The biopolitics of coronavirus 

Last Updated 13 March 2020, 19:10 IST

On March 11, the World Health Organization (WHO) declared COVID-19 a ‘pandemic’. Various Indian states have begun invoking the Epidemic Disease Act, 1897. “Any person disobeying any regulation or order made” under this Act will be seen as having “committed an offence punishable under section 188 of the Indian Penal Code” although with a “good faith” exception.

Since diseases can be “cured only if others intervene with their knowledge, their resources, their pity,” Michel Foucault’s The Birth of the Clinic noted, “the illnesses of some should be transformed into the experience of others.”

That is precisely what the coronavirus, originating in Wuhan, China, is doing to the rest of the world; the illnesses of some is transforming into the experience of the rest of the world. China, Italy, Iran and South Korea are the worst-affected states. Italy has declared emergency on its 60 million citizens. India has so far recorded 75 cases of Covid-19 infection and one death due to it in Karnataka’s Kalaburagi.

It all began on December 31, 2019, when the WHO Country Office in Wuhan recorded the virus. The WHO named it Covid-19. By March 12, the total number of COVID-19 infections worldwide reached 1,32,567, with some 4,947 deaths.

The WHO is running rolling updates. It maintains an interactive dashboard that provides the latest global numbers and numbers by country of cases on a daily basis. On March 11, the number of countries and territories affected had risen to an unprecedented 123. The Red Cross, UNICEF and the WHO on March 10 issued new guidance to help protect children and schools from the transmission of the Covid-19 virus.

The biopolitics

Certainly, Covid-19 is creating its biopolitics. People and states are both warding off the pathogen with hand-sanitizers, face masks, semantics, politics, meme, humour, and humiliation. On March 10, US President Donald Trump re-shared on Twitter a message: “With China Virus spreading across the globe the US stands a chance if we can control our borders.” Politically, the overseas Chinese reacted sharply to the semantics of “China Virus”.

“Coronavirus will enter Durham University if only it fails to enter Oxford or Cambridge,” read one of the humorous tweets.

Humiliatingly, the Saudi Arabian state oil company Aramco has turned a migrant worker, probably a South Asian, into a walking hand-sanitizer.

The comment of Jim O’Neill, the former Goldman Sachs executive who is famously credited with coining the ‘BRICS’ acronym as a recognition of the growing weight of those economies —“Thank God this didn’t start in somewhere like India…” —has already created diplomatic ripples.

States, governments, and the pandemic

On March 10, India fully barred the entry of the nationals of three more countries —France, Germany and Spain, suspending the regular as well as e-Visas granted to them till date. Travels from Italy were barred already. The Union Ministry of Health on March 11 “strongly advised” Indians to “avoid all non-essential travel abroad.”

In Latin America, COVID-19 reminds them of the number of native Indians who died by new diseases that came with the Spanish.

Meanwhile, the Kurdish self-government, non-recognised in international law, is using the Covid-19 crisis to reassert its de facto control by exhibiting care for its people. It has issued bans on European travellers.

Taiwan, losing support for recognition with every investment treaty that Beijing signs, is a much stronger case. Taiwan logged just 45 cases against the People’s Republic of China’s 81,000 infections and 3,100 deaths. As if instructed by Foucault’s Madness and Civilization, Taiwan is putting prison labour to meet the global demands for face masks.

Needless to add, the response to such epidemics may lead to an expansion of civil rights, worker protections and education, or the complete opposite of all of that, sometimes in the suppression of information.

For example, under pressure from Beijing, Johns Hopkins University’s interactive map tracking worldwide Covid-19 cases has changed “Taiwan” to “Taipei”. On the other hand, the Iranian government is being accused of lack of transparency about data, mismanagement, and incompetence.

Amidst the ongoing chaos, the WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus was heard saying: “Let solidarity be the antidote to blame. Let our shared humanity be the antidote to our shared threat.” The UN Secretary-General António Guterres tweeted: “It’s also a call for responsibility & solidarity – as nations united and as people united.” Daniele Macchini, a doctor in Italy experiencing a Foucauldian nightmare, fully disagrees, however: “I understand the need not to create panic, but when the message of the dangerousness of what is happening does not reach people, I shudder”. The United Nations and individuals on the ground seem to talk past each other.

There is growing concern that the 2020 Olympics may be postponed or even cancelled. That might read like the defeat of China and Japan at the hands of biopolitics.

(The writer is an associate professor at Jindal Global Law School)

(Published 13 March 2020, 17:00 IST)

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