What Does it Mean to Be an Economics Student in the Middle of a Pandemic

The COVID-19 pandemic has extensively impacted the lives of every individual across the world. It has exacerbated socio-economic inequalities between and within countries. While many have lost their lives and livelihoods and are on the brink of starvation, some have amassed a humongous amount of wealth during this period.

I am a research student in the field of Economics and I study society, inequality, hunger, destitution, intellectual property, supply chain disruptions, crumbling multilateralism and so on. Economics, they say, is a dismal science. Economists do not have the privilege of discovering a new drug that cures cancer or a vaccine that can prevent disease. But we do, through our research, can fight for a waiver of the intellectual property rights, so that vaccines are available to all citizens and countries.

Many economists have been fighting for a waiver of intellectual property in the pharmaceutical sector at the World Trade Organisation for decades. It is quite unfortunate that we still have to fight for these basic rights even in this day and age; it only shows that the value of a person’s life in today’s world depends on how much wealth they own.

Whenever I talk about the impact the pandemic has had on my life, I feel guilty. There are so many people out there who have had it way worse than me, who have lost everything to this crisis. People have gone through things that privileged people like me cannot even imagine going through and this extends beyond the loss of lives and livelihoods. Sitting at home and watching the news on television or reading about migrant workers walking back from cities to their villages while being manhandled by law enforcement personnel, reading about people who wanted to work even in the lockdown because starvation is scarier than Covid, researching informal labour, unemployment and economic contraction is accompanied by a sense of guilt.

Research is essentially meaningless if we do not go out and work for the people, but stepping out of home comes with the risk of contracting the deadly virus and transmitting it to your own family members. Thus, the only feeling one is left with is that of utter helplessness.

There is a perpetual fear of contracting the virus, the anxiety of having left something unsanitised in the house, the paranoia of hearing the news of yet another acquaintance’s death in the coming hour, day, or month. Then there is guilt – the guilt of being unproductive despite having so much free time; the guilt of working on my research within safe confinements while being aware of the million others on the brink of starvation, homelessness and utter destitution; the guilt of being privileged yet helpless; the guilt of being a part of the society oppresses its poor, the minorities and still not being able to change it.

Also read: Navigating Solitude: On Writing a PhD Thesis During a Pandemic

When I had returned to my hostel in March 2021 after a year, expecting to return to my usual routine, I realised how different the campus had become in a span of one year. Earlier, I used to think that I tend to feel more attached to places than people, but this time I realised that people make places – the places that they are. The closed doors of the rooms that were earlier always filled with the sound of laughter and friendly banters, birthdays or post-exam celebrations, haunted me at night. However, even that stay did not last long and I had a narrow escape from the deadly second wave in Delhi.

I am a researcher in the field of labour, gender, development and international economics. Hence, for me, the pandemic has been a period of constant dreadful news. The pandemic has laid bare the hidden inequalities in our society. Economists had been arguing for public healthcare access, intellectual property waiver for life-saving drugs, social welfare allowances from the government for the underprivileged and greater taxes on the super-rich for decades or even more.

Neoliberalism and its rapid ascent over the past few decades have only meant that we have to fight against people who feel entitled to argue against basic human rights and yet we are expected to maintain our sanity. As a researcher, when I think that even at this point we have to argue for something as basic as equal access to vaccines for all, the whole exercise of studying inequalities feels quite meaningless. Rich countries have stockpiled vaccines so much that some of those vaccines will expire even after injecting the entire population with a booster shot, while a minor fraction of the entire population in the third world has received just a single shot.

Economics as a discipline, especially in the heterodox perspective, requires us to argue for higher fiscal deficits, but unfortunately, third-world governments cannot even spend more even if they want to because they face restrictions imposed by imperialist international institutions that are led by advanced countries who conveniently increased their fiscal budget during the pandemic, while imposing austerity on the third world.

The pandemic has had a disproportionately adverse impact on the third world, especially the marginalised. The pandemic has not been the only plight in the past year and a half; it has also exposed the threats we were already facing as a society and yet constantly turned a blind eye towards – climate change, fascist governments, and the inherently imperialistic global order. Being an economist is mostly frustrating and the pandemic has meant that we never even get a break from that frustration.

Trisha Chandra is a final year MPhil student at the Centre for Economic Studies and Planning, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. Her research interests include international economics, labour, gender and development. She spends her free time painting or learning new forms of art. 

Featured image credit: Pariplab Chakraborty