by Paula Diehl, Political Theory, History of Ideas and Political Culture, University of Kiel, Germany
The Corona crisis seems to spotlight the problems and opportunities of our representative democracy. It provides a scene on which the shortcomings of our democracy become visible, but also one on which different political discourses and visions of the future can be enacted. In addition to protests, economic, political and social projects enter this stage as well.
However, this stage is subject to particularly bright lighting. It is a glaring light that makes critical aspects of our representative democracy and capitalist society visible. The bright Corona light has, in particular, illuminated the problems in the health care system. Industrial nations such as Italy, Spain or the USA were facing a collapse of their medical supply. Structural deficits such as undersized capacities of hospitals, insufficient supply of medical materials such as masks, ventilators or medication as well as poorly paid and overwhelmed personnel were laid bare in the pandemic. In Spain and Northern Italy triage was applied, granting only the fittest patients the right to medical treatment. Older and already ill individuals could no longer be guaranteed a hospital bed or the use of a ventilator. The contradictions between biopolitics and democratic rights, which already exist, became exacerbated in the pandemic. In this context, the deadly consequences of an austerity policy caused by the state’s withdrawal from critical infrastructure were also exposed. In nations such as the USA, where there is no universal or mandatory health insurance and inequalities are especially apparent in the health sector, a particular selection takes place. Those who cannot afford medical treatment face the choice of either putting themselves and their families in debt or not being treated. Yet, due to their living and working conditions, they are often risk patients and suffer from diabetes, heart problems or other diseases. The savings potential in the health care sector and the privatization of primary health care do not pay off in times of a pandemic. Even worse, they increase the danger of Covid-19. Refrigerated trucks storing corpses in front of New York City hospitals, mass funerals in Brazil or dead bodies lying openly on the streets of Guayaquil provide the grim images of this crisis.
As a result of the pandemic, further vulnerabilities of politics and society are exposed. The shortage of supplies, on the one hand, and the obliteration of groceries, on the other, lay bare the problems of an agriculture that mainly services wholesale markets, focuses on monoculture and is entirely dependent on the transport and logistics sector. Due to the lockdown, considerable amounts of food perished in the field while the consumers, who partly already suffer economically from the Corona crisis, have to pay significantly more for the same products. In Germany alone, the price for vegetables has increased since the beginning of the crisis on average by 26%, in some cases such as zucchini even by 92%. In the US, farmers destroyed or gave away their potatoes, which are grown in huge monocultures, in some cases even 60% of the harvest. In the Netherlands, 13% of the potato production was disposed during the Corona crisis. Milk, eggs and other unprocessed foods were also destroyed. The focus on monocultures and long-distance transportation is not only problematic ecologically, in the case of the pandemic, it is also a risk for the economy and for supplying the population.
A third problem made visible by Corona is the flexibilization of the labor market in an attempt to reduce labor costs and make businesses more competitive. According to Thomas Piketty, this is one of the most important sources for the increase of social inequalities in Europe. In Germany, the reforms of the Agenda 2010 led to precarious working conditions of many employees and enabled the boom of sub-contractors, a situation that is now at the core of the Corona outbreaks in the meat industry. When in mid-May 2020 twenty-nine Corona cases were discovered in a meat-packing plant in Lower Saxony, and shortly thereafter an even larger outbreak occurred in Rheda-Wiedenbrück near Gütersloh, the deplorable working and living conditions of the mainly Eastern European workers came to light: unpaid extra working hours and packed housing with mouldy walls are part of this exploitation system. Such conditions exist in the agricultural sector and cruise ship tourism as well. It was not as if nobody was aware of the precarious working and living conditions of these workers. They have been criticized for many years, but Corona makes the problem visible and the danger of infections for society imminent. Again, the pandemic illuminates how unequal our society is. Whether in Paris, Bangladesh, Rio de Janeiro or Gütersloh, the virus spreads especially in places where dense and unhealthy living conditions are predominant, thus among the poor. While for the upper middle class the lockdown provoked a decelaration of everyday life as well as stress relief, inhabitants of the banlieues, favelas and ghettoes in large cities experienced a nightmare.
Crisis scenario and logic of prevention
Yet the crisis of the system was not the only issue that became visible on the Corona stage. Especially during the lockdown, and also later on, the state’s logic of prevention – legitimated by medical and scientific expertise – stood at center stage. States have the minimal obligation to ensure safety and peace. According to Thomas Hobbes, the Leviathan must use all means necessary for this purpose. In modern times, this duty is extended to the preservation of the population’s health. Michel Foucault pointed out this new paradigm when he spoke of biopolitics. In democracy, though, the state has another duty: it needs to guarantee the fundamental rights and liberties of each individual. Security (Hobbes) and administration of life (Foucault), on the one hand, and the democratic guarantee of fundamental rights and liberties, on the other, stand in tension to each other. A democratic state must not, like the Leviathan, make use of all means, and its biopolitical measures are counterbalanced by human rights and ethics. Checks and balances, mass media and citizens’ fundamental rights limit the power of the state. Decisions have to pass parliamentary committees and are discussed in public. However, in an extreme situation there is no time for this. The state has to act quickly, and this action shifts the balance of power in favour of the Leviathan and biopolitics. The state now functions within the mode of prevention, which is legitimized by the imminent catastrophe made plausible by the crisis scenario.
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