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Now the emergency is over...

On the 5th of May 2023 the World Health Organisation (WHO) announced that the enduring COVID-19 pandemic is now merely an established and ongoing health issue, and no longer a public health emergency of international concern. This change of position came about after the responsible committee (which even boasts Anders Tegnell as an advisor) had satisfied itself with a steep decrease in the number of reported COVID-19 deaths and hospitalisations (i.e. countries have stopped counting), and reports of high levels of population immunity to SARS-CoV-2 (i.e. ‘immune’ now means ‘has been infected’).

The announcement should come as no surprise. The WHO is simply doing what it always does: stepping in line with the way especially western governments and pharmaceutical industries want to approach public health—or what’s left of it. Even though the pandemic shows no clear sign of subsiding, as the WHO readily admits, the organisation can’t afford to stray too far from the powers that underpin its existence.

The decision that there’s no longer an emergency is a diplomatic farce. Through various channels I’ve seen people quite upset about it. But as it happens, I think this official end of the emergency may actually be good news. This is because this whole state of emergency has from the outset stifled political actions that would have been entirely appropriate. They still are entirely appropriate.

Never waste a good crisis

The sociologist and philosopher Willem Schinkel, who is at the university of Rotterdam, explains this well in his 2021 book Pandemocratie (‘pandemocracy’). The pandemic, as a social event, has from the beginning been thoroughly depoliticised. Stripped from politics. Back in 2020, when the WHO declared we were in a state of emergency all western governments had already begun construing the virus outbreak as a crisis. Here we had an exceptional circumstance, a situation that made exceptional and often authoritarian measures necessary, and that made it legitimate to expect political disagreement and opposition to be put on the back-burner. “No time for politics, now we need to think about each other,” by which they meant of course: think about our money.

Governing from a state of emergency is nothing special, Schinkel reminds us. He agrees with Giorgio Agamben that liberal democracies have a tendency to rule by finding the exceptions to the law. The emergency or crisis allows government to overrule what people are normally entitled to. That is why many neo-liberal societies are always in one sort of crisis or another, a condition sometimes called the omnicrisis. Who was it again that said that one should never let a good crisis go to waste? It’s a convenient way of keeping politics at bay. The pandemic is no exception.

The same theatrical plot unfolded in many of the world’s capitalist societies. With each successive wave, policy makers refused to follow the precautionary principle because they did not dare interfere with the economy. Because that would have been politics. “But no, not in a time like this.” Instead, they waited until the situation had escalated further, so that the emergency flared up to a blaze. With such a situation at hand, we were simply beyond politics, and decisions would have to be delegated to experts, who were asked for carefully circumscribed advice on how to avert the worst. In The Netherlands, most of these ’expert deliberations’ could be kept secret precisely because they were no part of the regular political process. Decisions became necessities. In particular, they became necessities with a neo-liberal flavour—unavoidable measures that would spare ’the economy’.

Rigged from the start

Although many within the Zero COVID movement were well aware of the political farce that was unfolding, still the movement failed to escape this logic of emergency. Schinkel’s work lays bare that, during the pandemic, even those who vilified the eugenics and fascism shining through government policies kept playing their part in this ’emergency of the virus’.

A clear sign is the forensic commitment to advocating an alternative government strategy. Those objecting to health supremacism and eugenicist ‘herd immunity’ policies have spent much of the first years of the pandemic trying to convince authorities that, regardless of what their experts said, eradication was in fact the best strategy for them to take. This may well have been true. But this ‘debate’ was already rigged from the start. It was always about a strategy to get out of the crisis and go back to normal. But under neo-liberal capitalism, eugenics and health supremacy are normal.

Moreover, those arguing against policies that sacrifice people for the well-being of the economy frequently invoked this very economy to defend their alternatives. Each wave, fingers were pointed at countries like New Zealand or China, where due to a Zero COVID policy the economy was doing fine. Limiting the spread of the virus and preventing people from falling ill was in fact better for the economy than letting things rip. The economy would like a world with no COVID! Perhaps. But that same economy exploits workers across the globe, perpetuates racism and sexism, and utterly disfigures the way we lead our lives. Why on earth would you volunteer ways of saving it?

In other words, the Zero COVID movement has during these first three years of the pandemic largely adopted a tactic of arguing for various flavours of society-wide and often authoritarian government interventions by governments which they knew were prone to violence.

Nobody should be left behind

So despite all the unmasking of health supremacy and completely valid criticism of eugenic policies, we haven’t actually advocated an alternative. Those that continue to call for intervention and preventative policies tend to stay almost entirely within the plot of the public health emergency, just as those that oppose communal public health policy. As Schinkel writes, both of these factions are trapped in a sphere of exceptional circumstances, without problematising the long build-up that gave rise to those circumstances to begin with. This is why both these sides are to blame for the normalisation of authoritarian control. Because during the pandemic authoritarian control has normalised even more.

As Schinkel observes,

it is absurd to pretend that authoritarian measures become less authoritarian because there’s a a public health crisis. And although limiting the spread of the virus is evidently the to be preferred option, it has an extremely limited political force without fighting for a socialist economy […]. If anything has become clear during the COVID pandemic, then it is that such an economy is possible. Exactly when governments took care of large portions of worker salaries it became clear that something that had always been regarded an impossibility, could be implemented without any trouble: a collective guarantee on income as befits a socialist mode of production, for example. (p. 16, my translation)

We should have stuck to the principle that interventions in people’s lives and preventative policies concerning their health can only be justified if they come about collectively, in a spirit of solidarity and in an arrangement where nobody needs to worry about their livelihood—where nobody is left behind. This should have been our line in the sand. But it would have required pleading not only for narrow forms of public health, but a demand for an end to the economic exploitation of people and the earth. And I think that this never really was part of the demand of zero covid.

We wasted it, but it’s never too late

I’ve been thinking about Schinkel’s argument ever since I read it. He makes clear that the pandemic gave us yet another reason to distance ourselves from ’normal life’. It is precisely these ’normal’ ways of living, with their rampant consumerism, irresponsible travel habits, and colonial exploitation that have formed a catalyst of the pandemic we are in. Their greedy violence towards nature is the cause of habitat disruption, the loss of biodiversity, and the dissolution of the ecological barriers that would have slowed down viral spread and evolution of variants. We were never in an ’emergency of the virus’ because throughout the pandemic it was ‘business as usual’, the world of capitalist extraction never came to a halt. That’s why so many people died unnecessarily. Business as usual was the real problem all along.

So think back to early 2020. When the pandemic hit, it presented an excellent opportunity to ask the question: How can we stop this? How can we live differently? I’m sure many of us also did ask those questions to ourselves, and many did see a glimmer of possibility. But we wasted it. Instead, we fell in a trap and either did nothing or focused on narrowly technocratic disagreements about strategy and the economy. With some notable exceptions, most of what we did reflected the idea that now is not the time for broader political struggle. Perhaps we didn’t know how to launch that bigger fight. Perhaps we were trying to be diplomatic. But the ’emergency’ of a pandemic like this one is precisely not a moment to be diplomatic. As Schinkel writes, it is precisely not a moment to suspend those political struggles, because the preservation of the status quo is the real emergency.

The COVID pandemic is a symptom of capitalism, and so the fight for public health should always have been explicitly anti-capitalist. It should always have been radically political. But as the pandemic became officially ’elevated’ to a public health emergency of international concern, SARS-CoV-2 and its unchecked spread got isolated and depoliticised. It was excised from its historical reality and turned into something natural and inevitable—an external threat to humans and their economy.

Now that we are officially on the other end of the emergency phase of the pandemic, I hope that it will be possible for us to untangle ourselves from this vicious snare. We don’t need an emergency to demand an end to ’normal’ capitalism. It is never too late to ask those questions: How can we stop this? How can we live differently?

Cart board boxes with the WHO logo

Photo by Asad Photo Maldives

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