The un-imagined publics: Science advice during COVID-19 in India

by Poonam Pandey and Aviram Sharma


In March-April 2020, news of millions of migrant workers, desperate to return to their hometowns in the backdrop of COVID-19 lockdown, made headlines in India more than the news of COVID-led infections and fatalities. The chaos created by the abrupt lockdown apparently led to the second largest migration in South Asia after the India-Pakistan partition in 1947. How did the public advice to curb the spread of COVID-19 infections ended up in increasing the vulnerabilities of migrant workers and other marginal communities? How does scientific advice imagine its public? Is there one kind of public or varieties of publics? In the chapter titled "Science Advice for COVID-19 and Marginalized Communities in India" we examined how the science-based advisories for containing the COVID-19 outbreak in India imagined public. Which type of communities and groups were included in these imaginations of the public, and which were excluded? How do the specific imaginations of the public help in containing the situation or created additional vulnerabilities?   

For decades, these questions have attracted the attention of Science, Technology, and Society (STS) and Public Understanding of Science (PUS) scholars. Drawing from Mike Michael's idea of Public in General (PiG) and Public in Particular (PiP), we argued that the science-based health advisories imagined the public as PiG, an ignorant group of people. The health advisories were offered as an emancipatory tool, supposed to contain the spread of the pandemic and improve governmentality. The governments' scientific and administrative wings were roped in to disseminate the health advisories, using physical and virtual tools and platforms. Catchy lyrics, slogans, and catchphrases were broadcasted through loudspeakers, ringtones of mobiles, and over radio, TV, and the internet. The advisories contained several themes, but we focused on the precautionary measures suggested by the government. For instance, 

“Key aspects of protective measures were staying at home, wearing face masks in public places, and maintaining social distancing, sanitation measures that include covering the face while sneezing and coughing, washing hands every 20 minutes with soap or alcohol-based hand sanitizers, and self-reporting and visiting a nearby healthcare centre, if any of the COVID- 19 symptoms are noticeable in family members, co-workers and neighbours.”

The science advice implicitly assumed a homogenous public that could act in their own rational interest to safeguard self and family members' health by following expert scientific advice. The advice also assumed that the 'public' would have enough economic means to stay at home and have easy access to sanitation measures. The internal structural differences among different publics occupying varied social spaces were downplayed in such advisories. These differentiations became crucial to understand when the advisories were made mandatory by the government of India. In the chapter, we argue that multiple PiP emerged in response to such advisories. Here, we discussed four such categories of the public- the obedient subject, the disobedient migrant worker/labourer, the critical citizens, and the invisible sufferers.  

The obedient subject is the urban and semi-urban, literate middle class that have the social and economic resources to comply with science advice and could choose to stay at home. There is a significant and growing middle-class population in India. The science advice appears to imagine this group as the general public (PiG). Contrarily, the huge migrant population, which supplies labour and supports and fuels 85% of the Indian economy did not have the choice and the social and economic means to stay at home and follow social distancing advice. They inadvertently became the 'disobedient' public. This group inhabits the unplanned peri-urban and urban spaces with huge challenges in access to water and sanitation even in "normal times". The third group comprised the critical citizens, which demanded accountability from the state-science complex. This group raised infrastructural concerns related to lack of protective gear, lack of testing facilities, inadequate arrangements for migrant workers, and other institutional inadequacies. The terminally ill people unable to access life-saving medical support, small children unable to access primary school, victims of domestic abuse having to face additional vulnerabilities, and farmers growing perishables unable to access markets became the invisible sufferers whose plight remained unaccounted for in the science advice. 

The singular vision of science advice undermined the diversity of social groups in terms of their socio-economic situatedness, thus accentuated their vulnerabilities. The narrow vision of the public led to a lack of engagement with diverse realities and multiple publics. We argue that in order to be responsive in situations of uncertainty and lack of knowledge, scientific advice should learn beyond specific disciplinary boundaries and epistemic cultures. STS and the research field of PUS have a lot to offer. The question is – does science policy in India is willing to think beyond dominant knowledge systems and institutional hierarchies?

Poonam Pandey, Maria Zambrano fellow, University of Vigo, Spain: 

Aviram Sharma, Assistant Professor, School of Ecology and Environment Studies, Nalanda University, India:

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