Heat and the Coronavirus

Heat is everywhere. We are born with it. It is used by the physiotherapist to minimize the pain in our body. The muscle relaxants we use also emit heat on the surface of our skin. Heat can be seen and felt. We live on an overheated planet with glaciers melting, floods and droughts increasing, and a number of other examples of ecological crisis. The heat of the planet can be seen as the pulse of our social condition. Can heat also be a mirror to look at our life in the wake of the social crisis created by the virus?

The virus shows that to have agency, one doesn’t need to have a soul or be visible to our naked eye.

My day begins with measuring my body temperature. The acceptable range is 35–38 degrees Celsius. Any spike beyond 38 degrees suggests I have a fever and I have to report it. It is mandatory to document your temperature at my university for those who stay on campus or visit. The routine act of measuring body heat can be an anxious process, especially if you have to do it several times a day. However, such measurement is necessary and a positive public health practice.

Public scanning for fevers has become a normal exercise everywhere amidst the pandemic. The thermal scanners measure body heat as we pass by public spaces. A bank, restaurant, cinema hall, or any other institution can install thermal scanners or ask to measure your temperature.

Food outlets at my university were also starting to ask for body temperatures before we bought the meals. Initially, it came as a shock to me. Never had I imagined a time where one’s body heat could be a criterion to buy food. However, given the circumstances, such a practice can be seen as a rational public health choice.

Most Indians are used to asking for warm food when we visit eateries in our localities and neighborhoods. As a customer, I am still concerned about how warm my food is, but the seller now also seeks to know how warm I am as well. One’s body temperature has become a criterion for one’s access to essential services. Food and body are both brought under the heat scanner. I come to see the “logic” of heat with each passing day, as it slowly enters our habitus.

The streets in India, where many are now starving and dying due to the lockdown, illustrate how the crisis touches us all, but unequally. The social underclass is always worst hit by any kind of crisis—social, economic, political and natural. That social fact is for all of us to see.

Warmth, a synonym for heat, can also be a measure of empathy and social care. The government in India showed little warmth for the social underclass and migrant workers after declaring a lockdown with no provisions for food, shelter, or transport for the millions of people working in different metros and cities.

These experiences show us the radical “defatalization” of heat. According to Pierre Bourdieu, defatalization is the point of social science, which is to show how our social world can take different direction and meaning than that which is currently in the dominant discourse. The virus defatalizes the concept of heat for us and our governments. It transforms our bio-political being. It provides more access to our governments and turns them into instruments of knowledge.

The virus shows that to have agency, one doesn’t need to have a soul or be visible to our naked eye. Heat then also mirrors the virus, along with the social conditions it produces and the effect it leaves on a human body and our society.

Suraj Gogoi is a doctoral candidate in sociology at National University of Singapore.

Cite as: Gogoi, Suraj. 2020. “Heat and the Coronavirus.” Anthropology News website, July 2, 2020. DOI: 10.14506/AN.1453

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