COVID-19 | “Stay safe” conversations that illuminate the glass walls between her and me by Mausumi Chetia

Disasters are lived in different ways by different classes of people. During the COVID-19 pandemic, the differential impacts of disasters lie in the blurred spaces between populations fortunate enough to focus on ‘productivity-during-lockdown-times’ and others who focus on ‘providing-food-for-their-children-and-having-a-home-during-lockdown-times’. For generationally disaster-prone or disaster-torn populations of India, this global pandemic is only widening the class gaps that have characterized local realities for the Indian society for centuries.


My husband and I recently witnessed thousands of daily-wage workers and families marching towards a bus terminal near our home in Delhi. From there, they would take buses to their hometowns. Many were travelling on foot, too, trying to make their way to their homes hundreds of miles away from Delhi after the entire country was placed under lockdown from 25 March. This involuntary exodus of workers from India’s many cities that has continued despite fatal consequences is an oxymoronic act that seems to oppose the social distancing measures prescribed by the WHO and related suggestions from developed nations. It is not that these workers are unwilling to keep safe—it is simply that a substantial part of India’s population, including these workers, cannot afford to do so, as has been emphasized repeatedly.

My current research looks at the everyday lives of families facing protracted displacement due to the disaster of riverbank erosion along Brahmaputra River in Assam, a state in India. The families I engage with for my research source their income from daily wages. As economic activity suddenly ceased in March, the small stream of income stopped. Consequently, many of the workers were not able to travel back to their families, as they usually would when on leave or a break period. Many male members of these families are currently trapped in the towns within Assam where they work. They were unable to travel to their homes, many miles away, not only because of the physical cost of walking or taking a bus home, but for a different set of reasons as well.

Conversations on care and health that are classes apart

Pic 11
Rita and her friends after collecting firewood for cooking from a neighbouring paddy field. February 2020

A few days after the Delhi exodus, calls from concerned families I work with increased significantly. “You should have just stayed back here with us,” Rita Saikia, a regular caller, often quips. “Come back to the village whenever you can.” Megacities like Delhi have much higher infection rates than rural places, as many of the rural inhabitants I work with recognize.

Besides the exchange of well-intended thoughts and mutual worries, these telephonic conversations are constant reminders of the class differences in the everyday lives of people that surround us, beginning with those of the researched and the researcher. Ironically, despite my power position over the families I work with for my research, they offered me what they thought I did not have in Delhi: a sense of safety they felt in the countryside. Here, thus, they were able to close the distance between the researcher and the researched. Nevertheless, the challenges that these families are facing are colossal in comparison to those I am facing, such as not being able to travel to my university in Europe or being anxious about my inability to work on my dissertation as effectively as I would have liked to from home.

Rita[1] is from one of my host families in one of the villages where I spent time conducting research. With no other choice, she has been managing the household and two children all by herself this entire period. Ajeet, her husband, is a construction worker surviving off daily wages. He is currently stuck at one of his work sites, around 100 kilometers away from his family village. For now, the family is surviving from its meagre savings. Rice has been provided by the children’s school and another one-time ration (of rice) provided by the local government. Quietly hiding away from the eyes of authorities, Rita, along with other women from her village, regularly goes to collect firewood behind their village in the dry paddy field. Refilling the cooking gas cylinder from their savings is a luxury they cannot afford right now.

Ajeet had left the family’s only mobile phone at home, so he calls his family once every three days from his co-worker’s phone. Last night, their younger child of four cried himself to sleep because his father’s call was disconnected before the child could speak to him. The mobile credit had probably run out. The older child of six years smiled and casually said to me, “you know pehi[2], Deuta[3] will not come home now even if the virus dies, but only later. He needs to bring the money home.” This understanding of the daily realities and hardships, and the acceptance of the hardships of life, contrasts sharply with how more privileged people experience the coronavirus pandemic, like any other disaster.

Amidst all of this, the annual season of extreme winds in Assam has begun. Homes of three of the research families have been battered by these winds. The families plan to complete the rebuilding process once the lockdown is relaxed, unable to do so during the lockdown. In addition, come June, the monsoon will make its appearance, inviting the annual visit of the floods, erosion of the banks of Assam’s rivers, landslides and associated socio-economic insecurities that are now compounded by those the lockdown has brought about. A slowing economy post-pandemic and consequential decrease in sources of income, along with exposure to the said disasters, will significantly push these already displaced families further to the brink of poverty.

Living through the intersections of inequalities

Poverty is both a driver and a consequence of disasters[4]. The year 2020 could become one of the most barefaced examples of this. Many socio-economically and politically insecure populations elsewhere in India and in the neighbouring countries of Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, the Philippines, and Indonesia etc. are also disaster-prone or -torn. Once the world gets back on its feet post-COVID-19, these populations are set to face increasing human insecurities in their everyday lives arising due to the pandemic and its after-effects, like the families in Assam.

A society’s many aspects are unclothed in the aftermath of a disaster[5], which continues to reinforce social inequalities[6]. Disasters, therefore, including the current pandemic, hardly manage to break the walls of class structures – political, economic, social, and so forth. If anything, they increase the height and depth of these walls – between societies within a nation, between different nations, and, most definitely, between the researcher and the researched.

Pic 1
The Brahmaputra River at the backyard of one of the families’ home (from the research). January 2020

[1] All names of research participants have been changed
[2] Assamese word for paternal aunt
[3] Assamese word for father
[4] https://www.preventionweb.net/risk/poverty-inequality
[5] Oliver-Smith, Anthony, and Susanna M. Hoffman, eds. The angry earth: disaster in anthropological perspective. Routledge, 2019.
[6] Reid, Megan. “Disasters and social inequalities.” Sociology Compass 7.11 (2013): 984-997.

This article is part of a series about the coronavirus crisis. Find more articles of this series here.


IMG_20200215_155647About the author:

Mausumi Chetia is a PhD Researcher at the ISS. Her research looks at the everyday lives of disaster-displaced people in Assam, a northeastern state of India.

EADI/ISS Series | Empowering African Universities to have an impact by Liisa Laakso

Discussions on the impact of higher education and research have increased, together with the rise of strategic thinking in the management of universities during the last decade. Governments, taxpayers and private funders want to know which benefits they get from universities. Academic Institutions, in turn, want to prove how their work is beneficial to society in multiple ways. This tells us much about the global management culture in public services – and about a new pressure against the academic authority and standing of universities.


For example, the government of Zimbabwe’s new plan for higher education, the so-called 5.0-University vision, stipulates that universities must also include innovation and industrialisation in their activities – in addition to their three academic tasks education, research and community service.

The stated purpose of this plan is to reconfigure the education system of the country to create jobs and economic growth along with the fourth revolution “to transform the country’s economy into an upper-middle income by the year 2030”. Simultaneously, however, political turmoil and rampant corruption have created an economic crisis that is dramatically weakening the previously good working conditions at the universities in terms of resources, infrastructure and salaries.

Zimbabwe might be an extreme case, but it is not alone. The rhetoric of the importance of industry and ‘value for money’ invested in universities and the simultaneous cuts in their public funding resonates both with the technocratic and populistic views of higher education, if not reactionary voices against educated elites all over the world.

What does this rhetoric mean for the production of scientific knowledge in different disciplinary fields and in governance and development studies in particular? For medical sciences or engineering, identifying and measuring their impact and relevance can be quite straightforward. But for sciences focusing on policies and their critiques, such a task is complex, as their impacts are diverse, often indirect, slow and long-term.

Making disciplinary knowledge on governance and development relevant again

Research-based disciplinary knowledge on governance and development is not directly connected to innovation or industrialisation, but it has very much to do with the legitimacy and functioning of the social, political and economic organisations and structures that enable them. In a context of political transitions or struggles for democratisation happening in large parts of the Global South, one could assume that such a role is very important. But how to show that? Judgments about the importance of particular degree programs and research fields are also judgments about the marginalization of others. It is easy to give concrete examples of the usefulness of administrative studies, but not of political theory. The whole exercise relates to very fundamental values and epistemological premises of university disciplines.

Much of this epistemological discussion has centered on the necessity of state-led development or on decolonisation. The first one formed an important part of the expansion of higher education after the independence of African states and again in late 1970s and 1980s with the heyday of the dependency school. It resulted in the establishment of institutes or university departments of development studies, often with a political economy or an explicitly stated socialist orientation. One of the forerunners was the University of Dar es Salaam. In Zimbabwe, the Institute of Development studies ZIDS was first established under the government and later integrated into the University of Zimbabwe. But ZIDS does not exist anymore. In order to respond to today’s demands of the government, the profile of development studies apparently is no longer as relevant for the university as it used to be.

Do University curricula respond to the societal needs in the Global South?

Calls for decolonisation in the aftermath of ‘Rhodes Must Fall’ and ‘Fees Must Fall” student uprisings at the University of Cape Town have drawn attention to the fact that a decades-long evolution of higher education in the independent South has not abolished global asymmetries in knowledge production. Western traditions and theorizing still dominate much of the academic literature, including that on governance and development. Thus the concern that imported content of university curricula or models of analysis do not grasp the real problems of societies in the Global South. One example of how to respond to it, again from the University of Zimbabwe, is to bring a module of local inheritance into all degree programs.

New demands and pressures provide unique constraints but also unique opportunities for universities and scholars to develop university teaching and research. Research funders and development cooperation agencies should react to this looming backlash for development studies in social sciences in the South. It requires close interaction with public authorities from the local level to intergovernmental organizations, private stakeholders and academic associations. What is certain is that there are plenty of issues that can be clarified by development knowledge: the widening inequalities, international corruption, discontent amongst marginalized groups, simultaneous political apathy and new modes of radical mobilization by social media. This alone should be enough to justify the role of universities in these fields.


This article is part of a series launched by the EADI (European Association of Development Research and Training Institutes) and the ISS in preparation for the 2020 EADI/ISS General Conference “Solidarity, Peace and Social Justice”. It was also published on the EADI blog.

About the author:

Liisa Laakso is a senior researcher at the Nordic Africa Institute in Uppsala, Sweden. She is an expert on world politics and international development cooperation. Her research interests include political science, African studies, democratisation of Africa, world politics, crisis management, foreign policy, EU-Africa policy and the global role of the European Union.

Together with Godon Crawford from Coventry University, UK, she will be convening the panelProduction and use of knowledge on governance and development: its role and contribution to struggles for peace, equality and social justice” at the 2020 EADI/ISS Conference.


Image Credit: Tony Carr on Flickr.