COVID-19 Pandemic: Worlds Stories from the Margins

by Rosalba Icaza & Zuleika Sheik

Some discomforts, reflections and an invitation.

The storyteller imbues the margins and our embodied experiences of oppression with sacredness for as Anzaldúa (2007: 60) describes those who are pushed out and have faced multiple oppressions are most likely to develop ‘la facultad’ – the capacity to see in surface phenomena the meaning of deeper realities. The ones possessing this sensitivity are ‘excruciatingly alive to the world’ and from critical collective remembering, recreating and reweaving these experiences can develop the most complex and multiple forms of liberatory praxis ~ Sara Motta


Update: 23.05. 2020

We would like to thank the Convivial Thinking community for their incredible support and feedback on the COVID-19 series. We would like to acknowledge that the use of the mainstream word ‘lockdown’ is in fact problematic due to its association with the state driven carceral system and is indeed counter to the ideals which we are putting forth in the series. For this reason we have decided to change the title to ‘COVID-19 Pandemic – Worlds Stories from the margins’.


The ongoing COVID-19 Global Pandemic, has brought into stark contrast multiple complexities, in particular a heightened awareness of the body in terms of health and our ability to breathe. Whilst mainstream media and academia focus on access to ventilators and personal protective equipment (PPE), we are reminded of Eric Garner’s death in 2014, where his final words to police officers were “I can’t breathe”, reinforcing for us that breathing is a political act. What is evident during this pandemic is the heightened ways in which differently enfleshed bodies are experiencing its effects, which is discernable across differentiated and specific lines of inclusion and exclusion marked by race/ethnicity, class, gender and sexuality, age/generation and body physical capacities. As such, when oppression continues to take our/their breath away, our inhales and exhales during COVID-19 become radical acts of resistance.

The politics of knowledge and “expertise”

Similarly, these exclusionary politics have been reproduced in the numerous “expert” analyses on the future of the world. In March this year, Pablo Amadeo creator of ASPO (Aislamiento Social Preventivo y Obligatorio) published online the edited collection  “La sopa de Wuhan – The Soup of Wuhan”, a collection of essays featuring the ongoing debates between well-known intellectuals Giorgio Agamben, Slavoj Zizek, Franco “Bifo” Berardi, Byung-Chul Han and David Harvey. This ‘soup’ also included essays from Judith Butler, Alain Badiou and Paul B. Preciado and from militant intellectuals who are lesser known in the English-speaking world such as Raúl Zibechi and María Galindo and from academics such as Markus Gabriel, Gustavo Yáñez González and Patricia Manrique.

Like in any other compilations, Pablo Amadeo acknowledged that many voices and perspectives were excluded, but he has also emphasized the importance of the experiment as a ‘soup’ in which many ingredients and perspectives co-exist. More recently, Amadeo published the Argentinean version of the Soup, called “La Fiebre – The Fever” this time featuring academics and militant intellectuals such as Maristella Svampa, ETC member Silvia Ribeiro, Maria Pia Lopez and Candelaria Bott.

Reflecting on these two compilations, Amadeo mentioned in an interview that while “La Sopa” brings ideas about the “immediate future produced by European and North American intellectuals”; “La Fiebre” features Argentinean intellectuals thinking on “closer themes” such as “communication, economy, work, anguish, the State and activism” in a “more situated way”. On social media in the Spanish speaking world, Amadeo’s efforts have been praised for its experimental nature, its free distribution and in the case of the second compilation, for its inclusive nature. Nonetheless, these compilations have also been criticized.

The first compilation – “La Sopa” – has been characterized as an example of the opportunist style of philosophical thinking, while its book cover has been described as a dehumanizing imaginary contributing to discrimination and racial profiling against Asian-origin people across the Americas and the world. The compilation has also been characterized as transpiring an orientalist understanding of the “East” which is spoken of from a mostly western ‘contemporaneity’.

For us, it is not new that this sort of compilations reinforces the colonial divide in the politics of knowledge production and circulation in which some are deemed as occupying a condition of contemporaneity and universality and hence are better suited to prescribe global designs for our world futures, while many others are not, precisely due to their situatedness and, following Homi Bhabha, non-synchronic temporal existence. And don’t take us wrong, the second compilation “La Fiebre” is particularly commendable, and a rare opportunity for those able to understand Spanish, to learn from the excellent sociological and feminist analyses featured there.

Who needs to be at the table

But what we want to problematize is why our common futures need to be thought and prescribed from an assumed global contemporaneity and mostly urban contexts? We want to question what sort of silencing movement is taking place when some are deemed ‘too close or situated’ and others ‘far away’ and hence better equipped to think for all humanity? What operations are taking place for some to be considered representatives of contemporaneous (read universal) debates? These are the sorts of questions that we think are central to address if our collective aim is a decolonial existence.

When looking closely at the essays in the first compilation by Butler, Badiou and Preciado on the affective and the body, we do recognize the contributions of these authors’ critical perspectives on vulnerability and bodies. But we wonder, which are the bodies that are thought of with these frameworks and which bodies are not considered? What happens when vulnerability and bodies in the middle of COVID-19 are thought of from a different geo-genealogy to that of western feminist anti-essentialist approaches?

Our proposal

Our proposal is to generate collective reflections that speak about our common futures from their situatedness in radical pluralities. And it is precisely that we find our point of departure for such a reflection in the thinking of and with collectivity of Yasanaya Aguilar, ayuuk researcher and activist for linguistic rights. Aguilar’s powerful essay “Aqui” [Here] invites us to consider where is the ‘here’ we inhabit when experiencing COVID-19 physical mobility restrictions:

“The “here” that I enunciate is Ayutla. A Mixe community in the Sierra Norte de Oaxaca. A place without access to drinking water for almost three years when by violent means we were stripped from our spring and our entire drinking water system was destroyed. But also, the “here” that I pronounce means my house, the orchard, the field already planted with cornfields that hopes to sprout, the house of the turkeys, the avocados, the leaves of the medlars that shade the patio. The spaces we inhabit, in general, are open and allow unthinkable circulation in an apartment block. Here is a place with a central loudspeaker from which the community authorities transmit prevention messages, sanitary measures in Mixe and in Spanish to deal with the pandemic. A community structure makes things easier”.

Introducing the series

Deeply inspired by Sara C. Motta’s invitation to decolonize critique, the Covid-19 Lockdown: Worlds Stories from the Margins series is understood as an opportunity to feature perspectives, which today are produced as non-existent under problematic and violent assumptions of “Prophetic Intellectuals” as guardians of critical academia. We aim to unleash the creative decolonizing force of the storyteller by unmuting enfleshed ruptures and the re-generations taking place right now as affirmation of difference and possibilities. We envision storytelling as a meta-epistemological task, whereby the storyteller positioned at the epistemological margins, speaks to us from a place, a body, a history, an ecology (West in Motta, 2016). Where to tell our/their stories, is to breathe deeply, in order to break out of the isolation imposed by oppression and heightened by the pandemic, so that we create solidarity and the possibility to heal together. The storyteller reflects deeply on everyday life, seeking out the invisibilised reach of power in our lives, whilst privileging those in our communities who have suffered multiple oppressions and silencing. Encouraged by Gloria Anzaldúa’s words:

Write with your eyes like painters, with your ears like musicians, with your feet like dancers. You are the truthsayer with quill and torch. Write with your tongues of fire. Don’t let the pen banish you from yourself. Don’t let the ink coagulate in your pens. Don’t let the censor snuff out the spark, nor the gags muffle your voice”,

breath reanimates the storyteller, bringing limbs, eyes, tongues, and ears back into the sharing of stories. Through this enfleshing the storyteller’s vulnerabilities and strength are used to “co-construct spaces of dialogue through nurturing safety and recognition”, which offers the possibility of transformation for both (Motta, 2016: 43).

Our departures

The idea of this series of reflections emerged in the context of a MA course we are both involved in at the Institute of Social Studies named Transitions to Social Justice LAB. A majority of the participants in this course are from the Global South or are based in the Global South. Despite our initial hesitations and criticism towards the prevailing ‘business as usual’ in academia, we decided to run the course as a means to keep in touch and connected which each other in the middle of COVID-19 and social distancing policies in the Netherlands.

The course adopts a perspective on transitions to social justice informed by debates in decolonial, postcolonial, black feminist, and Chicana feminist literature for the overcoming of dominant epistemologies. The course is a pioneering effort at ISS as it adopts a global perspective on contemporary political philosophy. This means that ideas and questions of European and American political thought are placed in dialogue with authors and thinkers positioned in an epistemic or cognitive ‘South’ in order to stimulate a decolonial/decolonizing epistemology in the classroom (see: Icaza and Vazquez 2018).

As a LAB, the notion of “transitioning” highlights the importance of enabling participants to address the question of the meaning of the knowledge they are learning: What is this knowledge for? Such an approach puts emphasis on recognizing how institutions, organizations, and individuals are implicated in a politics of knowledge that has deep impacts on producing and reproducing our relations to the social and to earth. The question of transition points towards the need for institutions, organizations and individuals to actively address its societal and ecological implications. It seeks to enable participants to bridge the epistemic border between the classroom and society, and between the classroom and the earth (relationality) (see: Vazquez 2012). As a pedagogical approach, transitioning helps us in the classroom not to lose sight of how the knowledge addressed can impact on the social and/or the earth (see: Icaza and Vazquez 2018).

Therefore, the course has been adjusted to not ignore what is going on but by allowing COVID-19 to fully enter our discussions driven by a genuine effort to comprehend alternatives and whilst embracing an emerging awareness that “the world has ended many times before” for many people around the world as the Indigenous Anti-Futurist Manifesto “Rethinking the Apocalypse” invites us to consider. We are convinced that if this pandemic has taught us anything, it is about the fragility of the socio-economic-political and ecological system of which we are part. This course stands today as an opportunity to study and learn together about how life has been/is sustained in the midst of genocide and destruction before.

The LAB’s main innovation lies in the fact that, instead of trying to understand transitions separately, we are encouraged to approach them as interconnected via themes such as:  Nurturing, Learning, Studying, Eating, Healing, Traveling, Hosting, Sensing, Caring, and Refusing. By focusing on verbs that most of us use and act on daily, instead of nouns or concepts such as Education, Migration, Food, Production, Environment, Aesthetics, Resistance, this course aims to cultivate a return to action in language and to encourage critical reflexivity around the everyday instead of detachment via disembodied abstractions (in other words positionality in practice) (see Icaza and Vazquez 2018).

Covid-19 Lockdown: Worlds Stories from the Margins series of reflections will be written by some of the course contributors, Storytellers, in response to the online interactions with participants. Some of our contributors are colleagues engaged with a decolonial approach to learning and development. Some others are involved in communal forms of resistance and regeneration. Their names appear below, but this is not a finalized list, but just indication of who are/would be some of the Storytellers/contributors.

Our invitation for working together

Initially, we expect short contributions (2.000 – 3.000 words) that will be featured online in Convivial Thinking. We expect contributions from the Storytellers of the ISS “Transitions to Justice LAB” session(s) but our call is open to all interested readers of Convivial Thinking that might be inspired by the stories shared in the series. Contributions can be in different formats, including teaching notes, academic style reflections, visual essays, poetry, etc. A selection of contributions will be invited for full article publication as part of a special issue in a peer-review journal.

We are honored by the company of “Centehuatl” from the artist Isabel Tello

We will be looking forward to hearing from you,

Rosalba Icaza (icaza@iss.nl)

Zuleika Sheik (sheik@iss.nl)

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.