The recent escalation in the cases of countries affected by the Covid-19 outbreak has underscored several problems that are embedded within our global society – some that we had known about, like racism and xenophobia, and some that are perhaps more hidden, like our reliance on capitalist materialism to placate our psyche.
I am heading back home from university to start the first of what could be several weeks of self-isolation and social distancing. I am anxious about the precarity of it all, of when I will get to see my friends again, of the health of my older relatives and friends, and of the impact on the world economy and the job market for when I will be graduating. It is true that we can never predict the future, but it is truer now more so than ever.
Amidst this social and economic chaos – and even political, if you look at the xenophobic comments made by Donald Trump, the rise in racially instigated violence, and the UK government’s lack of response to the spread of Covid-19 among other cases – the themes of biopolitics and capitalism become more and more apparent.
Government imposed quarantine can become a necessity – as the case of Italy has shown – to manage the virus outbreak. The role of borders has suddenly become more important than just keeping out ‘illegal’ immigrant – as the case of India’s strict immigration policy has highlighted. Small businesses and corporations can suddenly be subsumed under an unprecedented economic crisis, something that I saw first-hand while walking around what used to once be busy cafes in Covent Garden.
It is this very unprecedented nature of the virus outbreak that has generated so much chaos in our society. Our governments are always ready for defensive – and sometimes even preemptive – measures when it comes to military conflicts. But emergency healthcare and a distribution system that ensures accessibility to all sections of the society are often overlooked despite previous cases of SARS, Ebola, and HIV.
I am in no way a Foucauldian, but Michel Foucault’s conception of biopolitics and how the government strives to control its population through a nexus of knowledge/power relations suddenly seems so relevant to describe this situation. On one hand you have the Prime Minister of UK warning citizens to get ready to ‘loose loved ones’ whilst taking little to no preemptive measures to control the spread on the virus. On the other hand, you have an overwhelming deluge of information on social media about the ‘global pandemic’ and the next biggest ‘calamity’. You have NHS (National Healthcare System) beds overflowing with potential Covid-19 cases and the government having to rent beds from private hospitals to make ends meet while simultaneously having small businesses close down and people in service sectors lose jobs with very little cushioning from the government.
Those in the bottom rung of our society’s ladder will be the worst affected by the crisis. Take India for example: It is one of the most populated countries in the world with a large section of its population living in poverty. Most of these poor people cannot afford to distance themselves socially. They also cannot afford anything besides poorly managed governmental hospitals which are sparse and already overcrowded. How is the government going to manage this population which cannot afford to take the measures recommended by their government?
Another case that I have been thinking about as well is that of asylum seekers in Europe. They have managed to escape the eyes of media that only seem fixated on the wellbeing of citizens. Perhaps a lack of vocalization of the situation of these asylum seekers in news stories tells us something about the knowledge/power nexus and how media can become a tool to direct hysteria only in a specific direction while silencing a whole section of the population.
How are these asylum seekers – living in unhygienic and overcrowded refugee camps in a foreign country whose language they cannot speak – going to access healthcare and take preemptive measures to protect themselves from this pandemic?
Herd immunity or any kind of social Darwinism or ‘survival of the fittest’ – as advocated by the UK government – is just another policy that privileges the already privileged class (the wealthy and the abled) over others. It reifies the social divide introduced through capitalism, making it stronger and proliferating it deeper into our healthcare system.
If the government had enough money to bail out banks during the global financial crisis in 2007, it can certainly take out enough money to ensure that every single person – regardless of their income, social standing, or citizenship – are in a position to afford to take preemptive steps against the virus and have access to necessary healthcare.
This is a difficult time, but it doesn’t need to be just that. The Covid-19 outbreak has accentuated the flaws in the biopolitical functioning of our governments that we already knew existed. Perhaps the peculiar global nature of this situation can unite us against and despite these flaws to set a new precedent to better manage our communities and societies.