Race and Pandemics: Articles

Ill Will: Throughout history, pandemics have been structured by racism” (2020) by Edna Bonhomme at The Baffler Mag

Excerpt: “For the mostly black and brown prisoners in the New York City jails in the early 1990s, the tuberculosis epidemic was so pernicious because there was, at first, little will to do anything about it. This was long before the publication of Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow; most Americans did not yet see a relationship between slavery and the criminal injustice system, and the incidents of drug-resistant tuberculosis in New York State jails in the early 1990s did not warrant a call to action from most of society. As a result of this lack of action, during the eighteen months of this tuberculosis outbreak in New York state, at least twenty-seven prisoners and one prison guard died.” 

PC: An 1832 lithograph depicting the “invasion” of cholera, via the Wellcome Collection

‘Nature is healing’: Why we need to be careful about how we tell the story of the pandemic (2020) by Nayanika Mathur at scroll.in

Excerpt: “Celebratory narratives of lower pollution levels in this period of the Indian lockdown also play into the hands of a long-standing debate, which pits “development” against “conservation”. A variation of this very same thinking is one that we now see politicians, policy-makers, the media voice all the time in India – that the objectives of saving the environment and moving the economy along (“economics” versus “environment”) cannot ever be co-terminous. After all, this cleaner air and lower noise levels have been achieved by bringing all economic and other forms of human activity to a grinding standstill.”

COVID-19 Exposes the Weakness of a Major Theory Used to Justify Capitalism (2020) by Richard D. Wolff at Counterpunch.org

Excerpt: “Moreover, it was partly belief in the fantasy—that private profit-driven enterprise is the “most efficient” economic system—that hobbled governments around the world. They did far less than they could and should have done to compensate for capitalism’s failures adequately to prepare for or contain the virus. Across the globe, the more entrapped in that fantasy (as in the U.S., the UK, and Brazil), the worse the death and destruction of COVID-19. Where entrapment was less (as in New Zealand, Vietnam, and Japan)—sometimes because of competing traditional values not or not yet displaced by the capitalist fantasy—death and destruction were minimized.”   

Plague passport to detention — Epidemic Act was a medical surveillance tool in British India” (2020) by Tarangini Sriraman at theprint.in

Excerpt: “While the colonial establishment complained, these practices must not be seen purely as Indians causing misinformation, but also as providing critical information of socio-cultural prisms such as caste through which Indians act.
Besides, colonial officials were themselves guilty of a chaos of medical doctrines that prevailed, with miasma theory (or the theory that epidemics spread through noxious fumes emerging from cesspools, open drains, slums) firmly ensconcing itself until the arrival of Haffkine’s prophylactic. Bacteriologist Robert Koch, who discovered the cholera bacillus, was greeted with hostility by British administrators like the Sanitary Commissioner J.M. Cuningham, who felt that these findings would engender unnecessary medical quarantines and embargoes on international trade. Limewashing of buildings and eviction of slum residents continued apace even after inoculation was conceived.”

PC: A quarantined area during the bubonic plague outbreak, Karachi, 1897. | Wellcome Library archive collection

Mike Davis: The Coronavirus Crisis Is a Monster Fueled by Capitalism” (2020) by Mike Davis at inthesetimes.com

Excerpt: ” The outbreak has instantly exposed the stark class divide in American healthcare. Those with good health plans who can also work or teach from home are comfortably isolated provided they follow prudent safeguards. Public employees and other groups of unionized workers with decent coverage will have to make difficult choices between income and protection. Meanwhile, millions of low-wage service workers, farm employees, the unemployed and the homeless are being thrown to the wolves. 
As we all know, universal coverage in any meaningful sense requires universal provision for paid sick days. A full 45% of the workforce is currently denied that right and virtually compelled to either transmit the infection or set an empty plate. Likewise, 14 states have refused to enact the provision of the Affordable Care Act that expands Medicaid to the working poor. That’s why nearly one in five Texans, for instance, lacks coverage.”

Against Agamben: Is a Democratic Biopolitics Possible? (2020) by Panagiotis Sotiris at Viewpoint Magazine

Excerpt: “The notion of biopolitics, as it was formulated by Michel Foucault, has been a very important contribution to our understanding of the changes associated with the passage to capitalist modernity, especially in regards to the ways that power and coercion are exercised. From power as a right of life and death that the sovereign holds, we pass to power as an attempt to guarantee the health (and productivity) of populations. This led to an expansion without precedent of all forms of state intervention and coercion. From compulsory vaccinations to bans on smoking in public spaces, the notion of biopolitics has been used in many instances as the key to understanding the political and ideological dimensions of health policies.
At the same time, it has allowed us to analyse various phenomena that are often repressed in the public sphere, from the ways that racism attempted to find a ‘scientific’ grounding to the dangers of trends such as eugenics. And indeed Agamben has used it in a constructive way, in his attempt to theorise the modern forms of a ‘state of exception’, namely spaces where extreme forms of coercion are put in practice, with the concentration camp the main example.”

Covid-19 and the Continuity of the Familiar” (2020) by Raza Saeed at Critical Legal Thinking
Excerpt: “Pandering to the popular opinion by downplaying underlying problems, misrepresenting facts, presenting partial truths and the refusal to pay heed to scientific and medical expertise continued to be the first choice for many regimes, just as it has been the trend over the last decade. US, UK, India, Pakistan, Iran as well as China followed the populist trajectories initially until they were shaken out of their slumber, after the materiality of suffering became so ominous and so obvious that even the popular opinion began to change, which forced governments’ to react differently.

But in terms of the prognosis, the disease is blamed on ‘them’ coming in to infect ‘us’, further fuelling racism, xenophobia, anti-migrant sentiments and nationalism in many parts of the world. More and more countries have chosen to exclude travellers, refugees and foreign nationals for fear of aggravating the outbreak. This underlying logic is replicated in a variety of different explanations across the world, where various groups of minorities, ethnic groups, migrants, different religious communities and nationalities are blamed for creating or spreading the virus, or of angering the deities whose wrath would consume all but the righteous.

Anti-Capitalist Politics in the Time of COVID-19” (2020) by David Harvey at Jacobin magazine

Excerpt: “In the cholera epidemics of the nineteenth century, the transcendence of barriers of class was sufficiently dramatic as to spawn the birth of a public sanitation and health movement (which became professionalized) that has lasted to this day. Whether this movement was designed to protect everyone or just the upper classes was not always clear. But today the differential class and social effects and impacts tell a different story. The economic and social impacts are filtered through “customary” discriminations that are everywhere in evidence. To begin with, the workforce that is expected to take care of the mounting numbers of the sick is typically highly gendered, racialized, and ethnicized in most parts of the world. It mirrors the class-based workforces to be found in, for example, airports and other logistical sectors. 
This “new working class” is in the forefront and bears the brunt of either being the workforce most at risk from contracting the virus through their jobs or of being laid off with no resources because of the economic retrenchment enforced by the virus. There is, for example, the question of who can work at home and who cannot.”

How the Pandemic Will End” (2020) by Ed Yong on The Atlantic

Excerpt: ” After infections begin ebbing, a secondary pandemic of mental-health problems will follow. At a moment of profound dread and uncertainty, people are being cut off from soothing human contact. Hugs, handshakes, and other social rituals are now tinged with danger. People with anxiety or obsessive-compulsive disorder are struggling. Elderly people, who are already excluded from much of public life, are being asked to distance themselves even further, deepening their loneliness. Asian people are suffering racist insults, fueled by a president who insists on labeling the new coronavirus the “Chinese virus.” Incidents of domestic violence and child abuse are likely to spike as people are forced to stay in unsafe homes. Children, whose bodies are mostly spared by the virus, may endure mental trauma that stays with them into adulthood.”


Excerpt: “What the epidemic clearly shows is that the state of exception, to which governments have long familiarised us, has become the normal condition. Men have become so accustomed to living in a state of permanent crisis that they do not seem to realise that their life has been reduced to a purely biological condition and has lost not only its political dimension but also any human dimension. A society that lives in a permanent state emergency cannot be a free society. We live in a society that has sacrificed its freedom for so-called “reasons of security” and has thus been condemned to live continuously in a state of fear and insecurity.”

Manufacturing Epidemics: Pathogens, Poverty, and Public Health Crises in India” (2020) by Sheetal Chhabria on The India Forum

Excerpt: “Historical common sense suggests that the colonial regime’s low public health expenditures was a result of its self-interestedness. Wanting primarily to defend its colony, the colonial regime invested selectively, sanitising areas crucial to colonial rule, like military cantonments, but elsewhere encouraged Indians to look after their own well-being. Disproportionately low investments in sewage, drainage, and water supply lines meant that colonial India did not obtain the public works that all but stopped water-related illnesses like malaria or cholera in what would become the developed world. After all, British colonial rule was an external force meant to extract and exploit, not invest in a sustainable future.
But if we ask exactly why the colonial state failed to invest, it reveals a much more insidious story of how power works.”