry, which employs 4 million workers, mostly women. In its lockdown directive, the government did not specify closing factories down, leaving the decision to be made ad hoc by individual owners. Neither did the Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association, the nationwide trade organisation of garments manufacturers, offer a clear directive at the start of the lockdown as to what the workers might expect. Many workers were sent home without wages for  the month of March. One garment factory in particular – A-One (Bd) Ltd  – has been called out by labour organisers for not having paid its workers for 4 months. On April 16, when the workers gathered in front of the factory to demand their overdue wages, police showered them with hot water and charged at them with sticks. Workers were then summoned multiple times by their managers, but their wages had not been paid.

We are now in a situation where mass scale economic downturn means brands are not coming forward with payment for goods that are currently in the pipeline. In the interests of workers, a supply chain of profit must integrate a chain of care and ethics. This surely includes the wellbeing of workers as much as the wellbeing of the business that is frequently put first.

A two-tiered enactment of humanity is at play. Human rights discourse emphasises universal values of humanity and dignity, yet what the pandemic fallout and policies have shown, time and again, is the use of a euphemism like ‘essential workers’ and the much celebrated ‘women garment workers’ in the case of a neoliberal-market-driven Bangladesh, obscures the very real daily dangers these workers are forced to face in order to keep considerable segments of the population safe and comfortable. Throughout 2020, in Bangladesh as well as the US and UK, we have seen a hollow celebration of frontline workers. They are celebrated as heroes yet are sent to these ‘frontlines’ without adequate social protections.

In March, at the peak of the pandemic, two thousand garment factories remained open in Bangladesh. In many, workers stood shoulder to shoulder. Among the poor in Bangladesh, there are stories of people dying of hunger and illness en route to the city on foot when workers were summoned back to work; of suicide in the face of hunger and the stigma of unemployment; and of sick relatives being abandoned by the roadside for fear of infection.

We cannot talk about health and disease in pandemic conditions, divorced from the pre-existing lack of a socioeconomic infrastructure of protection. Who had the privilege to maintain a 6-feet distance in a factory or in slum quarters? Whose health, wellness and safety did these lockdown policies protect and at the cost of whose livelihoods? Was it a real choice for the vulnerable, whose ‘normal’ is already a condition of precarity, to return to work in the face of death by starvation? Who should be held accountable for the fragility of a $22bn garment industry that, after four decades of growth and prosperity for the nation and for multinational corporations, threatened workers with layoffs and no compensation, additional to the extreme lack of emergency protection?

On a televised talk show in Bangladesh, a news anchor asked Taslima Akhter, coordinator of Bangladesh Garment Workers Solidarity, about the capacity of factory owners to “feed the workers as they sit idle”. This begs several questions: Who is feeding the owners and the retail companies in good times and in bad? Who has benefitted from the labour of factory workers, that they can ride the lockdown without having to worry about the next meal, about feeding their children, about paying rent?

This misrecognition of profit and security as entitlement resonates within the US debate around health insurance and protection, that often excludes those most in need of protection. Under the US capitalist system, insurance companies can refuse to provide coverage for those with health – namely those with pre-existing conditions. In some cases, socio-economic, racialised conditions are the pre-existing conditions. In Bangladesh too, workers’ vulnerabilities make them ineligible for social and corporate responsibility. Akhter captured this double-standard:

“10 lakh workers are on the verge of losing their livelihoods. The professional classes are protected by the state but when it comes to ensuring the job security for workers the response from the factory owners has been an astounding, ‘how can we support them to sit idle?’ … Already, they are facing the potential loss of $3bn from northern retailers. Nowhere in this equation is a recognition of how the businesses have benefited from paying workers meagre wages – wages that did not enable nutritious meals and good health, that barely maintained the workers’ substandard and precarious lifestyles. At a time when our nation faces grave uncertainty, these business owners do not hesitate to turn their backs on the workers, talking about layoffs, and salary cuts. Workers are being made to bear the burden of the lost contracts.

What a cruel system this is that discards the very people who enabled this class to emerge as the leading manufacturers, and for our country to rise to middle-income status. If owners and buyers don’t take on the responsibility, who will? We must demand that the government will. The sweat of the workers are what grew the garment industry, yet these are the same people who are being made to bear the brunt of the pandemic. They face not just a health risk, but a risk to their livelihoods.” (Translated by the author)

The incantation “we are all in it together” alludes to the borderless transmission of the virus and appeals to an evocation of global community, but it obscures universal and deeply entrenched systems of social stratifications based on race, class, caste, and nation. Such incommensurate words also obfuscate what should be a call for a ‘just responsibility’, a term feminist scholar Brooke Ackerly defines as awareness of location and privilege in our courses of political action and service towards humanity, encompassing an ethic of care and justice.

Interconnected and interdependent

As with capitalism, the pandemic’s spread and consequences have been far more lethal for those with ‘pre-existing conditions’. Negligence and systemic structural oppression of race, gender, class, and nation have made it so. To remedy this, we need a sense of collective good and a deeper appreciation of the interdependence between humans and the natural world. The pandemic has conjured war-like metaphors even though what will actually save us, ironically, is ethical care for one another. We cannot be isolated from the idea of sociality – that our lives must be in touch, that our sense of responsibility must involve solidarity, reciprocity and mutuality.

While our forward thinking must be policy-driven, the policies that will truly disentangle us from the thorns of the virus have to be trans-disciplinary and transnational. This is reinforced by feminist scholars as well as a spiritual-humanistic scholar like Japan’s Daisaku Ikeda who outlines three key principles to realise a mode of global citizenship rooted in a pluralistic, and diverse form of humanitarianism: first a realisation that all life and living beings are interconnected; second, the embracing of difference rather than denying or fearing encounters with the other; and finally, cultivating compassion and ‘imaginative empathy’ for others.

Drawing from a Buddhist worldview, Ikeda encourages an ‘all-encompassing interrelatedness’ by active dialogue and engagement with others in order to grow our own humanity. In the foreword to Ikeda’s essays, Hope Is A Decision, feminist scholar Sarah Wider notes the centrality of the concept of Ubuntu in his work — the idea of ‘codependent origination’ and the belief, ‘I am because we are’. She elucidates that even when Ikeda seems to focus primarily on individual and interpersonal interactions as the mode for personal transformation, he urges us to see the individual as inseparable from our relational worlds and the interconnectedness of all existences. The act of understanding and living this interconnectedness is what Ikeda terms a ‘committed persistence’ to the ‘profoundly relational world’ humans inhabit.

Richa Nagar of the University of Minnesota posits that one must seek a ‘metaphysics of interdependence’, a  planetary consciousness. She articulates this by evoking a powerful play written and performed by grassroots human rights organisers in northern India, where activists repeatedly chant, “If I speak my truth you will feel a stabbing pain”. In the same vein, Ikeda writes, “Harm done to anyone, anywhere, causes agony in the poet’s heart”.

These incantations align with a transnational feminist analytic of interconnectedness, interdependence, and what Ikeda calls the theory of dependent origination. In them, we find the acknowledgment of a mutual vulnerability of humanity across borders and a collective commitment to co-create, to strive for social justice and ethical responsibility. These interdependent and transnational connections offer potential pathways for enhancing mutual care, healing and social justice: that is, if ‘we’ – a global community – truly are in this together, what would a compassionate and just response look like? It would mean collectively striving to rid the world of its current pre-existing precarities: the noxious air of uneven development, extractive economies, and appropriative human interactions. This response calls for an appreciation of the mutual vulnerability and dependency of humanity with one another and our ecologies, and a cultivation of just responsibility in our collective actions.

Image credit: UN Women Asia and the Pacific/Flickr 

Elora Halim Chowdhury

Elora Halim Chowdhury is  professor of women’s, gender, and  sexuality studies at the University of Massachusetts Boston.

Fabian membership

Join the Fabian Society today and help shape the future of the left

You’ll receive the quarterly Fabian Review and at least four reports or pamphlets each year sent to your door

Be a part of the debate at Fabian conferences and events and join one of our network of local Fabian societies

Join the Fabian Society
Fabian Society

By continuing to use the site, you agree to the use of cookies. more information

The cookie settings on this website are set to "allow cookies" to give you the best browsing experience possible. If you continue to use this website without changing your cookie settings or you click "Accept" below then you are consenting to this.