How Necropolitics have affected government’s COVID-19 recovery plan

by Brandon Vasquez

STATES REOPENING: Boston native Alice Gaskins holds a sign during a demonstration at the Massachusetts State House to support communities of color in the midst of the COVID-19 crisis. Roughly 30 African-American and Latinx activists marched to demonstrate the disproportionate effects on minorities due to the coronavirus and states’ plans to reopen business. According to a report from The Boston Globe back in April, African-Americans accounted for 25 percent of Boston’s population, yet they made up more than 40 percent of coronavirus cases. 

Back in mid-March of 2020, President Donald Trump declared a national emergency as a response to COVID-19, a virus that had over 4,500 cases and was responsible for 88 deaths in the United States at the time. This national emergency led to an array of restrictions to be enforced on the country: social distancing guidelines, travel bans, business closures, and evening curfews. However, two months, 1.5 million cases, and nearly 92,000 deaths later, states have now begun to reopen businesses, despite public health experts opposing the idea.

While these decisions to reopen the country are in an attempt to set the economy back afloat, it is coming at the cost of risking the lives and safety of millions of Americans. As news networks cover the impact of this pandemic, the severity of the economic decline has taken over headlines. However, one aspect of the virus has remained virtually unnoticed by mainstream media, despite the government’s response being fundamentally shaped by it. It is the belief that those in power (in this case: federal and state government) enact policy to determine whose lives are worth protecting and whose are considered disposable. This belief is referred to as necropolitics, a political term coined by philosopher Achille Mbembe back in a 2003 essay.

“This essay assumes that the ultimate expression of sovereignty resides, to a large degree, in the power and capacity to dictate who may live and who must die.” Mbembe said.

According to a CNN report, as of March 25, at least 180 million people (more than half of the country’s population) had been ordered to stay at home. Millions of businesses across the country were also ordered to close as an attempt for the government to reclaim sovereignty, managing life and death by reducing the rate of infection and number of moralities.

However, millions of those who work in low paying jobs are still required to go to work, where they are at high risk of contracting the disease. As of March 27, 24 million workers in “low pay, high contact” occupations, such as cashiers to nursing assistants, maintained labor despite a considerable risk for the virus. Only 51 percent received paid sick leave, while only 1 percent could transition to a remote workplace.

“One’s exposure to death is increasingly conditioned by one’s position in capitalism,” said author James Tyner. “Necrocapitalism not only lets die but makes death productive as a vehicle for accumulation.”

The correlation between one’s position in capitalism and their potential of being exposed to the virus is just one of the main reasons why minorities are being disproportionately affected. According to a study by assistant professor at the Boston University School of Public Health Julia Raifman, in Louisiana, African-Americans are about one-third of the population, yet they make up about 70% of the COVID-19 deaths. Illinois’s population is about 15% African-American, but make up 43% of the deaths from COVID-19. The study also found that in people under 65, low-income adults were “nearly twice as likely to have one or more risk factors for the virus as high-income adults.” Those with low incomes were “more than twice as likely to have multiple risk factors.” Experts say this astounding disproportion comes from social and economic factors that predate the pandemic such as decades of inequality in education, housing and jobs.

“The COVID-19 pandemic has really shined a spotlight on the discrepancies in health care outcomes for people of color and of lower socioeconomic status,” said president of the American Academy of Family Physicians Dr. Gary LeRoy. “This study raises some very valid points about those discrepancies.”

Native Americans are another group of minorities who are being severely impacted by this virus. According to the Raifman study, 18% of Native American adults had multiple risk factors, versus only 8% of white adults. A factor contributing to the infections of territories such as the Navajo Nation is that about 30% of the homes don’t have running water, which is essential to maintaining regular hand-washing.

However, instead of focusing on providing the appropriate amount of resources for the communities that need them the most and ensuring that the nation reopens safely, it appears that President Trump and his staff’s recovery plan is driven by their concern over re-election. Trump has shown continuous support towards the Americans protesting their frustrations over the lockdowns. In April, Trump issued a call to “liberate” Michigan, Minnesota, and Virginia. The President also tweeted his support for the “very good people” who “want their lives back again, safely” in response to the protesters, some of whom were armed, that stormed the Michigan Capitol.

Rather than using his power to ease the nation into a safer reopening process, Trump is promoting efforts to quickly restart the economy by acknowledging the rising frustration, particularly in red states and swing states in an attempt to fuel his support for the upcoming election.

“Unfortunately, what we are seeing with the hasty nature of this reopening, and what we’ve been seeing since this crisis emerged, is that our governments place profits before the welfare of the people,” said West Broward High School government teacher Cassia Laham. “Our government’s first and greatest responsibility in the face of this crisis should be to promote the general welfare of the people of the United States. Wall Street and business should be secondary to containing this virus and causing as little sickness and death as possible. We, the people, need to listen to the science and heed the warnings of national and international health and science organizations, even if our government and Wall Street tycoons refuse to do so. After all, we are the ones who will have to show up to work every day. It is our lives and health on the line, and we should not be willing to serve as guinea pigs for whether things have subsided.”

It is impossible to deny that states reopening business is a crucial decision that will determine how the economy will bounce back from this pandemic. Some believe a severely weak economy will be just as detrimental as all the lives being taken. That is why many Americans, especially those in areas that have hardly been affected by the virus, are itching to get back into their professions.

“People are much less safe in a world in which the country falls into an economic recession,” said senior at West Broward High School Robert Quinn. “If people can not afford basic needs due to them losing their jobs, that is much worse than the virus in most cases. Those who are not as vulnerable want and need to get back to work, our economy, and the world’s economy as a whole cannot handle this shock for much longer. People will be safer if the economy is doing better.”

Although the risk of falling into an economic recession is at stake here, the risk will be severely increased if another outbreak occurs due to states reopening too quickly. Furthermore, a second outbreak will be far more difficult to recover from. Experts believe that this may be the inevitable outcome as 41 states have now decided to reopen gyms, restaurants, and hair salons, despite most of those states not meeting the federal guidelines calling for a two-week decline in COVID-19 cases.

“There is a real risk that you will trigger an outbreak that you might not be able to control, which, in fact, paradoxically, will set you back, not only leading to some suffering and death that could be avoided, but even set you back on the road to trying to get economic recovery,” said the nation’s leading infectious diseases expert Dr. Anthony Fauci. “We would almost turn the clock back, rather than going forward.”

When look at how this pandemic is affecting our nation and how the government is responding to it, it is hard to ignore the inequalities that exist in our country, which are now being exposed, and how the government may be taking advantage of those inequalities. The economic and political decisions being made in the midst of this crisis result in low-income workers, communities and ethnicities having a much increased likelihood of death. Although we cannot officially determine what the underlying motive of the government’s recovery plan is, it is safe to say that the power to decide who may live and who may die is what is most at stake.

“It’s important to think about how we are all interconnected,“ LeRoy said. “Policies that protect minorities and people with low incomes help protect everyone. If we can prevent illness in communities that are high risk I think it will prevent overall deaths and we can feel more comfortable opening up the economy, too.”