Walking becomes political during the pandemic

Walking becomes political during the pandemic

Anthrodendum welcomes guest blogger Bicram Rijal, PhD. Candidate in Anthropology at the Department of Sociology and Anthropology at Simon Fraser University, Burnaby, BC., Canada. His doctoral thesis focuses on the politics of sanitation and toilets, and transformation of defecation habits in Nepal.

Drawing by Bicram Rijal.

Walking becomes political during the pandemic

by Bicram Rijal

During these pandemic times, empty parks and playgrounds are common sightings. The crowded cities across the world look all empty. The vibrant and busy streetscapes of major metropolises have turned into ghost towns. The rare human occupation of urban material infrastructures—hiking trails and walkways—demonstrates emergent uncertainty and precarity. Due to the mitigation measures implemented worldwide by the respective countries to stop the spread of COVID-19, most of us have had a feeling of being stuck at home. Indeed, our mobilities are restricted, but many of us can still go out and take a stroll around our neighborhood. However, as the ongoing pandemic has shown, millions of poor people around the world may not have that privilege: to be able to stay at home or to go out for a walk whenever they want to. For them walking is not a choice but a compulsory practice as part of their tough economic circumstances and apathetic government responses.  

By discussing some examples of walking that have come to public attention during the emergent pandemic, I want to address these questions in this piece: What are the ideological and political implications of walking in times of this global crisis? Why is it even important to talk and write about walking when peoples’ lives are at stake? 

Walking during unusual times

On March 27th, a close friend of mine sent me a video, which shows one aspect of how “lockdown” is manifesting in Kathmandu, Nepal. Set in what seems to be a New Baneshwor chowk (intersection)—a major junction in the capital city and a political center, if you will—the video shows some police officers stopping a pedestrian. They ask him why he is wandering around. “I am coming from the hospital,” he replies in a subdued tone. “Do you have a card (as a proof)?” a police officer probes, before asking the nervous man a follow-up question: “Do you know we have lockdown in Nepal for 7-8 days?” Without letting the man answer, the police officer reminds him that “to protect ourselves and others from coronavirus, nobody should walk outside except for most essential works during this time.” Then the officer and his accompanying colleagues step forward a little bit and stop before he says, “since you are roaming around for nothing, and given that we had informed you many times already, we are now going to arrest you and penalize you according to law.” Now the officer orders him to turn around and raise his hand. The man obeys. In a blink of a second, another officer approaches the man with a special device, deemed by some media as “social distancing pliers,” locks him by his waist and pushes him toward the police van parked on the side of the road, while the ordering officer is heard screaming “don’t move, don’t move” until the man is put inside the vehicle. 

On April 12th, I read a piece (the English version is here.) about fifteen migrant laborers in Nepal and their excruciating journey on foot. After their hydropower company was closed following the country’s nation-wide implementation of lockdown to prevent the spread of coronavirus, they embark on a more than 500-kilometer walk for home and family. And for life, really. The week-long walk starts from their workplace in Solukhumbu district in East Nepal and ends in Kailali district in the Far Western region of the country. 

While on their journey for home, they encounter harrowing experiences of spending nights in the forest, at the riverbank, on the roadside, and of walking uphill and downhill, and in the afternoon heat and at midnight. They fear police brutality and harassment by the villagers on their way. They are treated as outsiders by their fellow citizens in their own country. They go through painful experiences of “sleeping” empty stomach, waking up to the fear of being chased away by strangers in a strange land. They continue walking with their swollen legs, aching and bruised bodies, and dizzying heads. While on this treacherous journey, there are so many things in between, so many emotions to go through, and so many uncertainties and difficulties to run into for these laborers. Their journey reveals at once the precarious present and uncertain future. And it also juxtaposes their hopes for being at home and with a family with their fears of dying outside in the middle of nowhere. 

It is a story about what it means to be living in the margin during the times of crisis. It is a story about the distinction between the comfort of home and discomfort and unfamiliarity of an outside world. It is also a story of poor workers turned into noncitizens in their own country, where the government is run by the “proletariats.”  However, as much as it is a story of enormous suffering, it is also a story of hope, determination, and resilience. It’s a story of perseverance and of relentless will. It is a story about a longing for home. It is a story about the importance of family, love, and comfort of the village. It’s also a story about helping hands and generous souls. In general, it’s a story about the strength of humanity.  

This story was the most moving account coming from Nepal that I had read as of April 12th about the effects of the pandemic among the poor wage laborers. After I was done reading the piece, I reflected on my own positionality: how lucky and privileged I and my family are. In the afternoon, we had gone for a “walk” in our neighborhood in Burnaby, a city in British Columbia, Canada, to get some fresh air, enjoy the spring nature, and feel better about the situation. Reading this account about an inevitable walk—a long, long walk, if you will—of migrant workers after my own walk for fun made me realize that not all walks are equal, and some walks are not as fun as mine. 

My daughter walking through a school playground.

Walking becomes political

Since I first watched the video of a police arrest of pedestrians in Nepal, I have been thinking about how certain forms of walking can be understood as political acts. After that video, I had read news about hundreds of thousands of Indian migrant workers walking several hundred miles from different cities to their rural homes. Whether it is a story of poor laborers walking hundreds of kilometers to reach home or pedestrians walking to and from the hospital or a pharmacy, or others who cannot avoid walking on the street to make their living on a daily basis, it is clear that there is a difference between those who can choose when and where to walk and those who cannot because of the unequal social and economic structures. As an anthropologist, who does research on the transformation of defecation and sanitation practices in Nepal, I think of these above-mentioned examples as social and political manifestations of a visceral act, for how ostensibly a mundane practice of walking embodies deep social and political meanings. 

In Nepal, the walking of migrant wage laborers has reignited a public and intellectual discussion about the nature of the Nepali state currently run by the communist leaders. It has made anew the debates about “citizenship” and “non-citizenship,” and crystalized the distinctions between who can stay home and who must be on the street for a daily survival. Their act of walking has encouraged the need to critically examine the concepts of “lockdown,” “crisis,” “citizenship,” “state of emergency,” and “social distancing” in search of their multiple meanings and implications. It has renewed and revitalized the concerns around social and economic inequalities. It has also led to questioning the country’s relatively new and hard-fought democracy, which has poor peoples’ sweat and blood on its back. 

Cultural analysis of a mundane act

Given that poor people’s walk has revealed the uneven precarity of the pandemic, I believe that cultural-political analysis of walking can offer us the knowledge and understanding about the implications of globally invasive contagion in the bodily and sensory levels. There is so much talk in the media about how this crisis will result in economic recession, or how this will change global order, but not enough about what it means in relation to the body, sensorium, and everyday mundane practices. The actions of walking and mobility are not natural dispositions. Rather, they are culturally and politically meaningful acts and embody specific subject positions. For example, whether it is a mass demonstration, rally, protest, or march, walking has long been associated with political messages of human rights, democracy, individual freedom, environmental sustainability, healthy life, and the like. In the context of an ongoing crisis, an attention to the embodied practice of walking can show us not just the multiplicity of social lives, but also the uneven impacts of the pandemic among poor and vulnerable populations.  

This pandemic has made human lives upside down, and it has posed so much uncertainties to our lived present and imagined future. In doing so, it has also reminded us not to take things for granted. Neither the virus nor the social responses to mitigate its spread have the same effects across populations. There is only one pandemic for some, but for others there are many.