Public Intellectuals and Pandemics: Questions and Dilemmata

Ninety-five per cent (95.6%, to be precise) of the submissions we received in the last two weeks were related to the COVID-19 pandemic in some way or the other. We have tried our best to publish the best of them, and shall continue to do so for the upcoming submissions. However, such a trend, a rather abnormal but still not an unexpected one, raises significant questions about a number of issues including the nature of the legal community, the roles and responsibilities of the intellectuals during a crisis, the responsibility of the law-knowers, and most importantly, the necessity of a critical outlook.

In curious ways, some intellectuals have started naming this new trend a ‘pandemic fetishism‘; comparing this with past pandemics to draw parallels in social behaviour, and using them to make relevant predictions. While this may seem to be a useful exercise, the risks of misinformation associated with this are sky-high. And this risk of misinformation in times of crisis takes us to our next significant question – what should happen to free speech during pandemics? Should it be completely free? Or selectively free? Or restricted only to authorised information outlets?

And now that we have come to talk of the possibility of starting ‘authorised information outlets‘, the ‘authorised’ term signifies the role of ‘authorities’ therein. That brings us to the next set of crucial questions that the public intellectuals must deliberate on – what happens to authorities during pandemics? What happens to the checks and balances on powers of officials? With most courts shutting their doors or at least restricting them, what happens to rights? And their enforcement?

From authority, we may shift our focus a little and stumble upon the elephant in the room – politics. What happens to politics during pandemics? Quite contrary to the paranoia that polarised media houses have made us believe in, politics is, in fact, a necessary social institution if we envision a balanced and just society. Politics enables the representation of various group interests and a continuous compromise amongst the conflicting interests – a civil power play with checks and balances thereupon. What happens to that? Should that be banned altogether to evoke the sense of emergency necessary to fight the pandemic? Answering in affirmative, what happens to the social compromises then?

Next, the issues of public policy in such times are of immense practical significance. Clearly, resources are limited and cost-benefit analyses are equally confusing. What happens to decision making? Would we be opting a consequential decision-making or a categorical decision-making system? Where do the human rights stand in such equations – consequential goods or categorical obligations?

Last but not the least, focus needs to be on legal questions. Do the laws operate normally, turning a blind eye to the gravity of the situations? Or the laws change their ways and give way to natural morality and subjective justice to carry on the job in such times. How strictly should the judiciary exercise control on administrative matters, knowing that immediacy is the need of the hour and judiciary lacks the expertise on efficient disaster management protocols.

We expect to stumble upon submissions addressing these wide arrays of questions very soon. Till then, let’s maintain a critical outlook and be the judge for our own information intake – combat misinformation through reasoned criticisms and established facts.

Curiosity and gratitude,

Founding Editor

Note: Readers can access the published COVID-19 related posts here.

2 responses to “Public Intellectuals and Pandemics: Questions and Dilemmata”

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