Corona Crisis Governmentality
Hypochondria or recklessness? Irresponsibility or paranoia? Daily life during the COVID-19 pandemic in big parts of the world, like in Germany, fluctuates between these two poles. For the more or less foreseeable future. The subliminal fear of a second wave—as has already hit Iran, Israel, Portugal, and, to some degree, the USA—is mirrored in the tensions of the everyday. Now, many say, it has already arrived in Germany. Who can see whom, how many, and at what distance? Should we greet each other with a shoe, elbow, or a polite nod of the head? These questions should not have to be an issue anymore, as the status of pandemic prevention could by now be a far better one. One look at New Zealand, Kerala, Cuba, South Korea, or Vietnam confirms this. Yet, precisely in the absence of a political—that is, collective—solution, society is called upon to individually assess and calculate risk amongst the contradictions between health and economic policies. Michel Foucault defined this situation as neoliberal biopolitics governing through individualization.
However, the liberal slogan: "Everyone should just take care of themselves (and those trained as women should be responsible for the children or the sick)," does not work under pandemic circumstances, because one's own actions do not only affect one body but can infect a whole chain of them. What the infections remind us of is the suppressed knowledge that all living beings are irreducibly connected to one another, not just via money, commodities, and data traffic, but also via bodies, the pharynx, lungs, droplets, and viruses. COVID-19 has shown us that it only takes a few months for people from all parts of the world to spit in each others’ mouths. And not only humans but also bats, pangolins, and gods: The pandemic first originated in a wet meat market and the worst outbreaks have been registered at meat factories and houses of prayer.
When the individualization of risk has not proven successful, the construction of risk groups becomes an endeavor. That’s the reality of the loosened regulations: Enough restrictions on freedom! Can't the sick take care of themselves? You can see how well that worked out in Sweden. Following numerous outbreaks in nursery schools and retirement homes, it became clear that persons in need of care could not be locked up entirely due to their contact with carers who were, in fact, not living in isolation. Surprise, surprise: It's not the elderly themselves who take care of the elderly!
Besides, isn't the entitlement to a secure life, especially for those at risk, a little excessive? Isn't it rather the weak who have to make sacrifices? For the strong and in the name of freedom? Dan Patrick, Lieutenant Governor of Texas and radio talk show host, was one of the first to openly express the capitalist spirit's subconscious: Old people should be prepared to risk their lives for the good of the economy and their nation. In Germany, Wolfgang Schäuble and Boris Palmer followed suit. The protection of the elderly and seriously ill had to be weighed against sustaining the economy; mere survival alone was not an automatic priority. What politicians voiced on behalf of the national economy was a capitalist economic fetish in all its purity: The economy does not serve life. Life is meant to serve the economy. The fraction of capital which favors this option is influential in Germany, but is restrained by other interests. In other parts of the world, this fraction of capital directly determines politics. That—and luck—is the reason why Germany makes an overall positive impression on the rest of the world. It is only when put up against Great Britain, Sweden, the United States, and Brazil, that Germany's fight against the pandemic looks like a relative success. Only 9,000 deaths—great! It is easy for Germany to act as a voice of reason, when leaders like Trump recommend injecting bleach as a virus prevention method. Indi Samarajiva points out why liberals are so enraptured with Angela Merkel: "She didn't even mention bleach."1
The mess we're in
Euro-German politics’ initial slow reaction to the COVID-19 pandemic cannot be solely ascribed to the racist fantasy that Germany's health system would deal successfully with the challenges with which China has struggled—including entire shutdowns of industrial regions—rather, the slow national response was due to the fact that the northwestern hemisphere has until now been spared recent epidemics. The experts at the Robert Koch Institute, the German public health institute, should have known better. Once the pandemic raged across Italy and Spain, it became gross negligence to wait any longer. The ecosocialists Christian Zeller and Verena Kreilinger had already made this observation in March: European solidarity would have meant locking down the badly-affected industrial regions of Italy instead of forbidding visitors at funerals and keeping factory work mandatory. This would have meant splitting the subsequent costs equally among the members of the European Union.2 Instead, imperial Germany—whose current wealth, to a great part, depends on its dominant position within the EU—could not even be talked into introducing Eurobonds. The national interest bares its ugly teeth. What we should not forget from the early days of the pandemic are the moments when national governments were stealing each other’s medical supplies
Another way of dealing with the pandemic in Europe could have also helped people in other parts of the world where—as in Brazil and India—the death toll continues to rise. After all, it was predominantly thanks to bourgeois “frequent flyers” that the virus was distributed so speedily across the planet. But, even when the German government finally began adopting measures to prevent the spread of the virus, it did so hesitantly. It took weeks to introduce mandatory mask wearing—as if masks would only protect Asian respiratory passages. Instead, urgent appeals were made about how to act. The demand for individual freedom would fit wonderfully in an anarchist society, but less so in a society that demonstrates few scruples in restricting freedom and uses massive amounts of state authority, such as against people who sell drugs to consenting adults, who decide to fry their brains without endangering anyone else.
At the end of April there was still the possibility of a different political path. The relative lockdown, which finally led to a drop in infection rates, could have been maintained for a longer period of time—against the pressure of capital—and security measures could have also been put into force in the workplace, in order to replace the cynical calculation of mitigation—allowing people to die in controlled numbers—with the goal of containment, the eradication of the epidemic. Just a few weeks might have helped. Even if the goal of containment had not been met, at least the numbers would have dropped extensively, and a different summer might have been the case.
Instead, the everyday twilight situation is extended indefinitely as society waits for the next wave to come and for the economy to wreak havoc. The partial privatization of healthcare policies comes with appeals to people to take personal responsibility for the virus’s spread. During the lockdown in Austria, it was forbidden to meet people outside of one's immediate household. In Holland, the public health department asked singles to make sure they had stable “sex buddies”3 in order to prevent the pandemic spreading. In such ways social distancing has encouraged monogamy and the domestic family structure, within which the pressure of continued wage labor, financial worries, and homeschooling can lead to escalatory situations. During quarantine in Germany, 7.5 percent of female household members and 10.5 percent of children4 were victims of domestic violence.3 The usual ways to escape such violence—public life—are cordoned off. Whereas a tentative and rocky attempt to pick up daily public life is already underway, the damage which has always constituted the bourgeois public—estrangement and distrust—is glaringly spotlighted. While stress at work, traffic, and air pollution are increasing again, intimacy cannot return to the dark nooks and crannies where it usually lives and prospers. The waiting continues and our negative prospects imply it might still go on for a whole while longer. If there was a symbol today of what is missing at all times in capitalist society—with its heterosexist and racist mode of production—it is the image of hugging strangers.