Unmasking Southasia: The pandemic issue

Notes from the Himal Southasian's editors on its special series ‘Unmasking Southasia: The pandemic issue’

Unmasking Southasia

“What will the world after COVID-19 look like?” Even before the extent of the outbreak was clear, this question took up column and screen space in major publications almost everywhere. It was a natural question for the media ecosystem to generate. The answers, we were told, were natural too: closed borders, national brinkmanship, and another fillip to the global turn towards authoritarianism.

Unsurprisingly, governments around the world, including those in Southasia, haven’t veered far away from those predictions. However, if the last year of living through a pandemic has taught us anything, it is that the roots and results of our current issue, pardon the pun, respect no border. A certain kind of ‘realism’, with its faith in hard boundaries and nationalist solutions, seems to provide only an illusion of safety. Southasia needs a more inspired search for solutions.

So what other ways are there of imagining a post-pandemic Southasia, at a time when we are already overwhelmed with information about COVID-19? Are there ‘Southasian’ ways of talking about our collective futures? How will it transform relations between states and societies? And what kinds of imprints will this public-health crisis leave on our personal and political lives? These were some of the questions that guided us as we put together Unmasking Southasia: The pandemic issue.

We begin the series in conversation with environmental historian Sunil Amrith, who discusses the links between ecology, migration and global public-health in the current crisis. His observation that several critical phenomena – climatic, migratory, or epidemiological – don’t conform to nation states and borders, provides a useful anchor for the rest of the series.

One concern running through this special series is the disruption of work, particularly for those whose labour is often neglected or made invisible. In her ground reportage, Avantika Mehta looks at the post-pandemic lives of sex workers in India’s cities, and writes why, for these already vulnerable communitites, another lockdown would be shattering. Vidya Balachander’s essay links the important question of street vendor’s livelihoods with the politics of food and the right to public space in Southasia’s changing cityspaces.

But these shifts caused by the ongoing public-health crises also leaves imprints in our cultural and intimate lives. Andrew Fidel Fernando expands our appreciation of such changes by exploring how the cricketing world adjusted to the pandemic. Seyhr Mirza reports on the boom in online dating in Pakistan, even as the state attempts to restrict the use of apps like Tinder and Grindr. Sunila Galappatti’s look back at the collective journal she began to curate during lockdown adds much needed reflection on a period of shared anxiety, isolation and outpouring. Historian Amanda Lanzillo adds an important historical perspective to this series, noting how colonial practices are still the norm in how we deal with prisoners during epidemics. All these articles, and a few more, come richly illustrated with artwork by Akila Weerasinghe.

There is, of course, a risk in drawing too many conclusions from a period that is still in flux. Our hope is only that these writings offer perspectives that get little space in mainstream media outlets or get lost in the unending buzz of our social feeds.

As always, we look forward to your feedback.

The Editors,
Himal Southasian
December 2020

(The article was first published in Himal Southasian.)