Necrosecurity, Immunosupremacy, and Survivorship in the Political Imagination of COVID-19
© 2021 Martha Lincoln, published by De Gruyter.
This work is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International
Abstract: The neologism ‘necrosecurity’ describes the cultural idea that mass death among less grievable subjects plays an essential role in maintaining social welfare and public order. In the early months of the novel coronavirus pandemic in the United States, this perspective on the social value of death emerged in diverse contexts, particularly in claims that deaths were a necessary consequence of returning economies to normal. Necrosecurity discourse encourages audiences to perceive coronavirus fatalities as neither preventable nor exceptional, and to perceive themselves as facing little risk of infection or death. Overlooking the realities of infectious disease epidemiology, these accounts portrayed COVID-19 as a mild disease and imagined a population of robust and physically normative individuals who would survive an epidemic unscathed and ready to return to work. These appeals articulate with powerful cultural tropes of survivorship, in which statistical calculations of relative risk and life chances—ostensibly cited to inspire hope for an individual outcome—conceal a zero-sum calculus in which ill or susceptible individuals are pitted against one another. In contrast to the construct of biosecurity—the securing of collective life against risk—necrosecurity paradoxically imagines the deaths of vulnerable others as a means of managing shared existential dangers.
Keywords: COVID-19, death, immunity, medical anthropology, survivorship
In an extensive interdisciplinary corpus on the cultural significance of death and “the political lives of dead bodies” (Verdery, 1999), there is limited precedent to guide analysis of the cultural framing of death in the United States during the early months of the novel coronavirus pandemic. Official public response to mass casualty events affecting Americans—wars, natural disasters, school shootings, and the events of September 11, 2001—has historically been informed by a cultural imperative to valorize and commemorate the deceased. This is particularly true when deaths are constructed as premature, unusual, or unexpected, and when the departed are imagined to be innocent of responsibility for the circumstances of their passing.
However, as the national death toll from COVID-19 reached 100,000 in the third week of May 2020, an editorial in the L.A. Times observed “little sense of shared grief ” and noted a surprising absence of public memorialization despite losses on the order of “twelve plane crashes a day for months” (Bierman & Stokols, 2020). Where official discourse in other global settings represented pandemic deaths as tragic misfortunes for families, communities, and nations, a quite different tone was struck at the highest levels of the U.S. state—where public discourse represented the risks and costs of the coronavirus in highly equivocal terms.1 While the abandonment of ungrievable subjects (Butler, 2010)—in the form of racial health disparities, for example—is a routinized aspect of neoliberal governmentality and typically compels limited attention as such, the COVID-19 pandemic has moved these often occluded dynamics into more public view.2
Eschewing the formal tone culturally prescribed for references to the aging and the infirm, President Trump claimed in May that the “only bad survey” finding on the pharmaceutical hydroxychloroquine reported outcomes among individuals who were “very old, almost dead” (White House, 2020j).3 The same week, a study by Columbia University epidemiologists suggested that 36,000 excess deaths could have been prevented nationally if shelter-in-place orders had been imposed a week earlier (Pei et al., 2020); in response, the President asserted that Columbia was a “liberal, disgraceful institution.” In late September 2020, when the evidence of the federal government’s failures to contain disease transmission was undeniable, the President continued to insist that the coronavirus “affects virtually nobody.” Contravening the findings of nationally respected health authorities, Fox News journalist Tucker Carlson suggested in early April that national counts of coronavirus deaths were overstated (Blake, 2020)—a claim that the President and his supporters would continue to promote through the waning days of his administration (Knight & Appleby, 2020; Weiland et al., 2020).
While positioning pandemic deaths as insignificant, Trump was still at times compelled to acknowledge the norms for a head of state’s public utterances about death and mortality rates. When pressed to state how many deaths he found “acceptable” at a briefing in late March, the President insisted “None” (White House, 2020f). But this was already appearing untrue. From the earliest weeks of the pandemic, Trump and others in his administration framed the rising death toll as evidence of policy successes, often by comparing the counts to counterfactual scenarios. For example, on March 14th, he stated in a briefing “As of this moment we have 50 deaths, which is—a lot of good decisions were made, or that number could be many times that” (White House, 2020e). On March 29th, he stated “We don’t have 2.2 million deaths.4 We have a number that’s much less—much, much less” (White House, 2020g). On April 4th, as the illusion of a short-lived epidemic was beginning to give way, the President continued to appeal to counterfactuals, stating “There’ll be a lot of death, unfortunately, but a lot less death than if this wasn’t done” (White House, 2020h).
With Johns Hopkins University recording a US death toll of at least 88,754 (Chavez et al., 2020) on May 17th, the President tweeted “Doing REALLY well, medically, on solving the CoronaVirus situation (Plague!)” (Trump, 2020b). The same day, Dr. Richard Bright, ousted from his position as the director of the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority, testified to Congress that the United States was risking the prospect of “its darkest winter in modern history” (Chavez et al., 2020). Despite this grim prognosis, an attitude of toleration and even nonchalance towards death emerged in American society over the early months of the pandemic, with calls to accept, diminish, or even encourage pandemic deaths proliferating through social and broadcast media. These appeals, some of which were expressed by influential politicians, commentators, and government advisors, were dissonant with the sobering situation of continuing mass death—particularly given normative taboos against trivializing death and disparaging the dead—and inspired observations to the effect that the Republican Party had become a “death cult” (Rubin, 2020).
What deeper transformations are disclosed by this apparent public truce with death struck by national leaders? What explains such widespread lack of reverence for those who have died? What work is accomplished by diminishing the significance of death and the risks of a potentially fatal pathogen? In the following discussion, I address these concerns, critically exploring the thematic features of the novel coronavirus as it has been imagined in public discourse. I focus on statements made by right-wing political figures and commentators from February to late May 2020, as the pandemic made inroads into U.S. populations and incurred a first wave of mortality. I suggest how misleading accounts of the virulence of SARS-CoV-2 and the epidemiology, symptomatology, and sequelae of COVID-19 were leveraged in support of a pandemic response program that would ultimately accelerate the transmission of the virus.
While cases and deaths continued to mount in the U.S. over these early months, statements made by the President and his supporters regarding pandemic fatalities advanced a contradictory cultural politics in which the specter of coronavirus death was simultaneously minimized and figured as a form of “essential work”: a socially necessary sacrifice by certain fragments of the population, tendered to permit majoritarian subjects and their way of life to survive. I characterize this paradoxical project in terms of necrosecurity—an initiative of accepting, fostering, and even promoting death (for some) as a means of securing life (for others). As I will argue, necrosecurity represents a departure from the commitments and techniques of biosecurity, in which potential threats are preempted or contained in order for human life and health to flourish. As I will further suggest, this discourse was accompanied by claims that encouraged members of the public to perceive themselves and most others as physically normal, healthy, and unlikely to be harmed by infection—a worldview which I describe as immunosupremacy. These claims were further legitimated by appeals to survival, in which statistical calculations of relative risk and life chances—ostensibly cited to inspire hope for individual outcomes—conceal a zero-sum calculus in which ill or susceptible individuals are pitted against one another.
In an essay written shortly after the beginning of the Global War on Terror, the philosopher Achille Mbembe posed a challenge to Foucault’s frequently cited formulation of biopower, arguing that this theoretical apparatus for thinking about power over life and death was inadequate. According to Foucault, biopower operates by making live and letting die—amplifying the vitality of some populations at the expense of other populations, who are neglected or allowed to be exposed to harm. Drawing on Hegel’s insight that human subjectivity is established through a confrontation with death, Mbembe situates death as a dynamic and constitutive part of power relations, situating politics as “the work of death” (Mbembe, 2003, p. 16). With this move imagining death, not life, at the center of political power, Mbembe argues that the construct of biopower cannot fully account “for the contemporary ways in which the political, under the guise of war, of resistance, or of the fight against terror, makes the murder of the enemy its primary and absolute objective” (Mbembe, 2003, p. 12). Mbembe coins the concept of necropower, a form of power which is, he suggests, deployed in “death-worlds”—sites such as colonial occupations, slave plantations, and refugee camps, where populations are “subjected to conditions of life conferring upon them the status of living dead” (Mbembe, 2003, p. 40).
Conceivably, the experience of the pandemic in the United States could be theorized as an expression of biopower, insofar as a vulnerable population was permitted possibly fatal exposures as a hypothesized means of amplifying the vitality of more privileged groups; as Foucault noted, biopower can entail abandonment, exposure to death, and even killing (2003, p. 256). Read differently, these events might also be constructed as exemplifying necropower, insofar as the President and his supporters could be seen to instrumentalize COVID-19 as a means of murdering political enemies. However, I suggest that neither the formulation of biopower nor that of necropower can completely characterize the U.S. federal government’s response to the coronavirus pandemic.
A biopolitical logic is certainly evident in discourse designating certain populations as less valuable and grievable—but the construct of biopower fails to fully account for the apparent paradox of the Trump administration’s failed pandemic management. The missteps of the state’s COVID-19 response go beyond a passive act of “letting die,” insofar as they sanctioned, encouraged, and even compelled behaviors that contributed to the transmission of infection.5Further, Foucault suggests that “[i]n the biopower system, killing or the imperative to kill is acceptable only if it results not in a victory over political adversaries, but in the elimination of the biological threat to and the improvement of the species or race” (Foucault, 2003, p. 256). The Trump administration’s pandemic response fails to satisfy this criterion insofar as it entirely failed to eliminate the biological threat of the novel coronavirus, and indeed did not aim to do so—yet continued to rhetorically promote selective death as acceptable and salutary, with deaths among populations seen as excess or disposable even posited as “a source of value” (Haskaj, 2018, p. 1148).5
While the triumphalist tone of this pro-death rhetoric certainly contains necropolitical undertones, I suggest that neither such rhetoric nor an incompetent pandemic response—even if deliberate—can be meaningfully compared to the death-worlds that Mbembe describes. Too, neither biopower nor necropower can account for the logic that apparently informed how the pandemic response has attempted to leverage pandemic deaths strategically towards pragmatic ends. I therefore describe these phenomena using the neologism necrosecurity—a mode of power that operates between biopower and necropower, between “letting die” and annihilation.
Necrosecurity, as I conceptualize it, is a counterpart to biosecurity—a term which critical geographer Bruce Braun describes as “those knowledges, techniques, practices, and institutions whose concern is to secure valued forms of life from biological risks” (Braun, 2013, p. 45). At this point in history, biosecurity is characteristically a high-tech enterprise of securing life against such biological harms—which are typically construed as chemical, bacterial, and viral threats rather than the gross physical injuries inflicted by war. While the term “biosecurity” originally came into use as a descriptor for livestock health and occupational safety among lab workers, it now references a much more capacious, even existential endeavor. A 2013 textbook acknowledges that the term is “difficult to define,” but also states “biosecurity is a ‘strategic and integrated approach encompass[ing] the policy and regulatory frameworks that analyze and manage risk in the sectors of food safety, animal life and health, and plant life and health, including associated environmental risk’” (Burnette, 2013, p. 3). As this invocation of a “strategic and integrated approach” suggests, biosecurity is closely tied to defense initiatives. Envisioning threats from emerging infectious disease (King, 2002) alongside acts of unconventional warfare such as the release of biological agents (Cooper, 2006), biosecurity discourse blurs distinctions between the priorities of public health and those of the armed forces.
From the perspective of biosecurity, living creatures are an extension of state sovereignty: strategic bio-assets for governments to secure. Bruce Braun therefore describes biosecurity as a form of biopolitics, pointing to how “biosecurity practices bring ‘life’ into the realm of political calculation” (Braun, 2013, p. 45). However, where biopolitics makes “cuts” in human populations, exposing some groups selectively to injury, debility, or death, biosecurity does not characteristically operate in this fashion. Rather, biosecurity typically seeks to preempt or destroy the lives of non-human organisms in the name of security or to contain emerging threats to human biology, as seen, for example, in projects to collect and analyze air samples to detect acts of bioterrorism (c.f. Garza et al., 2014).
In the years following the Cold War, the development of biosecurity initiatives was spurred by “polymorphous new threats” that the United States perceived to be arising beyond an established balance of nuclear terror (Collier et al., 2004, p. 3). These initiatives derived their most compelling raison d’être from the events of the weeks following September 11, 2001, when envelopes containing anthrax spores were mailed to news outlets and members of Congress. The anthrax attacks legitimated the establishment of new priorities in national security, much as the attacks on the World Trade Center enabled the arrogation of new state security and police powers. Under the aegis of biosecurity, for twenty years governmental agencies, university programs, and research labs have prepared for a public health crisis or “an attack of epidemic proportions” (Cooper, 2006, p. 113). The construct has accrued the prestigious trappings of a discipline with strategic statecraft value—corporate and public-sector research agendas, dedicated degree programs, national task forces, and multilateral accords. Like other forms of post-9/11 defense strategy in the U.S., biosecurity operates according to a future-oriented logic of anticipation and preemption, seeking not only to control what exists but also to predict and intervene in what might become.
Over the first months of the novel coronavirus pandemic, however, these powers of securing life seemed thwarted. Under the Obama administration, the National Security Council had prepared a “pandemic playbook” whose core premise prescribed that in the event of a “high-consequence” emerging infectious disease threat, “the U.S. government will use all powers at its disposal to prevent, slow or mitigate the spread” (Executive Office of the President of the United States 2016, p. 31). The Trump administration failed to so much as consult the playbook in response to the emergence of SARS-CoV-2 (Diamond & Toosi, 2020). Further compromised by a series of unit closures and resignations that had left “no senior administration official focused on global health security” in the federal government since 2018 (Sun, 2018), the executive branch failed to procure adequate personal protective equipment for health workers, properly manage the rollout of diagnostic testing, or provide meaningful pandemic management guidance to state health authorities. White House interference in the activities, publications, and communications of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention deliberately stifled timely warnings to the American public regarding the risk of activities like attending church (Bandler et al., 2020).6 Though the federal government allocated significant funding to a public-private initiative in vaccine research and development called “Operation Warp Speed” in March, this was effectively a rearguard action; the anticipatory aspect of biosecurity had essentially failed. While the 2019 Global Health Security Index had rated the United States as the nation best prepared to combat a pandemic, over the course of 2020 its leaders delivered one of the worst COVID-19 outcomes in the world (Lincoln, 2020) despite decades of federal investment in “preparedness.”
As scholars of biopolitics and biosecurity have pointed out, the project of biosecurity is intrinsically subject to failure given its sweeping, contradictory remit—though perhaps not subject to such abject failure as the U.S. response to COVID-19 delivered. As critical analyses have suggested, efforts to extend increasingly entangling forms of militarized power over life inevitably entail “bioinsecurities” (Ahuja, 2016): “inside jobs,” accidental releases, and other forms of blowback. In his discussion of the 2001 anthrax attacks—which the FBI suspected were perpetrated by a US government scientist—anthropologist Joseph Masco affirms “Biosecurity is a noir in the United States today because its chief threats, though projected outward, are internal” (2014, p. 191). In yet more practical ways, biosecurity imposes opportunity costs, coming at the expense of traditional sources of life protection such as public health infrastructure, gender equity, labor protections, and food security (c.f. Hsu, 2009). And finally, one might note that the post-9/11 biosecurity-industrial complex in the U.S. was predicated on untruths and misinformation, even by “strategic ignorance” (McGoey, 2019).
Thus, though necrosecurity is deeply informed by anti-scientific and anti-expert sentiments, it is not simply a failed biosecurity, nor is it a form of biosecurity in which the project’s intrinsic flaws are made visible. Normatively, biosecurity does not call for human illness or deaths. By contrast, necrosecurity explicitly and centrally instrumentalizes death—imagining a sacrificial population whose exposure to harm will secure against losses to more qualified populations. It is a calculated attempt to leverage the pathogenic and epidemiological properties of disease towards social, political, and economic ends. Lying between passive “letting die” and overt murder of political enemies, necrosecurity entails the promotion of death intended to preempt other deaths; instead of seeking to prevent human deaths, as biosecurity would, it attempts to secure life by allowing death to flourish selectively. In the context of the COVID-19 pandemic in the United States, necrosecurity took the form of efforts to use disposable, at-risk populations as a firebreak where illness and possible death would—it was imagined—be concentrated, securing the lives and way of life of a valorized majority.
From a very early moment after the novel coronavirus reached the United States, the Trump administration defaulted to a discourse of necrosecurity, endorsing death as a commonsense means of returning society and the national economy to business as usual. But beyond simply sanctioning death among the weak, right-wing discourse about the novel coronavirus attempted to reassure audiences by presenting the pandemic as relatively unthreatening, particularly to “healthy people.” Overlooking the realities of infectious disease epidemiology and the potential effects of the virus, these accounts portrayed COVID-19 as a mild disease and imagined a population of robust and physically normative individuals who would survive an epidemic unscathed and ready to return to work.
In Spring 2020, during debates over state policies imposing lockdowns and other disease control measures, right-wing American politicians and cultural commentators opposed attempts to protect public health, made peace with the prospect of potentially widespread mortality, and minimized the risks of the pandemic. Despite longstanding commitments to a “pro-life” politics as well as to concepts of national “preparedness,” right-wing actors put forward a discourse that framed COVID-19 mortality as inevitable and of limited public concern. Within weeks after governors issued stay-at-home orders to slow the spread of infection, protests were organized by restive right-wing groups to oppose the mandatory measures. These were accompanied by a burgeoning libertarian movement drawing together calls for civic and economic freedoms, invocations of Constitutional protections, and appeals for bodily autonomy.
Some anti-lockdown discourse also contained claims that death, particularly death among older Americans, should be seen as in some way acceptable.7 In April 2020 conservative commentator Ben Shapiro stated “If somebody who is 81 dies of COVID-19, that is not the same thing as somebody who is 30 dying of COVID-19” (Moye, 2020), and in a radio interview the former Fox News host Bill O’Reilly asserted that most coronavirus patients “were on their last legs already” (Sullivan, 2020). Right-wing editor Bethany Mandel drew controversy for tweeting “You can call me a Grandma killer. I’m not sacrificing my home, food on the table (…) every form of pleasure (museums, zoos, restaurants), all my kids’ teachers in order to make other people comfortable” (Mandel, 2020)—an appeal that hypothetically pitted middle-class family life against the survival of a “grandma.”8 While these comments carefully avoided referencing the racial, socioeconomic, and occupational disparities in COVID-19 epidemiology that were already becoming apparent (c.f. APM Research Lab, 2020; Gold et al., 2020), they effectively relegated all pandemic deaths to insignificance—figuring the average coronavirus death as equivalent to the loss of a fragile grandparent at the end of a full life.
Other comments in support of state re-openings posed philosophical challenges regarding the value of life itself: relativizing the value and meaning of being alive, presenting zero-sum scenarios, and suggesting that the fact of death’s inevitability trumped concerns about premature or preventable loss of life. Alexandra DeSanctis of the National Reviewmused “Human life is beautiful and precious and good, but life on earth isn’t our ultimate end” (DeSanctis, 2020). Dan Patrick, Republican lieutenant governor of Texas, called for the state’s reopening with the unforgettable claim that “There are more important things than living” (Benen, 2020). An investment banker, quoted in a Vanity Fair article on Wall Street’s response to shelter-in-place orders, endorsed personal responsibility and common sense while giving voice to a superbly overweening fatalism:
People will die. People do die. People my age die. It happens, right? It can happen with a flu epidemic. People can die. People have to take care of themselves and wash their hands. (…) People have to take responsibility for their own lives. And people do die. That is kind of what happens. (Cohan, 2020)
While many of these assertions did not cite supporting evidence, others attempted to marshal statistics in their estimations of the relative risk posed by coronavirus. The President drew repeated comparisons between coronavirus and influenza, suggesting that a great number of Americans die annually of flu without imposing social costs.9 These perspectives were echoed by right-wing media figures like Laura Ingraham of Fox News, who characterized the pandemic as “likely to be closer to maybe a really aggressive flu season” (Sollenberger, 2020). In a mid-April interview with Ingraham, television personality Phil (“Dr. Phil”) McGraw asserted that “we don’t shut the country down” for deaths caused by tobacco, traffic crashes, and “swimming pools,” providing incorrect statistics10 on annual mortality totals caused by the latter two sources (Pesce, 2020). And in May, Republican senator Ron Johnson re-upped this claim, stating “We don’t shut down our economy because tens of thousands of people die on the highways; it’s a risk we accept so we can move about” (Sullivan, 2020).
In these diverse diminutions of death, faux-scientific rationalizations, calls for trade-offs, and overt derogations of life, some of these comments exemplified what historian David Perry calls “vice signaling”—a performance of partisan spite “intended to create a community based on cruelty and disregard for others” (Berlatsky, 2020). Along other explanatory lines, journalist Olga Khazan argued that the “empathy deficit” visible in popular attitudes towards the risk of COVID-19 was caused not only by the inevitable onset of “compassion fade” in response to a disaster represented mostly in terms of statistics, but by white animus towards African Americans as well as a widely shared callousness towards the elderly and a desire to limit their consumption of health services (Khazan, 2020).11
However, not all calls to rationalize COVID-19 deaths can be written off as armchair epidemiology, perceptual bias, or grandstanding by personalities of the right-wing attention economy. A 2014 essay by Zeke Emanuel, an oncologist, bioethicist, and adviser to the Biden presidential campaign, began recirculating through media channels in conjunction with conversations about the pandemic. Titled “Why I Hope to Die at 75,” the piece sparked debate with its disturbingly Malthusian premise that “families—and you—will be better if nature takes its course swiftly.” In April, the New York Times Magazine ran an editorial titled “Restarting the U.S. Economy Will Cost Lives. So When Do We Do It?” The editors wrote “In the longer run… it’s important to acknowledge that a trade-off [between saving lives and saving the economy] will emerge” (NYTM, 2020). While discourse minimizing the risks of COVID-19 was dominated by voices on the right, thinkers of other political stripes also publicized recommendations that policymakers come to terms with death—often using acceptance of lost life as evidence of pragmatism, maturity, and political realism.
The Trump administration did sporadically attempt to dignify death by framing the pandemic as a war against an “invisible enemy”—war being, after all, the health of the state (Bourne, 1918). Yet the administration also continued to insist that US mortality rates were both inevitable and the evidence of a best-case scenario. In early May, Trump commented “So many people have died. That’s the one thing we can’t do anything about, unfortunately. What I can say is if we did it the different way (…) we would have been talking about numbers that would have been unsustainable and unacceptable” (White House, 2020i)—implying that the COVID-19 case counts and deaths recorded to date were both acceptable and sustainable. Here, the President’s framing of the pandemic as a war revealed an unintended underside. The country’s pandemic losses were afforded so little official recognition that they could be meaningfully compared to foreign casualties incurred overseas in recent wars, with Trump and other right-wing actors consistently representing American coronavirus deaths as if they were collateral damage: losses at once distant, anonymous, exaggerated, necessary, and insignificant.
On February 29th, reporting the first U.S. death caused by the virus, the President stated12:
Unfortunately, one person passed away overnight. She was a wonderful woman—a medically high-risk patient in her late fifties. Four others are very ill. Thankfully, 15 are either recovered fully or they’re well on their way to recovery. And in all cases, they’ve been let go in their home.
Additional cases in the United States are likely, but healthy individuals should be able to fully recover. And we think that will be a state-ment that we can make with great surety [sic] now that we’ve gotten familiar with this problem. They should be able to recover should they contract the virus. So, healthy people, if you’re healthy, you will probably go through a process and you’ll be fine. (White House, 2020a)
This commentary implied that with this one death, the end of the outbreak was in sight. However, within weeks of this statement’s issue, the United States would record the highest national totals of coronavirus cases and fatalities in the world. Over the following months the U.S. would remain the world leader in COVID-19 morbidity and mortality, contributing a highly disproportionate share of the global burden of disease. As after his predecessor’s premature claim of “mission accomplished,” the President’s hubris of late February would be punished by nemesis in short order.
Trump’s remarks were further noteworthy for manipulating medical and epidemiological facts to advantage a laissez-faire response to the pandemic. Here, one might be curious about what it means to “go through a process,” “fully recover,” or “be fine” relative to an infection that can cause severe pathological changes in lung tissue, inflict a host of as-yet poorly understood damages to multiple body systems (Marks & Pour, 2020), and also, for some survivors, incur long-term symptoms that resemble a chronic disease (Khullar, 2020; Yong, 2020). These were, even at an early moment in the COVID-19 pandemic, inconvenient truths—and the President’s minimization of these medical facts is consonant with a long history of right-wing scientific denialism, agnotological manipulation (c.f. Proctor & Schiebinger, 2008), and the strategic leveraging of what Donald Rumsfeld once infamously described as “unknown unknowns.”
Comment: Long COVID will be a top 10 medical cost driver within the next 3 years
These remarks, showcasing a surprising indifference towards the exceptional and tragic occasion of the nation’s first pandemic death, encouraged listeners to identify not with the deceased or their family, but with a group of “healthy individuals” who would survive infection “fine.” Such “healthy individuals,” the second figure in Trump’s remarks, are constructed as a self-evident category and a social majority. This representation glossed over the reality that all individuals are potentially susceptible to infection by a newly emerging virus. Nonetheless, the idea that the coronavirus threatened individually fragile “patients” but not “healthy people” was frequently repeated in the early weeks of the outbreak and endorsed by scientific and medical authorities as senior as White House Coronavirus Response Coordinator Dr. Deborah Birx (White House, 2020c).13
In describing disease risk as confined to a select population whose vulnerabilities were presumably both uncommon and readily apparent, the President legitimated a discourse that would have profound consequences for public health in the months that followed. Specific ideological work is accomplished by the idea that individuals are either “high-risk” or “healthy”—and, further, by the belief that health vulnerabilities are a property of individuals, not of populations. Notably, this narrative also inverts the usual format for grievability, making an individual casualty—who would typically be a figure of charisma and identification—seem anonymous and unimportant, while the mass—usually depersonalized and faceless—is made to seem proximate and familiar. This affirmation of a situation in which the strong will presumably survive is at the core of immunosupremacy: a worldview in which social worth, physical resilience, and survival are imagined as the same thing.Through the early months of the coronavirus pandemic, the President’s public comments continued to retread an immunosupremacist message—denying the grievable status of fatalities, appealing to the physical resilience of the average person, and understating the danger of the virus. These premises often led to deeply contradictory claims. With at least 67,447 Americans dead of COVID-19 and 1,154,340 infected (Regan et al., 2020), the President tweeted on May 3rd:
….And then came a Plague, a great and powerful Plague, and the World was never to be the same again! But America rose from this death and destruction, always remembering its many lost souls, and the lost souls all over the World, and became greater than ever before! (Trump, 2020a)
Though this remark drew mocking commentary for its affected, quasi-Biblical diction, its core premise was not at all a departure from the President’s publicly held positions. Subtextually, this statement imagined the novel coronavirus as a kind of cleansing fire whose destruction would redound to the health of the nation—suggesting that specifically afterthe departure of “many lost souls” the nation would become “greater than ever before.” Read alongside the President’s many assertions implying that losses were confined among “largely old people who are—who were susceptible to what’s happening” (White House, 2020b), this tweet expressed a millenarian enthusiasm about the prospect of shedding vulnerable fractions of the US population to achieve new national greatness.
Imagining the body politic as composed of mostly young, healthy, and resilient individuals covered over some unpleasant truths. Owing to age or preexisting health conditions or both, a significant share of Americans is potentially susceptible to more serious illness if infected with COVID-19. Where Trump and the Pandemic Response Team typically described susceptible populations as if they were a negligible cohort, this obscured the reality that four in ten American adults—if not more—are at elevated risk due either to their age or to an underlying medical condition or both (Koma et al., 2020).14 In some parts of the United States, as much as half of the adult population faces increased risk of more serious illness (Koma et al., 2020). For a very considerable share of the population—90 million of 246 million Americans—there is no guarantee of safety in numbers; no other America to absorb risk on their behalf.
4 Mild Symptoms
Further diminishing the sense of urgency in prevention, public discourse in the early months of the pandemic characterized the novel coronavirus as causing only a mild infection in most patients. Trump seized on this aspect of the disease as the pandemic progressed, claiming that “a vast majority are going to be fine” (White House, 2020b) and suggesting that “Young and healthy people can expect to recover fully and quickly if they should get the virus” (White House, 2020d). Dismissing the virus as innocuous came to function as a ritual expression of bravado among right-wing populists: before his own brush with disease, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson joked that he “continued to shake hands”; Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro scoffingly termed the virus “a little flu” (Granada, 2020); and Fox News host Tucker Carlson claimed that COVID-19 “just isn’t nearly as deadly as we thought it was” (Baragona, 2020).The claim that coronavirus caused “mild” symptoms for a majority of those infected is drawn from a February 2020 report that found 80.9% of Chinese patients with confirmed COVID-19 had no pneumonia, or only “mild pneumonia” (The Novel Coronavirus Pneumonia Emergency Response Team 2020)—a datum that was later corroborated by the WHO. However, Professor of Social Research Felicity Callard, writing as she recovered from a suspected COVID-19 infection, critiqued the descriptor “mild” for trivializing the severity of suffering experienced by many patients who do not require hospitalization:
Accounts by patients (…) who experienced mild Covid-19 without finding it mild also make evident the significant disparity between scientific studies and the everyday, common comparators that people use to understand the experience of illness. (Callard, 2020)
As Callard argues, measurements of “mildness” of COVID-19 understate the experience of the disease insofar as they characterize many non-life-threatening but still potentially painful and frightening symptoms as “mild.” Further, as the progression of coronavirus infections is unfamiliar to infected individuals and may vary between cases, the construct of a “mild” illness does not offer clear reassurance; as Callard points out, given the uncertain trajectory of the new disease, “The mild is always potentially (…) severe” (2020). Though medical literature is still catching up, some published accounts attest to how poorly the term “mild” may describe the experience of coronavirus infection in non-hospitalized patients. For example, in an essay on her husband’s experience of COVID-19—which did not require hospitalization, despite his also having asthma—Jessica Lustig wrote:
Comment: Why Do Young, Healthy People Die from COVID-19?, False claim: All patients who die of COVID-19 have serious health problems
, What it’s like to die from Covid-19, Why do people lie about Covid?, Pandemic denial: Why some people can’t accept Covid-19’s realities, Businesses race to battle back new coronavirus restrictions as U.S. faces deadly new surge, Politically connected companies are less likely to shutdown due to COVID‐19 restrictions, Among the Covid sceptics: ‘We are being manipulated, without a shadow of a doubt’, Russia deploying coronavirus disinformation to sow panic in West, EU document says.
[H]e gets more frightened as night comes, dreading the long hours of fever and soaking sweats and shivering and terrible aches. “This thing grinds you like a mortar,” he says. (Lustig, 2020)
In a May New York Times editorial, 33-year-old journalist Mara Gay, who—despite “being one of the lucky ones,” insofar as she did not need a ventilator—described her COVID-19 infection as the feeling of “hot tar buried deep in my chest.” Despite her athletic background, she could not walk more than two blocks for weeks after recovering. However, Gay’s case of coronavirus might still have been described as “mild” insofar as she “did not develop Acute Respiratory Distress Syndrome (ARDS), or have organ failure, or have an ICU admission” (Callard, 2020). She wrote “I want Americans everywhere to understand that this virus is making people very, very sick. I want them to know this is no flu” (Gay, 2020).
Such evidence about the potential health impacts of the novel coronavirus was coolly received by right-wing audiences. By Summer 2020, opinion studies found that Republicans were significantly less likely to perceive the virus as a “major threat to public health” than Democratic voters, even if they lived in areas that had been highly impacted by the virus (Pew Research Center, 2020). As I have described above, these perceptions were shored up by reassurance about the survivability of infection. In their commentary on the pandemic, right-wing commentators appealed to culturally powerful tropes of survival and survivorship—often by leaning on the deceptively reassuring statistic that COVID-19 infections had a “99% survival rate.” In November, as the United States recorded unprecedented levels of COVID-19 incidence, the conservative science journalist Jennifer Margulis tweeted:
Ask yourself: is an infection with an over 99% survival rate in every age category but those over 70 worth: cutting off your relationship with you [sic] best friends, canceling Thanksgiving with your grandparents, flinching away from healthy people because you fear getting sick? (Margulis, 2020)
The constructs of survival and survivorship occupy a similarly fraught position in U.S. cancer culture, where they carry out similar ideological work. In their 2011 article titled Survival Odds, medical anthropologist Lochlann Jain cites an essay written by evolutionary biologist Steven Jay Gould after his diagnosis of abdominal mesothelioma. Contemplating the statistical distribution of clinical outcomes among patients who shared his diagnosis, Gould expressed the hope that he would find himself on the “right skew” of the survival curve—past the median point of eight months’ survival from time of diagnosis. As Jain points out, gains in statistical knowledge about cancer have given rise to similar narratives of “hope,” but these also contain a tacitly adversarial outlook. “Beating the odds” really means outliving other patients:
Justifying one’s own life in the face of the death of the collective makes a dangerous bedrock for hope. But in so doing, Gould translates for us Elias Canetti’s (1984) observation about survivors: “It is as though the battle had been fought in order for him to survive it.” (Jain, 2011, pp. S48-49)
Elias Canetti’s comments on survival are particularly incisive given his status as a Holocaust survivor; in his extensive and highly heterodox body of work, Canetti frequently suggested the morally ambiguous quality of the survivor and pointed to the sadistic and alienated impulses disclosed by the desire to survive. As Canetti wrote in Crowds and Power,“The moment of survival is the moment of power. Horror at the sight of death turns into satisfaction that it is someone else who is dead (…) In survival, each man is the enemy of every other” (Canetti, 1973, p. 227).15
Other common tropes of cancer culture parallel those found in nascent cultural formations surrounding COVID-19. Notably, both COVID-19 and some forms of cancer offer opportunities for commercialization and commodification. In her analysis of the corporate appropriation of breast cancer as a philanthropic cause, feminist scholar Samantha King (2008) demonstrates that via commodification and mass marketing over recent decades, breast cancer has been systematically rebranded as a “safe disease” (King, 2008, p. xxix)—constructed as both politically safe for philanthropic branding as well as imagined to be medically insignificant for most individuals with the diagnosis. In this, corporate advertising campaigns, sponsorships, and promotions of breast cancer-related causes have drawn attention away from the role of exposure to environmental contaminants in driving breast cancer incidence, sometimes coopting the efforts of breast cancer activists along the way. They have also misrepresented basic epidemiological and medical aspects of the disease—for example, by conflating breast cancer screening with “prevention” (Jain, 2013). While there is no pink ribbon for coronavirus yet, nor a culture of honoring coronavirus “survivors,” nor yet a walk-a-thon or a corporate fundraiser “for the cure,” journalist Amanda Hess has pointed out “It’s jarring how easily the virus has been fused with branding and processed into the optimistic language of advertising” (Hess, 2020)—suggesting that a corporate defanging of coronavirus risk via the social construction of COVID-19 “heroes” may already be underway.
In sum, as these critiques suggest, appeals to survival should not be constructed as neutrally factual or optimistic, and citations of survival odds do not register a commitment to scientific perspectives on the coronavirus pandemic so much as they underscore a political motive to depict COVID-19 as a “safe” disease. In these ways, discourse regarding the survivability of COVID-19 draws on tropes that have been critiqued elsewhere for their darkness, pessimism, and rhetorical use of scientific ideas to manipulate public opinion.
As my discussion has suggested, right-wing discourse on the novel coronavirus has been animated by non-evidence-based yet culturally powerful constructs: necrosecurity, immunosupremacy, and survivorship. Taken together, these accounts of health, disease, risk, and mortality are perhaps usefully framed in terms of a folk theory: a simplifying, ideological, and heterodox narrative about cause and effect. Notably, prominent right-wing claims about the risks posed by the novel coronavirus shared an inattention to the physical properties of infectious disease. For example, by drawing a false equivalence between COVID-19 deaths and deaths with non-infectious causes—traffic fatalities, accidents, and non-communicable diseases—arguments for resuming normal social and economic activity neglected the reality that coronavirus cases multiply and spread. This put forward a scenario where a contained amount of death would translate into a return to normal sociality.
By refusing to acknowledge the most basic known realities of contagious disease—centrally, its tendency to spread through populations—these views imagine public health as the sum total of individual healths. In this way, right-wing perspectives figure public health as lacking population ecology dynamics, and indeed without any concept of a public—essentially proposing an anti-public health. In overlooking scenarios where a cryptically spreading virus could become uncontainable, these arguments recapitulated Margaret Thatcher’s infamous assertion that “there’s no such thing as society. There are individual men and women and there are families.” In this perversely antisocial iteration of public health, the organizing concept is: deaths elsewhere mean more health among groups of socially deserving and physically normative majoritarian subjects.
While the semantic and practical sanctioning of harm to outgroups is not a new phenomenon in American society, its deployment in the context of a pandemic represents a convergence of anti-scientific sentiment with a disturbing new development in “the economization of life” (Murphy, 2017). The federal government’s reliance on necrosecurity was materially misinformed, as I have suggested and as epidemiological trends reveal;populations cannot be selectively secured against a highly contagious respiratory virus if disease control measures are not enforced among most of the population. Thus, necrosecurity is shown to be a fantasy—again, one that rested on a deeply contradictory construction of public health.
However, although the Trump administration’s response appeared to be informed by an irrational abandonment of both self-interest and scientific principles, it also capitalized on the tendency of pandemics to exacerbate preexisting dynamics of disadvantage and ill health. In parallel, some of the most pronounced social effects of the pandemic have included a significant and rapid redistribution of wealth, with enormous profits realized in particular by employers of the “essential workers” who were disproportionately likely to be exposed to infection in their workplaces. Here, the relationship between death and essential work becomes disconcertingly blurred. In the cultural moment of COVID-19, allowing existing and emerging disparities in life chances to translate into deaths among vulnerable populations has been openly promoted as a means of securing social and economic stability—as if death functioned like an exotic financial instrument, capable of externalizing risks, extracting new value, and promising irresistible future profit.
Acknowledgments: The author thanks Janina Kehr, Ted Powers, Michelange Quay, Jeremy Rayner, Robert Smith, Saiba Varma, and two anonymous reviewers for their comments on this work.
Funding Information: Author states no funding involved.
Conflict of Interest: The author states no conflict of interest.
In The Grip of Necrocapitalism
Posted on May 3, 2023 by George Tsakraklides, LINK
Evolution has come a long way, perhaps longer than we thought or at least taught in university. We would like to believe that we, humans, represent the forefront of evolution on Earth. But arguably there are other forms of existence here on this planet which supersede us, including some which precede us. One of the most recent of these is our own economic system: a logistical intelligence network which may have been originally developed by humans to serve humans, but which now thinks for itself, and serves only itself. Although humans are its original creators, they have been demoted and reduced to a mere resource within the wider system: they are there as maintenance workers who continue to engineer its expansion, while at the same time being exploited and monetized by it. Then, they are simply thrown away. It is a bizarre symbiosis which has taken millennia to evolve, like many bizarre symbioses found in Earth’s ecosystem.
At the most fundamental level, a life form is defined as an entity which can replicate itself. Our economic system is so efficient, so adaptable and vicious in its search for profit, that it partially fulfils the criteria to be classified not only as a life form all to itself, but also as a semi-sentient one. Nothing can kill it, not even its creators, who have become both servants and dependents within it. This system has proven to be the ultimate predatory life form: able to survive on scraps here and there, and even eat itself if it needs to. Most of all, it can feed on death itself.
If all of this sounds too much like the Matrix movie series, think about why we are heading full speed towards self-destruction. The reason why we have not solved the climate crisis yet is because we are not the ones in control of our destiny. Our economic system is in control of everything now: it is our boss, keeping us in check with alarm clocks, salaries and consumer propaganda. We live under the delusion that we have developed an economic system that works for us, when in reality we are the ones working, being exploited. What we did in fact create is our own slave master. One who is always ready to discard us, if we dare not participate. Whether this system represents a higher or lower form of intelligence than us, it really doesn’t matter. What matters is who is winning, and it’s not us.
In order to avoid a pointless, philosophical and narcissistically human-centric debate on the sentience or not of this system, I will resort for now to refer to it as the “Thing”, also to avoid direct comparisons to DNA-based biological life forms. Some people, including myself, may at times refer to the Thing as capitalism.
The big problem with the Thing is that it is by definition self-destructive. It is a resource-syphoning system driven by profit and efficiency alone, aimed at maximum utilization of resources to the point of exhaustion. Regardless of how one describes it or names it, the economic system humans have created has taken over and now has a mind of its own. It owns us, the Earth and all of its resources, and it will deplete everything before it turns the gun to its head. The Thing has been programmed by humans to be a beast that never sleeps. It never knows how to pace itself, or conserve its energy. It just continues, until one day suddenly, it doesn’t. Even those who still nurture hope and are exploring solutions admit more or less that the only realistically feasible way to reform this system is really to start all over again. This of course implies the collapse of many, but maybe not all, of the edifices of our civilization which have an existential dependency on the Thing. But very few admit this publicly. This is why for every pragmatic and honest book on this subject matter there are twenty more utopian, “hopeful” ones advocating unrealistic solutions which could only be implemented in another universe, by a much more intelligent being.
But aside from the climate crisis, which is on track to end human civilization and much of life on Earth anyway, there is another reason why it is paramount to at least try and eliminate the Thing. We all need to realize that we are not it, and it is not us. The Thing doesn’t care about humans, in much the same way it doesn’t care about its own eventual self-destruction. It is a threat to humanity and has no respect for its original creators. Although the Thing is enmeshed in our society, and we think we control it and live within it and around it, it in fact controls us. It mirrors some of our tendencies and may appear to be human, but it is not really part of us. It has no concern for, or preoccupation with, the multi-faceted interests and needs of humans, and only focuses on the hard, cold figures of its business bottom line. Any economic system which sees nature and human rights as threats to its bottom line is self-destructive and doomed to consume itself. Humanity has erroneously convinced itself that the Thing is the best economic system: offering the fastest, highest returns, at a cost that can be deferred to future generations who haven’t even been born yet. Consumption, overpopulation, growth, are the toxic outcomes of this economic dogma. The more this civilisation refuses to acknowledge the unsustainable foundations of its existence, the more it confirms that its ultimate destiny is to self-annihilate.
It is important to understand the power that the Thing now has over us, and by no means am I trying to transfer the massive responsibility humans have for the state of the planet to an abstract nebulous entity. We created the Thing exactly because it embodied and executed our vision of domination and greed, but we have come to the point where the Thing has completely hijacked the central nervous system of human civilisation. More accurately, it has co-evolved with us as an internal parasite.
The Thing is a device, an optimized machine which is an extension of the human brain, another logistical device. Humans, if anything are rarely truly intelligent, nor are they fully self-aware. They are simply very efficient in resource appropriation and exploitation. This is not intelligence by any measure, but a type of skill. The Thing is a steroid-infused extension of our skillset, which unintentionally got out of control and now unfortunately has the upper hand. The problem with “skills” such as these is that they eventually become outdated. True intelligence, which both us and the Thing lack, doesn’t. Without true intelligence, we are stuck with developing tools which end up taking a life of their own, turning us into mere peripheral, expendable components within a semi-sentient self-destructive ecosystem of skills. This is an evolution lesson that may be too dark, dystopian, and difficult to swallow to ever be taught in schools.
It takes considerable effort to begin to see the Thing, given that all of us are so incredibly linked to it in every way. Like a true symbiont, it provides us with nutrition in exchange for taking over our lives and the planet, and this is why many of us will defend the Thing to our death. By the age of 15, most of us have already become greedy consumers living in a colorful theme park made of corruption, exploitation and extinction. Our transformation from aspiring thinking beings to consumer zombies is almost complete. Like coral and algae on a reef, consumers and the Thing are seemingly forever locked in a symbiotic relationship: our economic system traumatizes us every day, offering us iphones and social app likes in return as painkillers, so that we don’t opt out. Only those with special eyes and ears can see and hear the nightmare that we have created.
The Thing is of course also completely in charge of all power structures and the government. The problem with authority will always be that it cares more about maintaining itself than about serving the well-being of the people it was meant to represent. This is true regardless of who is in power. Therefore, the role of all governments is, and has always been, to maintain the self-destructive economic system which brought the government to power in the first place. This ensures that there is no change of government, which is the goal of every political party. In this sense, it can be argued that both the government and the church came into existence to protect economic oligarchs, by manipulating people into submission. Economic oligarchs in turn are the direct engineers of the Thing. In fact, the only type of economy that humans have experienced in the last few hundred years is one where the Thing increasingly dominates everything. Over millennia the economy matures into an elaborate web of laws, religions, government systems and technologies which enable wealth accumulation through the widespread theft of people, other beings, and the natural resources they were originally meant to share. We wrongly refer to this as civilization, but it is only one possible version of civilization. Our profit-obsessed society has become nothing but a 24-hour sweatshop which only serves profit. In this pointless rat race, no one is allowed to stand still, to stay content, or stay in the present. We are all working zombies.
The industrial revolution was the point where this human civilisation completely lost it. Like a virus, it became more concerned with making infinite copies of itself, rather than contemplating the meaning and purpose of that which it was making copies of. A narrative of continued economic growth, the very toxic time bomb that will end both the Thing and us, had to be developed by both governments and the church. Today all leaders feel obliged to talk about achieving an economic boost for their nations, many of them knowing that the pursuit of such growth guarantees a spectacular extinction for every life form on Earth, including themselves. But they cannot change their propaganda. The survival of entire nations is now dependent on the metrics the Thing uses, and people are not seen as humans but as singular GDP units. This numerization of humanity started long ago, once value became expressed as money and became abstract currency, making real meaning and value invisible to humans. Because money emphasized quantity of supply and demand and not actual quality of life or value of goods, it would soon become an object of mindless accumulation, which further supported the growth paradigm of expansion and leveraging. It can in fact be argued that the death sentence to the planet was set the minute money was invented, as it became the basis for a self-destructive economic system. The problem with abstract currencies, such as the human monetary system, is that they assign value in unfair, often arbitrary ways, mostly based on supply. Because of this uncoupling between monetary value and real value, everything and everyone is at risk of becoming undervalued, devalued, and eventually extinct. In fact, the destruction of renewable resources and the invention of single use products like throwaway fashion, have been essential prerequisite elements of the Thing. Products which die or break down have much more value to the Thing, as they ensure more products will be made. But a new planet will not and cannot be made, once everything has been turned to trash. There are hardly any products in our civilization, for the birth of which something or someone didn’t have to die or be exploited. In fact almost everything man-made is cursed with the karma of a spurned planet. This erosion of value of course extends to humans themselves and is witnessed as the devaluing of the employee. We live in a world where real, value-producing jobs have become cheap resources to be exploited by those who have the so-called “bullshit jobs” that simply push paper and shift blame and responsibility.
Much like with smartphones, computers and other devices that are purposely made to break down after a few months or years, we have condemned the entirety of Earth to obsolescence. As long as the Thing is in charge, this is the ultimate outlook. Our economic system is one of necrocapitalism, with premature death built-in as an essential component.
There is a tripartite toxic feedback loop between leaders, voters and economic oligarchs which is not really of any significance, given that it is all ultimately governed by the Thing. Voters are too brainwashed and powerless, while leaders cannot upset economic oligarchs who brought them to power, and who provide jobs to voters. Therefore, unless all of them wake up at the same time, we are looking at the worst case scenario. A humanity that restores the planet will never take root using today’s social, political and economic systems, as long as these systems are completely under the control and influence of the Thing. Only a complete demolition of these toxic systems can form the basis for a fair and sustainable planet, with or without humans. The most likely, palpable scenario, and one which very few want to entertain, is that by the time thousands die daily, there will be too much hunger, war and lack of funds available for reform to even remember what the climate crisis was in the first place, who the Thing was, and how we got to this inferno. It will be a time of panic, isolationism and self-preservation, rather than collective solutions. As both climate and the social situation deteriorate, events will more likely than not take a natural turn towards a downward spiral of collapse. Frighteningly, the Thing may still survive this collapse, albeit heavily injured. Provided a nuclear holocaust has not made the planet completely uninhabitable, pockets of local economies who have rejected the Thing may exist within a wider framework of a global fascist tech dystopia which has further emboldened the Thing via artificial intelligence assisted by smart surveillance. These scenarios are too bleak for anyone to even begin confidently making predictions and accurate descriptions, but they are not fantasies. They are highly possible, and many will argue many of them have already come true. Like all dystopias, including our current one, they become normalized, accepted, and “liveable”, so that no one ever uses the word “dystopia” to describe them. As long as people take their daily prescription of affirmations and entertainment drugs which the Thing generously provides, we are living in a perfectly “normal” world. It takes immense vision, not to mention courage, for the brave ones to wake up from their manufactured happiness in the matrix, knowing already that doing so will get them depressed. How many of us wake up on a Monday, look outside our window and think: “What have we done to this world?
Humanity has, rather unconsciously, decided to engage in a futile war with the entire planet. The planet’s biggest weapon is the climate, an intelligence network I refer to as the EoT – the Earthnet of Things. The war at large is between the the EoT, a system which obeys physics and science, and the Thing, which does not. Humans are caught in the middle of this struggle. Gaia will use the EoT to bring death, hunger, viruses, locusts, tornadoes, droughts, floods and hurricanes in times and places never thought possible, in the hope of eradicating the malaise of necrocapitalism.
George is an author, researcher, chemist, molecular biologist and food scientist. You can follow him on Twitter @99blackbaloons or enjoy his books