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19 February 2020updated 09 Sep 2021 4:08pm

Why the coronavirus presents a global political danger

 The epidemic is a canvas on to which people’s deepest fears and prejudices are being projected. 

By Srecko Horvat

The outbreak of coronavirus has become more than a deadly epidemic. It is also a canvas on to which people’s deepest fears and prejudices are being projected. But it is precisely at such times of spreading panic and paranoia, reinforced by dystopian photographs of deserted cities and beleaguered cruise ships in quarantine, that it is important not only to understand the emotional fallout, but also political economy.

Faced with popular fears of coronavirus, it is useful to return to Thomas Mann’s novel Death in Venice (1912), in which a mysterious disease (later revealed to be cholera) spreads through the tourist “paradise”. Mann’s novel was rooted in the orientalist fear of Eastern contamination – the “horror of diversity” that the main character Ashenbach mentions when he learns that the pathogen originated in India and spread throughout Asia before reaching the Mediterranean and Venice. 

In the early 15th century, Venice was one of the world’s first cities to perfect a system of maritime quarantine. Italy has a long history of quarantines: first used in Modena in 1374 to cordon off potentially infected people, they soon prevented strangers, minority groups, Jews and Arabs from entering the cities. What started as a fear of disease became a means of stigmatising and segregating certain peoples. By 1836 Naples had stopped the free movement of prostitutes and beggars, who were automatically considered to be carriers of infection. 

Today, as coronavirus takes hold, the brunt of xenophobic suspicion is being borne by Chinese people. On 26 January, a local newspaper in France published the headlines “Alerte jaune” (Yellow alert) and “Le péril jaune?” (The yellow peril?), alongside an image of a Chinese woman wearing a protective mask. The paper apologised, but the “horrors of diversity” evoked by Mann in Death in Venice had, it seemed, already occupied the European imagination. French citizens of Asian descent have since posted photos of themselves on social media holding signs reading, “I am not a virus.” 

A virus is not only a biological agent that replicates inside the living cells of an organism; it is part of an ideology that constructs the “Other” as a disease. On 30 January, in response to the first reported cases of coronavirus in Italy, Matteo Salvini, the leader of the far-right Lega, tweeted: “And they said we were spectators and alarmists. Open borders, useless people in government. We pray to God that there are no disasters, but whoever has done wrong must pay.” 

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But it is not just nationalists, in Europe and elsewhere, who are using coronavirus to “prove” that they were right to insist on closing borders. The liberal mainstream media has also treated coronavirus as being inherently Chinese. On 1 February, the German news magazine Der Spiegel ran a cover image of a person in a protective red suit and gas mask, an iPhone in their hand, with the headline: “Made in China”. On the same day the Economist’s front page read “How bad will it get?”, above an image of the Earth covered by a face mask emblazoned with a Chinese flag.

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In Illness as Metaphor (1978), Susan Sontag challenges the victim-blaming language often used to describe diseases and those who suffer from them. Four decades on, illnesses are still being discussed in simplistic and symbolic terms; coronavirus is being used as a metaphor to express all sorts of fears, including, as seen in Der Spiegel and the Economist, over China’s dominant position in the global economy. Both magazine covers represent a dread of the economic danger that the virus poses to capitalism itself – that is, to the production of goods, from iPhones to Tesla cars. 

Coronavirus has a significant bearing on the economy, particularly tourism and factory production. But it won’t lead to the collapse of neoliberalism – the dominant ideology of the past four decades – the central tenet of which is about insulating the market economy from democratic forces. 

As the French philosopher Michel Foucault argued in his lectures on “Security, territory and population” and the “Birth of Biopolitics” at the Collège de France in the 1970s, neoliberalism operates through a new form of governing that is concerned with the “biopolitical control” of populations. This, achieved through the “technologies of control” such as health care and punishment, can lead to what Foucault called “state racism” and the racism of “permanent purification”. 

This idea was recently returned to by Quinn Slobodian, the Canadian historian and author of Globalists. Writing in the New York Times in 2018, Slobodian argued that the far right strives to entrench an “alter-globalisation” based on anti-immigration; one where “goods and money will remain free, but people won’t”. 

The point is that despite a 12 per cent decrease in global smartphone production in the first quarter of 2020, the slowing of international car production and the temporary closure of Foxconn’s factories in southern China (which manufacture the iPhone), coronavirus is not so much a danger to the neoliberal economy as it is an agent to create the perfect environment for the ideology. 

This is the political danger of coronavirus: a global health crisis that suits both the ethno-nationalist goal of fortified borders and racial exclusivity, and the aim of ending the free movement of peoples (especially those from developing nations) but ensuring that the flow of goods and capital remains unchecked. 

At present, the rising pandemic of fear is more dangerous than the virus itself. The apocalyptic imagery in the media hides the deepening relationship between the far-right and the capitalist economy. And in the same way that a virus needs a living cell to replicate, so will capitalism adapt to the new biopolitics of the 21st century. 

Coronavirus has already impacted on the global economy, but it won’t stop the never-ending circulation and accumulation of capital. If anything, we might soon be facing a darker, and even more dangerous form of capitalism, one that relies on the stronger control and purification of populations.

Srecko Horvat is the author of “Poetry from the Future” (Allen Lane)

This article appears in the 19 Feb 2020 issue of the New Statesman, The age of pandemics