How can we think about race, class, and citizenship in pandemics? Professors Jamila Michener and Suman Seth explored the connections in a Zoom lecture yesterday. Professor Michener said she felt people were too cavalier in explaining coronavirus outcomes by saying, “Well, inequality existed before the pandemic.”
Ok, says Michener, but why isn’t anybody questioning that? Why did those inequalities exists? According to Michener, that statement opens more questions than it answers, particularly regarding the intersections between policy, access to health and healthcare, and race.
Statistics about race and poverty are constructed to tell a narrative, which can be misleading. “Race is a channel for inequality,” but through broader socio-structural mechanisms like federalism. In a federalist system, a person’s access to healthcare (Medicaid) depends on substate boundaries. Did your state expand Medicaid in the 2010s? Are you eligible for life-saving treatment because you live in California or Ohio, but ineligible (and more likely to die) because you live in Florida or Wisconsin? It’s cruelly arbitrary. The differences in experiences in the United States (even of the same phenomenon) means there can’t be a single response to it.
If you live in Far Rockaway, New York, you’re currently living in constant fear of going out - your neighbors and friends all have coronavirus; your grandfather and neighbor have died from it. You’re not going anywhere. But if you’re in a suburb where there’ve only been a handful of cases, and you can’t see it, you don’t feel it, why should you feel a mandatory quarantine is the best solution for your community? That’s the reality of de facto segregation in America.
There's also the risk that when a disease becomes associated with a marginal community, the majoritarian citizen may not feel they need to worry about it. What makes the virus so powerful is that it can be superimposed on groups already feared in the United States. If an agent of the state knows she's supposed to be afraid of a certain type of person, and that type of person is more likely to have the illness anyway, why wouldn’t she double down in controlling their movement?
Is there any hope? There’s the hope that any positive change made now will affect how our children experience pandemics in the future.
Suman Seth, a historian of 18th century medicine, race, and colonialism, had a different set of concerns regarding coronavirus and its impact on racialized people in the United States.
Self-quarantine seems to be one of the most interesting phenomenons of the era of corona. While there have been voluntary lockdowns before, Professor Seth wondered how today's exertion of statist bio-power through quarantines might be understood through a Foucauldian lens. In Discipline and Punish, Foucault wrote the state’s intention shifted from controlling the body to controlling space, with the state's ultimate aim to ensure individuals were disciplining themselves. What are the bio-political implications of self-quarantine?
When Seth raised this point, my immediate question was how quarantine protestors might fit into a bio-political framing? They’re standing in armed resistance (though it appears mostly symbolic) against the bio-political regime, with no consequences. Do these militia members (and even their "peaceful protest" counterparts) point toward the failure of the United States to exert full bio-power against its citizens? Or only against its white citizens? The United States’ carceral regime (and its movement to mass surveillance) also weigh heavily as I question this framework.
Seth, as an 18th century historian, worries about using metrics to tell the whole story. He notes the word “statistics” comes from the same root as “statist,” because stats were early tools of the state to consolidate its sovereignty. Statistics on race and disease in the antebellum period helped social and medical discourse to shift from one positing that disease was a function of slavery, to one arguing that race was an essential category (and disease was a function of blackness). Medicine and statistics worked with capital and the state to make race real.
While wondering whether policymakers should listen to historians, Seth said, “What else have they got to lose?” He also noted, “Historians are notoriously bad at making predictions, but that’s because they’re constantly paying attention to the past and thus always worried about what could possibly happen.”
I’d been wondering recently whether a central problem in Western liberal democracies’ responses to the coronavirus had been an acquiescence to the whims of the individual (“Liberate Michigan!”) and a disregard for the well-being of the collective. But Professor Seth had a strong argument against this, noting that a privileging of civil and individual liberties could not be the core issue with coronavirus outcomes, because the communities most heavily impacted by the virus in the United States were the ones with the least amount of civil and individual liberties (poor communities, prisons, and communities of color). The issue is not individual liberty, it's inequality.