The War on....COVID?
“Ignorance leads to fear, fear leads to hatred, and hatred leads to violence. This is the equation.”
In her book, The Shock Doctrine, Naomi Klein has outlined how societies facing a crisis are the perfect conditions for disaster capitalism- a strategy developed by American economist, Milton Friedman, that allows privatized industries to profit from large-scale disasters. Klein contends that while the public is in a state of shock, they are focused on tending to the daily emergencies that ensue the crisis while also placing their trust in those that are in power to steer the course to recovery.
In turn, those in positions of power are provided with the ideal opportunity to push policies that further polarize society and deepen wealth inequalities through exploiting the crises (1,2). A deeper analysis of the strategies utilized in sustaining disaster profiteering reveals that the public discourse surrounding the crises is crucial for its survival, especially, public discourses that exasperate racial discrimination.
Hence, by drawing upon parallels between the war on terror and the fight against COVID, racialized public discourse can be seen as pivotal in sustaining disaster capitalist projects.
At the turn of the 21st century, the American public was met with a disaster- the World Trade Centre was attacked by a series of hijacked planes. The incident claimed the lives of almost 3,000 people and thousands more were injured. As the public was still reeling from the shock, the Bush administration declared the beginning of their war on terror. A war that has been privatized and outsourced in both America and abroad allowing for private industries to profiteer from the ongoing disaster- generating billions through private contracts in the name of defence and security (2).
Pivotal to sustaining the war on terror has been the discourse surrounding it. With terror being an abstract idea, one could shape this faceless enemy in whatever way they pleased (3). As Mervat Hatem has quite aptly noted (4), the Bush administration described the enemy that America was facing as a new form of enemy. An enemy that was not confined by borders but had established an extensive global network. This enemy did not belong to a single nation but rather, consisted of transnational actors with the potential of inflicting harm again on American soil.
The abstract nature of this enemy has allowed for an open battlefield for the war on terror- well, as long as it was Muslim, Arab or even just brown in colour. There were 19 individuals involved in the 9/11 attacks: 15 Saudi Arabians, 2 Emiratis, 1 Lebanese, and 1 Egyptian. Yet, the war continues to take place in Iraq and Afghanistan. The war is also taking place domestically, in the name of homeland security, with detention facilities being filled with Middle Eastern, Arab, and Muslim men (4).
In her article, "It’s not about security, it’s about racism: counter-terror strategies, civilizing processes and the post-race fiction", Tina Patel has outlined how the counter-terror discourse has been instrumental in criminalizing “brown bodies''- a term she uses to describe the socially constructed categorization of a race that is dictated by the socio-political climate. She states that
brown bodies include not only those that may appear to be stereotypically Middle Eastern or of South Asian heritage, but also others, including white converts to Islam (5).
Therefore, this loosely defined categorization has allowed the battlefield for the war on terror to be targeted towards an enemy that can be concocted on an ad hoc basis, whether that be justifying invading a new country or building a new prison facility.
In 2020, a similarity can be seen in the strategy being implemented by disaster capitalists once again.
Pharmaceutical companies have also substantially profiteered from this crisis in a variety of ways.
One such way is the development of vaccine technology. Public funding was allocated to researchers to develop the multiple vaccines we now have available through private pharmaceutical companies. As an article in Scientific America shows (8), millions of dollars in government funds fuelled the research that allowed for the development of the vaccine technology that we now have. Yet, alongside the obvious benefits, it is the pharmaceutical companies that reaping huge financial profits.
The same applies to companies based in the UK. The government has invested over £65 million for the research, development, and manufacturing of the Oxford-AstraZeneca Vaccine. Although AstraZeneca has said that they will be selling the vaccine without a profit, they have stated that this is only for the duration of the pandemic after which they have the potential to profit millions from. Thus, demonstrating another example of how private industries have been profiteering from a crisis that has claimed over 2 million lives (9).
Under these circumstances, our current public discourse has been branded as the fight against COVID. This time our abstract enemy is a faceless, mutating virus that can once again be shaped into an enemy on an ad hoc basis and although the pandemic is a global crisis, posing as a threat to all populations, this has not prevented the public discourse surrounding the virus from becoming racialized. The rampant Sinophobia that was witnessed from the onset of the outbreak is evidence of this. Statements such as “China virus,” “Yellow Peril,” “Kung Flu,” “Wuhan Virus” (10) or the following:
“The coronavirus pandemic was the product of an imbalance in man’s relationship with the natural world. It originates from bats or pangolins, from the demented belief that if you grind up the scales of a pangolin you will somehow become more potent or whatever it is people believe”
being used by government officials (11), led to an increase in Sinophobic attacks around the world both online and offline (12). Moreover, the narrative of a higher prevalence in “BAME” communities, another loosely defined racial categorization, has again associated the virus with race. A government official has quite confidently stated that
“certain ethnicities... are more susceptible to coronavirus”(13)
in response to being asked why the UK had one of the highest coronavirus death rates in the entire world. As Adam Almeida has stated, this pseudo-scientific statement has no biological premise (13). There is ample literature to suggest that within the UK, the morbidity rates are higher amongst non-White individuals, but this has no biological basis (13). If this were the case, countries of origin would also have disproportionately higher death rates in comparison to the rest of the world. Hence, as a report published by the Runnymede Trust and the Centre of Dynamics of Ethnicity has shown, the death rate inequalities can be primarily attributed to the "entrenched structural and institutional racism and racial discrimination," that is witnessed in the UK (13).
Thus far, it has been evident that disaster capitalist projects are often surrounded by a racialized public discourse, but the question remains: Why race? Is the shock of an attack on the World Trade Centre or a global pandemic enough to keep the public distracted enough to allow for capitalist policies to be implemented?
Potentially, for a while.
A racialized discourse allows for sustaining the shock by creating fear and hatred through racism as we have seen throughout human history. It is a form of orientalism- a persistent Western tradition that constructs an “exoticized” yet “inferior” representation of the “Orient” while presenting the West as the more civilized superior in comparison. In turn, those belonging to the “Orient” are the antithesis to the West and its values and are seen as a constant threat to its well-being (14). By drawing upon this tradition, the racialized discourse is constructed, inducing fear and hatred amongst the public.
Noam Chomsky has quite aptly stated that:
It is the hatred of the vulnerable that sustains the shock in this case as the public is diverted for an undefined period of time. We have seen this in the war on terror as it has evolved into an endless war, allowing for endless profiteering. In the case of COVID-19, the virus became a racialized disease that can mutate and re-emerge, which the fight against will continue. Therefore, the abstract and vague brown-bodied enemy that can never truly be defeated (because it does not actually exist) is able to crop up anywhere at any time and remains a constant threat.
Contact the author: @MisbahSK_
Disclaimer: the views, thoughts, and opinions expressed in the text belong solely to the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of Identity International.
1. Klein N. The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism. 1st edition. London: Penguin; 2008. 576 p.
2. Naomi Klein on Coronavirus and Disaster Capitalism [Internet]. [cited 2021 Apr 3]. Available from: https://www.vice.com/en/article/5dmqyk/naomi-klein-interview-on-coronavirus-and-disaster-capitalism-shock-doctrine
3. Newman S, Levine MP. War, Politics and Race: Reflections on Violence in the ‘War on Terror’. Theor J Soc Polit Theory. 2006;(110):23–49.
4. Hatem MF. Discourses on the ‘War on Terrorism’ in the U.S. and its Views of the Arab, Muslim, and Gendered ‘Other’. Arab Stud J. 2003;11/12(2/1):77–97.
5. G. Patel T. It’s not about security, it’s about racism: counter-terror strategies, civilizing processes and the post-race fiction. Palgrave Commun. 2017 May 2;3(1):1–8.
6. Comptroller, Auditor General. Investigation into government procurement during the COVID-19 pandemic [Internet]. National Audit Office; 2020 Nov. (Session 2019–2021). Report No.: HC 959. Available from: https://www.nao.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2020/11/Investigation-into-government-procurement-during-the-COVID-19-pandemic-Summary.pdf
7. Comptroller, Auditor General. The supply of personal protective equipment (PPE) during the COVID-19 pandemic [Internet]. National Audit Office; 2020 Nov. (Session 2019–2021). Report No.: HC 961. Available from: https://www.nao.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2020/11/Investigation-into-government-procurement-during-the-COVID-19-pandemic-Summary.pdf
8. Arthur Allen, Kaiser Health News. For Billion-Dollar COVID Vaccines, Basic Government-Funded Science Laid the Groundwork. Scientific American [Internet]. Medicine. 2020 Nov 18 [cited 2021 Apr 3]; Available from: https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/for-billion-dollar-covid-vaccines-basic-government-funded-science-laid-the-groundwork/
9. Paul Kelso. COVID-19: The multi-billion pound business of the Oxford vaccine. Sky News [Internet]. 2020 Nov 23 [cited 2021 Apr 3]; Available from: https://news.sky.com/story/covid-19-the-multi-billion-pound-business-of-the-oxford-vaccine-12134833
10. Horton R. Offline: COVID-19 and the dangers of Sinophobia. The Lancet. 2020 Jul 18;396(10245):154.
11. U.K. Risks China Spat With Boris Johnson Attack on ‘Demented’ Medicine. Bloomberg.com [Internet]. 2021 Jan 11 [cited 2021 Apr 3]; Available from: https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2021-01-11/u-k-risks-china-spat-with-johnson-attack-on-demented-medicine
12. Li Y, Nicholson HL. When “model minorities” become “yellow peril”—Othering and the racialization of Asian Americans in the COVID-19 pandemic. Sociol Compass. 2021;15(2):e12849
13. Adam Almeida. The government must not use pseudo-science to dismiss Covid’s impact on BME communities. The Runnymede Trust [Internet]. Race Matters. [cited 2021 Apr 3]; Available from: https://www.runnymedetrust.org/blog/the-government-must-not-use-biology-to-dismiss-covids-impact-on-bme-communities
14. Said EW. Orientalism. London: Routledge & Kegan; 1978. 368 p. (Wolfgang Laade Music of Man Archive).