This (Pandemic) Means War

by Sasha Durakov Warren

With economic activity seizing up, and cruise ship and airline companies losing their steady footing, clever economists declare the economy “crippled.” Trump suggests that perhaps sacrificing some of the old could avert a “cure” that’s “worse than the problem.” Atop a pile of corpses, they assure us, we will again have a properly functioning economy, a “healthy” one. After 9/11, we Americans became all too familiar with politicians proposing to fund counter-terrorist programs citing the “plague of radicalism” taking root. On Wednesday, March 18, 2020, Donald Trump invoked the 1950 Defense Production Act, a wartime power, to increase production in the time of the COVID-19 virus. As researchers scramble for cures or treatments for the novel Coronavirus, numerous states have “declared war” on it. In the same press conference, Trump “declared war” on the “invisible enemy,” the novel Coronavirus. As have Italy, the UK, and France, among others. Why are politicians and economists talking like doctors, and doctors talking like generals? Whose “crippled” body is this that needs protection? 

The Body Politic

It starts with a dry cough and it ends in war.

The mixture of epidemiology and politics (of treating political problems like diseases, and diseases like political problems) reaches back to the very beginning of Western politics and has remained ingrained in our language. “The art of legislation is but the art of healing practiced upon a large scale,” wrote Jeremy Bentham, “It is the common endeavor of both to relieve men from the miseries of life. But the physician relieves them one by one; the legislator by millions at a time.” Not that long after him, one of the men widely considered among the first practitioners of modern medicine, Rudolf Virchow, would say that “Medicine is a social science, and politics nothing but medicine at a larger scale.”

Civil war, and specifically the Greek concept of stasis, is the concept around which this mixture of medicine and politics coalesces most clearly. Stasis, in addition to its connection with the word “state” and simultaneously “civil war,” also meant “disease.” It still survives today as a term for diseases or infections in medical expressions like “stasis of the blood.” In the ancient world, this meaning was often applied as a metonym for civil war where the seditious factions would be understood collectively as a “disease that befalls the city.” There is more than just linguistic playfulness in this. A pandemic is an expression of civil war, of the real political breakdown inherent to this concept, and vice versa. In both its political meaning and its medical meaning, stasis here is understood as that which destabilizes the unity of a body, or that which scrambles or halts the circulation between the parts of a body. 

The current COVID-19 crisis has thoroughly scrambled the circulation of the world, rooting masses of workers in place. The planes that periodically rumble overhead and inflame my nostrils with the smell of fuel on my neighborhood strolls near the airport in Minneapolis have all but disappeared. The virus itself threatens whole swaths of the older generations. It has—in a matter of weeks or even days in some places—forced the healthy to confront their own awareness of the needs of the sick and immunocompromised among them. How many healthy 20-somethings who were previously comparing COVID-19 to the flu last and brushing off concerns are now retracing their interactions, documenting their steps removed from the infected before they agree to meet with their grandparents or their friend they learned is HIV+? While the smog clears the airways in China and the water clears up in Venice, the terrible specter of eco-fascism rears its ugly head as some wonder whether a few more dead might not be so bad after all for the sake of the planet. Novel practices of tenderness and concern compete daily with the brutal indifference expressed in the idea of letting the weak die to strengthen the herd. 

As the virus threatens our commitment to our ethics, it also opens our perspective to new possibilities. While it may threaten our physical bodies, it also offers us a moment to question the reality of this “national” or “global” body apparently also at risk. It has opened a massive rift in the global political order and put each and every one of us into a locally-contingent and introspective frame of mind at the same time. Who still believes in the return to normal? Many schools and businesses continue on with remote work that may not mean anything tomorrow—weaving whatever threads they can to tie the mushy surreality of today to the comparatively concrete wakefulness of the weeks and months before.

Let’s cut these frayed threads. From here, the state can only offer paths to authoritarianism or cede demands towards increased social security to save the normal state of things, or likely some mixture of the two. That, or the people who make up the “political body” could tear it asunder and pave new paths without this worn-out shell. 

“Our” National Body

To state the obvious, political units (the American People, the Western Democracies, the Global Community) aren’t literally bodies, and they can’t actually have a disease. What are the implications then of imagining that the political can be imbued with a disease? Carl Schmitt, the Nazi jurist who tried to position the outsider or the foreigner as the true political enemy, believed that “stasis is a self-laceration… it is the dissolution of the state as an organized political entity, internally peaceful, territorially enclosed, and impenetrable to aliens.” One could imagine Trump having similar—but more incoherently worded—thoughts at the moment. How will it influence political action when political unity is said to be infected with a disease it can’t do away with, a disease which operates like a question mark to all clean notions of internal unity and external antagonism? One way to solve this dilemma is to project the disease outside of the city, to erect ridiculous walls, and call COVID-19 the “Chinese Virus” as Trump continues to do, no matter how deeply illogical these operations are. How long this externalizing impulse can last as the virus continues to spread remains to be seen, but the damage is already done as racist scapegoating logics are no doubt appealing to many Americans in their simplicity and operational utility in a carceral state. 

If a political problem like civil war or stasis could be seen as a disease, and if a disease can be so easily viewed as an issue threatening political life, it’s because the civilian population as a whole could be conceived as both a political unit and a functioning body. It was not at all problematic for the ancient Greeks to think of the city as a subject. Aristotle, for example, does not feel the need to explain to his audience how he can attribute desire to a city when he writes “the city desires to be composed, as far as possible, of equals.” “We”—We Americans? We Capitalists? We Westerners?—are obviously a corporal body, but what does this body do? And who claims to stand at the head? How many times have we already heard that “we” will get through this together? “We” will repair the economy in record time? “We” will look out for one another? When the Greeks would refer to civil war, they would more often say the citizens were “fighting themselves” rather than “fighting each other.” Any attack on the city is reflexive: the citizen harms himself. 

That is what is meant by this “we.” Fighting for a new world in the midst of a pandemic will be denounced as collective suicide, or as an illness where the rebels are the viral agents. When the body is threatened by conflict from within and the harmony is disrupted, this is called disease. And since neither the body nor the city come first, but rather emerge together and end together, disease can be used to refer to perceived dysfunctions and disharmonies of the city. Stasis, civil war, or even mere disunity becomes, then, a disease and, like a disease, it needs to either be eradicated or managed. Anyone who dares doubt whether the billionaires, the landlords, and the warmongers are really a part of this “we” tasked with defending the state of things can be branded an enemy and a bulwark to good public health. But where are they when another “we”—We Workers, We Renters, We non-combatant Civilians—needs their help? In the coming days, we will be asked to acquiesce to lock-in orders, quarantines, and restrictions to protect “our” future that will perhaps restrict the spread of the virus, but will also restrict our capacity to provide care for one-another.

The boundary between our health and our politics is more fluid during pandemics: in the fifth-century, in the midst of the Peloponnesian War when the Greek world found itself riven with civil wars and colonial rebellions, the historian Thucydides described how Athens was beset by the plague while its citizens took refuge from the Spartans behind city walls. Present day commentators and historians of medicine have had particular difficulty diagnosing the plague described by Thucydides. The modern epidemiologist is disturbed by the fluidity in his account between the disease and what modern writers might consider its separate social and political effects. After prayer did not heal the disease, many turned away from organized religion. This breakdown of belief is presented as a symptom of the disease and not a social consequence. That is, he does not make a clean distinction between the breakdown of the body and any social breakdown that potentially occurs: both are referred to as elements of a “disease.” The public management of health for the earliest democracy was not separated from political management, and political management was already seen as health management, and rightly so. How many deaths tomorrow will be due to COVID-19 alone, and how many due to prison wardens refusing to release prisoners or ICE choosing this chaotic moment to make arrests

Faith in our institutions will be shaken; demystification follows disorders. Standing over the ever-widening abyss of faith, it is imperative we build trust with our neighbors and friends before a bridge is built from the bodies of scapegoats of the familiar and simple racial tribalism of whiteness. 

The “Chinese Virus”

What makes the present so difficult is that we must foster the impulse to protect the ill and old while also guarding against the racist and eugenicist forms of regimentation between different groups that have taken place in the field of representations of health and cleanliness. These consist in being able to say: “you are dirty” or “you are (potentially) contagious.” Such images are not hard to call to mind: sex workers contagious with STIs; madmen smearing shit across walls; the poor living in rat-infested, wet hovels; the savage impotently performing magic to stop the spread of disease; gay men with AIDS acting recklessly; and now, the “Chinese Virus.” Even when there is a discrete disease or a practice that facilitates the spread of illness, that is not what is at stake. What matters here is that bacterial or viral cleanliness is thoroughly mixed up with social cleanliness, an ideal that cannot be made equivalent to a particular state of health or sickness, but is nevertheless bound up tightly with it. 

There is the dirt of the Earth, which must be cleared, but also human debris, which must likewise be cleaned up or removed. This connection is illuminated in the term “mental hygiene,” popular in the 20th century among social hygienists. There is no literally “dirty” or “unhygienic” mental state or brain, if by that we mean that it is a source of contagion. Hygiene here, as a stand in for healthiness, has the capacity to mean only “correct” and “right,” distinct from any association with infectious material. This “healthiness” cannot be considered separately from the ways in which we represent otherness, nor from the practices we participate in to separate the morally good from the corrupt. What this comes down to is that, as Didier Fassin writes, “[S]ocial reality is as real as biological reality. One could even say that the former is a weapon that can be used to act upon the latter. We simply need to be aware of that if we are to be adequately prepared for battle.” Our commitment to an ethical politics of health will hinge on our ability to distinguish the material fact of infection from the moral representation of “infectious” or “risky” types of people.

We must, in other words, condemn at every turn the segregationist stigma designed to separate the “potentially contagious” from the “healthy.” The target of this operation is the dangerous individual or group, e.g the prostitutes, the mad, the Chinese, the homosexuals, etc. Even when the individual is not the target and the blame has been unloaded onto the disease entity, this logic can still be operational. When it’s no longer a dangerous group that acts and makes others sick, but a viral agent, individuals can be included as members of a population, which, depending on a number of factors at times including race, location, economic status, ethnicity, familial life, sex, and medical history are at variable levels of contagion risk. The individual is visible as a dangerous subject, but only accidentally as an inessential figure playing host to the isolated visibility of the virus. This is an alternative logic to outright calling COVID-19 the “Chinese Virus,” one that allows the administration to limit or halt asylum requests citing security risks, to close up all the borders: to finally close up fortress America. Will it open back up again?

Viral Civil War

risons, jails, group homes, and psychiatric facilities have received increased exposure as cramped ill-excuses for housing at best and horrendous dungeons fostering disease hostile to a healthy life at worst. What happens next in these enclosures depends on which logic wins out. The fact that disease spreads so easily in these places could inspire states to take precautionary measures to avoid mass infection: Iran provisionally released tens-of-thousands of prisoners, and some US states have taken emergency measures to release inmates in jail awaiting trial. It could just as easily result in a more extreme lockdown. In locked psychiatric facilities and group homes, inmates are losing access to libraries, support groups, and visitation rights leaving them stuck together in close quarters with nothing to ease their discomfort. Once COVID-19 enters these facilities, how soon will it be before they lock each inmate in their individual rooms? Will patients on observation be released or held past the legal 72-hour initial hold limit? Will lock-in facilities open up or become even more prison-like than they already are? 

The situation is worse in most US prisons where the prisoners face similar but harsher restrictions, and are, in addition to these, not receiving adequate or any cleaning materials. In the theory of eugenics, “negative eugenics” refers most often to leaving be terrible conditions so as to “let die” those deemed deserving of such a passive end. How else are we to interpret these (lack of) measures taken except as a state-approved policy of eugenic selection? In Italy and Brazil, conditions have sparked prison riots and some have even used the momentum to escape. Don’t forget that there is a group of people fostering infectious environments and hastening the spread of COVID-19 among vulnerable people: the agents of the carceral state and those doing all they can right now to preserve it. 

Today is the first day of Spring, and a friend messages me with palatable sadness about a group of unsheltered people taking refuge from the pouring rain in an overcrowded shelter in Minneapolis. Consider the extreme case of California. Tucker Carlson sneered on March 12th about how allowing a “population that leaves needles and garbage everywhere and defecates on the sidewalk doesn’t simply seem disgusting […] it seems dangerous and insane.” At the same time, state officials are scrambling to close the camps and transfer people into hotels or other makeshift shelters, not out of concern for their housing, mind you, but due to the risk of transient populations. It doesn’t take much analysis to see that the main problem being tackled in both logics is risk to the healthy general population. But if the unsheltered today find homes, however temporary, will we stand by tomorrow when the state comes to ask them —nightstick in hand— to leave?

As the number of infections rises exponentially every day, hospitals in states like New York, Pennsylvania, and Michigan are adapting their triage models to account for the surging influx of patients. Without adequate facilities and ventilators, older patients will be left to die so that the younger might live. Although horrifying, this is to be expected. But some priority decisions highlight other values besides this cost-risk analysis that favors the young over the old: provisions in disaster preparedness plans in Washington and Alabama suggest that people with intellectual disabilities “may be poor candidates for ventilator support.” In these cases, there can be no simple appeal to the cash-strapped utilitarianism that saves the young over those who would more likely die. The presumption is rather that the 7 million plus people with intellectual disabilities in the US will have a less “positive outcome” purely because of their having a disability, where “positive” in all likelihood refers to potential productivity or prejudicial notions of the possibility of happiness and fulfillment in a disabled person’s life. 

How is COVID-19, this viral civil war, this new stasis, a disease in the political body? For those obsessed with order, with clean divisions, with consensus and purity, the disease is something to be expunged, eradicated. But this is a losing battle. Some will march on in fury, burning infections and cutting off infected limbs at the expense of the marginal and the poor, but signs of the infection keep coming back. The adversary, the deviant, has appeared and will appear again and again as diseased, mentally ill, sick, dangerous. The rich and the purists will try to hide, self-medicate, and manage their precarious health with no end in sight. Such is their infernal harmony. But this virus potentially affects all physical bodies and bodies of politics, of discourse, of community. Escape is no longer possible; the future is diseased, but not lost. 

How can we resist this kind of purity while still keeping each other safe? The virus commanding all our attention begs us to face the fact that others have lived lives steeped in their precarious mortality for years unbeknownst to the well and healthy. We would do well to reflect on this feeling of precarity and uncertainty. In this time of crisis, as we begin to think more intentionally about where our hands have been for the sake of our friends and strangers, we should also reflect on why we normally go to work while sick, putting others at risk and slowly killing ourselves. What kind of world would demand this of us? Is that world more healthy than this one? COVID-19 is hitting Native peoples across the country particularly hard, especially in areas with high rates of diabetes or lack of regular access to water. But these are disparities that have always existed in the architecture of Indian health services—the novel coronavirus is only further exposing and hastening the corrosion of its crumbling foundation. Will we white Americans stand to let yet another disease ravage the original inhabitants of this land? Will most of us even notice as the settler-state takes the unprecedented opportunity of a pandemic to grab even more land (and from the Wampanoag, no less) through disestablishing reservations? 

As we strive to keep one-another safe and procure essential resources for one-another, we ought to ask: why couldn’t these networks stick around? And why weren’t they there before? So many have begun reaching out begging for new forms of social interaction, hosting digital parties and chatting daily on Skype, but are we really any more lonely and isolated now than we were before? Perhaps some of the panic rising within us was latent panic, awaiting a pandemic to latch itself onto. Maybe my panic has not been over this particular virus, but over the world that responds to it. 

The crisis has brought us closer to the contradictions we live with everyday. The goal of the now sparkly-clean and well-washed revolutionary is to seek to expose these contradictions wherever they appear. Whether we seize upon this crisis and never ever let anything go back to the way things were is up to the newly unemployed, the prisoners, the newly-ill, the always-ill, the healthy, and the isolated. We know now: everything is possible. The houseless can be given houses, the prisoners can be free, the rivers can run clear again, and the cops can simply disappear—it’s evident that it’s all possible. 

When the dust settles, and the sputum no longer inspires terror, it will be clear that no person was objectively diseased. We will all experience both disease and health in the coming days. Instead of fearing breakdown, I propose we accept our restless repose, the impossibility of wholeness, as the beginning of a prospect—a prospect of welcoming the differences too long ignored. The fog of amnesia will soon be the gravest threat to potential new worlds.

Sasha Warren is an amateur researcher and writer based out of Minneapolis, Minnesota. He is active in the psychiatric survivor and mad movements and has been involved in the Hearing Voices Twin Cities group since its founding in 2018.