Nick Pearce is a Professor in Public Policy and Director of the Institute for Policy Research (IPR) at the University of Bath.
Has the COVID-19 pandemic reduced humans under lockdown to a ‘bare life’, in which mere survival becomes the only goal of life, and the state of exception becomes the normal condition? Or has it precipitated a flowering of civic responsibility and mutual aid, a ‘biopolitics from below’ of informed consent to unprecedented measures for the protection of the public health? To put it another way, is Viktor Orban the virus sovereign or Andrew Cuomo?
This debate has been underway in locked down Italy on the pages of Antinomie and Quodlibet, prompted by the reflections of Giorgio Agamben, the Italian philosopher (English translations can be found in the European Journal of Psychoanalysis here). Agamben argues that “an entire society has acquiesced to feeling itself plague-stricken, to isolating itself at home, and to suspending its normal conditions of life, its relationships of work, friendship, love, and even its religious and political convictions.”
The ease with which citizens have acquiesced to confinement is a sign that a sickness was already circulating in our societies long before the novel coronavirus jumped from a bat to a Hubei farmer last year. All that is left is the biological ‘fear of losing one’s life’, which ‘can only serve as the foundation of tyranny, of the monstrous Leviathan with his unsheathed sword’.
Not so, reply Agamben’s critics. Instead of social resignation, the pandemic has revealed civic generosity and the capacity for collective mobilisation. The truly sociable citizen is she who keeps her distance, lowers baskets of food to her neighbour, and volunteers on the frontline of the health services. The idea of a ‘bare life’ is better used to describe the pensioner waiting for a ventilator or an ICU bed in a public health system stripped of resources by a decade of austerity. “Everything that’s being done is merely preventive…in our societies it is unacceptable that three times as many people as normal die in one winter. It’s a biopolitical – that is, ethical – choice.” In the midst of the crisis, it is possible to see the outlines of a new politics of collective resilience and innovative government, orientated to the public good.
Earlier this year, when the city of Wuhan was locked down, it was customary to frame this debate as one between the tools and techniques of authoritarian Chinese population control, and the rational public health strategies of Western liberal democracies. But the subsequent enforcement of lock downs in Europe and the USA, coupled with the comparative success of East Asian governments in containing and suppressing the virus, has changed the terms of the debate. Now the arguments hinge on the efficacy of different strategies for tackling the virus and minimising fatalities, and the question arises as to what sort of public health regimes will take shape after the lockdown, whether East, West, or Global South.
New infrastructures of population management are already emerging. In Germany, scientists have argued that mass testing for coronavirus antibodies will enable public authorities to issue ‘immunity passports’ to enable their holders to return to work and social interaction, a strategy which the UK government apparently also wants to pursue. Digital, app-based versions of virus risk identification and population movement management already exist in China, South Korea and elsewhere, and indeed have played a central part in tackling the pandemic crisis. An explicit link between the technologies of security and pandemic control has been made in Israel, where geo-located mobile phone data stored by security services will be used for tracking the movements and social interactions of infected individuals.
As economic and social activity recovers, immigration controls are also likely to shift from blanket bans on passenger arrivals and enforced quarantines to selective visa regimes and airport segregation measures. Countries could be ranked for visas according to their levels of virus incidence, or visas issued to individuals possessing certificates of immunity. Airport architecture will be reconfigured to accommodate temperature testing controls and segregated arrival pathways. Increasingly, passengers will be tracked on public transport and taxis as they leave airports and ‘smart cities’ will embed public health population surveillance into the built environment. Algorithms will be trained on population data for virus transmission risk.
If much of this sounds like a digitally encoded ‘bare life’, the crisis has also generated alternative possibilities: reinvigorated universalism in social security systems, increased investment in public health infrastructures and health service capacity, a newly legitimised role for the state in the economy, and breakthroughs in public openness, innovation and global collaboration. A democratic biopolitics has also taken shape in the widespread critical scrutiny of the scientific advice and policy strategies pursued by different governments.
Contra Agamben, we can best see the COVID-19 pandemic as a critical juncture - one in which the prospects for transformative change depend on how existing institutions are reshaped by political actors. History teaches us that pandemics leave behind them enduring legacies, whether in public health infrastructures, welfare states or immigration and population controls. Even when a COVID-19 vaccine is widely available, there will be no return to a pre-virus normality. One way or another, the coronavirus crisis will not go to waste.