Prejudices in times of pandemic
This week I had the chance of assisting to a conversation with scholar Edna Bonhomme to discuss racism and prejudice in times of pandemic. It seems like, historically, there has been racist stigma increase in times of pandemic. We talked about prejudices that have historically existed in pandemics of HIVs, yellow fever and other illnesses during times of disease.
Putting things into context, postcolonialism shows that we still have some legacy in our societies from colonial times. Moreover, that racism stance of previous times was also present in medicine, and this has affected practice to the point of it having a racist bias.
This week I’ve had the chance of assisting to an online conversation with Edna Bonhomme, history of science and medicine writer and scholar, where I could learn more about systemic, structural racism and about racism in the pandemic. How relations aren’t equal and our prejudices increase in times of upheaval. In this article, I will question the social aspects of asigning blame.
Then, I will define biopower and necropolitics. Lastly, I will speak a bit about medicine and colonialism, and how today’s medicine draws from that previous, racist medicine. I would like to debate that in general, prejudices have increased, and how medicine and the state justifies structural racism.
Moreover, we will see how anxieties are exploited by populist parties in order to extend the judiciary, and how politics exploits the situations of ‘state of exception’ to extend their powers.
Microbial and social pandemic
The pandemic situation has revealed ”a national crisis in long-term care, initiated talk of vaccine passports, demonstrated the precarious labor conditions of low-wage, “essential” workers, generated outbreaks among vulnerable homeless and incarcerated populations, catalyzed mass evictions, forced a mass exodus of more than 200,000 women from the Canadian labour force, brought working parents and other caregivers to the brink of exhaustion, and multiplied the negative mental health effects of social isolation for school-age children.”
At the beginning of the pandemic, African Americans had a huge number of cases, and were initially blamed and disregarded as it being their own fault. The fact that a lot of them were, in fact, essential workers was not taken into account. On the other hand, many people can suffer from anxiety, diabetes or asthma given the amount of stress they endure as a result of racial segregation and discrimination, worsening the cases of covid. Moreover, ‘’ many of these chronic illnesses emerge from environmental factors such as Black Americans living in underserved neighbourhoods that are disproportionately subjected to a lack of clean water.’’
Racial division of treatment
African American communities also face ‘’lower rates of healthcare coverage’’ and are less likely to be ‘’taken seriously by a doctor, which also exacerbates health inequities.’’ Furthermore, the divide between people who are allowed to work from home and those considered ”essential workers” enlarge the social class and race divide. The comfort of a middle-class neighborhood home from where its possible to order food or have packages delivered at your door highly overlooks the labor who is doing those jobs in order to sustain such comfortable system.
In cases such as India, the muslim population was made the culprit, and they were banned from entering certain spaces and were negated hospital care. Entry to the UK has been banned for countries mostly from the global south.
We should take into account that in times of upheaval, the social distinctions are blurred, and prejudices increase. The threat is seen ‘out there’ and there must be someone to blame.
In times of pandemic, the social divisions increase, and in fact reflect the prejudices held by a given society. History and social life create the situations of marginalization and stigmatization that begun at some point of history and that continue today.
Understanding postcolonial times
Colonialism continues to have effects today. This can be seen in matters of coloniality of power and knowledge, and speaking in more exact terms, we are living decoloniality, i.e., the colonial powers still have effects in the world and the society.
Closely looking in terms of movility, who could move before the pandemic? Borders are becoming more closed, and the descendants of slaves or those from previously colonized countries are the one that are unable to move now. It seems as if the restrictions of society are increasing, specially to certain groups: those poorer or from certain ethnic groups.
In the same fashion, the majority of prison population in the U.S. come from different ethnic groups to the white one. A systemic problem and a racist aspect of the prison system, that with the pandemic has enclosed a lot of people to forced confinement.
In a global health crisis, there is an underlying crisis of racism. It is finally accepted by the scientific community that the global pandemic has hugely affected racialized communities. ”National data collected in the United States shows that Hispanic/Latino communities are overrepresented in COVID-19 case counts, and Black Americans are overrepresented in deaths because of the disease.”
Colonial medicine’s prejudices continue
African Americans were used as subjects of experimentation, study subjects and ‘resurrectionists’, bringing dead black bodies to universities to study. Their forced position continued even after liberation, and forced also many black or puertorican women in the position of ginaecological studies. Eugenists of the XXth century sterilised thousands of women under the pretense of improving generations. An example of brutal biopower as we are going to see now.
A postcolonial history of medicine recognizes that the practice of medicine was a racist one. Those values still permeate today, in instances where health is studied differently based on race, and in times when there is still cases of different treatment. ”Like the history of US policing, the history of medicine and health care in the USA is marked by racial injustice and myriad forms of violence: unequal access to health care, the segregation of medical facilities, and the exclusion of African Americans from medical education are some of the most obvious examples.”’
What is biopower?
French philosopher Michel Foucault studied the history of power. In times of sovereign kings it had specific style. Then, in the XIXth century, it turned to a kind of power that was disciplinary in nature. At the same time emerged biopower, a type of power that is worried with the biological functions of a population in order to control it (power over the body).
The biopolitical state is concerned with creating categorizations in which to put citizens: the sane and the insane, the prisoner and the free man. It creates such categories in order to create the category ‘normal’ by creating the opposite of it, and make the normalized population easier to control.
Foucault analyzed how discourse reinforces norms around sanity versus insanity and the categories that emerge from it. In creating categories, the state has a way of measuring and controlling the population.
Biopower is concerned with ‘’health, birth and mortality, life expectancy, longevity and the conditions that cause these to vary’’. This power operates in a subtler manner than in previous times, when the use of force was usual. This type of power is reinforced in the every day life by the norms that citizens internalize and that are repeated in doctor-patient relationships, and is maintained through decentralized networks through the shaping of knowledge and desire.
Biopower operates at the micro level in cases such as racism, by the creation of ‘norms’ that perpetuate social inequity. As we shall see, the colonial history of medicine has dark origins of experiments on African American Slaves. Some of the result continue today, and new doctors are socialized with aspects of that social past, and perpetuate itself by that knowledge, teacher-student and doctor- patient relationships.
Biopower and categories of domination
Biopower is understood as ”a political rationality which takes the administration of life and populations as its subject”. ”a power that exerts a positive influence on life, that endeavours to administer, optimize, and multiply it, subjecting it to precise controls and comprehensive regulations”. This power serves to hide other types of power. The biopower functions through new channels, from the position of the population who by itself regulates and judges itself according to that power that is ‘hidden’ or unknown.
Biopower presents itself as a protective type of power which however subjugates otherized populations. Biopower has been normalized by the establishment of institutions that deem some populations more important than others.
Foucault termed racism to the use of the state’s categorization of population to decide which lives were important and which lives weren’t. In references to biopower and racism and times of global pandemic, Foucault writes: ” battle that has to be waged not between races, but by a race that is portrayed as the one true race, the race that holds power and is entitled to define the norm, and against those who deviate from that norm, against those who pose a threat to the biological heritage.”
Necropolitics makes reference to the doctrine by which some people may live while others must die. It draws from foucaldian term biopower. It is the coming together of a previous stage in the history of power described by Foucault (sovereignity and disciplinary power) with the ability to decide who may live and who must die. According to author Achille Mbembe’s ”the ultimate expression of sovereignty resides, to a large degree, in the power and the capacity to dictate who must live and who must die” (power over death)
”Cameroonian critical theorist Achille Mbembe first described the role of extreme violence in the functioning of larger biopolitical orders as “necropolitics” – not merely a state’s “right” to kill and to organise people to be killed (as opposed to live), but to expose them to extreme violence and death and reduce entire segments of populations to the barest and most precarious existence. All in order to preserve the established economic and political hierarchies of the capitalist system.”
Necropolitics creates ‘states of exception’
In the context of postcolonialism, ”colonial and racial legacies and geographies create conditions for sovereignty and the capacity to dictate who is able to live and who must die. Drawing the genealogies of racism and European clonial insurgencies in Africa (…) advocates for a global historical approach to understanding postcolonial regimes. Necropolitics can offer the history of science deep theory on how racism is a form of technology in general, as well as a moral compass for unpacking colonial and racial terror in particular.”
Necropolitics thrives in the creation of states of exception, when democracy checks and balances are suspended temporarily to attend ‘crisis’. As seen during the global pandemic, in which certain countries or groups of people are more affected and at risk than others. Foucault’s study of the intertwinning of politics with medicine has been present since the beginning of the pandemic and of how the dreams of power are achieved to the full in forms of radical political decisions.
It is however in other way that the power has been exercised, and that is that of the state of exception, ”exceptional circumstances such as the COVID-19 pandemic call for exceptional measures and exceptional powers that temporarily can suspend law.”
In times of pandemic, we can grasp how empathy is projected differently to different communities. If we for example look at the continuities of colonialism and its effect, we see the unfairness is still of racist nature. ‘Essential workers’ are the ones that can’t afford to isolate, and therefor, are in the first line in the fight against Covid.
Moreover, Mbembe speaks of the continuity of slavism and colonialism in the high number of racialized people in prison, and how they are the most affected. ”Consideration of the health of incarcerated people opens up lots of possibilities for untangling colonial and racist histories—not just in U.S. prisons, but globally.
The prison-industrial complex illustrates how inequalities during epidemics are historically rooted and can be further theorized with postcolonial theory and critical race theory. Putting readings that look at the relationship between slavery, colonialism, and incarceration together with the history of science can further enrich the discourse of (post)colonial history of science and medicine”.
Epidemics such as the current one make obvious which lives are considered consequential and which ones inconsequential, and how they have a historic origin that draws back from colonialism. On the other hand, the state of exception created in some countries during the current pandemic has suspended law and blurred the lines in some democracies where the state is taking more control over politics and the population.
Briefly, colonialism explains the race inequalities of today’s world. The main difference between biopower and necroplitics lies in that biopower draws the line of difference, and lets die those deemed ‘less important’, whereas necropolitics searches for actively destroying those inconsequential lives. Necropolitics wants the representation of biopower. Where biopower creates ‘categories’ that facilitate the biological differentiation of humans. Racism is, as Mebmbe says, a technology that wants to allow the use of biopower.
Politics in times of pandemic
Democracy is at risk, with the rhetoric of the war on the virus, states are becoming more powerful and determined in extending the judiciary. States tend to weaponize the virus and use it as excuse to extend their powers. According to philosopher Giorgio Agamben, exception is the way in which the state claims power over the existent, and in particular over life. Exception is also the situation that necropolitics seeks.
The exception becomes the rule and the government’s tool in extending its power. All political goals being subjected to the preservation of life represents biopower at its finest. The absent population is represented by those who guard and preserve life. The problem lies in that it may not be possible to return to the rule of law after the state of exception has blurred the limits of sovereignity and power. Western politics as we know it might be in its final stage.
Epidemics such as the COVID-19 show which lifes are considered consequential and which are considered inconsequential. Necropolitics are affected by colonial and racial legacies and geographies that create conditions of power and to dictate who is able to live and who must die. Necropolitics can be influenced by the prejudices to which times of microbial crisis gives room for. This in turn illuminates how racism, colonial and racial terror operate in society.
‘’Even with global awareness of these inequalities, the way privileged communities react to various epidemics can be a product of the empathy that extends differentially to the sick and dying’’ in detriment to racialized, incarcerated or ‘otherized’ counterparts.
In practice, necropolitics takes the form of ” crude form of utilitarianism” taken by the medical professional. ”This is implicit in the idea that medical decisions about access to and provision of treatments will be assessed on the basis of individual need, a ‘need’ that is frequently interpreted through a lens of both perceived social utility and a capacity for ‘clinical benefit’. In other words, people who are already ill, have co-morbidities or disabilities may be less likely to receive care during crisis events such as a pandemic. In the United States there is, as usual, already a racial dimension to the Covid-19 morbidity and mortality statistics.”
When we see remarks about who must or must not survive, or ideas about certain communities, when we see the media use terms such as ‘herd immunity’ we are facing cases of social darwinism without acknowledging that such ideas and their implementation cause enormous mortal risks for specific groups of people and, by association, to their friends and families.
Moreover, the present situation makes a question arise: to which extent are our healthcare systems prepared for the unpredictable?. I would like to add that in instances such as these, the need for a social security system and not one that seeks profit is being made more relevant. Medicine shouldn’t be a matter of social darwinism where ‘survical of the fittest’ reigns.
Medicine and colonialism
It has happened before. There have been other pandemics: HIV and other Aids, malaria, cholera… perhaps illnesses we have barely heard of, but which were blamed in entire populations. A whole race was stigmatized and affected the opportunities of immigrants and the implications it had for where they could aspire to go and more.
A postcolonial study of medicine disentangles the ways in which people of different races i.e., the subaltern, were subjects of experimentation and degradation throughout history. Even today, there is more black people dying from Covid in the U.S. than white ones.
‘’Putting readings that look at the relationship between slavery, colonialism, and incarceration together with the history of science can further enrich the discourse of (post)colonial history of science and medicine.’’
Colonial medical experiments
The problem lies in that medicine is studied in a way that comes from XIXth century experimentation in African Americans. Those racist ideologies influence even today, when we can see that kind of prejudices when for example blaming Covid in a group of people.
Covid emphasises the lines of differences, who can afford to confinate, class, race, the virus emphasises differences, a ‘’biopolitics of who counts as human in a postcolonial history of epidemics.’’ Covid blurres the lines of our prejudices and it becomes a social problem in lieu of a purely microbeal one.
‘’Examinations of slavery and the post-emancipation period foreground various structural elements of health, with some scholars showing how medicine encroached on enslaved persons’ spaces for living and rest. Deirdre Cooper Owens’s Medical Bondage: Race, Gender, and the Origins of American Gynecology moves between southern plantations and northern urban centers to reveal how nineteenth-century American ideas about race, health, and status influenced doctor–patient relationships in putative sites of healing like slave cabins, medical colleges, and hospitals. Owens also points out how human bodies that were enslaved and Black became, sites of medical experimentation as well.’’
Significance in Anthropology
This article explains the relationship between biopower, biopolitics and necropolitics in the context of postcolonialism. Reading history of medicine can reveal some racist aspects that we are seeing increased during the pandemic (or perhaps continue). Medicine was built in some instances through the manipulation of the bodies of black people, and still carries a racist bias.
During the pandemic we might have grown more prejudiced as a society. Blaming other populations or countries seems a go-to strategy for some powers. If biopower and necropolitics are behind the power and they are racist, we have unequal relations in the form of systemic violence and structural racism. The pandemic is accelerating and weaponizing those prejudices, and is extending their power, blurring the lines of democracy.
Moreover, the limits of democracy are getting blurred. The state is gaining national sovereignty again, in a form of protective instance, but which, however, as we have seen with biopower, can be the excuse to extend its power and reduce democracy. We might be getting mistrusting and prejudiced as a society, but are we knowledgeable about to whom?