We can find an insight useful to understanding the coronavirus pandemic and the policies devised to contain its spread in the work of French sociologist, Maurice Halbwachs, who was arrested by the Gestapo in Paris in July 1944 and died as a result of brutal work conditions in the Buchenwald concentration camp in March 1945. A year prior to the onset of WWI, Halbwachs writes in his essay “La Théorie de l’homme moyen. Essai sur Quetelet et la statistique morale” (1913) that “death and the age at which it occurs are above all a result of life and the circumstances in which life has developed.” These circumstances, he continues, are “at least as social as they are physical.” There are, thus, “good reasons to assume that a society has the mortality rate it deserves, and the number of deaths and their distribution among the different age groups faithfully reflects the value that a society attaches to the furtherance of life.” What Halbwachs offers here is no less than a critique of the moral economy of life.
The fact that life expectancy and mortality are also socially determined (though these statistics are out of the hands of nations due to colonialism and exploitation), and that each society has its own mortality rates may seem counterintuitive to us today, more than a hundred years after Halbwachs put his views into writing. Now more than ever it seems to contradict the political consensus that in democratic societies, in theory, every life bears the same value and is equally protected. On the face of it, all measures undertaken to contain the pandemic adhere precisely to this ethical rationality at least in countries such as Germany or the Nordic states that guarantee more or less equal access to healthcare. It is implicitly suggested there can’t be more democracy. However, if we look comparatively across nations at the very different mortality rates resulting from COVID-19, it becomes apparent that Maurice Halbwachs’s considerations do bear some truth. For example, in those countries that took early action to contain the pandemic, mortality is significantly lower than in those countries that reacted late. A study by the British National Health Service shows that, depending on the intensity of the measures taken at the outbreak of the pandemic, the mortality rate for people with preexisting conditions rises exponentially. Had no measures been taken at all, this inaction would have brought about approximately 500,000 additional deaths per year for the UK with a Reproduction Rate (RR) of 3.1 Spatial segregation, class, social status, migration history, housing, education, discrimination, gender relations, enduring colonial power relations, among other factors, thus, contribute significantly not only to how people live, but to how they die as well. Life chances and mortality rates are, as Halbwachs says, “to the same extent social as physical.” In this context, the French anthropologist Didier Fassin speaks of a “physics of inequality” in his Adorno lectures in Frankfurt.2
In the coronavirus pandemic, this “physics of inequality,” which has for so long backgrounded everyday life to the point that it is no longer recognized, and which is embedded in myriad ways in infinitely diverse lives, has momentarily become visible in our societies—at least to all those who are willing to see it. For in a global context permeated by many axes of dominance and already marked by life-threatening inequality, even as COVID-19 may affect everyone, it has long been clear that the virus does not affect everyone equally—and certainly does not make everyone equal. The enormous burden COVID-19 has put on African American communities proves the case very clearly. The coronavirus has not created this inequality, but it thrives on globally generated and nationally governed inequalities.
It is therefore not the virus alone that makes the difference. Rather, the circumstances under which the virus affects us also contribute to our life chances and mortality rates. For example, some, like myself, live in countries like Germany, with comparatively good healthcare, while others have no choice but to rely on healthcare systems diminished by austerity measures and privatization such as those in Italy, Greece, or Spain, or those destroyed by war, as in Syria, Afghanistan, and Yemen. The measures taken to contain and regulate the pandemic are thus just as much a part of this physics of inequality as the decisions over when and where to put such measures into place. Consider, for example, the situation in the camps for refugees at Europe’s external borders where no measures have been taken at all or where the general living conditions are so miserable that compliance with hygiene standards and physical distancing rules is hardly possible.
Didier Fassin has proposed to analyze such connections and dynamics as a “politics of life.” He focuses on the different practices of dealing not with life, but with lives, thus switching from singular—life in general—to plural—the actual, infinitely different lives—and thus from ethics to politics. Such a “politics of life” not only lets us critically reevaluate the abstract notion of life as the highest good. It also focuses on those practices and decisions, techniques and principles that enable the declaration of life in the abstract as the highest good even as concrete lives are valued and treated differentially: some lives are more fully safeguarded while others are abandoned and become exposed to premature death. For some lives, the body is socially regarded as endangering to others, while other lives experience their bodies as endangered; this inequality is evidenced as well by the fact that violence is directed against some, especially black bodies, and not against others as the recent killings of Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, and Ahmaud Arbery so painfully demonstrate.
These are the kinds of connections and contexts that need to be understood if we want to find long-term social responses to the moral economy of life under conditions of pandemic that are democratic and oriented towards radical equality. The answer to this physics of life based on inequality will not be found in epidemiological or immunological responses alone. There is no doubt that a vaccine will be available for the coronavirus at some point. Yet, it will take more than an immuno-serum to create a democratic coexistence in which the chains of infection articulated by racism and sexism are successfully stopped and which is equally oriented towards global interdependence, reciprocal care and responsibility for each other in light of our shared vulnerability, and an understanding of the indispensable value of each individual. Because we are all socially dependent, without exception, on supportive infrastructures and networks, on social bonds and relationships based on recognition that sustain our lives, and because we depend on a community that ensures that everyone can take good care of each other as well as themselves, it is necessary not only to oppose the policies of systematic neglect with these kinds of sustaining infrastructures, but also to create networks of life wherever they are lacking, which means precisely under conditions where they are lacking.
If the political task is to give form to this new democratic sociality, which enables a life with others, in “response-ability,” as Donna Haraway has put it,3 it becomes the task of critique to expose that moral economy that legitimizes and maintains the contradiction between the abstract appreciation of Life on the one hand and the devaluation of concrete lives on the other. It is most important to understand that the differential distribution and management of the risks of mortality is part of a moral economy that has so effectively entered into present forms of society. For death and the age at which it occurs are determined and limited by the social, economic, and political circumstances in which a life can be lived. There is no death without its social circumstances, which is why societies are in some measure responsible for why some die earlier while others live on.
- Amitava Banerjee, Laura Pasea, Steve Harris, Arturo Gonzalez-Izquierdo, Ana Torralbo, and Laura Shallcross, “Estimating Excess 1-Year Mortality Associated with the COVID-19 Pandemic according to Underlying Conditions and Age: A Population-based Cohort Study,” The Lancet 395 (2020): 1715-1725. https://www.thelancet.com/journals/lancet/article/PIIS0140-6736(20)30854-0/fulltext.
- Didier Fassin, Life: A Critical User’s Manual (New York: Wiley, 2018).
- Donna Haraway, Staying with the trouble: Making kin in the Chthulucene (Durham: Duke University Press, 2016
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