. Anti-Lockdown Theory: Stop Securitisation! | Ceasefire Magazine

Anti-Lockdown Theory: Stop Securitisation! In Theory

Global lockdown is finally giving way to a period of economic crash and social unrest. Yet the state response to the outpouring of justified anger at police atrocities is remarkably similar to its response to the coronavirus pandemic. In the second of his series on lockdown theories, Andy McLaverty-Robinson looks at securitisation, notably the long history of shifting framings of healthcare and the creeping securitisation of social problems.

Columns, In Theory, New in Ceasefire - Posted on Saturday, June 13, 2020 0:00 - 2 Comments


(‘Lockdown 4’, Ian Southwell/licensed under Creative Commons)

Global lockdown is finally giving way to a period of economic crash and social unrest. Yet the state response to the outpouring of justified anger at police atrocities is remarkably similar to its response to the coronavirus pandemic. In this essay I examine the theory of securitisation, as formulated in critical security studies. Please note that the article was drafted prior to the present uprising in America, but has been modified to take account of this new instance of securitisation. The article points towards a comprehensive rejection of securitisation as a condition to revive radical alternatives.

Why use police to handle a medical problem? This is the enduring mystery of the COVID-19 crisis. And part of the answer is: because pandemics have been securitised. Heads of state have repeatedly termed the crisis a “war“. But who is the enemy? An army of microscopic virus cells, which cannot be fought without a vaccine or cure? “The virus”, thought of as a unitary masculine actor which can be beaten-up by the good guys? Is the war being waged to protect the population, or is it being waged against the population, using measures reminiscent of occupation? What about the “enemies within” so often sought — from lockdown breakers and “superspreaders” to foreigners and racial minorities, returning migrants, and even medical workers? Stepping back from the new “common sense”, treating a disease outbreak as a war makes very little sense.

Right now, in the US, we are also seeing a revolt against another kind of securitisation: the militarisation of the racist police. And the state response proves protesters’ point about the racist police-state. Instead of addressing problems like police brutality, racism, mass imprisonment, and poverty, the state has responded with further brutality and militarisation. Trump’s comments on the supposed need to dominate the streets are an admission that a securitised police state does not rest on human rights, the so-called “rule of law” or popular legitimacy. It rests on logistical control of space so as to paralyse the agency of others. At the time of writing, this has not been enough to stop the revolt.

Securitisation Theory

So why do states respond with military, policing, and surveillance measures to what is primarily a medical emergency? This is where securitisation theory fits in. To “securitise” something is to frame it primarily as a security issue. Security issues, in this sense, are exceptional. They override ordinary politics because they are taken to pose an existential threat to society or the state. If an issue is securitised, the response will be exceptional and militaristic. This pattern has been extended repeatedly since 9/11 as the go-to response for any kind of crisis — a response expected by the public as much as the state. COVID-19 is a crisis, it’s generated media panic, so the kneejerk response is to securitise.

The usual question of securitisation theory is: why is this particular phenomenon deemed risky, in such a way that it demands exceptional attention, resources, or powers? The answers vary by theorist and by case, but they often involve the discursive reframing of issues, the projection of discourses and fears into public space, the fear of difference, and competition among political actors to capture resources for their own concerns. Issues are securitised or desecuritised through discursive and political means.

There are four main types of securitisation theory. The best-known is that of the Copenhagen School, associated particularly with Ole Waever. Waever argues that securitisation is mainly exceptionalism. It is a set of speech-acts which construct particular responses. When an issue is securitised, it is removed from the fields of normal law enforcement and legal process, and normal social policy. It is placed in a separate space of unconstrained sovereign power and existential threat. Securitisation of an issue primes people to respond to it in a militarised or repressive way, and to drop their usual principles and scruples about the response. This approach focuses on the ways particular issues get securitised or desecuritised. There is often a logic of bandwagoning. Different social actors try to securitise their own concerns so as to obtain money or power, or force action which isn’t otherwise forthcoming. However, less-powerful groups are usually less able to securitise the issues affecting them.

The Paris School takes a similar but distinct approach. Its leading theorist is Didier Bigo. Bigo believes that securitisation works through the construction of a “field of security”. This is a particular specialist power/knowledge field. His work focuses on borders and boundaries – on what gets included in and excluded from the security field, and how this impacts other exclusions. Securitisation is a way in which institutions or experts redefine and expand their own roles. It involves a new regime of governmentality. (Governmentality is a Foucauldian term for practices of government which are also “mentalities”).

Securitisation has two main aspects. Firstly, it militarises internal security issues. It expands the exceptional approach formerly confined to interstate warfare into responses to social problems. It thus redefines what is meant by state borders, detaching state identity from the boundaries with other states. And secondly, it expands the idea of “security” to cover a wide range of social issues. According to Bigo, securitisation corrodes human rights and undermines other ways of framing issues. Other scholars in this school have argued that securitisation undermines democracy. It encourages a level of risk-aversion which undermines civil rights. And it turns entire groups, such as ethnic minorities, into “risk groups” subject to persecution or surveillance regardless of individual guilt.

Anti-security theory is a more radical version of securitisation theory. It suggests that the idea of security is a dangerous, depoliticising illusion. It is a way to avoid talking about alienation and exploitation. And it makes people afraid of one another and complicit in police control. Security is an empty signifier which gives the state a monopoly on meaning. It treats humans as objects to be administered. Finally, there are poststructuralist approaches. Poststructuralists treat securitisation as a discourse. It does not simply respond to objective threats. It constructs its own objects by conceiving them in certain ways. Agamben’s idea of a zone of indistinction, Foucault’s critique of health discourse, and Virilio’s critique of logistical power are examples of this.

A History of Securitisation of Health

The idea of “quarantining” entire, mostly healthy, populations to stop or slow the spread of diseases is unprecedented. On the other hand, quarantine, and panicky responses to epidemics, both have a long history. The word “quarantine” comes from Ancient Rome, and refers to a practice of making visitors from plague-affected regions wait outside the walls for a set period before entry. In early modernity, this extended to shutting off entire cities, and detaining infected people in special hospitals. Supporters of COVID-19 lockdowns generally view them as a type of quarantine. But the basic principle of quarantine is separating the healthy from the sick.

In any case, quarantine has not been widely used for the last two centuries. While still being used occasionally, it was largely replaced by a reliance on biomedicine. The 1918 “Spanish flu” pandemic was a partial exception, but stay-at-home orders were never used anywhere during it. In 1925, 500 people died in a smallpox epidemic in Minnesota. The state quarantined patients but relied mainly on vaccination. In 1937, dozens died in a typhoid outbreak in Croydon. This led to outcry and a public inquiry, which exposed pollution of the water supply. Another bad strain of flu killed at least a million people worldwide in 1957-8. American doctors rushed out a vaccine in less than three months.

In 1961-75, tens of thousands died worldwide in a prolonged cholera pandemic. This reached Naples, Italy in 1973. Again, some public panic and border controls, but no lockdowns. From 1981, AIDS was a major focus for panic. This fuelled homophobic and anti-immigrant measures, but few countries detained HIV-positive people. In 1990 there was a panic about the appearance of multidrug-resistant TB in New York. The response was a massive injection of funding into the austerity-hit health system. By 1994, TB was virtually eradicated there.

Things have been shifting since 9/11, due to wider securitisation trends. In 2001, the Blairites used draconian emergency measures in the foot and mouth crisis. They devastated the farming sector in order to save it. China used economic shutdowns during the 2003 SARS outbreak, but not stay-at-home orders. In 2006-7, South Africa started mass detention of poor, black people with XDR-TB. In 2014-18, isolation was widely used to tackle the West African ebola pandemic. In the meantime, health service cuts have continued worldwide, and social problems associated with health (such as overcrowding and lack of clean water) remain unaddressed. Instead, securitisation of healthcare has been gradually normalised, with the current disastrous effects.

Rather than emerging from biomedicine, lockdowns have crept across from security studies into healthcare. Before their application to health, lockdowns became a standard part of counterinsurgency scripts. The first time I heard the word was on 9/11. Since then, it has become increasingly common to order lockdowns or “shelter-in-place orders” during or after attacks classified as terrorist — for example, after the Boston, Brussels and Paris attacks. This was then extended to other mass shootings, gang violence and so on. There has been surprisingly little resistance to this trend. It is as if states and populations have become addicted to lockdowns.

“New Threats”

Securitisation was expanded to pandemics as part of the “new threats” discourse. This was a move within military/security studies to newly securitise a range of global problems. Security studies, and security as exceptionalism, began in International Relations (IR). This is mainly about geopolitical relations among states. In traditional security studies, ‘security’ means state (i.e. ‘national’) security. This is threatened by other states, through the threat of war. States develop security architectures to survive in an international world thought of as hostile and anarchic. There are thus “security dilemmas” as states do not know whether other states are arming themselves to attack or to deter attack. Security exceptionalism relates to the existential threat of annihilation by a rival state. Security is provided through military build-ups, alliances, diplomacy, and realpolitik — often at the expense of other states.

With the end of the Cold War and US unipolar dominance, traditional security studies seemed obsolete. Military/security institutions were at risk of losing some of their funding and power. In this context, security scholars started to talk about “new threats”. These threats are existential threats, just like great-power war. But they don’t come from rival states. They threaten state survival in a range of (mostly indirect or hypothetical) ways. For instance, civil wars supposedly threaten to engulf the world in chaos, organised crime eats away at stability, “terrorists” could devastate a country with weapons of mass destruction, hackers could crash the power grid or make planes collide. Most wars are now “new wars” or complex emergencies, involving a complex array of nonstate actors and transnational connections. Natural disasters, economic crashes, refugee waves, protests and insurrections like the Arab Spring, were all reframed primarily as threats. Pandemics catastrophically destroying the social fabric are placed firmly in this category. Threats are nearly always imagined (often wrongly) as coming from “black holes” and “failed states” in the global periphery. Northern states pursue a militarised, repressive policy towards the South and aid Southern states to suppress their populations, supposedly to keep these “threats” at bay. The Bush regime promoted a “duty to prevent” — a right of powerful states to invade weaker states so as to prevent new threats.

“New threats” discourse got a huge boost from 9/11. Securitised responses to “terrorism” ignored the social causes, inequalities, and grievances which cause armed conflict. These approaches relied on invasions, surveillance, network disruption, censorship, assassinations, extrajudicial detention, torture, and information warfare. The “war on terror” has failed: Iraq and Afghanistan were quagmires, Islamist militias have multiplied, and mass casualty attacks by a range of actors, including the far-right, have increased. Securitised responses might have made it harder for opponents to organise or to carry out attacks, but they quickly innovated new strategies. And the root problems were either ignored or intensified. Meanwhile, the racism of the “war on terror” has bred both grievances among Muslim communities and hatred among fascists. But the “war on terror”, like the equally unsuccessful “war on drugs”, has become a new common sense. It often serves the interests of the state and capital. Local resource wars, such as the Niger Delta conflict, are securitised by states and companies seeking to defend existing regimes of plunder. They are helpful in excusing human rights atrocities, delegitimising opponents, and classifying resistance as “threat” rather than grievance.

In the “war on terror”, America developed a strategy of “full spectrum dominance”. America aimed to dominate all the different spheres of “hard power” and “soft power”. Hard power is military power. Soft power encompasses all the other things which give states influence: economics, reputation, media control, diplomacy, etc. Approaching these areas from a security perspective has repressive effects. For example, not only America but most states now approach social media in terms of channelling use, promoting and boosting their own ‘signals’ or preferred frames, and disrupting the activities of perceived adversaries. The practices well-known from the outcry over Russian activities in 2015-16 may well be common practice for governments worldwide. The most influential can also co-opt or coerce social media companies into aiding their efforts. In full spectrum dominance directed at new threats, there is no operational difference between responses to state adversaries, ‘terrorists’, protest movements, or disinformation. The military model applies to them all.

One can list endless instances of resultant securitisation: illegal drone strikes and abductions, extraditions amounting to legalised abduction, militarised policing of protests, military-style fortifications and militarised policing at border zones (including Calais), the notorious Prevent scheme, etc. Often, different agencies are brought together to implement a standard set of surveillance, prevention, disruption and policing measures. The same blunt tools can be used against anything, from an earthquake to a riot to the arrival of migrants. Social problems become military or policing problems — problems of dominating an adversary.

Progressive and radical approaches have often criticised securitisation. Radicals opposed the “war on terror” from the start. And many later instances of securitisation have also been denounced. It is obvious, for instance, that securitisation of migration is reactionary. Refugees fleeing persecution and death should not be treated as enemies, kept out with barbed-wire or locked up in camps. Ideas of asylum rights, humanitarianism, autonomy of migration, “no borders”, solidarity, hospitality, etc. are competing frames which “desecuritise” migration. Demonising hacktivists and leaktivists, such as Wikileaks and Anonymous, as “cyberwar” or “cybercrime” is also obviously reactionary. Wikileaks might instead be seen as civil disobedience, whistleblowing, or a necessary check on government power. Securitisation of protest is also generally denounced. So is militarised policing in general.

It should be just as obvious that securitisation of health is similarly reactionary and authoritarian. It criminalises the sick and the potentially sick (i.e. everyone), and it detracts from a focus on medical responses and on social conditions which lead to disease. It leads to exactly the same kinds of excesses as other types of securitisation. Yet many progressives have not taken this logical step. Indeed, the left has been weakened by a recurring trend to seek to securitise its own issues. For example, many cheered-on securitised counterinsurgency responses to the alt-right, even when these could easily be used against us later. Environmentalists have started to treat the climate “emergency” as an existential threat requiring drastic emergency measures.

Fascists pose a real threat to various oppressed groups, and climate change poses a real threat to human and planetary survival. But bandwagoning on securitisation is a dangerous game. The more one endorses securitisation, the more one accepts and entrenches the general drive to securitise and the general toolkit used for this purpose. At the same time, one moves further and further from autonomous grassroots responses and an ethos of empowered action based on desire. In my view, it is important to struggle against securitisation, rather than within securitisation.

Effects of Securitisation

When pandemics, or uprisings against police racism, or migration or crime or ‘terrorism’, are securitised, they are brought into a certain frame. They come under the remit of security agencies — the police and army, the secret service, the Department for Homeland Security, the Cobra committee. A securitised issue will be seen primarily in terms of threats and risks. It will be seen as exceptional. Authoritarian approaches, and those involving cybernetic “soft control”, will be favoured. Welfare-state and humanitarian responses will be neglected.

The human costs of a securitised issue may be rendered extremely visible as part of the process of securitisation or the resultant information management strategies. But they are actually rather marginal to how the issue is treated. Once securitised, an issue is treated primarily as a destabilising threat to social order. Migration, for instance, seen through a risk lens, is all about the overwhelming of border controls or the ability of welfare services to cope, the dangers of ‘terrorists’ or criminals infiltrating, the threat of migrants carrying disease — not the risks faced by migrants themselves or the situations they are fleeing. In a pandemic, the main worries are the disruptive effects of rapid transmission, the delegitimation of governments, the risk of health services being overwhelmed.

Securitisation often includes the application of generic ‘security’ scripts or responses. These include such things as the profiling of risk-groups, tracking of flows, disruption of networks, attempts to stifle the ‘conveyor belts’ or ‘gateway drugs’ which supposedly facilitate drift into deviance, and intensive control of ‘hotspots’. In health, therefore, it focuses less on drugs, vaccines or social conditions than on surveillance and containment of outbreaks. What today passes as “public health” discourse is mostly securitised discourse.

One of the effects of securitisation is that it ‘justifies’ exceptional measures. Securitised issues are treated qualitatively differently to unsecuritised issues, regardless of their actual severity or whether the difference from other issues is only quantitative. For example, people are apparently prepared to sacrifice basic rights, slaughter huge numbers of foreign fighters and civilians, and expend enormous resources to combat the securitised risk of ‘terrorism’. Yet they are not prepared to do much more moderate things to combat greater sources of risk or death such as traffic accidents, domestic violence, police brutality, climate change, or curable diseases. Similarly, shutting down public transport and air travel are seen as proportionate, necessary responses to COVID-19. However, protesters who stop flights to protest climate change or deportations, or who block roads or railways as part of protests, are condemned and criminalised. It is certainly possible to argue that such actions are proportionate responses to great harms, but the issues protesters target are not securitised. There seems, therefore, to be a dualistic field: securitised issues always trump non-securitised issues. The fact that a non-securitised issue actually causes much greater harm, suffering, or risk is discursively irrelevant. And whether an issue is securitised is only marginally connected to how great the harm it (re)presents is.

Securitisation focuses on responses which control, deter, or situationally constrain actors. It does not engage with the other as a social actor with its own meanings, needs, desires, and grievances. (Often, it specifically forbids such engagement). It is fundamentally monological. The other is an object who is seen and ‘managed’. Their rights, needs and claims are quickly suppressed. Negotiation is forbidden. ‘Risky’ people are demonised and dehumanised. And securitised issues are generally depoliticised. For example, securitised responses to black uprisings in America focus on the issue of how to “stop the violence”. Restoring state control is an exceptional, securitised issue. On the other hand, murders by police are not seen as an exceptional issue. The idea that unrest might be a justified response to systematic injustice is ruled-out by a securitised frame. Securitisation takes for granted that security is a good thing. It does not consider the possibility that injustice might be so severe as to override the demand for security, let alone that the ‘existentially threatened’ state might not deserve to be saved.

Securitisation requires that securitised issues be treated as exceptional. Desecuritisation is generally relativisation: bringing a particular, ‘exceptional’ crisis back into comparison with the full range of harms and risks. But relativisation often brings condemnation. It provokes the ire of those who feel emotionally threatened by a given threat. And it contradicts the emotive media coverage which often accompanies securitisation. Radicals have generally run up against these problems when arguing against the ‘war on terror’. Comparing COVID-19 to flu — which does not lead to lockdowns though it kills 500,000 people each year — and emphasising that the overwhelming majority are at little risk of dying from it are standard relativising moves (and highly unpopular today).

Securitisation of particular issues has harmful effects. It marginalises other frames which may be more useful or humane. Securitisation as a whole also has harmful effects. Because it posits an exceptional threat requiring exceptional responses, it corrodes civil and human rights, undermines normal social processes, and creates a state of permanent emergency. Creeping securitisation is a slippery slope to fascism. Securitisation also tends to alight most easily on already marginalised groups. It uses fear and bigotry as hooks and anchors — but at the same time, it reinforces them. Media coverage of securitised issues frames targeted groups as risks and police and soldiers as protectors. This further encourages fear and hatred.

It is also notable that disease metaphors are widely used in securitised discourse. The idea of “radicalisation” involves an image of metaphorically infected carriers infecting others, to be fought by isolating the contagious carriers. Demonised discourses might be labelled “poisonous ideologies”, “toxic”, or “cancerous”. Just as health is war, so war is health. And securitisation in general carries ideas that life is risky, other people are risky or contagious. This aspect of “social distancing” has been played-up in activist and radical critiques of lockdowns. It is also present, at a lower intensity, in wider securitisation processes.

Zygmunt Bauman’s theory of “liquid modernity” is relevant here. Bauman thinks postmodern/neoliberal capitalism is unusually superficial and atomised. People only relate in temporary, indifferent, transactional, superficial ways. They don’t put much effort into building communities, being civil to each other, or negotiating compromises with people who are different from them. But they desire a type of community where they don’t have to worry. They look for this in spaces and ways of life where everyone’s the same and shares the same assumptions.

So communities are mostly based on exclusion, punishment and normalisation of others. People make spaces which are “more secure but less free”, where everyone is surveilled, locked-up and regulated, or the normative use of the space renders difference irrelevant. Examples include shopping malls, airports and gated communities. Without deep contact with others, people come to define others mainly as threats: risky, infectious, suspicious, violent, etc. The existential uncertainty arising from atomisation and fluidity is blamed on others. Securitisation means that people don’t try to negotiate a life in common. Instead, they try to separate from difference and criminalise each other. This is a vicious circle. The more difference is excluded, the more frightening it becomes.

Securitisation and Other Health Frames

There are a wide range of ways of framing health issues. In a paper on discourses about drug resistance (antimicrobial resistance, AMR), Wernli et al. list five frames. Each frame has a different scientific basis, a different view of the problem and a different set of responses. The securitised view focuses on the risk that uncontrolled diseases in poor countries will eventually threaten rich countries. It focuses on surveillance and containment of outbreaks. Its measurements focus on epidemiology, mortality rate and disease distribution (the kind of figures we’ve mostly seen during the COVID-19 crisis, like R-numbers, daily death counts, and infection ‘curves’). It is a state-centric view, and correspondingly, is mainly promoted by states and intergovernmental bodies. For instance, the G7 and the US Center for Disease Control (CDC) use this frame.

The biomedical view (AMR as healthcare issue) sees problems in disease-based terms and focuses on healthcare settings. It focuses on early diagnosis and adequate treatment, such as alternative drugs. It measures diseases mainly in terms such as their mortality rate and factors affecting death and survival. This view is promoted by medical bodies and was the only common view until recently. In relation to COVID-19, it might lead to a bigger focus on mortality rates and survivability (estimates of the infection fatality rate have fallen to the 0.3-0.5% range or lower). It might also focus on the particular risk to elderly people and people with certain illnesses, who are the most likely to die.

The sociological view (AMR as a development issue) treats AMR as mainly a problem in poor and middle-income countries, resulting from weak healthcare systems, poor access to drugs, and unhealthy social conditions. It focuses on improving access. This is hard to measure, but measurements focus on sociological factors like access. This approach is promoted by medical NGOs such as Medicins sans Frontieres and the governments of poorer countries. This view might lead to a focus on the way lockdowns redistribute disease risk to poorer groups, the impossibility of distancing in poor areas, and the lack of provision for homeless people.

The neoliberal view (AMR as an innovation issue) expects that markets will address drug resistance by producing drugs to meet the new demand. If this isn’t happening, it’s because of market imperfections. It thus focuses on providing incentives for companies to develop drugs. Its measurements focus on the speed of development of drugs. This frame is promoted by pharmaceutical companies and some Northern governments. In relation to COVID-19, this is reflected in attempts to promote the experimental use of antimalarial and antiviral drugs.

Finally, the “One Health” approach focuses on complexity and interconnections. It seeks to respond to health issues through wider social responses — for example, reducing use of antibiotics in animal husbandry to prevent drug resistance in humans. This is promoted by intergovernmental agencies such as the WHO and FAO and some liberal-inclined governments. There are other frames which are not mentioned in the study because they are rare at a governmental level. In particular, a range of ecological, poststructuralist, religious, traditionalist and sceptical approaches distrust modern medicine as a whole.

Wernli et al.’s version of the security frame focuses on early detection and containment. It thus fits better with testing-and-tracking than swingeing lockdowns. It seems that COVID-19 lockdowns did start as containment measures, in line with a securitisation frame. Early lockdowns in Wuhan and northern Italy follow this pattern. But containment clearly failed. At this stage, states passed into “disaster management” mode. They did not want to look weak, discredit securitisation, or expose fragilities of health provision; so they formulated new justifications for existing securitised containment measures: flattening the curve, reducing the R-number, delaying the peak, protecting health services. Having adopted a securitisation frame, states were reluctant to drop it again.

Securitisation tends to crowd out other issues, and this can lead to great harm. Securitisation always downplays other, non-securised harms, including those it causes. Lockdowns have a number of harmful effects: economic collapse, suicides, domestic violence, deaths from other illnesses. Because the issue is securitised, COVID-19 deaths trump these other deaths. And securitisation detracts from other responses. Hence why the British government, and so many others, have made such glaring failings at a basic medical level; failing to provide protective equipment for health workers, to initiate testing, to stop outbreaks in hospitals and care homes, to house homeless people and reduce prison overcrowding. There are other harmful effects in terms of reducing trust in health systems and causing stigmatised people to avoid self-reporting. And securitisation disrupts grassroots responses such as mutual aid. There is thus a need to ask not “was COVID-19 a big enough threat to justify securitisation?” but “what are the impacts of securitising — rather than medicalising, socialising, marketising, ecologising — the issue”.

Other Framings in Practice

This question is a lot easier to examine in practice. Wernli et al.’s market frame was largely adopted by right-wing pro-capitalist leaders such as Trump and Bolsonaro. On this view, individuals are treated as responsible for their own health. Deaths are accepted in terms bordering on social Darwinism. The choice between securitised or neoliberal responses has been the main controversy. The neoliberal approach is understandably hated by many, because of its utter contempt for the lives of the poor. But it has not necessarily led to higher death rates. For example, South Dakota’s governor would not issue a stay-at-home order, insisting “the people themselves are primarily responsible for their safety” and have “the right to work, to worship and to play”. So far, South Dakota has only had 54 deaths. Sweden has also avoided lockdowns, calculating that its health system is robust enough. It has lower death rates than Britain, Spain or Italy, but higher than the other Nordic countries (none of which used stay-at-home orders).

Health and social framings are more common when the radical left is in power. Venezuela, for example, has responded with more of a social policy focus. There’s a history of militarisation there, too, and a compulsory lockdown is in place. Some local governments have used repressive measures, and prisoners are hard-hit. But the government knows it cannot stop poor people going out. Instead, it makes it easier for people to stay at home with proactive support measures: suspending rent and bills, providing food parcels, etc. This means that fewer people have to keep working than in neighbouring countries, though a lot of the informal poor are still going out. Crucially, the response is also active. People aren’t encouraged to sit around doing nothing. Action by community collectives is encouraged. The support networks which have helped people survive American sanctions and economic collapse are mobilised to survive the disease too. And medical approaches are central. Doctors have been doing home visits so as to track cases and give advice. Venezuela’s health system is collapsing due to economic collapse and US sanctions. So community health groups are the main deliverers. COVID-19 patients in hospital are isolated from other kinds of patients, and receive drugs including antivirals and antimalarials. Venezuela reports under 1000 cases and only 17 deaths.

This contrasts, for example, with Bolivia, which suffered a rightist coup last year. The Bolivian state, like Britain, reacted slowly and then introduced a draconian lockdown. Poor people have continued to resist. Thousands were arrested for breaching lockdowns, and anti-government protests have resumed. As of 2 June, 293 people have reportedly died of COVID-19 in Bolivia.

Tanzania has also taken a different approach, broadly in line with “dewesternisation” — the top-down promotion of local alternatives. President Magufuli, who is also a doctor of chemistry, had previously become known for redirecting funding to healthcare and cracking down on corruption. (He is also known for suppressing opposition and for homophobia). Some securitised measures (such as quarantining travellers, and banning mass gatherings) are in place. Masks are encouraged. But curfews and lockdowns have been avoided. Magafuli suggests (quite plausibly) that lockdowns would lead to famine. Instead, he has encouraged people to fight the disease through mass prayer, and criticised the WHO and western countries for scaremongering. The virus is termed a ‘devil’ which cannot survive in a spiritually healthy context. Tanzania is also encouraging herbal medicines such as neem leaves and artemisia.

It is not yet clear how the country’s been doing , but it might be no worse than countries using lockdowns. Like most poor nations, Tanzania has a poor medical infrastructure and few hospitals. People have been discouraged from going to hospital. Yet only 26 deaths have been reported, although opposition activists think hundreds of deaths have been covered-up, and videos have emerged of secret night-time burials. Journalists have been arrested for spreading ‘false’ information. However, informal sector workers are reportedly relieved that their activities have not been affected. Neighbouring Kenya has taken more draconian measures, relying mainly on police. These include curfews, travel bans, closures of markets, distancing/masking laws and mandatory quarantine. This has intensified brutality and corruption, and overcrowding in police vans and cells. At the time of writing, there have been 62 recorded deaths from COVID-19. Crucially, more people died in the first two weeks from police brutality than died from COVID-19 itself. Ghana, which has few lockdown measures and relies mainly on testing, reports 35 deaths.

It remains to be seen whether securitisation of health will be strengthened or weakened by the current crisis. If lockdowns succeed — or appear to have succeeded whether they did or not — then securitisation of healthcare will be strengthened. The tendency to underfund healthcare, neglect the living conditions of the poor, and otherwise avoid alternative frames will also be strengthened. If lockdowns fail and are seen to fail, then space is opened to reframe healthcare in less authoritarian terms. With luck, the current economic crash and social revolt foreshadow an end to the fad of securitising one’s way out of social problems. The sooner people reject securitisation as a dangerous dead-end, the sooner we can stop managing crises and start building a better world.

Andy McLaverty-Robinson

Andy McLaverty-Robinson is a political theorist and activist based in the UK. He is the co-author (with Athina Karatzogianni) of Power, Resistance and Conflict in the Contemporary World: Social Movements, Networks and Hierarchies (Routledge, 2009). He has recently published a series of books on Homi Bhabha. His 'In Theory' column appears every other Friday.


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Kanykei Tursunbaeva
Jun 21, 2020 19:54

great article, thank you

Oct 5, 2022 12:52

Why we don’t see new articles anymore from the Author?

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