Ayo Wahlberg, University of Copenhagen, Denmark
In biological terms, COVID-19 has proven to be extremely virulent for some (elderly and people with underlying medical conditions in particular), while very much less so for most others. Yet, in a socio-economic sense COVID-19 already ranks as one of the most virulent viruses ever, having thrust millions of people into unemployment (many of whom were already living highly precarious lives) and having brought healthcare systems in, among other cities, Milano, Madrid and New York City to the brink of collapse. In this essay, I suggest that the COVID-19 pandemic has laid bare failures of government rooted in decades of structural adjustment, austerity and commercialisation in healthcare throughout the world.
Federico Picerni, Ca’ Foscari University, Italy
The present contribution addresses how the coronavirus emergency saw Italy, the second epicentre and the first non-Asian one, contradictorily rearticulate its relation with the Other, now both perilous, in a resurgence of the yellow peril mystique, and attractive, in explicit or surreptitious references to the 'Chinese model'.
Christopher J. Lee, Lafayette College, USA
This essay frames the current pandemic of COVID-19 with the idea of 'necropolitics', which was first proposed by the Cameroonian historian and political theorist Achille Mbembe. It argues that this idea is useful for addressing how austerity and the privatisation of medical care in the United States and Britain specifically have left these countries at a disadvantage in the face of COVID-19, by being unable to sustain the life of its citizens. COVID-19 has consequently generated a crisis of sovereignty for these and other countries.
Maansi Parpiani, University of Copenhagen, Denmark
The imposition of a lockdown by the Indian state mandated everyone to stay at home to prevent the further spread of COVID-19. Faced with loss of livelihood and threat of evictions, this was not possible for India’s informal workers. As they ventured out and became visible, their bodies became marked as criminal carriers of disease.
Arsam Saleem and Nausheen H. Anwar, Karachi Urban Lab, Pakistan
As the pandemic-induced lockdown of Karachi, Pakistan’s largest city of 20 million people, enters its third week, we offer some observations about the rapidly changing urban terrain. Based on our earlier research on evictions and land displacements in income poor informal settlements spread across the city, we consider COVID-19 as a force that not only affects the politics and governance of everyday life, but also lays bare the socio-spatial inequalities that have been central to the workings of Pakistan’s postcolonial governance.
Steven L. B. Jensen, Danish Institute for Human Rights, Denmark
On 14 April 2020, President Trump announced that the United States has suspended funding to the World Health Organization (WHO) in the midst of a global health crisis. The COVID-19 pandemic has provided people around the world with a crash course in global health, epidemiology and virology. However, to protect ourselves and our democracies we also need to understand the nature of health internationalism and the conditions under which it functions in a world of state sovereignty. Internationalism is a form of politics and it needs its constituencies. The alternative is the politics of 'the many more body bags'.
Rohit Negi, Ambedkar University, India
In late February 2020, as the world slowly began to realise the scope of coronavirus spread in China, controversy erupted around the country’s handling of the crisis. While WHO experts tracking the events commended China on its containment and treatment strategies, others - including the US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo - accused it of hiding data, thus covering up the extent of the illness. The debate has continued since, though it is now clear that China’s containment measures were far more effective than what several nations in the global north, including the US, have managed. In India, there is a sharp divide between the relatively small infection figures and the severity of response - that is, a country-wide lockdown, which has led to suspicion of official testing protocols. These contestations around information cultures require further thought: what is it about the Chinese public health machinery that fuses questions of transparency on the one hand, and effective response on the other? And what contests define the Indian response to coronavirus? The essay argues that the information cultures in the two countries have taken a radically different path towards a similar opacity, thereby undermining effective public health response.
Ravinder Kaur, University of Copenhagen, Denmark
COVID-19 is a truly global event. As the virus races past national borders claiming ever-new territories, the world seems to have come to an abrupt halt. Many nations across the world have undertaken emergency lockdown measures to contain the pandemic: from the closure of schools, universities and public institutions to cafes, restaurants and commercial establishments that facilitate social life. Airspaces and public transport have been closed, travel is minimal and public life is receding into private spaces as more and more people are asked to move to an online world. Put simply, the virus has turned a familiar world upside down, putting emergency brakes on a seemingly 24/7 non-stop world. The twenty-first century seems to be on pause, a pause that many are experiencing as an apocalyptic moment.
To think through this viral condition – a health emergency with profound social-political effects re-drawing our worlds – as apocalypse is to recover an older, mostly forgotten meaning of the term. Apocalypse means revelation, a moment when hidden knowledge, the inside workings of the world are revealed. It does not necessarily entail an end-of-the-world as such, but an end to how we have known and imagined it. If the world is exposed to the virus, the virus is exposing how the world works. The virus has imposed a state of emergency which is forcing us to confront ourselves.
What hidden truths are being revealed in this twenty-first century viral condition? For one, the stark inequalities across the global north and the global south, and within national enclaves, are being reproduced and exacerbated. What does it mean to 'stay safe' and 'stay home' when you do not have a home or stable income? What does it mean to move 'online' when digital access is not guaranteed or when the concerns about surveillance capitalism are growing? Or for that matter, the reignited debate of 'life vs. economy' that has resurrected the older debates about the modes of capitalist production and extractive economies, the expendability of those deemed as 'surplus populations' in a given society. How fragile are the 'freedoms' that liberal societies have taken for granted and to what extent will they be restored once we are through? How are old tropes of racism and self/other being reproduced or transformed as the disease makes its way through and across continents and oceans? In short, what kind of infrastructures of the political and techno-futures await us?
What is particularly critical about this event is that it is not happening 'elsewhere' for anyone to observe and analyse in a detached manner. It is happening everywhere. Yet strategies are different across the world, and even within national enclaves, and potential outcomes hinge upon how resources have been distributed in a given society. We are living through this apocalyptic moment together in isolation, and our experiences are vastly different even in the sameness.
This virtual symposium is an attempt to forge a conversation across many enclosures that make our world. It a partial chronicle of the manifold experiences and reflections here and now. We will continue to add reflections, dispatches and field notes to this archive of the present.