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How COVID-19 became a ‘crisis’

This vendible was published by Public Seminar on 4 November 2021.

We are in crisis. Nothing could be increasingly self-evident: a global pandemic has ravaged the human species.

But wait — what does it midpoint to undeniability an open-ended event that is playing out over a period of years a ‘crisis’? If humans live with viruses, how is COVID-19, and the diseases it triggers, a slipperiness for the human species and our wellbeing?

At its most vital level, a ‘crisis’ is a narrative device: it delineates a whence and an end to an event — something that is practically untellable in the specimen of a disease. But a “crisis” is moreover a concept, one that presumes a unpeace or a contradiction between opposing forces. We declare crises to make History: we use the term slipperiness to indicate the significance of a particular event or phenomenon, to qualify that event as a diversion from the normal path or as a structural mismatch that creates change.

Given this definition, what else could a global pandemic be called, but a crisis? Without all, human lives are at stake. To wordplay that question, it’s important to consider that the statement ‘this is a crisis’ isn’t merely an empirical observation. It’s a logical observation.

Photo by Wally Gobetz from Flickr MoMA – René Magritte’s The False Mirror, 1928, Oil on canvas, 21 1/4 x 31 7/8″

Let’s uncork with an empirical observation: virus. We can observe a virus, but the virus doesn’t necessarily produce a crisis. The empirical observation ‘virus’ is variegated from the conceptual claim, ‘virus is a crisis.’  The point is that a virus is not naturally occurring as a crisis. By bringing an empirical observation (virus) into the conceptual realm (crisis), the concept of slipperiness becomes foundational to the practice of framing disease as an intelligible and historical event.

Why does this matter? Without all, a virus in my presence is not a good thing.

It matters considering we must recognize that framing the COVID-19 virus as a slipperiness is a claim. And it is a useful claim, not just considering it establishes the historical significance of the pandemic, but considering it makes the pandemic part of an observable world.

When an event becomes observable, we can do research; when we do research, we hope to largest understand an event and, hopefully, correct the circumstances that might rationalization it in the future. When a financial slipperiness was supposed in 2007, for example, scholars and investigative journalists sought to understand and describe its impact on various populations. Then we had (post hoc) publications on how the financial slipperiness impacted people. Yet asking questions well-nigh why this economic miracle constituted a slipperiness in the first place (as opposed to regular, and predictable financial practices) might have been illuminating. Some of those questions might be: What, specifically, is in crisis? When was a slipperiness identified at this moment as opposed to another? For whom is it a crisis?

Ultimately, declaring a slipperiness shapes our understanding of what came surpassing and what will come without considering unrepealable kinds of questions are enabled, while others are foreclosed.

Perhaps the most important question to be asked is: what is at stake when we requirement that we are in a crisis? And what are the effects of this claim? This is an important question considering it might promote unrepealable solutions or foreclose other ones. Solving a slipperiness ways that we assume we all stipulate well-nigh what exactly is in slipperiness and for whom.

In the specimen of COVID-19, this may be the most important speciality of crisis-oriented thinking to consider.

WHO (World Health Organization) headquarters. Photo by Fars Media Corporation, CC BY 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons

Today, it seems obvious that the global health pandemic is a crisis. Nothing could seem increasingly natural or existential: the ultimate slipperiness for humans is not having an immune response to a virus. But actually, that isn’t true. We do have an immune response to COVID-19, an overwhelming one that can trigger a catastrophic response. The vaccine depends on retooling that immune response to meet the rencontre of the COVID-19 virus.

So, is the global pandemic a proper slipperiness that threatens the very existence of the human species? And, if not, what kind of slipperiness is it?

The most obvious wordplay is that COVID-19 is a public health crisis: governments and medical institutions were not prepared to fend off this biological intruder.

But, as the anthropologists Andrew Lakoff and Stephen Collier have shown, theoretically, we were prepared for the pandemic. Lakoff describes the consolidation of what he calls the ‘global health security assemblage.’ He traces the emergence of ‘preparedness,’ a United States government strategy that was informed by practices from national starchy defense, public management, and international public health.

The preparedness strategy moreover took into worth a new notion of ‘emerging diseases.’ Lakoff notes that by the early 1980s, the HIV-AIDS pandemic put an end to expert assumptions that infectious diseases could be fully contained by public health measures. Thus — over four decades ago — the United States bio-security agencies terminated that a future global monitoring would include the continual emergence of new diseases for which humans have no existing immunity.

Widespread pandemics, these experts imagined, might moreover occur through malevolent attacks. In the late 1990s, the US Bio-Defense Initiative prepared for an eventual bioterrorist wade focused on anthrax. Furthermore, as Lakoff documents in a second essay on the rise of ‘experimental virology’ as part of a pandemic preparedness strategy, funding for vital research moreover became a significant component of preparedness: a $15 million upkeep in 2001 ballooned to $212 million in 2007.

An unshortened global biosecurity workings was put in place. Here is where important questions emerge. Did these preparations not wield to a miracle like COVID-19? Was COVID-19 a radically variegated virus or mode of infection that made the national global biosecurity workings in the United States ineffective or irrelevant?

Urban policy expert, Bryna Sanger, says no. ‘The COVID-19 crisis, despite its wholesale spread and massive economic impact, is not so variegated from many of the public health crises the United States has faced over the years,’ she observed in May 2020. ‘But the current environment of political denial, weak, and uneven policy response, poor and troublemaking communication, and contentious intergovernmental relations are predictable and typical threats to constructive response. They are, in many ways, challenges of management and competence, increasingly than they are failures of science or public health.’

The COVID-19 slipperiness is not, then, a failure of scientific preparedness. If science had failed, we would not have been worldly-wise to sequence the COVID-19 genome or develop a vaccine. That would have been an epistemological crisis: our forms of knowledge would have failed us. Thankfully, they didn’t.

Semi-log plot of daily new cases of Covid-19 in the world and top 5 countries using a 3 day rolling stereotype Photo by Chris55, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

But there were numerous ‘challenges of management and competence.’ The Atlantic magazine’s worth of ‘Why the Pandemic Experts Failed’ describes how the magazine’s temporary initiative, The COVID Tracking Project, became a crucial pandemic data-source for the US government due to the lack of standardized metrics for assessing the nature of cases and overall caseloads; a national system for testing; and the resulting inability to track data related to testing, hospitalizations, positivity rates, and death tolls. This wasn’t merely a lack of legalistic capacity, but a problem of data design. As The Atlantic journalists and their team described it, lack of topics was matched by an ‘obsessive’ production of data in the American national health system that did not translate into actionable data that was useful for constructive public health management.

As in the United States, in France and in Europe increasingly broadly, entire governmental apparatuses for managing an vigilant pandemic were unquestionably in place by 2020. But plane in France, where the quality of public infrastructure far surpasses the US, the ‘challenges of management and competence’ undermined pandemic preparedness.

The result was, as one set of experts described it, ‘une crise organisationnelle,’ or institutional crisis. These experts show how the nature of the regime in power structured the response to a public health emergency: in France, protracted and widespread strikes versus reforms shaped the Macron government’s COVID-19 strategy, causing the government to diverge from the preparedness map. Bureaucratic fragmentation — the insemination of ad hoc committees, the challenges of ‘coordinating coordination’ between agencies and newly created newsy units, and organizational skid — led the government to particular, and often ineffective, responses to the pandemic.

In other words, institutional dynamics generated a particular crisis, triggered by the need to manage the COVID-19 virus, but not caused by the virus itself.

Most importantly, as Henri Bergeron, Olivier Borraz, Patrick Castel, and François Dedieu show, in Europe (as in the United States and elsewhere, such as Australia), preparing for pandemic risk had been displaced by defending versus terrorism. The focus on terrorism as a primary threat has wilt a normative function of governments that now put geopolitical questions relating to migration, refugees, and immigration whilom national health and welfare.

This focus speaks to the question of what is at stake in the requirement to slipperiness stemming from COVID-19.

Photo by EelamStyleZ, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Crisis thinking is a form of framing, and framing matters.  Frames create the boundaries for inclusion and exclusion; they delineate targets for intervention and the limits of our knowledge.

Through data sets and statistical models, the virus and the pandemic were both largely produced as objects of knowledge and intervention informed by the idea of biological security. Government health experts used modelling to decide between strategies: for example, mitigation or suppression? But such models are moreover framing devices, based on variegated assumptions. What are the categories into which humans can be sorted, which in this specimen often consisted of ‘susceptible, infected, recovered?’ While models necessarily reduce ramified subjects to single categories, they moreover eliminate and simplify the social interactions that are relevant to a human pandemic.

Framing can moreover be visual, as governments and the media struggle to convey information. The COVID-19 pandemic has been shown to us scrutinizingly exclusively as a statistical visualization made of curves and waves. These images, or ‘wave narratives,’ requite shape to what we can’t see, serving as both predictive devices and persuasive techniques. These statistical models and visualizations generate truth claims and occlude volitional assumptions about what to represent, how to represent it, and how to mobilize or act upon those representations.

These models were debated, but these debates had little impact on government interventions or the larger public. By reducing heterogeneity, static models reduced complexity and hence the topics to pursue volitional framings and pathways. What remained dominant as a frame was the ‘contamination view,’ a focus on the transmission ‘of morbid material’ between humans, when the ‘configuration view,’ which takes into worth the larger monitoring of viral life, remained a viable volitional framing.

Thus, COVID-19 was unceasingly narrated as an epidemiological crisis, foreclosing its representation as a complex, mutually constituted epidemiological and socio-economic phenomenon, as a matter of human welfare and not only biological security.

Seen this way, the question arises: what weightier represents human security?

To wordplay that question, we can’t blindly winnow declarations of crisis. This doesn’t midpoint that they aren’t true, it just implies a transferral to investigate the formulation of the requirement to slipperiness and terms of the crisis. It’s moreover a transferral to act based on the understanding that the declaration of a slipperiness requires an towage of its consequences for, and effects on, variegated populations and communities.

European social theory tells us that ‘crisis’ implies a turning point considering it involves epistemological transformation. But is that unchangingly true? When a slipperiness is declared, to what extent is it part of a normative transformation, or the emergence of novel normative standards?  If the COVID-19 pandemic is a crisis, unrepealable truth claimsno longer hold. Is that the case?

Perhaps it’s still too soon to say. Perhaps patents for vaccines will wilt a contested legal category, affirming the transformation of truth claims well-nigh property rights and human welfare. And perhaps a global vaccination wayfarers that is financed and managed on a global scale will wilt standard practice in years to come.

Perhaps. However, we can see quite distinctly how, in the specimen of COVID-19, the slipperiness requirement has implicitly reconfirmed norms well-nigh public health and human security.  In that case, there is no epistemological transformation — no new truth claims.

COVID-19 Outbreak World Map Total Deaths per Capita
Photo by Dan Polansky and authors of File:BlankMap-World.svg., CC BY-SA 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons

We just have to squint at the United States, where the slipperiness requirement is implicated in very serious and deep racial and socio-economic disparities in public health and welfare. Unfortunately, these are not unrenowned or new — they are the norm. These disparities include differences in living and labor conditions, and differential wangle to medical care. The response to COVID-19 as a public health slipperiness did not produce significant initiatives to write those structural inequities. Yes, the 2021 American Rescue Plan Act, which put money directly into American pockets, will reduce the poverty rate from an unscientific 2018 rate of 13.9% to a projected 2021 rate of 7.7%. But these relief programs will end; the structural causes of poverty and poor welfare outcomes remain.

But public welfare is not a personnel full-length of pandemic preparedness. It is not included in the Global Health Security Index, the standard bearer for benchmarking variegated countries for their respective capacities to manage ‘catastrophic biological events.’ Despite grossly widening socio-economic inequalities both within nations and wideness the globe, and despite all the suffering and ongoing bereavement, human security specified in terms of public welfare has not emerged as a new normative regime.

So is the COVID-19 pandemic a crisis? Or is the problem our governance regimes singularly focus on biological security and bio-defence, thus lightweight to put public health and welfare at the foundation of human security.

This vendible was published by Public Seminar on 4 November 2021. A longer version of this essay was published in French by AOC Media. The long English version can be found here.

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