The Necropolitics of COVID-19: A Global South Approach to the Current Pandemic

by Christopher J. Lee, History/African Studies, Lafayette University, Easton, Pennsylvania, USA

The first sentence of Achille Mbembe’s essay “Necropolitics” (2003) begins with the assertion that “the ultimate expression of sovereignty resides, to a large degree, in the power and the capacity to dictate who may live and who must die.”1 The pandemic of COVID-19 appears to be a test of this contention. Mbembe’s argument for the emergence of a new form of politics centered on power over death, recently elaborated in a book of the same title, precedes this pandemic and has been applied primarily to the context of Africa.2 Nonetheless, his concept provides a way of thinking through the politics of the current moment without resorting to conventional frameworks of left and right that have preoccupied discussions thus far in the Global North. Though this established set of politics has fundamentally shaped the infrastructural capacities of states to respond to the crisis, namely with northern democracies such as Britain and the United States facing a distinct challenge in responding from years of austerity and the privatization of medical care, neither should the opportunity be lost to think differently about what is at stake. COVID-19 isn’t simply a medical or epidemiological crisis; it is a crisis of sovereignty.

The events of the past weeks and months cannot be completely recapitulated in this instance, but they can be characterized as an attempt to reclaim sovereignty. They reveal an emergent necropolitical landscape defined by states that have power over life and those with only power over death. A brief sketch of notifications, bans, and closures is useful in this regard: medical doctors in Wuhan, China, first report the existence of an unspecified virus in late December 2019; on January 23, 2020, the city of Wuhan with 11 million people is placed in a mandatory quarantine with additional travel restrictions in place for other cities in the Hubei province (totaling 57 million people); Italy declares a state of emergency eight days later on January 31, 2020; Italy imposes a national quarantine on March 9, 2020; a travel ban is put into place on March 11, 2020, by the Trump administration for travelers from Europe who are not US citizens; Spain announces a national quarantine on March 15, 2020; on the same day Germany implements new border restrictions; South Africa places a travel ban on foreign nationals from high-risk countries on March 18, 2020; Australia imposes a travel ban on foreign nationals on March 19, 2020; and so forth. What this brief summary outlines is a return to the most basic techniques of territorial control and state power—a politics of border restriction, community management, evening curfews, business closure, public dispersal, and empty streets. Citizens are further asked to self-discipline, in a Foucauldian fashion, through social distancing. The scale, speed, and global extent of these sovereign measures appear unprecedented.

To be clear, these measures should be pursued. In contrast to normative conditions when such methods would be seen as authoritarian, they are essential for sustaining life in this instance. Taken together, they constitute a reactionary version of necropolitics concerned with the management of life and death—to reduce the territorial proliferation of the disease, mortality numbers, and the rate of infection more generally. However, this reactionary stance equally indicates an unevenness of state capacity, that not all governments are able to respond alike. COVID-19 has highlighted a long-term failure among some states to sustain public health, to sustain life, through their commitment to neoliberal agendas to end state welfare in favor of privatization. The US and British governments are particularly egregious in governing on the basis of provisional schemes of affordable death through privatization and austerity measures, respectively. UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s initial proposal of “herd immunity” whereby COVID-19 is allowed to run its course through the population exemplifies this approach—a laissez-faire economic attitude applied to ordinary, vulnerable people in the context of a disease pandemic.

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