Viral Political Ecology III

The intrusion of the coronavirus and the disruption caused in response are excellent occasions for mapping the cracks of the present system. There is nothing better than a crisis to force a reckoning. In the last two posts, I started thinking critically about what the current moment means. Here, I want to continue that reflection by looking closer at the political assemblages that are being enlivened at this very moment. 

We do not all inhabit the same world. Just like with climate change, biodiversity loss, and pollution, to speak of a ‘humanity’ that is facing a crisis is to hide, despite possible good intentions, the fact that the world is not one. We inhabit a multitude of worlds, not all related in the same way to the crises that assail ‘us’. The coronavirus is a great, if cruel, illustrator of this perennial truth. Take testing as an example. In the early days of the epidemic in the United States, testing for the virus was not an option for the vast majority of people. One of the reasons was cost, but there was also a literal dearth of testing available. Despite this, a steady trickle of celebrities kept testing positive for the virus. How? 

For partly different reasons, Belgium has also had a hard time testing people living in its territory. For the past several weeks, the only way to get tested in Belgium has been to be hospitalized. Despite this, Michel Barnier, the chief EU negotiator for Brexit, tested positive for the virus. The news article announcing this also stated that he is doing fine, which presumably means that he has not been hospitalized. How, then, did he get tested? More importantly, why can Barnier and US celebrities have access to tests while the majority of people cannot? Mind you that Belgium, unlike the US, has virtually no private healthcare system, so on the face of it access to medical resources is evenly distributed. Barnier’s job description includes, presumably, a clause that allows him to skip the line when it comes to healthcare. He lives in a different world.

There has always been a parallel world for the rich and important, and the appearance of a virus does not make this fact disappear. It highlights it. It also has the potential of driving worlds further apart. Political ecologists have shown for decades that environmental costs and ills are unequally distributed. Polluted water is distributed to poor people, toxic land given to poor farmers, incinerators placed in poor communities, greenery in rich ones, and on and on. We should expect no different from the coronavirus: when it’s all said and done, it would have affected poor people disproportionately. Their worlds are where the epidemic is raging silently, and where it is most likely to endure for longer while being acknowledged less. 

Seen from this perspective, an epidemic can be an accelerator of already existing divisions and trends. In the last post I wrote about how e-learning, long a pet project of universities that have steadily become student administration centers, is now becoming the law of the land. It will take untold vigilance for these systems to be rolled back when the crisis passes. Similarly, it will take much vigilance and critique to first resist, and then roll back, massive systems of surveillance expanded in the name of public health. 

China is the poster child for both surveillance and the efficiency with which it eventually reined in the epidemic (after it corrected for its repugnance to free speech, which turned out to be deadly in more than one way). It is true that, given total monitoring of people’s bodies, the government can stop the transmission of the disease. But simply praising big data for its efficiency while ignoring the political and personal costs of living under its rule reminds me of fascist and soviet communist nostalgia that fondly remembers the efficiency of train schedules delivered by those regimes. 

Responding to the present crisis need not abdicate democratic norms in the name of public health. Both can be upheld. Similarly, the divisions that keep being exposed by the virus should not get a free pass because we are in an emergency. This virus is a moment of reckoning: are we able to resist domination and the acceleration of divisions and build a response based on solidarity? Neo-authoritarian tendencies have been creeping up for the last decade, and they will surely try to make the most of the present moment. We can do better than allow them the upper hand while admiring the efficiency of dictatorships. 

Maintaining a critical sense is crucial in not allowing the response to the virus to reinforce classist divisions and to further erode social democracies. It might be the case that having a government that can monitor your body continuously works well for minimizing the spread of the virus. But it does not then follow that, by all means, we shall all submit to Big Brother once and for all. An informed and free people are not only able to get through a crisis, but also to live afterwards. As urgent as getting through might be, it is when one forgets about the long afterwards that terrible mistakes are made.

While you stay indoors over the next several months in order to protect the most susceptible, take a moment to reflect on how the underlying solidarity of the moment cannot be allowed to evaporate at the end of the crisis. I, for one, have been hoping for solidarity to come back into politics for a long time. Though I would have never wished it rode a virus into the polis, let’s make the best of its arrival. 

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