Confronting Pandemic Police Powers

By: Tryon Woods

Yes, the virus discriminates.  Yes, pandemics across human history do not level social hierarchies, they accentuate them.  Let us also be sober about death:  people are dying from neoliberal capitalist social policies, organized through centuries of racial and imperial violence, not merely from a biological pandemic.  The fact that COVID-19’s modus operandi is to induce pneumonia (or morphing into other conditions depending on a patient’s age and comorbidities), and then people either begin a recovery process or they do not, with all of the predictable social variables impacting immune health in play therein, is simply another way of saying that the virus accelerates the prevailing dangers of a socially degraded environment—degraded in all senses, from environmental toxicity to competent and accessible health care.  In short, pandemics are both medical and biosocial.  Furthermore, since policing is the general historical means by which power reproduces itself, pandemics police—and police increase their powers during pandemic. 

This particular crisis may seem to call for distinct kinds of responses to overcome the policing effect of public health protocols and their immediate consequences, namely racism in medical care, massive unemployment, hunger, and insecurity.  And yet from the perspective of black struggle, crisis is measured in centuries, not weeks or months, and what appears new and unique to a given historical moment tends to be simply another “changing same,” as Amiri Baraka once put it.  Access to information seems more restricted than usual, with dissenting voices policed more vigorously even than in the aftermath of September 11, 2001—and yet a proliferation of online archives can inform critical questions about what is happening, why, and how we might intervene.  

Officially, public space is off-limits altogether, and yet the responses to the killings of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and George Floyd, in the least, show that organizing still happens in real time and can still manifest in community action on the streets.  The fact that social distancing, stay-at-home orders, and pandemic fears have no effect on the relentless antiblack violence that has characterized this slaveholding culture since before the nation’s inception underscores the fact that the crisis subtending this latest viral outbreak remains ongoing.  

The long perspective reminds us that pandemics, like policing and prisons, are symptomatic of the basic structuring of our world.  The way Arbery was hunted down by white civilians reminds us that for centuries it was everyday white people who were responsible for policing all black people.  The policing function has only been officially transferred to the hands of the state in the last 50 years, since the end of the long civil rights era.  Arbery’s case reiterates that law enforcement remain the back-ups to this more fundamental and efficacious police power shaping modern society.[i]   If the police and prisons serve as a kind of rear guard, not society’s frontline mechanisms, then COVID-19 presents an opportunity for renewed clarity on how the police power is at work in ways that do not principally involve the criminal justice apparatus—in other words, public health catastrophe or economic recession as policing and punishment.  

1 /        If the pandemic is not “natural,” even if it comes from nature, then it is a function of the political—or put differently, it is a feature of how power is contained and organized to institutionalize hierarchy and dominance.  State power is most salient in this moment.  The state’s record with respect to public health is atrocious.  The state has used infection and disease both opportunistically and strategically, from smallpox wielded against American Indians and syphilis unleashed on blacks at Tuskegee, to the long sordid record of AIDS policy, and the equally damaging history of water contamination in places like Washington, DC and Flint, MI.[ii]  

With this history, we must independently research and corroborate what the state says in its changing narrative about the virus.  Vital information remains elusive due to the Centers for Disease Control’s posture on testing.  When independent testing in Washington state proved ready and capable of providing key data on reproduction rate, size of infected population, and the number of and length of latency for benign infections, the CDC ordered these testers to cease and desist.[iii]  Subsequent studies measuring blood antibodies among residents in California provide provisional evidence of what the Washington researchers were on the brink of revealing, that COVID-19 has likely been in the U.S. population for much longer than previously thought and that fatality rates may need to be adjusted markedly downward.[iv]  

Shining light on the CDC’s opaque relationship to the Defense Department highlights aspects of the state response to COVID-19.[v]  The World Health Organization requires a similar due diligence.  Although WHO has been positioned by many observers as the competent alternative to the Trump White House, the current director general of WHO has been accused of covering up cholera outbreaks in Ethiopia when he was Minister of Health there, and the close relationship between WHO and the Gates Foundation has raised questions over vaccination trials in India.[vi]  Such investigations are forensic regarding COVID-19’s origins and trajectory, and diagnostic of how the pandemic can be used for austerity measures that advance international economic and political disenfranchisement.  

2 /        The data on the pandemic hides more than it reveals.  Federal level responses are geared towards securing the geo-political interests of capital, leaving public health statistics suspect.  The widespread shortage of testing means that caseloads are estimates based on predictive modeling with insufficient data.  Government, corporate, and academic leaders, including representatives from WHO and CDC, conducted a global pandemic simulation exercise in October 2019 called Event 201.  The resemblance between Event 201’s projections and the current trajectory of COVID-19 globally is not an uncanny coincidence.  In the face of an eventual pandemic, Event 201 did not focus on rebuilding public health institutions, amending the social costs of corporate practices that leave global society vulnerable to costly epidemic outbreaks, or even how to maintain safe workplaces during pandemic conditions.  Instead, it called for vaccination, maintaining travel and trade, corporate partnerships that can temporarily aid government public health efforts, managing the media message, and the shoring up of “critical nodes of the banking system and global and national economies that are too essential to fail.”[vii] 

Most of the state’s response to COVID-19 has followed the neoliberal course laid out by Event 201:  limited public health preparedness; massive corporate bailout (“too big to fail” all over again); emphasis on vaccination; and reliance on private sector responses to need.  For instance, the Gates Foundation and its Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI) is working with pharmaceutical corporations to fund biotech research for a COVID-19 vaccine, while Governor Cuomo of New York state has invited Gates to reimagine NY education in light of the pandemic.[viii]  

            Immunology is far more complex than simply vaccination, however.  Comorbidity has been the key in COVID-19-related deaths, and since an agent cannot be causative of a disease unless every case with the infected agent gets the disease, people are dying with COVID-19, not of it.  The plethora of environmentally induced underlying conditions—healthy food deserts, environmental racism, medical racism, poverty—facilitate fatal cases, as with influenza, AIDS, and coronaviruses generally.  In this light, COVID-19’s greatest service will hopefully be to shed light on how vaccination has become a costly all-or-nothing approach to public health.  If the virus is actively mutating, and in the absence of a safely and properly scientific vetting of a vaccine free to all, the pharmaceutical industry will control supply and cost responding to demand.  Comorbidities are the lynchpin here for effective remedies.  It is worth noting that a vaccine for influenza means injecting a person with a live upper respiratory infection; vaccination is therefore less likely to work in people vulnerable to upper respiratory infections.

In 2019 WHO defined anti-vaccination as one of the top ten gravest threats to global health.[ix]  It also asserted that vaccination is one of the most cost-effective ways of avoiding disease.  In light of the dynamics noted above, this claim should be read as only applying to the individual, not to the collective.  Public health has meaning at the level of society, not the individual. Our standard should be not what is good for the healthy and wealthy, but rather what is good for all, including the billions of people around the world who lack health and wealth.  Vaccines may aid the former, but our lack of investment in healthy environments disproportionately harms the latter.  

3 /        As with the focus on vaccine production, the lack of public health preparedness is the result of neoliberal planning that emphasizes just-in-time inventory with no abeyance for tough times, as in the extra hospital beds and protective gear needed during an epidemic.  Such planning appears designed to create rolling crises, with the larger goal of eroding the public sector altogether as massive debts from unemployment insurance may be used to justify further privatization of education delivery, public utilities, and municipal infrastructure.  

The private sector itself will be winnowed, with independent businesses drastically reduced, especially in the area of food provision as multinationals like Starbucks, Amazon, and other chains take over more of the market.  The state, along with the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, can convince people and other countries to accept the premise that all debts should be paid by submitting to austerity.  Again, the police are the backups:  armed forces at home and abroad generally become necessary as supplements to austerity.  In this context, the massive COVID-19 corporate bailouts, following on the heels of the Trump tax cuts and Obama’s bailouts of the banks in 2008, mark yet another historic transfer of wealth upward.[x]  But the government has already been underwriting the crippling debt of the financial industry:  the Federal Reserve was pumping trillions of dollars of cumulative loans into Wall Street back in September 2019, five months beforethe first death from COVID-19 was recorded in the U.S.[xi]  

4 /        We must think through this unnatural social structure in relation to its foundation, the racial slave trade and genocide.  Since they construed Africans as non-human, Europeans did not see their cultural ideologies as contradictory.  The complex legacy of this history, however, is that frequently we attempt to undo the violent outcomes of this culture, while leaving intact the cultural codes in which this violence lives.[xii]  Debt came to play an increasingly important role in the emerging capitalist society, with those unable to pay their debts sent to prisons, press-ganged onto merchant sailing ships, and indentured in Europe’s overseas colonies.  But although it would have been far more efficient and cost-effective to enslave the indebted among them, Europeans found white slavery culturally untenable.[xiii]  

As the surrogate humans of modern society, who enable whites to become fully human, black people have also served as the litmus for modern debt.  The goalposts keep moving.  Slaves were fugitive everywhere off the plantation, even in so-called free territory.  White society believed post-Emancipation blacks carried the debt of white blood spilt on their behalf in the Civil War; as sharecroppers, ex-slaves found themselves indebted to their former masters; to this day Haiti remains indebted to France for vanquishing the French slaveholders; so too, the ex-colonies in the Caribbean and Africa, indebted to their former colonizers, plantation owners, and slave traders; the cash bail system is a debtor’s prison, punishing the accused without due process if they cannot afford bail; an ex-felon’s “debt to society” is forever unpaid as long as they are black; inmates and former prisoners remain disenfranchised and barred from full participation in society indefinitely; and so on.  The existence of the immutable debt in modern society is the work of racial slavery and is everywhere established in its existential register by the position of “blackness.”  The totalizing objectification of enslaved Africans still drives global capitalism today. 

Cncl. /  Under this pandemic, and those to come, we need to completely re-think modern society—housing, food, security, labor, health, education.  Elizabeth Warren, riffing off Warren Buffet, has noted that when the tide goes out, we get to see who is swimming in fraud.  True—we can add to this that the police powers under pandemic reveal a clearer view of a political and economic system trussed in a cultural ethos.  Policing is not primarily a “cop thing.”  Prison is not the main catastrophe:  it is the tail-end of punishment.  In the face of growing pandemic police powers, we would do well to pursue debt cancellation, healthy environments, local food sources, housing security, a strengthened in-person education system, and reciprocal relations that might elude the warped humanity birthed in the slave trade.


Note: Thank you to Deborah Bowen, Scott Penzarella, Janine Jones, and Joy James for their comments.  

[i]  See Tryon P. Woods, Blackhood Against the Police Power: Punishment and Disavowal in the “Post-Racial” Era (East Lansing: Michigan State UP, 2019).

[ii]  In both Washington, DC and Flint, the Centers for Disease Control initially downplayed or discounted altogether the reality of lead poisoning in black communities.  See the 2004 CDC report that lead was not causing noticeable harm to District residents:  https://www.cdc.gov/mmwr/preview/mmwrhtml/mm5312a6.htm.

[iii]  Oliver O’Connell, “Seattle Lab Only Uncovered Extent of Washington Coronavirus Outbreak After Breaking Government Rules,” Independent, March 11, 2020,  https://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/americas/coronavirus-lab-testing-red-tape-cdc-fda-seattle-washington-a9395891.html.

[iv]  Gregory Barber, “New COVID-19 Antibody Study Results Are In. Are They Right?” Wired, April 21, 2020, https://www.wired.com/story/new-covid-19-antibody-study-results-are-in-are-they-right/.

[v]  Ft. Detrick was the heart of the U.S. bioweapons program from 1943 to 1969, and is now the center of its “biodefense” program.  Denise Grady, “Deadly Germ Research is Shut Down at Army Lab Over Safety Concerns,” New York Times, August 5, 2019, https://www.nytimes.com/2019/08/05/health/germs-fort-detrick-biohazard.html. 

[vi]  Donald G. McNeil, Jr., “Candidate to Lead the W.H.O. Accused of Covering Up Epidemics,” New York Times, May 5, 2013, https://www.nytimes.com/2017/05/13/health/candidate-who-director-general-ethiopia-cholera-outbreaks.html; KP Narayana Kumar, “Controversial Vaccine Studies: Why is Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation Under Fire from Critics in India?” The Economic Times, August 31, 2014, https://economictimes.indiatimes.com/industry/healthcare/biotech/healthcare/controversial-vaccine-studies-why-is-bill-melinda-gates-foundation-under-fire-from-critics-in-india/articleshow/41280050.cms.

[vii]  https://www.centerforhealthsecurity.org/event201/recommendations.html.

[viii]  Andrew Dunn, “A Coalition Backed by Bill Gates is Funding Biotechs That Are Scrambling to Develop Vaccines for the Deadly Wuhan Coronavirus,” Business Insider, January 23, 2020, https://www.businessinsider.com/vaccines-for-wuhan-china-cornonavirus-moderna-inovio-cepi-2020-1?op=1; Peter Greene, “Why Bill Gates is Not the Man to Reimagine New York Education,” Forbes, May 8, 2020,https://www.forbes.com/sites/petergreene/2020/05/08/why-bill-gates-is-not-the-man-to-reimagine-new-york-education/#7b13905779cc.

[ix]  See https://www.who.int/news-room/feature-stories/ten-threats-to-global-health-in-2019.

[x]  Pam Martens and Russ Martens, “Here Are the Contracts Showing How $4.5 Trillion in Stimulus was Outsourced to Wall Street,” Wall Street on Parade, April 16, 2020, https://wallstreetonparade.com/2020/04/here-are-the-contracts-showing-how-4-5-trillion-in-stimulus-was-outsourced-to-wall-street/.

[xi]  Pam Martens and Russ Martens, “Evidence Suggests U.S. Financial Crisis Started on August 14,” Wall Street on Parade, May 14, 2020, https://wallstreetonparade.com/2020/05/evidence-suggests-u-s-financial-crisis-started-on-august-14-2019/.

[xii]  See Tryon P. Woods, “A Re-Appraisal of Black Radicalism and Human Rights,” On Marronage: Ethical Confrontations with Antiblackness, P. Khalil Saucier and Tryon P. Woods, eds., (Trenton: Africa World Press, 2015), 241-278; Tryon P. Woods, “Surrogate Selves: Notes on Anti-Trafficking and Antiblackness,” Social Identities 19(1) 2013; P. Khalil Saucier and Tryon P. Woods, “Ex Aqua: The Mediterranean Basin, Africans on the Move, and the Politics of Policing,” Theoria: A Journal of Social and Political Theory, no. 141, December 2014. 

[xiii]  See David Eltis, The Rise of African Slavery in the Americas (Cambridge: Cambridge, 2000).

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