Even those of us who are internationalist in spirit watched the initial events in Wuhan unfold as something happening over there, somewhere far away. Given how much rhetoric is routinely expended on China as a strategic threat to the West as well as its significance as a factory for global capitalism, this surely should not have been the case. But it was, and media reports on the lockdown in Wuhan came across as something strange, a scattering of images of yellow construction equipment and green surgical gear, the ravages of the COVID-19 virus blurred in a distant strangeness that would never affect us at all.
Rastignac, in Balzac’s nineteenth-century novel Père Goriot, plays a philosophical game with his friend Bianchon, asking the latter what he would choose if all he needed to do, in order to become instantly rich, was simply wish the death of “a mandarin in China.” Bianchon, a capitalist entrepreneur a little ahead of the times, replies that he is already on his thirty-third mandarin. With similar globalized indifference, we watched as the virus intersected with the Chinese New Year. Then, we watched, with a little more familiarity, as it spread to Italy, where Thomas Mann’s hero Aschenbach, in the early-twentieth-century novella Death in Venice, observes how the authorities go about covering up evidence of plague that has arrived from the East (although the Orient in Mann’s text is represented by the Indian subcontinent rather than China).
We still watched—I watched—as the virus came to cruise ships moored off the state of Washington, on the distant West Coast of the United States. Until suddenly, it was here, in New York, announcing its presence through wailing ambulances and the 7 p.m. cheer when the city’s residents lean out of their windows to clang bells and plates and celebrate our heroes. Now, after months of lockdown in New York, what is striking about the early outbreak in China is that the state felt it had any role at all beyond policing, and that even an authoritarian state like China’s felt responsible for providing groceries and healthcare.
The Western media and governmental accounts of the early outbreak naturally missed the point out of their devotion to neoliberal capitalism and Western supremacy. And as the tragedy unfolded, I felt a mounting sense of bewilderment at the numbers in New York. The United States is still the wealthiest country in the world, militarily the most powerful, but apparently without the capacity or will to provide surgical masks to its health workers, healthcare to its people, or much of any kind of needed support at all.
But it remains easier, as Fredric Jameson remarked, to imagine the end of the world than to imagine the end of capitalism. As the virus spreads through the United States, the enrichment of mammoth corporations and fossil fuel behemoths continues, and Donald Trump stokes the violence of white nationalism while asking us to drink bleach. A military hospital ship arrives with fanfare to New York, achieves little, and departs quietly. Hospital tents are set up in Central Park, run by an evangelical organization devoted to discrimination against LGBTQ people. Months into the crisis, we do not know when we can get tested, or which of the many tests released by private corporations are reliable.
“Unhappy is the country that needs a hero,” Bertolt Brecht’s eponymous protagonist says in the play Life of Galileo. But capitalism continues to churn out heroes aplenty; if not Trump, then Joseph Biden; if not Biden, then Andrew Cuomo; if not Cuomo, then surely Bill Gates? It makes it hard not just to imagine the end of capitalism but even the end of the world. A marvelous short piece by Leslie Jamison from some years ago captured that limitation, especially as seen in Hollywood apocalypse films. Their heroes need our prayers, she writes with irony and with sorrow: “So they can become men again. So they can save their estranged wives and disabled children from milky swamps or massive spider webs . . . so they can ride over the frosted or flooded Eastern Seaboard while their sidekicks seduce the beautiful daughters of third-world presidents. Thank god for these fools’ errands. We would feel nothing without them.”
I’ve been unable to find a place for heroes in my own fictional imagining of the end of the world. Yes, I included, in the backdrop of the novel I’ve been working on, long before COVID-19 emerged, a cruise ship in temporary quarantine, something the Indian corporate media calls the China virus, as well as coughing people with makeshift masks. But this was only the backdrop, and I was not sure anyway, and am still not sure, that India qualifies as “the world,” that anything other than the West qualifies as the world.
Of course, the world has ended so many times. It has ended again and again for many, although in the realm of power that thinks of itself as the world—and this includes not just Wall Street, the Capitol, and Silicon Valley, but also universities, media, and publishing—no one has noticed. No one knows or remembers, just like the massacre of the banana plantation workers in One Hundred Years of Solitude, where, after the bodies have been disposed of, even memories of the slaughter begin to disappear. As a novelist, when I write fiction about the partition of 1947, with its genocide and mass migration, or the worst industrial disaster in the world in 1984, I know these are forgotten events, incompatible with the heroes and packaged narrative shapes in which fictional apocalypse, it seems, must always come.
As I looked at India’s lockdown landscape, filled with long columns of migrant workers walking hundreds of miles back from cities where their already precarious employment had been suddenly terminated, heading for villages ravaged for decades by inequality, violence, and climate change, I could not help but recall panic-stricken slum-dwellers in Bhopal trying to flee the poison gas spewed out by a malfunctioning Union Carbide plant, or the millions of displaced refugees crisscrossing the nascent borders of India and Pakistan when formal colonialism was playing out its endgame. The past informs both present and future, and apocalypse keeps on repeating itself. To get out of that endless loop, we have to do a better job imagining the end of the world as well as the end of capitalism.
Siddhartha Deb is the author of two novels and the narrative nonfiction book, The Beautiful and the Damned.