Health Supremacy Kills
This article first appeared in Peste Magazine.
The irrational way the pandemic has been declared “over” has clarified the dominance of health supremacy in many Western societies. The message broadcast is that for healthy people the pandemic is over, and they are all that matters.
The fantasy that health is mainly a matter of choice or lifestyle is ubiquitous. Good health is seen as a marker of biological strength and good citizenship. In many capitalist societies, healthy people are treated as better people — better than those who are ill or socially classified as “vulnerable.” This is health supremacy, plain and simple.
Health supremacy is an outgrowth of healthism in the same way that white supremacy is an outgrowth of racism. Healthism is a term first used in the 1980s by cultural theorist Robert Crawford to describe the late-capitalist idea that health is both crucial to your self-development and wholly your individual responsibility. Health has become a marker of identity and personal stamina, instead of something determined by luck and socio-economic circumstance and a communal responsibility. As a result, those who cannot attain or maintain health are seen as failures: failed employees, failed citizens, failed people.
This is, of course, not really how health works. Not only is health dependent on social and economic realities, it is also fragile and hostage to fortune. Whether you are healthy or not depends on what’s done to you, and what society you live in. Yet, in a world of pollution, infectious diseases, poverty, and capitalist manipulation, branding health an individual responsibility conveniently dissociates health inequalities from systemic failure and instead ties them to personal choice and lifestyle.
Health supremacism is eerily similar to other supremacist ideologies. The philosopher Charles Mills emphasized that we should not see racism and white privilege as primarily features of people’s behavior, relationships, or attitudes. Rather, white supremacy is a sociopolitical system in its own right. Just like democracy or patriarchy, white supremacy is a form of society, with political, legal, economic, cultural and even metaphysical aspects. Mills teaches that we cannot resolve these problems of oppression and supremacy without critique and overhaul at the sociopolitical level.
We must face up to the fact that many capitalist societies are health supremacies: socio-political systems structured around the fantasy that people who are inherently healthy are better people. To those who have been fighting ableism – a widespread form of discrimination that favors able-bodied people – this diagnosis will not be surprising.
During the pandemic this myth of the health and resilience of the “normal” citizen has shaped people’s behavior and perceptions, as anthropologist Martha Lincoln explains. This fantasy, for many societies, determines whose interests are valued: the interests of those who are healthy.
It is in this context that we can understand the move “back to normal” amid the ongoing pandemic.
“The pandemic is over,” says President Joe Biden. Only it isn’t. Statistics show a continued influx of patients and disturbing excess mortality. Medical papers keep confirming that the virus does a lot of damage.
Crucially, these are not hidden facts. Sure, a few might genuinely not know. But it would be a dangerous rationalization to assume that society is unaware of the damage and deaths. It knows all right. It simply doesn’t care. There is no real place for vulnerability in a health supremacy. “If you think you might be unable to withstand COVID,” the sentiment goes, “then perhaps you should not be here to begin with.”
In retrospect, it is obvious. Of course my employer allowed me to shield in the early days of 2020: it was, after all, a pandemic. But gradually the mood at my university shifted. The expectation to return to campus grew. Hybrid meetings went from default to possible. Colleagues across the world flocked back to in-person conferences. At a certain point, they stopped sending Zoom links.
This move back to normal seems innocuous, especially compared to other attempts at undoing the pandemic — ripping off face masks or sabotaging vaccination centers. The effect is nonetheless very similar: it pressures people, in particular those who conceive of themselves as healthy, to deny or underestimate the risks of COVID, and it leads to the widespread abandonment of fellow citizens’ health and well-being.
Historian Nate Holdren has described the avoidable harms of the pandemic as a form of social murder, using a term coined by Friedrich Engels for deaths that are a consequence of capitalist society. “Our suffering has been nihilistically recast as not just inconsequential, but inevitable,” Holdren writes.
The extensive, preventable suffering and mortality during this pandemic, as well as the way it is currently being normalized and presented as inevitable must be seen as a direct effect of the kind of social system we live in. It is social murder, and health supremacy is its accomplice.