Pandemic Ethics: Eight Theses

What are the basic ethical and analytical principles that can structure our understanding of and response to the pandemic crisis?

27 min read

But the aesthetic of this sickness is reliant on the lie that there was ever life without it, that the two at one time came apart.

When houses existed in houses, and rooms in rooms. When behind one wall was another, and behind that wall another and another until the walls and the ceilings and the floors and the houses do not exist at all, or everywhere at once.

Gary J. Shipley, You With Your Memory Are Dead 1

Isn’t telling lies helpful under these circumstances as a preventive medicine?

Plato, Republic 2

What follows is a Marxist critique of the emergency measures deployed by the current Tory government in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. These measures have emphasised the state of ‘lockdown’, including household quarantine, closure of businesses and travel restrictions. I have tried to unpack the interventions advertised as ‘lockdown’, and so consider what this term obscures by taking these harsh and unprecedented interventions as one policy set. In turn, my intent is to open up a proletarian political and historical outlook on these exceptional circumstances. My writing is informed also by my experience as a communist and key worker throughout the pandemic. This has included conversations with friends and comrades who have provided invaluable intellectual and moral support.3

In such a turbulent situation, I have not pretended to analyse every medical and social aspect of the crisis, or attempted to keep up with the daily news of scandals, U-Turns and hasty policy adjustments. Instead, I have tried to return to the basic ethical and analytic principles which are challenged for each of us in this moment.

I: Stay Alert

Like silent rage, the most terrible plague is the one that does not disclose its symptoms.

Antoin Artuald 4

You are told to ‘Stay Alert’.

The decree enacts an incorporeal transformation upon each person it addresses.5 You and I become sites of danger, alert to the presence of the virus in our own bodies and the air at all times. With regards to effective measures such as masks and social distancing, the presumption that you are at risk of transmitting to others can be sensible. But sickness here becomes a site of ubiquitous anxiety beyond the recognition of mutual vulnerability.

This order feels like see ‘See Something, Say Something’ - those signs at train stations which have you constantly profiling the crowd in order to spot ‘terrorists’. The anxious messaging of government health policy during the pandemic builds on the atmosphere of racist policing. Indeed, racial profiling in policing of lockdown ‘rulebreakers’ has been blatant; people of colour are seven times more likely to receive fines for breaking measures than white people.

What are we meant to be alert to? Spreading the virus? Rulerbreakers? Symptoms - or a lack thereof? Even government ordinances and measures themselves? More so, Stay Alert seems to be maintaining anxiety as its own end as a reflexive emotional attitude towards the pandemic. Predictions representing exponential worst case scenarios turn out to be warped in order to maintain the constant figure of the curve going up. In this epistemic and affective frame, emergency measures appeal less on the basis of efficacy or moral weight, than their necessity in maintaining a thin line between anxiety and panic.

In this we become attached to the privatisation of our own health, care and risk. In this context, you are expected to maintain subtle and intense control of your own behaviour at all times. When we feel we cannot control ourselves, then we turn on others as sights of failure, risk and frailty. It is easy in this context to take on the Tory perspective on the masses - plebs in a herd who must be controlled in order to keep themselves and the national body safe.

Where lockdown measures are constantly being adjusted, threatened, and flouted by our own leaders, confusion and suspicion about their ends and efficacy arises. A certain fear of our own capacity to transmit, and in turn a contempt of others, creates an anxious compliance through the command to be alert. Otherwise, there is paranoid rejection: who is more alert than the conspiracy theorist hawking shit about a ‘plandemic’?

The order to ‘Stay Alert’ discloses and effects a contradiction on the level of the body: it conjures a panic which numbs your sensitivity to your own and others’ needs. It requires we engage in a constant paranoid reading of our own bodies and other bodies – both in the presence and absence of symptoms.6 The privatisation of care begins here, at the level of your own body. But you cannot be both alert and attentive. When managing the risk presented by the pandemic is an order which you must internalise, the capacity to feel and enact collective care collapses.

The order to ‘Stay Alert’ discloses and effects a contradiction on the level of the body: it conjures a panic which numbs your sensitivity to your own and others’ needs.

II: Stay at Home

The order to stay at home raises the question: what is a home?

Lockdown has come to be the vernacular and obfuscatory term used to describe an array of emergency measures, including closure of schools, town centres and offices, bans on publicly gathering and the order to stay at home. Extensive mass home quarantine has been a central feature of ongoing national and regional lockdowns: the order to stay at home but for essential purposes and not to socialise with members of other households.

Evidently, the household as a figure and economic unit is a crucial component for managing the spread of the virus and public health more broadly. Where a certain middle class consumer ideal of extra time with the family and Netflix binging has proliferated, it is clear the home contains a fantasy of respite and protection in times of hardship. josie sparrow has presented an effective Marxist critique of this fantasy:

The family, in the popular imaginary, is conflated with the individual because the individual is, at base, a unit of productivity. The state’s assumed role in this is to ‘support’ and ‘enable’ families as sites of (unpaid, unrecognised, often unloving) care that produce the producer through moralising narratives of ‘individual responsibility’ that work on us and through us to ensure that our own wages remain variable, negotiable; to keep us divided and isolated; to ensure that we can neither imagine nor demand a better life. It’s a form of enclosure: enclosure of our capacities to relate to one another, our capacities to create anything other than surplus value.

We might add that the household has become a site of double enclosure. The household encloses the basic labour of social reproduction, taken as granted without proper recuperation or recognition for domestic labourers. But where a household is taken as one unit or ‘bubble’ with a contained risk of transmission, it is also taken to enclose vectors of viral risk. The household is an incubator in a dual sense: it maintains homeostasis for labourers ready to return to work, and also contains a viral load amongst its members.

Where lockdown has necessitated the temporary deactivation of all but these vital incubators, we have cause to question whether we can take households as reliable, self-enclosed monads of social life. Inequalities between, and oppression within, households have in fact been exasperated through lockdown. Food insecurity in the UK more than doubled in the first four months of the pandemic. The Universal Credit system has been overwhelmed, with many in need being denied their claim, and Job Centres lately trying to renew jobseeking requirements despite the lockdown. It has also become harder to leave abusive relationships. The household as a site of hardship, alienation and violence has been affirmed in its deployment as a site of ‘protection’.

Where the left has found tactical inroads during the crisis, it has often been by addressing these fundamental inequalities in social reproduction. Mutual aid groups have sprung up in order to provide food, medical supplies and cash for people in need. Organisations like QueerCare have continued to provide and advocate basic care for the most neglected. ACORN tenants’ union has waged a campaign for rent and eviction suspensions. Where the government has declined to extend the ban on evictions, it has revealed the capacity to socially distance is a matter of economic assets.

The household supposedly imbues its (propertied) members with a “diffuse sovereignty” which “privatise(s) health and displace(s) the risks of households understood as elementary units of national economies”.7 When we are called upon to phone the police to report our neighbours’ breaching lockdown measures, this becomes evident. Breaches of quarantine are taken as a threat to private property and security, a policing issue, rather than a health concern.

In turn, we should question who inherits and operates such sovereignty,along with the private wealth which allows some us to hold out through fiscal and health crises. Care is easily assumed to exist in units which are familial, parental, monogamous and straight – leading to a neglect of the needs of informal carers, queers and other alternate kin and family. The need to shelter at home is of course meaningless to the homeless, as well as migrants and others whose shelter is held at a distance by state displacement. And of course, such a presumption of private sovereignty disregards the health and agency of children and young people, even as they assert their place in this struggle.

A Marxist perspective begins by questioning where agency is held, and where the labour of social reproduction is performed. By situating ourselves in this way, a different struggle over quarantine becomes possible.

III: Clap for Carers

CLOV: There’s one thing I’ll never understand. Why I always obey you. Can you explain that to me?
HAMM: No… Perhaps it’s compassion. A kind of great compassion.

Samuel Beckett, Endgame8

The new demand for care labour has been managed so as to naturalise the privatisation of risk.

One care worker describes her working conditions during the pandemic:

COVID-19 is highlighting the situation of care-workers being underpaid, routinely demeaned, and at the receiving end of two-pronged exploitative working conditions, whilst being referred to as ‘low-skilled’ or spoken about through militarised language such as ‘frontline workers’ and ‘heroes’ depending on convenience. What this does is blur the exploitative social relations at the core of care and work and shift the narrative to one of self-sacrifice and angelic character traits.

Here, Meriam Mabrouk speaks to conditions in which unforgiving visa requirements, low pay, long hours and racial discrimination compose oppressive working conditions where resistance is highly tenuous. This is in the context of a privatised care agency where ‘household’ and workplace are organised in the form of accommodation provided for workers, and rented by service users, in which managers routinely override the needs of both in order to maximise profit. These workers develop “a sense of operating at the core of the capitalist system whilst simultaneously being on its margins”. The hyper-exploitation of care workers required to reproduce the cared for (and the agencies’ profit) has only intensified under lockdown, as workers are multiply entrapped by precarity, border regimes and moralising commandments.

Care workers and home workers have faced the worst death rate amongst all key workers. This has been in part the result of a quiet scandal in English care homes, whereby residents and staff have been exposed to severe and preventable risk due to prioritising profit over life. Staff are typically underpaid, without guaranteed sick leave, and hired from precarious banks of workers who often circulate between institutions. Meanwhile, elderly residents were discharged from hospitals during the pandemic in the thousands without proper testing for COVID-19.

This double motion results from the enforced scarcity of NHS beds, alongside the ongoing auctioning of elderly care to profit-driven companies. Despite claims that quarantine measures have been ordained to ‘protect the most vulnerable’, this loss is not simply a result of age as a natural factor of risk. Rather, it is the historical result of a continuous process of privatising care running up against a crisis over supposedly scarce labour, beds and protective measures. The same government who implores you to ‘protect your Nan’ through social distancing has written of the preventable deaths of thousands of elderly people.

Public ritual around this ‘necessary’ risk has focused on commending carers for our sacrifices, but in the absence of linking this commendation to material demands for better conditions. Official rhetoric around the issue has been distinctly de-politicised. The Tory-promoted campaign to ‘clap for carers’ reproduces the image of collective care as a series of private monads, house after house, congratulating each other for toughing it out. In its plainest state, it is the inverse of a picket line, the crowd cheering us towards work which must not be ceased. Meanwhile, managers sack carers who bring up requests for proper protective equipment and other essential measures.

‘Clap for carers’ reproduces the image of collective care as a series of private monads, house after house, congratulating each other for toughing it out. In its plainest state, it is the inverse of a picket line.

Risk is yet again enclosed by these conditions, with certain workers called up to enter the site of viral danger only to maintain it. What seems to be a plea of compassion – to work for the sick, elderly and those who cannot care for themselves – is co-opted in the ongoing accumulation of profit. The vulnerability of the elderly and disabled seems natural, and so the mass death of care home residents and those around them can go unremarked, unaccounted and unmourned. Resistance to this logic of redistributing and denying risk might have to find a different passion of care, not in a heroic national project, but in anger at grief against those who allow us to die.

IV: Key Worker

The pandemic has initiated a “severe restructuring of working class habits” in the requirement to work and survive under conditions of collective fragility.9

Working conditions transformed completely overnight. Hand-washing, fitting masks, social distancing, showering, changing clothes and intensified cleaning regimes suddenly crowd the working day. Home life seems to collapse into work, both in the prevalence of working from home and the cluttering of the day with these acts of hygiene. Home and work become part of a continuous labour of sustaining precarious life in the frenzied protection of basic social reproduction.

Those who are required to go into work in these conditions have been called ‘key workers’: workers engaged in forms of labour which require them to gather even in conditions of quarantine. The selective closure of public space and recourse to mass household quarantine itself left the necessity to commute to work untouched for thousands. At the beginning of the pandemic, there was some debate over how the new weight of responsibility put on such workers would change the moral and economic evaluation of their labour.

As the economic reality of the pandemic has set in, this contention has been lost in patronising sentimentality alongside enforcement of unequal labour markets. Data collected by the Autonomy research group has found that key workers are typically women, earning disproportionately low wages in proportion to health risk, and often below the poverty line. Unsurprisingly, those with least economic status are readily put at the most risk.

Where this restructuring has put new demands on labour power, it also opens up the opportunity for organising the working day around the health of labourers, and all others threatened by the virus. Social distancing, for instance, requires a slower rhythm to each task which could be an opportunity to relax the pace of retail and other hectic work. Unions have seized this opportunity at certain points, for instance when American General Electric factory workers demanded their means be used to manufacture essential ventilators. And demands for guaranteed sick leave both enable labourers’ self-care and protect people at work from transmission. Such acts can become demands for worker control, reorganising work in order to protect everyone against the virus.

Despite this opportunity to respond to new risks to collective life, the actual valuation of workers’ lives and labour has been adjudged more harshly. The definition of who is an essential worker is at the discretion of your boss, without meaningful legal defence for workers who refuse to be hailed in this way. Although mask wearing is mandatory, at risk of being fined, it is not incumbent on workplaces to provide PPE for staff. The legal status of workers has been arranged so as to privatise risk, thus displacing the cost of universal protection away from capital and onto the lives of the exploited.

At base a key worker seems to be a worker whose labour is valued more than their life, and in this sense it is simply another name for proletarian. A Marxist perspective could work from this standpoint outwards, seeing our status not as exceptional or heroic, but as characterising the requirements of social reproduction in crisis. And whilst there is something noble in the idea of heeding the need for collective care, the maintenance of the nation and its interests does not run on human compassion as such. Where these contentions over the value of life and labour have created issues, emergency measures have responded by redistributing risk and morbidity along classed, geographic and racialised lines.

V: Save Lives

Emergency measures have not operated to save lives, but rather to decide who dies and how.

The call to ‘Protect the NHS’ has often appeared alongside the demand to Save Lives, indeed as a synonym. But in this light we must ask: what are we protecting the NHS from? The NHS has long functioned as an object of pride in national welfare, but also an aspect of nationalist sentiment which required protection through border and resource control, especially in moments of crisis. In this respect, we can understand the NHS as an aspect of national heredity, an asset inherited through national ancestry, with ‘health tourists’ and other foreign needs a constant perceived risk to national health. As with the familial wealth and privatised care, the apportioning of life and health is divided by an economy of inheritance and (il)legitimate belonging.

Protecting the NHS has been deployed as a synonym for protecting lives - or national life - in an attempt to conjure consent for emergency measures through national sentiment. In a warlike logic, this returns the survival of crisis to the ‘shelter’ of a depleted British welfare state run by imperially resourced labour and the racialised distribution of care. As has been noted, the imperative to protect NHS beds led to the dangerous discharge of infected patients into the care sector. The NHS is in need of protection in conditions of austerity where the elderly, disabled, migrants – needs outside work or nation – are taken as a sheer drain on resources.

This is because national health is not a promise of universal well-being. Resources for care are deeply partitioned along geographic and racialised lines which inevitably structure ‘blanket’ measures of protection. The effects of this could be seen at the first peak of the pandemic, when the death rate amongst Black and minority ethnic people was twice as high as the rest of the population. This is largely a result of socioeconomic circumstances requiring people of colour and migrants for undervalued, high-risk, public-facing roles. Prisons and detention centres have continued to run as usual throughout the pandemic, despite their high risk as ‘viral pumps’ exposing those outside and within to risk. And the NHS has continued to charge migrants for essential care, and hand their data to the Home Office, throughout the crisis. In this form of governance, maintaining carceral and national security remains a priority above the protection of life.

Belated lockdown measures seemed to initially succeed in reducing transmission and death rates. But as time has gone on, the strategic impetus behind their haphazard renewal has come into question.10 Whilst the population have been called upon to protect life, the Prime Minister has consistently articulated his role as ‘managing’ the death rate. A managed death rate is not just a matter of aggregate numbers: it is a question of whose death is allowable.

The Prime Minister has consistently articulated his role as ‘managing’ the death rate. A managed death rate is not just a matter of aggregate numbers: it is a question of whose death is allowable.

This in turn is a product of deeper histories of oppression which continue to structure means of crisis management. Quarantine itself as a technology has been developed in the context of colonial governance and national security. Angela Mitropolous describes the epistemic and public health effects of this deployment of a marginal, militarised technology in a wider terrain:

Unlike case isolation, which separates out particular cases, the quarantine is not based on evidenced infections but enacts a geographic or spatial congregation based on presumed conditions. That is, because ‘exposure’ is effectively an inference, rather than knowledge based on either testing or the clinical identification of symptoms, its use of proxies as a means of identifying exposure – such as geography or passports – is amenable to the identification of a disease with groups of persons, and therefore the racialisation of disease.11

So, Britain followed every other European state by preemptively closing national borders, against advice from the WHO. Local lockdowns have not proceeded on the basis of case rates, but rather blatantly have preserved normal life in affluent Tory regions whilst sustaining the sense of emergency elsewhere. When Greater Manchester was put into lockdown by decree hours before the beginning of Eid celebrations, many suspected that the gathering of Muslims for religious celebration had been used as a racist scapegoat.

This raises the question: why are closing borders and local household quarantine seen as intuitively available measures, but extensive decarceration and ending deportation ruled out? Evidently, a crisis pertaining to certain populations and their inherent national and racial qualities is easier for a conservative policy to imagine than the myriad needs which a sustainable, effective and just response to the pandemic would articulate. Lockdown as a set of measures addressed to citizens obscured the continued threat to those without, or only precariously living, as national subjects.

National borders frame what is recognised as life proper, and therefore what deaths are mourned.12 Where grief at large has been strained by the distancing of funereal and scale of the loss, the allowable death of migrants, people of colour and those actively imperilled by nationalised ‘welfare’ and security can be ignored. This is a loss largely unexplored in official discourse around the pandemic – where growing deaths and hospitalisation are much advertised – because it happens under the euphemism of protecting and managing essential welfare resources. The privatisation and geographic partition of healthcare and life opportunities as the long history of the British welfare state becomes rapidly naturalised as a necessary aspect of managing crisis.

VI: Close to Normal

And normality was precisely the most fearful part of that infinite war: nothing ever happened.

Gabriel García Márquez, A Hundred Years of Solitude 13

The Prime Minister had been using the promise of a Christmas ‘as close to normal as possible’ to implore the nation to put the effort in and comply with a new wave of lockdown measures. This is a pale reflection of the 1914 fable that ‘it’ll all be over by Christmas’, using a qualified image of consumer holidays, time with the family and festive TV to help us imagine respite. Of course this promise has now been retracted. Meanwhile, Rishi Sunak has promised to ‘balance the books’ using his expanded powers as Chancellor, preparing for a presumed premiership continuing the ideology of austerity of the last decade. The fantasy of familial return and nationwide generosity, alongside the harsh logic of austerity, affect how we imagine an end to the crisis.

This tellingly close, but never total, normality which we are promised is intended to characterise the expectational circumstances we are in – to indicate what is missing and must return, what is contingent or necessary. That balancing the books, the continuous sale of NHS functions and data to private companies, and a rapid return to work are being prioritised indicates that the Tories are chillingly indifferent to calamity.

For a long time, the Tories have been refining the means by which we are to be managers of our own precarity. In a harsh welfare system and the splitting of health services amongst disparate, unequal and increasingly for-profit bodies, poor, working class and other precarious individuals have had to develop a certain cynical cunning as it regards extracting state provision. Universal Credit demands that claimants toil in the job market in order for our labour power to be deemed worth maintaining on a starvation income. Mental health services, essential diagnostic procedures and Gender Identity Clinics come at the end of endless waiting lists, which have been worsened by the pandemic. And when you call up mental health crisis services, it usually leads to confrontation with police.

Right libertarian responses have often capitalised on a collective desire, not only amongst the ruling class, to set society right again. Pleas such as the Great Barrington Declaration by impassioned doctors (and more dubious signatories) argue that state interventions are attacks on personal liberty, disproportionate to what is revealed (through selective evidence) to be nothing more than an outbreak of the flu. All that is needed is a sensible restoration of public freedom, private property and fortified immune systems.

A certain cry out against the official onset of emergency is to be expected. But this distress affirms assumptions about what is truly possible, how we imagine state and society to be, and misleads our desire for recovery. In the case of right ‘dissent’ against emergency measures, the presumption that a collective healthcare crisis can be enfolded back into the private bodies deploys the same assumptions about health measures as official policy. Whilst such apparent contrarianism rhetorically can court Republican think tanks, misguided leftists and a concerned popular readership, at base it simply occupies the ideological gap where collective health and freedom have always failed to manifest.

Conspiratorial responses to the pandemic take extended police powers, home confinement, masks and the virus itself as products of a malignity imposed by outside forces.

Conspiratorial responses to the pandemic take extended police powers, home confinement, masks and the virus itself as products of a malignity imposed by outside forces. This desire to totalise and therefore deflate the complexity of the pandemic and emergency measures has even been the recourse of supposedly critical scholars. An ahistorical account in which the pandemic as purely externally composed absolves those ‘confronting’ the emergency from the responsibility to address and care about the ways in which capitalism itself makes suck sick. In order achieve an effective ethic of freedom in the face of this, analysis must take place in the context that the logic of globally capitalism itself reproduces ecologies of viral risk.14

Opposed to this, various accounts of sensible governance from both the right and left have taken good health as a matter of good management. Often, complaints about the emergency measures take a managerial tone of ‘I could run this better’. The restoration of technocratic good sense is seen as the antidote, with the state presumed to take an automatic role in the central coordination of resources. But as the communist group critisticuffs have argued, we must not forget that it is the state which separates us from our care, health and labour in the first place.

Aside from a theoretical account of the crisis, and the action it prescribes, this raises the question of where our perspective on the pandemic is situated. How can we begin from the perspective of the sick and those worst affected by the social and bodily impact of the virus? It would have to begin by recognising that powers make us sick, and that neither conspiracy theories nor better governance are in themselves a salve.

The conditions which have been built to dole out slow death to most people are being expanded – but were not invented – in response to the crisis. The Tories are intent to naturalise this state of deprivation. A pain which was thought to be temporary, instrumental, becomes chronic – a matter to be managed in the hope of respite, but no cure. By reflecting on what we have lost, and would protect or build in the world, we gain a clearer sense of what it would mean to recover from this moment of collective trauma. We will emerge from this crisis aged, sick, likely poorer and more tired than before. Removing the fundamental problem from history, and reducing it to a malady obstructing ‘normality’, will precisely prevent us from achieving a just, sustainable recovery.

VII: Control the Virus

The task of our personal and collective care, and the capacities needed to perform that care sustainably, are part of a long ongoing struggle.

In the current regime, control has been exercised through the management of labour, household, border and nation, and those who do not function as organs of these projects are not granted agency. But emerging research on cluster spreading and the unequal contagiousness of Sars-CoV-2 might suggest that mass ‘lockdown’ measure are not the singular key to control, and make a case for anticipating cluster spread, contact tracing and more localised and flexible measures. The government’s fetishisation of the R0 reproduction rate of the virus has obscured what is uneven, local and idiosyncratic about Sars-CoV-2 transmission.15

As a better understanding of the distributed and uneven transmission rate of COVID-19 has emerged, the need for more nuanced metrics and approaches to controlling transmission has become apparent. It may indeed be the case that sustainable management of viral risk is not best achieved through territorial dominion exercised through measures such as policing, border enforcement and mass household confinement.

Lockdown was initially, reluctantly implemented with the intent of flattening infection and death rates, and so prevent key health services from being overwhelmed. This was based on evidence presented by an Imperial College study which found that an extensive strategy of suppression was required to protect ICU capacity in Great Britain. Following the Tories’ reluctant concession to public health warnings, measures have not been developed in response to new evidence, but based on pre-existing and intuitive social parameters. Mass household quarantine, minimal welfare measures and the regional politics of interventions find their basis in the historical maintenance of precarity, austerity and the hostile environment.

This in turn has circumscribed the scope of public debate around lockdown. Mass household quarantine, key workers’ status and social restrictions are framed within fixed aspects of economic and social architecture; whilst they are everywhere subject to common sense debate over the parameters and efficacy of lockdown, the concrete urgency of these measures resists historicisation. Yet as we feel the airborne chaos of viral danger condense along familiar patterns of impoverishment and alienation, we must analyse what is contingent in the technologies called upon to protect these historical structures.

Against such common sense, Ramesh Thukar asks us to consider the cost of pandemic policy not by weighing lives against the economy, but lives against lives. Thukar considers how Modi’s harsh and incoherent lockdown measures (supposedly inspired by UK policy) might affect poor rickshaw drivers, or those living in crowded slums. We must ask whether measures such as extended home quarantine are sustainable in conditions of poverty and crowded housing, and what means these measures presume.

Economic factors such as housing conditions and labour are crucial aspects of life and health. So, we must ask whether the ‘control’ ordained by the Tory version of lockdown is sustainable or viable for most people. In a context where test and trace data is being handed to the police, it is clear that emergency measures are set to have a lasting impact on the state’s presence in managing everyday life. Following Thukar, we might ask whether we are gaining control at the expense of control in this tension between security and autonomy.

In our current conditions, the attainment of medical attention is surrounded by a depressive-paranoid atmosphere, a firm intuition that it is precisely those institutions claiming to keep you safe which make you sick, afraid and poor. Where misery can lead to a certain enraged kicking back against this false ‘health’ system, in the long run it exhausts the agency, solidarity and determination of those subject to it.

In turn, we have been asked to control the virus by managing our own behaviour, incubating our own labour power, and keeping a check on our use of state resources. Despite our sacrifices, the strategies imperatives to flatten the curve, save lives and avoid further waves of infection are clearly failing. It is easy to feel that the situation is futile, leaving us overwhelmed by the seemingly unstoppable spiral of transmission, and struggling to pull through to a world which will be poorer, more dangerous and less free.

On a more personal, ethical scale, as the pandemic continues we must reflect on how the ubiquitous demand to control the virus affects our own sense of health, agency and care. It is very easy to allow measures for preventing transmission to define your life, at the expense of your mental health and social attachments – and indeed to the extent of denying the prospect of life without crisis. Rather than an episode to be managed, we have to recognise the pandemic as part of a longer economic, political and ecological struggle that will not leave the parameters of our health unscathed.

Rather than an episode to be managed, we have to recognise the pandemic as part of a longer economic, political and ecological struggle that will not leave the parameters of our health unscathed.

VIII: Mask Up

Time heals all but you out of time now
Judge gotta watch us from the clock tower
Little tear gas cleared the whole place out
I’ll be back with the hazmat for the next round

Anderson .Paak, ‘Lockdown’

Face masks are a fallible but effective measure for reducing transmission on personal and aggregate levels.

The WHO and other medical bodies have come to recognise that SarS-CoV-2 can transmit through airborne particles, and so recommend social distancing and mask wearing (dependant on context). Medical masks are considered PPE and recommended for use by medial and high risk workers, where cloth masks not PPE per se, but are considered to have some use in source control. Their full efficacy continues to be researched and discussed, but this responsibility to others is enough to recommend their widespread use. Such measures require collective participation and careful distribution to take full effect, which in turn would be premised on proper education, provision and trust amongst all those affected.

As usage has become widespread, surgical, cloth and N95 masks have become an icon of global life in the 2020s, an emblem both of the pandemic and a larger political moment. They suggest a new sense of shared air, both a fear and fragility amongst human life, and a loss of direct contact in something more tenuous. The mask as icon has even been circulating since before the pandemic. The imagery of the 2019 Hong Kong front lines were filled with masks employed to protect against both surveillance and the immediate danger of tear gas. During the more recent George Floyd uprisings which spread from Minneapolis to the world, Black Lives Matter protestors led the way in protective measures by adopting mass mask wearing.

The prevalence of face masks as an emblem of resistance against state repression could be seen as an exaptation to this new moment of airborne risk, biopolitical crisis and the forcible evacuation of public space.16 As a tool, masks confer anonymity and limited protection, a mark both of solidarity and fragility for people in resistance during a culminating crisis.

A mask marks the barrier between the air that becomes you and the air that becomes me. It indicates a person who is concerned with interpersonal well-being more than identity. The barrier it creates is selective and delicate. A mask anonymises; it does not privatise. Mask usage, along with measures such as social distancing, indicate the need of each to coordinate in the protection of all. The face as a concern is partially disguised, in favour of some other way of regarding each other: a mode of collective life without policed boundaries.

The mask can therefore be a tool in an ethics which proceeds “by loving each other mindfully, by communing with each other through unity – and division and and solidarity – in struggle, by recognising ourselves in each other,” as Sandow Sinai has written. This is a perspective of what Sinai calls material mindfulness, which points to an ethical and strategic orientation to collective bodies which enables sensitivity to difference, composition in resistance and solidarity against oppression. Such mindfulness asks that you return to your own situation and body in articulating a strategy for the protection and movement of our collective body.

Such a mutual recognition of vulnerability extends our contours past their definition through state, nation and private property. It shows where care and resistance converge against an immediate airborne threat, and the atmospheric degradation which has a much longer history. Our capacity to resist and care for each other in such conditions is weak, but is the premise on which the long labour of recovering from this catastrophe must begin.

This work will also be included in our Ecology edition, which is being published in January. We are publishing it now both to preview the edition and because it is an analysis of a situation still in process.

  1. Gary J. Shipley. You With Your Memory Are Dead. Lawrence KS: Inside the Castle Press 2020. p. 234 

  2. Plato. Republic. Translated by Robin Waterfield. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998. p. 78, 382c 

  3. Despite the conditions of isolation it was developed in, this essay was by no means a work of purely personal insight. I would like to thank my friends Elle, Caela, Toby, Connor, Anna, and Angie, and correspondent Dan Howdon, for their listening, encouragement, insights, fragments and arguments. 

  4. Antoin Artaud, ‘Theatre and the Plague’, in Theatre and Its Double. Translated by Victor Corti. Surrey: Oneworld Classics, 1978. pp. 9 - 22 (p. 9) 

  5. The slogan therefore acts as an order-word which created an “incorporeal transformation (that) is recognizable by its immediacy, by the simultaneity of the statement expressing the transformation and the effect the transformation produces’‘. Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari. A Thousand Plateaus, Translated by Brian Massumi (London: Bloomsbury, 1987), p. 96. In this sense, the order transforms your attitude without marking your body simply by being decreed to you. It does not necessarily produce a subject, a person or personality: alertness means different things for a police officer, uncodumented migrant, medical worker or anxious-paranoid conspiracy theorist. Still, the conjuring of this mass-individuating alertness cannot be ignored. 

  6. Queer theorist Eve Sedgwick describes paranoid reading as an attitude of deflation, suspicion and hosiltiy towards a text, object or body. See: Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, ‘Paranoid Reading and Reparative Reading, Or, You’re So Paranoid You Probably Think This Essay Is About You’, in Touching Feeling: Affect, Pedagogy, Performativity. Durham: Duke University Press, 2003. p. 123 - 151 

  7. Angela Mitropolous. Pandemonium: Proliferating Borders of Capital and the Pandemic Swerve. London: Pluto Press, 2020. p. 39 

  8. Samuel Beckett, Endgame: A Play In One Act. Translated by Samuel Beckett. New York: Grove Press. 1958, p. 76 

  9. E. P. Thomspon, ‘Time, Work-Discipline, and Industrial Capitalism’. Past & Present, 38, (1967), pp. 58-97 (p. 57) 

  10. Two letters to the chief medical officers each undersigned by various scientists gace alternative opinions on the extension of lockdown measures, and handling the pandemic by other means. There are disagreements over the possibility of maintaining ‘relative normality’ for many, and the flexibility and responsiveness of blank and local measures. However, both express a concern over the relative inaction and reluctance of the governments in their response, and indicate the need to the strategic purpose of ongoing measures to be clarified and justified. 

  11. Mitropoulos, Pandemonium, p. 34 

  12. Judith Butler, ‘Violence, Mourning, Politics’, Studies in Gender and Sexuality, 4.1, (2008), 9-37. 

  13. Gabriel García Márquez, One Hundred Years of Solitude. Translated by Gregory Rabassa. London: Pan Books, 1978. p. 140 

  14. Even prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, Marxist epidemiologist Rob Wallace has produced forward-thinking work on capitalist development, ecology and pandemics. For a discussion of these issues in the context of bird flu, see Rob Wallace, ‘The Political Virology of Offshore Farming’, in Big Farms Make Big Flu. New York: New York University Press, 2016. p. 50-8. For a more contemporary outlook, see also Rob Wallace et al., ‘ COVID-19 and Circuits of Capital’, Monthly Review. (2020). 

  15. Cevik et al. have discussed the politics of COVID-19 policy in relation to transmission dynamics as well as social factors such as imprisonment, racial and economic inequality. See SARS-CoV-2 Transmission Dynamics Should Inform Policy by Muge Cevik, Julia Marcus, Caroline Buckee, Tara Smith 

  16. Elisabeth S. Vrba and Stephen Jay Gould coined the term ‘exaptation’ in evolutionary biology to describe characteristics (aptations) which are “fit for their current role… but they were not designed for it”. Where adaptation is the relatively static state of a form arising to meet a particular need, exaptation entails the fitting of developed traits to new circumstances. As they suggest in the opening to their article, this is not simply a process in the biological longue duree, but also in human historical institutions. Stephen Jay Gould and Elisabeth S. Vrba, ‘Exaptation - A Missing Term in the Science of Form’, Paleobiology, 8.1, (1982), 4 - 15 (p. 6). 


JN Hoad

JN Hoad is a communist, carer and femmes de lettres in the North West of England. Per work on queer/trans life, health politics and Marxism has appeared in Blind Field and Salvage magazines; it will also be found in the upcoming collection Transgender Marxism for Pluto Press.