The outbreak of coronavirus has now become a global health concern. Italy has been put into a country-wide lockdown, the state of California effectively declared a state of emergency after one single fatality, President Trump has now announced a full ban on travel from Europe to the US, and citizens in many countries are being advised to consider self-isolation should they exhibit any potential symptoms. While these would appear to be reasonable contingency measures, it is important that we remain attentive to the discriminatory politics at work.
The problematic assumption that certain humans bring death through infection is well documented. During the first outbreak of the Black Death in Europe, we see clear signs of antisemitism appearing (some believe for the very first time in a truly systematic way) with the massacres of Jewish communities who were blamed for bringing the disease into Europe (from the Far East along the silk routes through Northern Italy). While many Jewish communities were destroyed from Barcelona to Basel, in Strasbourg on 14 February 1349 some 2000 Jewish persons were burned alive in the Valentine's Day massacre.
As the plague spread throughout Europe, notably in France, there was a need to partition populations into infected versus non-infected, healthy versus unhealthy. As the sociologist Michel Foucault once explained, this gave rise to the first census based on recording infection and the very idea of the modern state was thus born. This idea of healthy versus unhealthy life would become pivotal in the design of the first modern city, Baron Von Haussmann’s Paris – whose very system of planning was based on the ideas of human circulation (like a system of arteries) as previously discovered by William Harvey.
The notion of circulation here has proved to be central to how we have ordered, governed and regulated all forms of life – from the local to the planetary. In the context of Paris, as elsewhere, the idea of health was a political convenient way for instigating a widespread transformation in the ecology of life. This was a pivotal lesson: Life is never static. It is vital. And its politics always biologically framed.
It is also worth noting one of the greatest artists to have ever lived, Michelangelo Merisi de Caravaggio, lost most of his family to the bubonic plague. He nearly contracted it himself as all the infected in Italy at the time were put into prisons where he was serving a sentence. No artist has since mastered the use of black with such dramatic potency.
If healthy life was all about encouraging positive forms of circulation, our very conception of freedom demanded its regulation. But racial prejudice was already loaded into this system. This was especially the case when the capacity or potentiality for contagion was factored in. Cities like Mexico City, for example, were compartmentalised between vibrant populations (white mestizo) and unhealthy (indigenous). Such ghettoisation would have a marked impact on the urban mapping of racial politics.
Throughout the 20th Century, we have seen the worst effects of the politicisation of health and viral infections. Relying upon forms of propaganda and political animalisation, the strategy of comparing humans with vermin (the carriers of disease) has been apparent in nearly every modern genocide, from the Holocaust to Rwanda. It is far easier to exterminate human life if it appears like some infectious rodent or cockroach.
What is bringing fear to populations today is precisely the indiscriminate nature of the virus. In many ways, this is similar to the logics that governed the wars on terror, whose violence was also indiscriminate in its arbitrary selection of victims. The effects of violence and death seem to be tolerable if they can be targeted and only concern certain groups. When however, we become the potential victim, the narrative changes.
With each passing day we are now subjected to the terror of the numbers, more infections recorded, and more deaths announced. Leaving aside issues about how headline numbers are limited when informing about who exactly are truly vulnerable, we could only imagine what this same alarmist approach might look like if it was replicated for other preventable diseases such as the spread of HIV in Africa (a disease again that was loaded with political symbolism) or even deaths from homelessness back home.
While governments around the world are therefore presenting a range of emergency measures, the question of who are presented as being the contagious and whose lives truly matter needs to be accounted for. We need to be vigilant to the subtle racial politics at work, and the ways the virus can be politicised to police and regulate the flows of human traffic in ways that the naked appeal to sovereignty alone could never achieve.
So, as cruise ships full of relatively wealthy Europeans sit docked on various coastlines like some newly discovered JG Ballard novel, maybe it is time to remind ourselves of the real dangers here.
Brad Evans is professor of Political Violence and Aesthetics at the University of Bath
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