State Vs Society on Epidemics, Individual Body and Health Policy


The way an individual conceptualizes their own body is somehow connected deep within the community, the culture, and the society they live in. On the other hand, the state definitely intends to gain some degree of control over an individual’s body in the name of public health, health policy, and many other scientific discourses. The purpose behind it can be described in many ways, but we can’t say that the cause is always noble. To discuss the dilemma between the State and community on the individual’s body further; I am going to review an essay and my own real-time experience of the last covid 19 situation.

The idea of infectious disease is certainly relatively new, at least it does not date back to the time before Louis Pasteur first discovered microorganisms; which happened back in 1676. All of the arguments in this writing will revolve around two words, epidemic, and pandemic. An Epidemic is a form of disease that affects a large number of people within a community, population, or region at a time. And a pandemic is an epidemic spread over multiple countries or continents. From 2020 to 2021 the World has dealt with one of the deadliest pandemics of history, COVID 19. The situation nakedly has shown us our public health policies and the mass reaction to that of humans as a community. 


We can not deny our legends and myths, where epidemics are always depicted as an embodiment of sins or curses from the divine. From the ‘olabibi’ from our local knowledge to the curse Oedipus brought into his kingdom, It’s always shown as a trial of divine powers for the community’s or the ruler’s sin. Also, the characteristic of these ominous curses upon communities described in myth, legend, and folktales is parallel to the characteristic of the microorganisms themselves. As if it has a soul inside, It’s a collective abstract being that visits village after village, whoever comes across it accidentally gets affected. Being done with one area it then sets off to another (Totally how a pandemic might sound). 

Only now science has proven that It’s not a soul but a living indeed, It’s nothing abstract just so small that we can’t see it with our visions, it does certainly move collectively and anybody who comes across the organism suffers because of the contact infuses the germ inside the human body. Science has excelled notably after the enlightenment, it has arguably nested some discourses as well. But on top of everything, what science gives us today is an explanation for almost every physical phenomenon. So nothing is mysterious anymore and ‘olabibi’ shouldn’t make sense. But the dice don’t roll so easily. 


With all this talking about the individual body- something so private to the individual himself- has become the business of government, the State. It’s the politics, the power practice of a different but a definite kind. Even not being aware of the State’s politics over the body the community still does not buy scientific analysis when it comes to epidemics, as no community is dissected from its own history and literature. Also, the body in concern is never the ‘peasant body’ or the ‘Adivasi body’- whenever the state tries to popularise the concept of health to the masses It’s not because the state is worried about its people. The motive can merely be protecting only one elite class just like in colonial India the main concern of public health was to protect the British people from diseases. In recent times we have seen even in the highest peak of COVID-19 the garment factories were open in Bangladesh making a large number of workers go out daily as a large factor of our country’s economy rolls around it. 

We find examples of communities battling with the state in many eras and circumstances, such as ordinary people’s opposition to the Indian government’s forced sterilization effort during the [1975-77] emergency. The state has a number of weapons at its disposal along the road of this uneven and difficult change process, including the judicial system, armed forces, the economy, and so on.


“Public health policy,” which is created in line with contemporary and medical notions [about public health and the human body], is one of the most effective tools. Many are already aware that near the end of the nineteenth century, riots broke out in Bombay and other Indian towns as a result of public opposition to the government’s plague-control tactics.

The government, the nationalist leadership, and the general populace frequently did not agree on the policies that were implemented to control epidemics of smallpox, cholera, and other illnesses. For many of us, the common man’s dread of the hospital and the general phobia of needles are still present in today’s world. To expose some of the contradictory histories of the link between the human body and contemporary government, as well as the contemporary state’s relationship to historically constituted communities, Dipesh Chakrabarty focused mostly on historical evidence in this article. In the essay’s last section, He revisits the discussion’s larger context.

Dipesh Chakrabarty


From Chakrabarty’s essay, we get to know that, in colonial India, public health policy and the surveillance of individuals’ bodies started from the concern for the safety of the European body. How the mill workers take care of the body became an issue when alongside these workers a European elite figure was present as ‘the boss’. The mass public health policy was enforced to protect Europeans from the ‘Indian germs’. The peasant body or the worker’s body was not the concern. But anyway even through the advertisement of soap a strong discourse was created to popularise the notion of ‘cleanliness’ among the masses. But the public health policies got stomped by the historical reasoning and feeling about these things. For an Indian, the concept of ‘purity’ comes first that the concept of ‘cleanliness’. Even today the floor in mud huts gets purified by cow dung, as it is connected with how this locality’s people conceptualize purity. Dipesh Chakrabarty successfully showed us the dilemma between the society and the state regarding an individual’s body through the subaltern history. 


In parallel formation when the epidemic first broke out in Bangladesh, the whole media, government and public health policy made sure to provoke individuals to maintain physical distance, accept lockdown, wash hands, wear masks and maintain many other health protocols. Though on the other hand garments factories were kept open and workers continued working as if they were immune from this disease. But the fact here is, without garment factories open the economy would collapse, so the workers’ life being in line mattered less to the government. The restraining behaviour towards the health protocol came from many tabligs and we could see people in Jummah every Friday. To the local people, the epidemic wasn’t something so scientific. Even on residential university campuses, the health protocols were ignored by students and staff, most of them roaming around without any facemasks. Deep down our own historical feeling about epidemics is restraining us to fully give in to the very newly invented scientific schemata. The waves of infection caused by COVID 19 is still not over, but the masses’ part of agreeing with protocol is. Here also, just like Chakrabarty’s description, the dilemma between state and society on the individual body is clearly visible. 


With both Chakrabarty’s essay and my own analysis of epidemics, I clearly want to come to the conclusion that the State interferes with the individual body, but the body in their concern does not belong to the subaltern but the elite class. Again as a collective, people’s conception of health grows up on par with societal history of reasoning, myths, legends, and religious conceptualization; all of these create a distance between the state’s discourse of health science and the individual. And we also must be alert to public health policy, we don’t know how the government interferes in personal affairs. From laws opposing abortion to hand soap advertisements everything is just another agenda to control the individual body. 


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  • Chattopadhyay, P. & Bhadra, G.  1998  Subaltern Studies  Ananda Publishers, Kalkata
  • Chakrabarty, D 2012 Community, state and the body: epidemics and popular culture in colonial India Routledge