The third in my series of books about the social aspects of COVID-19 is out today. COVID Societies: Theorising the Coronavirus Crisis can be ordered from Routledge here and a preview of its contents can be viewed at Google Books here. The abstracts for each chapter are listed below.
INTRODUCTION: COVID societies
The COVID-19 crisis has provoked intense and far-reaching socioeconomic changes globally as well as posing a major threat to human health and wellbeing. This introductory chapter introduces the rationale for the book, addressing the question of why sociocultural theories and historical perspectives are so important to make sense of how the COVID catastrophe erupted and created so much turmoil worldwide. The chapter also provides an outline of the content of the remainder of the book, detailing the topics and theoretical perspectives on which each of the ensuing chapters focus. These include discussions of the political economy perspective; biopolitics; risk society and cultures; gender and queer theory; and more-than-human theory.
1 COVID IN CONTEXT: Histories and narratives of health, risk and contagion
Major new or recurring infectious disease outbreaks are always accompanied by significant sociocultural and political disruptions and transformations. These crises often call into question ways of viewing and living in the world, as well as exposing and entrenching forms of social discrimination and inequalities. This chapter provides an overview of the historical, sociocultural and political contexts of the COVID-19 crisis. Medical historians, sociologists, anthropologists and cultural geographers have shown that social, cultural and political responses to the emergence or return of deadly pathogens often bring to the surface hidden, unacknowledged or long-established beliefs and practices. The chapter demonstrates how these perspectives have offered much of value in relation to the analysis of the sociocultural and political dimensions of previous serious infectious diseases. This discussion is followed by an account of how the new virus SARS-CoV-2 and the new disease COVID-19 emerged in the early months of 2020 and developments in the pandemic throughout 2020 and into 2021.
2 THE MACROPOLITICS OF COVID: A political economy perspective
Political economy critiques adopt a macropolitical perspective, drawing on Marxist theory as well as feminist critiques, critical disability studies, critical race theory and postcolonial theory to highlight the social determinants of health and healthcare and the role played by medical expertise and authority in society. A political economy perspective incorporates the discussion of social justice issues, inequalities and the exacerbation of socioeconomic disadvantage caused by the pandemic, including the disproportionate effects on low-income countries and marginalised social groups. Indeed, some commentators have argued that the COVID-19 pandemic has surfaced a ‘crisis of care’, in which the failings of neoliberal political and privatised approaches to public health surveillance systems and healthcare delivery across the world have been shockingly revealed. This chapter shows how neoliberal and free market capitalist political systems have been called to account and disrupted by the COVID crisis but have also operated to protect the privileged and further entrench inequalities in COVID societies. The concepts of medical dominance, the social determinants of health and globalisation are explained and applied to the COVID crisis.
3 THE BIOPOLITICS OF COVID: Foucauldian approaches
COVID-19 governance at the level of the state raises questions about how power is exerted and experienced and how it may be productive as well as repressive. This chapter delves more deeply into the complexities of these tensions and conflicts, using perspectives drawn from the scholarship of the French historian and philosopher Michel Foucault to trace the historical underpinnings of contemporary approaches and responses to the COVID crisis. Various levels of control over citizens’ bodies and movements have been exerted and rationales for limiting individual freedoms put forward to protect the health of the body politic. Foucauldian theory offers concepts for understanding these relations of power. The scholarship of philosophers Giorgio Agamben and his concepts of bare life and states of exception, Roberto Esposito and his notions of affirmative biopolitics and immunitary mechanisms, and Achille Mbembe and his writings on necropolitics is also outlined. This discussion is followed by an account of Foucauldian viewpoints on the biopolitical dimensions of COVID societies have been developed, including discussion of how these theorists analysed social and governmental responses to the crisis.
4 RISK AND COVID: Risk society and risk cultures
The COVID-19 crisis is suffused with discourses, practices and emotions related to people’s reactions to risk and uncertainty. This chapter focuses on sociologist Ulrich Beck’s risk society perspective and anthropologist Mary Douglas’ cultural/symbolic approach to risk. Concepts from Beck’s scholarship, including reflexive modernisation, individualisation and cosmopolitanism, and Douglas’ work on the cultures of risk, blame and symbolic boundary control are explained and applied in an analysis of risk and uncertainty in COVID societies. The chapter shows that the risk discourses and practices circulating within and between regions and countries globally involve an affectively compelling combination of concepts of embodiment, contagion, danger and morality. The COVID crisis can be considered both a pre-industrial, fateful event and a late modern risk society phenomenon.
5 QUEERING COVID: Insights from gender and queer theory
This chapter introduces insights from scholarship in gender and queer theory and shows how they can be productively applied to an analysis of embodiment and socialities in COVID-19 times. While contemporary queer theory has its roots in critical studies of gender and sexuality, it has since expanded well beyond these origins. There are many intersections and overlaps between gender and queer theory, and both reach into many related fields: including queer necropolitics, queer death studies, crip studies, fat studies and critical animal studies. The major precepts of these intertwined bodies of literature are explained, with reference to the influential scholarship of philosophers such as Mel Chen, Michel Foucault, Judith Butler, Elizabeth Grosz, Gilles Deleuze, Félix Guattari and Julia Kristeva. These extensions of gender and queer theory and what they offer for analysis of the COVID crisis are considered in this chapter. They critically analyse aspects of discourse, affect and embodiment to ‘queer the pandemic’: that is, to highlight disjunctures and invisibilities in the ways with which COVID has been portrayed and dealt and to provide further insights into the nature of lived experience in COVID societies. In identifying how these responses might be subject to contestation and change, contributors to gender and queer theory scholarship imagine better and more inclusive futures.
6 MORE-THAN-HUMAN COVID WORLDS: Sociomaterial perspectives
Given the intertwined dimensions of human and nonhuman relations and connections, the crushing impact of the COVID-19 crisis extends well beyond human lives and agencies. Scholars and researchers are beginning to engage with the body of scholarship that I refer to as ‘more-than-human theory’ (alternative terms used are ‘new materialisms’ or ‘the critical posthumanities’). There are various varieties of more-than-human theory. In the discussion presented here, I focus specifically on the scholarship that builds on non-western cosmologies (particularly Indigenous and First Nations philosophies) and the feminist materialism perspectives offered by western philosophers Rosi Braidotti, Donna Haraway, Karen Barad and Jane Bennett. These philosophies advance a non-anthropocentric approach to understanding human existence. The implications of this approach for understanding the complexities and dynamism of COVID societies are outlined in this chapter. More-than-human theory is applied to better understand the affective forces and relational connections that are generated with and through humans’ encounters with nonhuman agents. I discuss the assemblages of humans and nonhumans that have come together and come apart as the COVID crisis unfolded. As I show, such an approach expands the One Health perspective in productive ways.
CONCLUSION: Reflections on COVID futures
This brief conclusion chapter summarises the key insights offered by COVID Societies, and then moves towards a future-oriented discussion. It is noted that throughout the book, a series of intertwined threads cross back and forth between the macropolitical and micropolitical dimensions of COVID-19: contagion, death, risk, uncertainty, fear, social inequalities, stigma, blame and power relations. Overarching these threads are five complementary themes: the historicity of COVID societies; the tension between local specificities and globalising forces; the control and management of human bodies; the boundary between Self and Other; and the continuously changing sociomaterial environments in which the world is living with and through the shocks of the COVID crisis. At this point in the pandemic, only uncertainty seems certain. As we learn to live with and through COVID, we must work towards better conditions for people across geographical regions. Acknowledging our vulnerability and using this knowledge to better care for the more-than-human worlds in which we are emplaced is a way forward to care more deeply about ourselves and our fellow species.