Managing Covid-19: a View from Political Ecology
By Andrew Dobson
By Andrew Dobson
Is there a Green approach to managing Covid-19? In this essay it will be argued that there is - but that it’s gone missing. Greens rightly pride themselves on taking the long view on most things but there’s been a distinct failure by the Green movement to look up from the daily round of Covid case numbers, hospitalisations, PPE numbers, tier regulations and general government incompetence, and see Covid for what it is: an endemic feature of our contemporary relationship with the non-human natural world.
Once this becomes clear, the question is: how should this relationship be managed? It will be argued that there is a Green answer to this question and that it’s very different to the dominant approach that, grosso modo and implementation disagreements aside, Greens seem largely to have supported. So this essay is less about other important issues in which Greens have been heavily involved such as ‘building back better’ (Essex, 2020) and extrapolating from Covid-19 to climate change (Barry, 2020; Chapman, 2020 and Mearman, 2020), and more about what Green management of the pandemic should look like.
Unintended consequences and the urge to control
It is a truism that every interaction with the non-human natural world has unexpected consequences, some benign and some malign. Covid-19 is a case in point. These consequences can be understood as the world acting back on us in ways which we experience as ‘a force of nature’ but which are more accurately understood as ‘a force of humanised nature’. Volcanic eruptions and earthquakes remain ‘natural’ events, but climate change and bio-extinction have a human origin, and are therefore better characterised as processes that are neither human nor natural but a combination of the two. The same is true of Covid-19. It is almost certain that this zoonotic - species-jumping - disease originated with the trafficking of wild animals in a market in Wuhan, China (Boseley, 2000c). This is a human practice (Carrington, 2020b), and so in this sense Covid-19 is as anthropogenic as climate change or bio-extinction (Barry, 2020: 8).
Greens have long argued that climate change and bioextinction are to some extent caused by human hubris and by the European Enlightenment drive to control non-human nature. The Enlightenment has brought us an incredible range of benefits, including the vaccine(s) against Covid that have been produced with extraordinary and very welcome speed. But as the Frankfurt School pointed out (Horkheimer and Adorno, 2002), as the reach and range of this ambition to control have got bigger, the effects of the unexpected consequences of the drive to control have become more dramatic. Covid-19 is the latest example of the effect of our Anthropocene takeover of the planet and Greens should be thinking of strategies for dealing with it in these terms.
The instinctive Enlightenment response to a perceived lack of control is to exert more of it, and this has been the dominant trope of Covid policy. Broadly speaking, there have been two competing reactions to the Covid-19 pandemic. One is to lock down entire countries, as in the UK, Italy and Spain. The other is to live with the virus with a very light-touch lockdown, as in the earlier days of dealing with it in the UK and as has largely been the case in Sweden. This alternative approach was officially abandoned in the UK on 23rd March, and the reasons are instructive. Let’s call these contrasting approaches ‘lockdown-prophylactic’ and ‘cohabitation’, respectively. I present these as ‘ideal type’ alternatives, whereas they more accurately lie at two ends of a spectrum. The question is where on that spectrum Covid-19 policy should lie. As the crisis has developed there has been an apparently inexorable drift towards prophylaxis throughout most of the world. The purpose of this essay is to interrogate that drift and to suggest that Greens should not be in favour of it.
Two approaches to Covid-19: lockdown-prophylaxis and cohabitation
The lockdown-prophylactic approach is represented by the face mask, designed to create a physical barrier between the wearer and the world. Not all lockdown-prophylactic measures involve clothing of course: banning travel, closing restaurants, theatres and gyms, isolating old people in care homes and giving the police power to arrest infected citizens who go outside, are also measures that draw on prophylaxis. The idea is to create, as near as possible, the equivalent of the entire human population wearing Hazmat suits for a two months or more. It is hard to imagine anything more evocative than these suits to represent the dominant modern trope regarding the position of human beings in respect to nature: in it, but definitely not of it.
This is a trope that Greens have consistently called into question but which, with their support for prophylaxis, they have found themselves endorsing. Greens argue that it’s important we see ourselves as part of nature - in both its benign and less benign forms - because this will encourage us to take it more into account when making decisions. Covid has pushed this basic Green thought very much into the background - even for Greens themselves. In behaviour change terms prophylaxis means ‘lockdown’, or a range of restrictions on people’s movements. These vary from country to country but the basic message in all cases is ‘stay at home’.
Once it has been ‘Othered’ in this way, Covid-19 is suited to the language of domination and control that have become the warp and weft of our approach to crisis, and with which Greens should be deeply uncomfortable. We are, it is said, at ‘war’ with an ‘enemy’ and we deploy every available bellicose metaphor to describe our relationship with it, up to and including describing ‘heroic’ key workers as being on the ‘front line’, holding a minute’s silence for them, proposing they be awarded medals (UK Parliament, 2020), and referring to those whose cancer treatments are delayed because of the focus on Corona deaths as ‘collateral damage’ (West, 2020).
The alternative ‘cohabitation’ approach has come in for a huge amount of criticism. This strategy involves living with the virus rather than engaging it in battle, and has come to be almost totally - and erroneously - represented by the much maligned idea of ‘herd immunity’. The actually existing embodiment of this approach is the Swedish policy of allowing a recognisable form of daily life to continue while trusting citizens to respect social distancing and other measures to reduce the spread of the virus. Critics of Swedish policy point out that the death toll per million there is higher than in neighbouring Denmark and Finland (although lower than lockdown UK, Italy and Spain), and as a second wave takes hold there signs that Sweden is adopting measures that look increasingly mainstream: reducing public gatherings from 50 to 8, banning sales of alcohol after 10 pm, moving high school teaching online, and advising mask wearing.
The Swedish death toll only clinches the argument in favour of lockdown if the short-, medium- and long-term benefits of allowing relative normality are completely discounted. And as far as this essay is concerned, the ‘long-term’ embraces the lengths of time we associate with historical epochs - the ‘long now’ (Kelly K, nd) - rather than with parliamentary mandates. In this context, critics of Sweden would do well to remember Chinese premier Chou en-Lai’s most likely apocryphal reply when asked to comment on the impact of the French Revolution: ‘It’s too early to say’.
The UK government effectively abandoned the ‘cohabitation’ approach to the pandemic on March 23rd, though it denies this was ever part of its Coronavirus plans anyway. Most of the resistance to the idea is rooted in opposition to the death rate it is said to entail. This was brought into definitive focus by Imperial College (2020) modelling of the cohabitation approach (expressed as the policy of ‘isolating people with a cough and temperature at home for seven days’, but otherwise allowing life to go on pretty much as before) which showed it could result in some 500,000 deaths, though not all from Covid-19 (Boseley, 2020b). As a result, on 23rd March Boris Johnson told the British public to stay at home and the takeover of cohabitation by prophylaxis was complete. Since then the UK (with variations according to devolved government policy) has gone through a three-month lockdown, relaxations of lockdown, two versions of ‘tiering’ and a further month-long lockdown.
Although it is clear that the Imperial College report appears to have won hands down as far as the Coronavirus commentariat is concerned, the report’s authors themselves felt the need to state that ‘there is no easy policy decision to be made’ (Imperial College, 2020). This uncertainty was echoed by Sweden’s state epidemiologist, Anders Tegnell, the bête noire of lockdown supporters, who pointed out that, ‘Imperial [College] chose a number of variables that gave a prognosis that was quite pessimistic, and that you could just as easily have chosen other variables that gave you another outcome … In Sweden, we are a bit surprised that it’s had such an impact’ (in Orange, 2020). Schools, gyms, shops, bars, restaurants and the transport system in Sweden remained open on the grounds that closure needs to be carefully calibrated against its short- to medium-term disadvantages - such as the psychological effects of long-term confinement and economic collapse. In this essay it is argued that the deep time, long-term, disadvantages of lockdown-prophylaxis are equally important, and that Greens should be the ones pointing them out.
The Imperial College report contains assumptions, and it has not been peer-reviewed. It is a hypothesis based on a small number of data points in a rapidly changing situation - a non-ideal context for making definitive judgements. In the face of uncertainty, ‘path dependence’ can kick in: the tendency for decisions to follow the pattern of previous decisions. The strength of ‘path dependence’ turns on both the degree of uncertainty and how well trodden the already-existing decision path is. In the Covid-19 context, uncertainty is high and the decision path, based on the principle of the separation of humans from nature and the urge of the former to control the latter, is about 250 years long.
Given this, the cohabitation policy was unlikely to survive for long. Indeed, support for the cohabitation approach has been dialled down virtually to zero. And unfortunately for those on the progressive left who would like to give it more airtime, most of the backing for (a version of) it comes from the swivel-eyed libertarian right (Jacobs, 2020) with the result that the question of whether Covid-19 is a terrifying killer or a manageable risk (or both) is no longer asked. Ceding the cohabitation approach to the libertarian right has been a huge mistake, with dire consequences for our reaction to the next pandemic - for there surely will be one.
Prophylaxis, cohabitation and the Anthropocene
As we have seen, one source of opposition to cohabitation with Covid-19 is the enormous number of deaths it is said would result from it (more on this later). Another source is the term ‘herd immunity’ that is said to characterise it. To the modern mind the word ‘herd’ itself is troubling , and even more repulsive to moderns is the thought that humans might be regarded as part of the herd rather than apart from it. Yet this is exactly how many Greens urge us to think of ourselves, on the grounds that at least some of the blame for unsustainability lies in seeing ourselves as apart from nature rather than as a part of it. Covid seems to have closed down this thought completely, even among those most accustomed to proposing it in more ‘normal’ times.
Theorists such as Bruno Latour (2004) and Jane Bennett (2010) speak of an ontology of ‘assemblages’ and human and non-human ‘actants’ co-producing their lives and the circumstances in which they live them. This is a move away from the ‘hierarchy of being’ that has dominated Western thought for over 2000 years - a world-view roundly criticised by Greens, the modern version of which has ‘man’ at the top and other species arrayed beneath, mutely waiting for us to act on them. Non-human beings have their own form of agency, acting on human beings in ways we can neither predict nor control. Covid-19 is a case in point and Greens should be consistently reminding us of this.
This agency is not purposive in the sense of conforming to a plan conceived by a rational mind and put into action, but it is hard to avoid anthropomorphising Covid-19 in an attempt to make sense of its effects. So while the virus is not ‘teaching us a lesson’ (Carrington, 2020a) nor ‘giving us a wake-up call’ (Monbiot, 2020b) in the sense of having decided to do so, the pandemic is certainly an invitation to reflect on its origins so as to avoid - as far as possible - more outbreaks in the future. Or manage them better. This is likely to get more important as the Anthropocene annexation of the planet gathers pace and we blunder deeper into its assemblages. Ebola, bird ‘flu, Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS), Rift Valley fever, sudden acute respiratory syndrome (SARS), West Nile virus and Zika virus all cross from animals to humans - and they are all recent diseases. We are lucky with Covid-19 in that it has a much lower mortality rate than other recent viruses. Imagine the mortality rate of SARS or MERS combined with the contagion rate of Covid-19. So the key question - unasked in the midst of the crisis, even by Greens it seems - is how to live as a member of the assemblage.
The cohabitation approach to Covid-19 amounts to living and acting as part of this assemblage rather than as dominant partner in an unequal relationship of control. And arguably, if the wild animals in the Wuhan market had been seen as members of an assemblage, including humans, in the first place rather than as objects of commerce, Covid-19 would not have made the species jump that caused the pandemic. Indeed, research suggests that the Anthropocene takeover of the planet is at the heart of zoonotic diseases and their spread (Vidal, 2020a). Logging, mining, population growth, deforestation, forest road-building and population increase are taking us into ever more remote parts of the planet and drawing ever more ‘exotic species’ into the web of human contact and commerce.
According to Kate Jones, chair of ecology and biodiversity at UCL, there is an ‘amplification effect’ in degraded environments where ecosystem disruption produces the conditions in which the barriers between a pathogen’s natural host and human beings are broken down (in Vidal, 2020a). The focal point of this process is the ‘wet market’ like the one in Wuhan where fresh wild animals such as live wild pups, salamanders, crocodiles, scorpions, rats, squirrels, foxes, civets and turtles are traded (Vidal, 2020a). These markets are assemblages in the Latourian sense, unruly comings-together of species in unnatural spaces. The Wuhan market truly is an Anthropo-scene.
The problem is that having created these Anthropocene assemblages, we manage them with tools forged in the late-Holocene Enlightenment, tools that Greens should be calling into question but which they seem happy to endorse. Campaigns to ban wild animal food markets, for example, are rife (Boseley, 2020a and Vidal, 2020b). This is the same lockdown-prophylactic suppression strategy as the one that’s come to dominate Covid-19. Its drawbacks are that it deprives millions of poor people of food, and it drives the practice underground.
It is also hard to avoid seeing a subliminal racism in these calls to ban wet markets, with their unspoken references to dirty eating habits while leaving untouched the fast-food culture that contributes to diabetes and obesity in the minority world - precisely two of the ‘underlying conditions’ that leave people prone to die from Covid-19. To avoid hypocrisy, every call to ban wet markets should be accompanied by a call to ban factory farming and McDonald’s. Better still, though, than banning wet markets, we need to learn to manage these assemblages and to live in peace with their members as far as possible. Instead we veer from total immersion to total prophylaxis, waiting for the next pandemic to engulf us.
So we must recognise that there is another reason, beyond the Imperial College-projected half-million deaths, for rowing back on cohabitation. This operates at a much deeper socio-cultural level, and is what Greens should be exposing and exploring. As we remarked earlier, Greens have always taken the long view - sustainability demands it - but for some reason this has been abandoned in the headlong rush to support prophylaxis. A striking feature of the Covid-19 reaction to date has been the relative silence from Greens about its root causes in biodiversity loss and trade in plant and animal species (Greenfield, 2020).
Long-term thinking has given way to short-term critique of Boris Johnson and his government (Ramsey, 2020). Of course the government should be called to account for policy failure (Read, 2020), but what about the policy itself? And its socio-cultural context? Because accompanying the rapid-fire Imperial College modelling is the inexorable pull of 250 years of the theory and practice of nature control which Greens have consistently called into question. Faced with mounting criticism over its policies both from within and without it would have been difficult for the UK government to hold its nerve and swim against the tide under normal conditions. But when to that tide we add the powerful undercurrent of a dominant socio-technological paradigm, resistance to cohabitation has turned out to be unstoppable.
So while we can argue about coronavirus policy and ideological framings, there is a much bigger issue at stake, which is that Holocene tools of control are inappropriate for the Anthropocene world we have created. The human condition is not the same as it was in the Holocene, but we are taking our time to work out what that means. We’re like adolescents trying to get used to big feet that seem to have appeared out of nowhere. In this context Covid-19 is an opportunity because it turns the Anthropocene into a lived experience for vast swathes of the planet, rather than an abstract idea being argued over by the Subcommission on Quaternary Stratigraphy (Anthropocene Working Group, 2019). The two other great Anthropocene events - climate change and the sixth extinction - have seemed too remote to most people to generate thoughts of far-reaching change. Even the astonishing bushfires which ravaged Australia in late 2019 and early 2020 appear to have been forgotten by everyone except those affected by them (Guardian, 2020). Covid-19 gives us the opportunity to ask the central question of our times: how to live as a member of the assemblage. Unfortunately, in the midst of the scramble to save Covid lives, this opportunity has been largely spurned (but see Delanty, 2020).
In Timothy Morton’s view, climate change and species extinction are ‘hyper-objects’: products of the Anthropocene which are as real as a rock but hard to grasp because of their scale (Morton, 2013). Covid-19 is another hyper-object, with the difference that it is immediately graspable as the daily lived experience of a third to a half of the world’s population under lockdown. Like never before the virus offers us a Faustian opportunity to understand ourselves as a planetary force and to think through the implications of this for our politics, economics and society. This is the new background against which debates about freedom and constraint, equality and inequality, markets and state, sustainability and unsustainability must be framed.
The ‘long view’ for most commentators on the Covid-19 crisis is the end of this year or the beginning of the next. That view is not long enough if we are to find ways of living with the Anthropocene assemblages of which we increasingly a part. We are a geological force whose redistribution of fresh water has altered the planet’s rotation (Farrier, 2016). How should such a force think? What are its frames of reference? We are geological agents of deep time, but with a twist: we are capable of bringing about the profoundest of changes in the lifeworld in the geological blink of an eye. We snap our fingers, and the climate changes and species go extinct. This is not how a geological force should behave. It should act slowly, with consideration and precaution.
Covid-19 should remind us that we are not in control. This would be a vital lesson as we look for ways of living with the more-than-human world, but the prophylactic approach to Covid serves to maintain the illusion of dominance that gets us increasingly into trouble in the first place. Broadly, and mistakenly, the Green movement has reacted to this experience like everyone else, by trying to re-exert control in an ever-deepening spiral of human and planetary lockdown. Better by far to embed slowing down in our post-Coronavirus politics, economics and society, and learn to live with the human and non-human assemblages that are ineluctably part of the Anthropocene condition.
Covid is a reminder, as French Marxist Paul Virilio (2006) points out, that the more we compress space and distance with technologies that enact speed and connectivity, the more vulnerable we are to disaster. In a sky empty of contrails, we realise that one casualty of the virus is the jet aircraft, the very embodiment of time and distance compression and possibly the most important vector of Coronavirus transmission. So Covid-19 helps us to see that while we can put our mark on every single inch of the globe we cannot control the effects of that exercise in planetary enclosure. It is a sobering sign of our Anthropocene vulnerability that the species that moves mountains can be brought to its knees by a particle a millionth of an inch long whose defences are destroyed by washing our hands in soap and water for 20 seconds.
Advocates of a cohabitation approach are criticised for a heartless endorsement of suffering and death, and there is no getting away from the fact that we have all become amateur experts in thanatology during the crisis, deciding from the comfort of our armchairs who or what should live or die and in what numbers. Importantly, this is no less true of the supporters of lockdown-prophylaxis as it is of those who endorse some version of cohabitation. The former, though, speak as if only coronavirus counts, and the suffering and death of those affected by the short- and long-term consequences of lockdown are of less importance.
The self-same restrictions that are ‘life-saving’ (O’Toole, 2020) for some are life-threatening for others - a fact unaccountably unrecognised in the rush to endorse lockdown. One suspects that those who criticised early UK cohabitation/mitigation policy on the grounds that the government was more interested in the economy than human lives were (and are) not those who make a precarious living in the productive economy. The UK government has relied heavily on epidemiological modellers for its Covid-19 lockdown policy, but did anyone model the possibility of 1.5 million Britons not eating for a whole day because they had no money or access to food (Lawrence, 2020)?
UK research suggests that the ability to comply with lockdown rules is lower among the economically disadvantaged: those with the lowest household incomes are six times less likely to be able to work from home and three times less likely to be able to self-isolate (Atchison et el, 2020). Black and minority ethnic groups were also found to be less able to self-isolate. Other research by the Institute for Fiscal Studies and the Resolution Foundation shows that apart from the lowest paid, young people and women will be the worst affected by lockdown (Toynbee, 2020). At the end of March, a week into the UK’s lockdown, calls to the national domestic abuse hotline went up by 65% (Mohan, 2020), and by the end of April 1.9 million households without internet access were facing extreme social isolation (Kelly, 2020).
Quite how Greens have ended up endorsing a policy resulting in so much damage is hard to fathom.
There is an understandable tendency to focus on the immediate and the visible, and nothing is more immediate and visible than the daily death toll - the prism through which we have been encouraged to view the crisis, and which remains its daily signature. But this is like trying to take in a landscape through a pinhole. Take your eye away from the pinhole and a much bigger stage comes into view. One contribution to a more appropriately broader perspective comes from the Centre for Economic Performance’s Wellbeing Group (Layard et al, 2020), among whose authors is the Head of the Civil Service under three Prime Ministers, Gus O’Donnell. The report carries out a cost-benefit analysis of lockdown using ‘wellbeing’ as its currency rather than Covid-19 deaths. In this analysis the effects of releasing the lockdown on the population’s wellbeing are measured against the increase in deaths that would occur from an early release. One extraordinary and surely unjustifiable conclusion that emerges from this work is that lockdown policy entails that a Covid-19 life saved is more valuable than a cancer life saved.
So how many people is lockdown-prophylaxis killing? No-one knows the answer to this question, partly because it is far too early to tell, but also because it’s a question no-one is asking. Either way, supporters of lockdown need to acknowledge that the question is not otiose: their preferred policy path is causing, and will cause, suffering and harm up to and including death in this country and beyond. There is well-documented evidence of higher rates of depression and anxiety in lockdown Britain (Mohdin, 2020), especially among the young, those living in cities, those living alone or with children, with lower incomes, or in poor health. Restrictions on movement hit the poor hardest, as parks where those without much private space get exercise and fresh air are closed down (Moore, 2020). No-one can know what the psycho-social effects of months-long lockdown-prophylactic lockdown will be, and to date there has been very little policy-related discussion of the topic. Prophylaxis is a so far unassessed planetary experiment on mental health.
In truth, no-one knows how many people have died, will die, or have contracted Covid-19 - and we will probably never know. What is certain is that for virtually every commentator - left and right, green and grey, radical and conservative - the calculus of Coronavirus suffering and death is mostly confined to the disease itself, and this has created a largely unremarked zone of exclusion containing all those who (will) suffer and die as a consequence of shutting down entire economies and putting societies into lockdown. It is possible that these measures will cause more suffering and death than they prevent among those whose operations are cancelled or postponed (Eisenstein, 2020), those who lose their jobs and their income, and among the depressed, the isolated, and the suicidal (Robinson, 2020).
David McCoy, professor of public health at Queen Mary University, calls this the ‘non-scientific element to decision-making’, or the recognition that behind every apparently science-driven decision lies an ethical one involving the distribution of benefits and harms, now and in the future (McCoy, 2020). The Nuffield Council on Bioethics called on the government to recognise that the scientific advice it receives is not value-free, and to tell us if it is receiving ethical advice too, and if so, from whom (Nuffield, 2020). The ethical debate on competing demands across generations, social classes, styles of work, types of habitation, and the proper use of public and private spaces, has been conspicuous by its absence. Instead, every decision is driven by the graph of Coronavirus cases and deaths. Even a self-styled truth-telling, myth-busting exposé of the shortcomings of the UK government’s approach to Covid-19 hosted by radical commentators Carole Cadwalladr, Paul Mason and Afua Hirsch (Cadwalladr, 2020), turned out to be no more than an iteration of the belief that Coronavirus is, as McCoy puts it, ‘a technocratic problem that can be resolved by mathematical equations’ (McCoy, 2020).
In this context there has been plenty of discussion in the UK about the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE) - but not the right sort of discussion. At first the government steadfastly refused to disclose the membership of the group, but once it did so all our attention was directed towards the fact that Dominic Cummings was attending its meetings. This was actually much less important than the fact that, once the names were revealed, we discovered that virtually every single member of the group either is a natural scientist or has a background in natural science. Where were and are the human geographers, the sociologists, the philosophers, the ethicists, the political scientists, the food policy experts, and the historians? It might be objected that it is a Scientific advisory group, but given that there is no equivalent Humanities advisory group, and if we take ‘science’ to mean ‘knowledge’ and ‘learning’, as it used to, then SAGE would be the place for the ethicists, historians and sociologists to bring their expertise to bear. Contributions by social scientists, let alone anyone else outside the charmed circle of epidemiologists, are rare as hens’ teeth (but see Dorling, 2020).
Cohabitation and health infrastructure
Cohabitation would be impossible without a fully-resourced health service with sufficient ventilators, intensive care beds, and properly protected and rewarded staff, and it is this that most clearly distinguishes right-wing libertarian opposition to lockdown from Green support for cohabitation. Right-wing libertarians are in favour of the most minimal state possible, and they roundly reject the idea that it should play any role in people’s health and welfare. They see taxation as robbery rather than the price to be paid for the infrastructure needed to undergird a cohabitation response to Covid-19 and future pandemics. As John Barry says, ‘the necessity for and the positive role of the state cannot be underestimated [sic.]’ (Barry, 2020: 6).
A constant refrain in favour of lockdown has been that anything else would overwhelm the NHS - a refrain that seems to have been supported by observers from both inside the mainstream (see Anthony Costello  professor of global health and sustainable development at UCL) and outside it (see George Monbiot [2020a], environmental campaigner).
But what is this NHS that would be ‘overwhelmed’? It’s an organisation that has been starved of funds for a least a decade. This is the context for Costello’s and Monbiot’s claim that a cohabitation approach would overwhelm the NHS. And they are probably right. But what if it were better resourced? Some commentators would have us believe that the number of critical care beds is fixed, rather than a result of political decisions made during decades of underfunding (Hanage, 2020). When the maths of an uncontrolled pandemic is explained, the curve of the precipitate increase in infections is all too often accompanied by a line parallel to the X-axis illustrating the (in)capacity of the healthcare system to deal with them (It’s OK to be Smart, 2020). This line is always close to the X-axis, accentuating the apparent inevitability of the pandemic overwhelming the health system. But the science of epidemics does not speak for itself: it is mediated by the social and political conditions through which it is enacted, and the level of health care is not the constant it is too often taken to be. In sum, we would do well to remember Austrian concept artist Peter Weibel’s observation that it’s ‘the system … [in combination with the virus that] produces dead people’ (Weibel, 2020). There is no fixed mortality rate for Covid-19. Rather, ‘it depends on the availability of healthcare for people with the most serious symptoms’ (Ball, 2020).
This is true for both the lockdown-prophylactic and the cohabitation approach, so the latter can’t be rejected just on the grounds that more people might die, since that number is a function of the availability of healthcare. Coronavirus is not an untethered event. It is embedded in, and lived through, existing economic, social and political structures. And it is exposing both the threadbare public realm, cut to the bone over decades of low-tax privatisation, and the staggering levels of inequality that are the result, not of some force of nature, but of deliberate public policy.
Prophylaxis and cohabitation: left vs right?
This prompts the question of whether the prophylaxis vs cohabitation debate can be mapped onto the left-right political spectrum. You’d be forgiven for thinking that they can, given the high-profile street protests against lockdown by right-wing libertarians and the threat of rebellion against lockdown policy by members of the parliamentary Tory Party. Cambridge academic David Runciman agrees, on the basis that ‘right’ means freedom from active government and ‘left’ means state intervention (Runciman, 2020). So does Guardian journalist Polly Toynbee, for basically the same reasons (Toynbee, 2020). Thus the right supposedly lines up in favour of cohabitation because it doesn’t want to tell people what to do, while prophylaxis is the natural domain of the left because it involves turning the state’s firepower on the crisis.
This is plain wrong. One problem with Runciman and Toynbee’s scheme is that there is no natural affinity between the right-wing and freedom, nor between the left-wing and an overweaning state. There is a statist right which runs from strengthening the forces of law and order and building more prisons to fascism, and a libertarian left which argues for an enabling state supporting free individuals and communities. Second and more important, as we saw above, the cohabitation approach, if it were to avoid huge numbers of deaths, would require massive state investment in the health service - exactly the sort of action Runciman rightly associates with the left.
Sweden is a big problem for the Toynbee-like analysis: a broadly left-wing country following a policy she regards as right-wing. But instead of calling her analysis into question she shoehorns Sweden into her predetermined scheme by saying that it is ‘the unlikely beacon of the right’s hope’ (Toynbee, 2020). This couldn’t be more wrong. Sweden is the right’s death knell - a social democracy with a high-quality publicly-funded health system supported by a citizenry hanging on to a sense of the public good. Of course Sweden has made mistakes (not least in regard to care homes), but then so has everyone else, and the country has tried hard to stand as an alternative to lockdown - an alternative to which Greens should be paying much greater attention.
The dominant lockdown approach might not bother those who can continue to draw a salary (or a pension) while working at home, those who do not suffer from domestic abuse, those who do not live alone, and those who aren’t among the 5m gig workers who relied on our just-in-time economy for their income, but for whom time has now run out. Further afield, Oxfam warns that shutting down economies around the world could plunge more than half a billion people into destitution and set back the fight against poverty by a decade or more (Elliott, 2020). How are they to be factored in to the equation that churns out the lockdown answer to the question, what is to be done? These are people on whose behalf the progressive left would normally be fighting tooth and nail, so why is it that they are now so prepared to throw them under the lockdown bus? Minority world prophylaxis-lockdown is Garrett Hardin’s lifeboat strategy in all but name, criticised by Greens and the left ever since he proposed it in 1974, but now implicitly endorsed by them (Hardin, 1974).
Prophylaxis and surveillance
In addition, prophylaxis requires a range of freedom-curtailing and surveillance measures, and it is striking how eager Green-left-liberal commentators seem to be to embrace draconian measures with little thought for the danger that they might survive - even thrive - in the post-pandemic world. South Korea is held up as a paragon example of how to beat the virus (Read, 2020), and with just 879 Covid-19 deaths (as at 30th December 2020) this is indeed a truly extraordinary feat. But at what present and future cost? It has been achieved by a combination of extensive testing and blanket surveillance of citizens. Without the latter, the full benefit of the former is not realised. South Korean surveillance consists of tracking everyone’s movements through their use of bank cards, locating them precisely at any point in time through their mobile devices, and CCTV facial recognition (Sonn, 2020).
In normal times the liberal commentariat would be up in arms at this Panoptical level of citizen surveillance by the government (McMullan, 2015), but they seem ready to embrace it enthusiastically in the midst of the crisis. Let’s not be naive: when the enquiry into preparedness for the next pandemic takes place, get ready for loud calls for increased surveillance of citizens (and for the necessity of honing the tools to do so rightaway), and the hardware, software and legislation to go with it. And in the meantime expect opposition to technologies such as facial recognition to be an uphill struggle (Devlin, 2019).
Closer to home, the Health Protection (Coronavirus) Regulations 2020 enacted by the UK government have been described by the UK Human Rights Blog as ‘straight out of 1984’ (Duffy, 2020). But even this doesn’t seem to be enough for the Metropolitan Police who want the power to fine the parents of teenagers who breach lockdown rules (Townsend, 2020). As the UK lockdown continued the line between police and elected politicians blurred, with the former lobbying hard for tougher restrictions on people’s movements (Dodd et al, 2020). The police argue that the point of this is to eliminate doubt as to what behaviour is permitted and what is not. But it doesn’t eliminate grey areas; it just pushes them further down the spectrum of control, leading to citizens being told (wrongly) that they can’t stay in their front gardens (Cumber, 2020).
At a troubling point on that spectrum lies the formal means for citizens to report on other citizens for breaches of the lockdown rules. Unlikely in liberal democratic Britain? Not at all. A majority of forces adopted (Halliday and Parveen, 2020) an online form for reporting breaches of Coronavirus restrictions (Cambridge Constabulary, 2020). This measure, which in normal times would have been regarded as common practice only in totalitarian regimes, has been accepted pretty much without comment as a necessary component of the lockdown policy. Lockdown is turning the Coronavirus ‘good neighbour’ into a gruesome combination of Good Samaritan and police informant. Nor has any guarantee been offered that these forms will not be repurposed for other crimes and misdemeanours, post-Coronavirus. Expect them to be found useful and expect them to survive and thrive once the immediate crisis is over.
The Human Rights blog points out that pre-Coronavirus regulations regarding the control of domestic disease allowed for no power to impose detention, isolation or quarantine on anyone. In one section of the new Coronavirus legislation, however, regulations grant the Secretary of State or health officials power to impose ‘any restriction or requirement’ they deem necessary to restrict onward infection, including detention or isolation. In another section police officers-turned-virologists are given powers to send or keep people in hospital ‘or other suitable place’ if they suspect infection or a threat to public safety. These measures could last for two years, well beyond the expected duration of the pandemic (Proctor et al, 2020).
Hyperbole aside, Yuval Noah Harari’s assertion (Harari, 2020) that dealing with the pandemic offers us a choice between citizen empowerment and totalitarian surveillance has some merit (with Sweden conspicuously choosing the former). Both China and Israel have deployed smartphone applications to confront the virus - the former with great success, and the latter with technology designed to combat terrorism. Once dealing with the pandemic is seen through the lens of security - biosecurity - there is a seamless join between securitising health and securitising the country, and technologies bleed between the two realms.
More worryingly still, the already porous boundaries that keep apart the operatives of these two realms (scientists and health officials on one side and the forces of law and order on the other) in normal times, can disappear altogether. Incredibly, in a March 24th BBC Radio 5 Live phone-in about travel restrictions, it was the expert virologist from Keele University, Dr Naomi Forrester-Soto, who ceded authority to the former Manchester Police Chief Constable, Peter Fahy, regarding a journey’s legitimacy (BBC Radio5Live, 2020).
So the question is not so much whether this surveillance works - it does, and more efficient forms which could cut off pandemics much earlier could be developed (Cliffe, 2020) - but whether its use in a long-lasting pandemic might have the effect of normalising it even beyond the intrusion that is already commonplace (Amnesty International, 2019). Expect to see much more use of drones for policing once the crisis has subsided (Video Guardian, 2020). Governments, insurance companies and police forces will be delighted to add to their already growing arsenal of data on citizens, and Edward Snowden erased any lingering gossamer threads of innocence regarding the use to which this data might be put.
Greens have been at the forefront of opposition to overweaning surveillance, so they should be among the first to see that the control measures we’ve come to associate with Covid-19 are far more an extension of business-as-usual than they are a sea change in direction - and should be resisted. For all the talk of how the world has changed out of all recognition (Freedland, 2020), it hasn’t. Because we have been locking down for years: fences round school buildings, CCTV on every street corner, intensified border security, searches before entering public buildings. And we have internalised the sense of insecurity to which these measures are supposed to be the answer. We have long lived on a fear footing; in the era of Covid-19 plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose. In the midst of this global contagion we need to ask how we want to live and die in the next one. Do we want to live locked down and die alone? Or do we want to live together and die a good death?
A vestige of the cohabitation policy remained in the UK for a while in the form of ‘urging’ behaviour change rather than mandating it, and it is true that the UK lockdown was not as draconian as it was in, say, Spain. It is still fair to say, though, that on 23rd March the UK’s short-lived experiment in cohabitation ended. It survives in Sweden, just - but even the Swedes don’t justify their policy in terms of seeing the world as a series of biotic assemblages and acting accordingly. Yet if the dust ever settles on Covid-19, the Swedes might justifiably look back and congratulate themselves for having been among the first to take our Anthropocene condition seriously and act accordingly - even if they did so for more quotidian reasons. Yes, they are conducting an experiment, but let’s not forget that prophylaxis in Italy, Spain and the UK is also an experiment. It’s just not seen as such because it lies firmly and squarely in the mainstream Enlightenment tradition of the separation of humans and nature, and the control by the former over the latter. In other words, business absolutely as usual.
As lockdowns ease, vaccines are on the horizon, and people emerge, blinking, from their Covid-19 shelters to survey the devastation, Covid-19 is a test bed for asking and answering the question Aldo Leopold posed over 70 years ago (Leopold, 1949), and which is even more pertinent in the Anthropocene: should we live as plain members of the land-community, or as conquerors of it?
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