In early March 2020, weeks before the Covid-19 pandemic locked down much of Bangladesh, I was told a story by a friend, clearly in jest. A violent crowd had beaten up someone rumored to be sick with the novel coronavirus. While meting out “justice” (gonopituni) against a suspected vector of contagion, four people in the mob caught the virus. The familiar practice of vigilantism aside, the narrative hints at a complex set of meanings around biological and social contagion. The obvious irony was further spelled out to me—“There’s no real enjoyment [moja] unless you actually carry out the beating with your own hands.”
The emplotment of the collective “stupidity” of the crowd, it turned out, had real-life resonances. A young man from Shariatpur faced the wrath of the locals when visiting a relative in the adjacent district of Barisal, both in the south. Shariatpur is home to large clusters of “foreign returnees” (bidesh ferot). Of the half a million expatriate workers who came back to Bangladesh since Covid-19 surfaced in China, nearly 3,000 have returned to Shariatpur alone. The suspect didn’t fare well in the face of angry interrogations. He answered incoherently, which further proved his guilt.
In another part of Barisal, villagers stopped a fishing trawler from mooring. They were suspicious of the boat crowded with more than thirty passengers nearing the river bank in the middle of a national lockdown. Noticed also were the refrigerators and television sets traveling with the people. In rural Bangladesh, foreign returnees are most commonly the bearers of such tangible wealth. Their remittances make up over 5 percent of the national GDP. A crowd of more than a hundred began pelting the boat with stones and bricks to stop it from docking. Multiple people were seriously wounded. Official intervention averted possible deaths. A mobility that once granted the migrant worker prestige is now seemingly under the surveillance of the mob.
Viruses are contagious and so are crowds. The affective contagion of crowds against the world-historical impact of Covid-19 points to the limit of the metaphor of biological contagion or a facile biopolitics. Contagion has always been more than an epidemiological fact. Its earliest use was in the fourteenth century when it didn’t refer to diseases at all but to the circulation of ideas and attitudes. Folly and immorality were deemed more contagious than wisdom or virtue (Wald 2008). Crowd contagion, such as the one we see in the story above, evokes a rational-modern version of a similar affect. It generates a sociality that is accidental and ephemeral, at once creating and jeopardizing communities.
The crowd or the mob presupposes and entails imitation, contagion, virality (Le Bon 1960; Sampson 2012; Tarde 2014). Hannah Arendt (1973) considered the phenomenon of the mob as a symptom of the nation-state form’s growing incapacity to mediate social conflict. The mob is more the lumpenproletariat—the vagabond, the wandering poor, the uprising peasant—than the irrational, destructive force propelling fascism or populism (Papadopoulos, Stephenson, and Tsianos 2008). Its excess is not easily manageable by modern governmentality. In Gustave Le Bon’s (1960) The Crowd, the hypnotic source of contagion is a special state in which conscious individuals fall into the hands of a hypnotizer. The hypnotic leader is in effect the unconscious that leads the crowd. Sigmund Freud (1975) picked up on this too . Much like the virus itself, the crowd personifies the power of bodies and minds in contact.
Crowd contagion animates a unique kind of biopolitics in times of a viral outbreak. Michel Foucault (2010) directly linked the modern sovereign’s power to “make live and let die” to the horror and chaos of the epidemics of the past. A viral epidemic, however, is new to the postcolonial scene. Covid-19 has cracked open the Bangladeshi state’s deep biopolitical insecurity, a fact that applies to the rest of South Asia. The subcontinent’s last experience of a similar contagious intrusion was the Indian Plague. That was decades before decolonization (Arnold 1993). Despite a period of nearly three months between the virus appearing in Wuhan and its first positive diagnosis in Dhaka, the government has acted more like a deer caught in the headlights than a soon-to-become “middle-income” nation. The spectacular inefficiency is turning out to be as deadly as the virus itself.
Covid-19 management in Bangladesh has largely pivoted on the figure of the foreign returnee. It carries the Ur-stigma of importing the microbe in these apocalyptic times. The novel coronavirus’s drastic toll in Italy, for instance, has directly hit Bangladesh. Bangladeshis are the second largest group of immigrant workers in Italy, remitting nearly a billion US dollars in the first decade of this century. Their return en masse at the peak of the Italian corona crisis turned them into portals of an uncontrollable contagion. Marked with quarantine stamps, with their houses flagged and neighbors on alert, the expat workers have been at the center of a national outbreak anxiety.
The migrant worker has become an uncanny figure both familiar and foreign. The latter is not, for the time being, a coveted source of cash and commodity. Rumor and hearsay of contagion and spontaneous violence make up this biopolitical regime. The state’s power to “make live and let die” competes with multiple sovereignties to identify, enumerate, and watch over. This cruel contagion is not reducible to a neo-Darwinian understanding of virality that takes the human gene as its model. Nor does it rely simply on an ocular-centric social psychology model as found in Le Bon (1960) and others. Contagion spreads from person to person via the multisensory affective social atmospheres before it passes through the skin of each individual (Sampson 2012). Olfactory and auditory entrainment offers better frameworks for understanding crowd contagion spreading via words, suspicions and chance encounters. The crowd, then, is not the population (Foucault 2010). It defies surveillance while acting as an apparatus of security. And it does so in ways different from the dictates of both the modern state and modern medicine.
Arendt, Hannah. 1973. The Origins of Totalitarianism. First ed. New York: Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich.
Arnold, David. 1993. Colonizing the Body: State Medicine and Epidemic Disease in Nineteenth-Century India. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Foucault, Michel. 2010. The Birth of Biopolitics: Lectures at the Collège de France, 1978–1979. Reprint ed. New York: Picador.
Freud, Sigmund. 1975. Group Psychology and the Analysis of the Ego. New York: Norton.
Le Bon, Gustave. 1960. The Crowd: A Study of the Popular-Mind. New York: Viking Press.
Papadopoulos, Dimitris, Niamh Stephenson, and Vassilis Tsianos. 2008. Escape Routes: Control and Subversion in the Twenty-First Century. London: Pluto Press.
Sampson, Tony D. 2012. Virality: Contagion Theory in the Age of Networks. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
Tarde, Gabriel. 2014. The Laws of Imitation. Richmond, Va.: Patterson Press. Originally published in 1903.
Wald, Priscilla. 2008. Contagious: Cultures, Carriers, and the Outbreak Narrative. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press.