A Letter From Illinois – by Rajmohan Gandhi

If the availability of a safe vaccine against Covid is hardly imminent, the first Tuesday of November this year, which is when the 59th US presidential election is due to take place, is four full months away.

While polls may be overturned a dozen times between now and November 3, the outlook for Trump at present, as I type these lines in Urbana, Illinois, 225 km south of Chicago, is no longer as bright as it was. This change in the political weather has something to do, clearly, with Covid. 

I should state, before proceeding further, that the aim of this piece is to ask if happenings in the U.S. might at some point be reproduced elsewhere, including in India.

If, understanding Covid's threat, Trump had mobilized America to face it, he could have consolidated what until Covid seemed a fairly strong political position. However, Trump's marketing impulses - his anxiety regarding stocks and shares on Wall Street - led him to downplay and even deny Covid's threat.

On occasion, Trump denies his denials. Yet his unmasked face reveals Trump's true attitude to Covid. He wants to wish the virus away so that America can think of brighter things. 

However, as the number of Covid-induced deaths grows by the day, and as reopened businesses shut again, a crucial segment of this polarized nation, hitherto undecided or in Trump's corner, seems to be slipping away from him. This segment may be responding to hard facts. No furious wand, no shouts of "Fake!" - seem capable of blowing away the reality of a procession of caskets.

Reflection by Americans during the Covid-compelled solitude has apparently not gone in Trump's favour. Combined with the video of the George Floyd murder, that reflection has produced another American development, one far more significant than the erosion in Trump's support: acknowledgment by white Americans of the depth and breadth of racism in the U.S.

A culture defined thus far by its optimism, and by its pride in the feats of "the greatest nation on earth and in history", is suddenly looking frankly at itself and its history. More than that, white Americans are speaking publicly about cruelties perpetrated, and continuing to be perpetrated, on blacks and other non-whites.

The Floyd video, the multiracial street protests, the suspensions and indictments of police officers, the admission that certain monuments and symbols indeed proclaimed the humiliation of black Americans, and the public opposition of senior military officers to the use of force against demonstrators are among the signs of change that very few expected, but which destiny seems to have used Covid to bring about in the U.S.

Covid and George Floyd have dealt a severe blow to the ideology and politics of white power. Trump's election in 2016 had coincided with, and contributed to, what has been called a tide of ethnonationalism within nations (the idea that a particular racial, religious or tribal group "owns" a nation) and to ultra-nationalism, as between nations. If Trump's current decline persists, will ethnonationalists in other lands run into something similar in due course?

I don't know if anyone can clearly answer such a question, but it is a fact that an invisible non-human virus, which refuses to discriminate for or against any nationality, race, caste or religion, has been a powerful element in America's current, and dramatic, story. Which probably means that that story may not remain confined to a single nation.

Whether or not ethnonationalism and its twin, a personality-dominated polity, recede worldwide, we should certainly wish that the above-mentioned frankness from influential white voices about the indignities that continue to be heaped on black Americans would be emulated in a country like India. We in India can do with open, unqualified acknowledgments of the discriminatory treatment that Dalits, Adivasis and Muslims frequently receive from the police as also from powerful elements in Indian society.

India will show it has moved forward if those brutally killed for belonging to their caste, gender, religion or tribe can be freely named and honoured on our streets the way George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery are being named and honoured on America's streets. Are families that have lost loved ones to guns, blades or bludgeons of contempt in India's fields able to publicly remember those who've been mercilessly killed? We know the sad answer.

The third development in the U.S. that I want to mention is the steady evolution of a mingled and equal humanity, comprising people of every type from all corners of the world. This of course is an old story in this nation of immigrants, but the Covid crisis has printed it in LARGE type. The nurses, cleaners and doctors that all of America has watched day after day for months, the people striving night and day to save America's infected millions, are so obviously of wholly different races, religions and national origins.

It appears that the Covid crisis has underlined the truth that in the end a nation is made and saved not by a common bloodline, nor a common religion, but by equality, mutual service and respect. Is it possible to ban the entry of this truth into India? 

(Rajmohan Gandhi is presently teaching at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.)

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