On Plagues and Social Contagion: Coronavirus

The leper and his separation; the plague and its segmentations. The first is marked; the second analysed and distributed. The exile of the leper and the arrest of the plague do not bring with them the same political dream. The first is that of a pure community, the second that of a disciplined society. Two ways of exercising power over men, of controlling their relations, of separating out their dangerous mixtures. The plague-stricken town, traversed throughout with hierarchy, surveillance, observation, writing; the town immobilized by the functioning of an extensive power that bears in a distinct way over all individual bodies – this is the utopia of the perfectly governed city. The plague (envisaged as a possibility at least) is the trial in the course of which one may define ideally the exercise of disciplinary power. In order to make rights and laws function according to pure theory, the jurists place themselves in imagination in the state of nature; in order to see perfect disciplines functioning, rulers dreamt of the state of plague. Underlying disciplinary projects the image of the plague stands for all forms of confusion and disorder; just as the image of the leper, cut off from all human contact, underlies projects of exclusion.

— Michel Foucault, Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison (1979)

One of Michel Foucault’s primary research topics was that of how societies separate identities into binaries in the attempt for some to consolidate power. The focus upon structures like “mad/sane; dangerous/harmless; normal/abnormal” was Foucault’s trademark field of analysis throughout his life whereby he analysed the various tactics used by society, the church and government to exclude through the exercise of individual control while highlighting the procedures useded to mark the exclusion of the individual.

Where the leper was excluded by society, the plague fixed the individual in his place and discipline was the endgame to the surveillance of both. In the end, both the plague and the leper, although two distinct historical and medical realities, had the compatible endgame when analysed through the scope of power, according to Foucault:  “Each individual is fixed in his place. And, if he moves, he does so at the risk of his life, contagion or punishment.” Foucault connected the dots between the exile one sort of medical misfit (the leper) and the society desire to stop the plague stating, “The exile of the leper and the arrest of the plague do not bring with them the same political dream. The first is that of a pure community, the second that of a disciplined society.”

The control exercised over humans was Foucault’s life-long professional focus and living in a coronavirus red zone has made me realize how accurate his analysis of space, bodies and power was. For being locked into a situation of state-sanctioned quarantine which began as a governmental suggestion, a soft shutdown in the north in February, I am now witnessing the “workshop version” of Foucault’s epic study, Discipline and Punish. Early media reports in Italy which painted the scene of individuals fearful to leave their homes and this juxtaposed by the reality of markets in the northern lockdown going in full force. People rode the trains at a distance as the police would ask passengers for documents and as the deaths mounted, the media began to announce with greater constancy the threat of fines and jail sentences for breaking the quarantine. By early March, the fruit and vegetable markets were in full force and some living in the northern lockdown regions of Lombardy, Veneto and Emilia Romagna went south to care for family. It wasn’t until the national lockdown two weeks later that Italians finally came to understand the gravity of the situation.

From the moment the 9 March decree came into force, the reality of thousands of elderly deaths as a result of COVID-19 finally hit home. Since this time not a child is to be found outside in either Italy or Spain. The ethos in Italy is this: let’s not push our elders into the grave. We were told there is danger and contagion out there while women left their employment and reverted to caring for the families, sacrificing their careers and earning power staying inside over here. The panorama of the plague was both dealt with a severity in the media while the light-hearted responses of February quickly dissipated as Italian towns and villages soon resembled an episode of Westworld.

Remember the interaction on a Sydney train which shows a man lecturing a woman who sneezed? The virus creates fear amongst us all and this interaction underscores how public spaces became arenas to exercise control over the other. Who knew that the spatial partitioning of disease would be enforced by what appears very much to be an emotional commuter who is as upset by the sneeze as he is by his very reaction to it. Who needs the French authorities of the 17th century to enact the “strict spatial partitioning” which Foucault details when you have passive-aggressive travelers eager to one-up others as if theirs is the 3D version of a Twittersphere. Foucault details the edicts common throughout the plague-ridden parts of town:

The closing of the town and its outlying districts, a prohibition to leave the town on pain of death, the killing of all stray animals; the division of the town into distinct quarters, each governed by an intendant. Each street is placed under the authority of a syndic, who keeps it under surveillance; if he leaves the street, he will be condemned to death. The syndic himself comes to lock the door of each house from the outside; he takes the key with him and hands it over to the intendant of the quarter; the intendant keeps it until the end of the quarantine.

This “plague” is hardly on the same level of that of the bubonic plague which, like the coronavirus, is said to have originated in eastern Asia. The Black Death is said to have killed between 30% and 60% of Europe’s population between 1348 and 1420. In Italy 56.2 % of Covid-19 patients who have died were over 80 years old and another 31.7% were in their 70s, according to the National Institute of Health (ISS), Italy’s disease-control agency. But this trend towards the elderly is shifting given that in South Korea, according to Margherita Stancati of The Wall Street Journal, 80 percent of the confirmed cases is occurring in patients under 60 years of age even if the mortality rate reflects that of Italy’s and China’s.

Add to this that each national agency is reporting updates several times a day on the numbers of reported cases and deaths to include the more recent scare that coronavirus is in its third mutation. To that, however, are counter-reports which downplay the dangers of this latest mutation. Regardless, coronavirus has us all on hold, fearing proximity to the other, touching ATM terminals with an extended shirt sleeve or scrap of paper. What initially happened on the ground in Italy went from initial skepticism as markets remained open and football pitches full of boys and men when the north was put on alert on 23 February to mid-March when finally the streets began to empty aside from a few queues outside of pharmacies or food shops as people were exercising social distancing.

The leper is not visible but is now the unknown and exile is not of the other but of the self.   Foucault notes how the institutions have become part of the systemic distancing as today these are the voices which are heeded in our reading up on the “latest coronavirus news” with a desire to understand if today might be the day that we can finally let our children outside to play in the parks:

The constant division between the normal and the abnormal, to which every individual is subjected, brings us back to our own time, by applying the binary branding and exile of the leper to quite different objects; the existence of a whole set of techniques and institutions for measuring, supervising and correcting the abnormal brings into play the disciplinary mechanisms to which the fear of the plague gave rise. All the mechanisms of power which, even today, are disposed around the abnormal individual, to brand him and to alter him, are composed of those two forms from which they distantly derive.

Where Foucault notes the dualistic mechanism of exclusion—that by the institution and the individual to self-exile, we are seeing how today this notion of the “dangerous body” is being perpetrated by dozens of media reports each hour, most with vague references and few rigorous facts, others which compare national statistics without noting that the methods for  counting sick patients, for instance, are completely different from country to country.

Very likely what separates these two seemingly disparate realities is only a matter of time. While all of Italy is locked down and both children and adults are tiring of being inside, we are in the midst of a transnational learning curve of how to handle a pandemic.

It’s not as if anyone can predict the end of coronavirus or the shutdowns taking place in many cities and regions across the planet. History is replete with examples of the futility of trying to read the future. Take, for instance, the banker and chronicler from Florence, Giovanni Villani (1280-1348), who wrote the Nuova Cronica (New Chronicles) historicizing the city’s projects, floods, fires, famines, and sicknesses during the 14th century. The bubonic plague not only featured in his work, but this plague defined it with his final line on this subject being this: “And this plague lasted till. . .”  This sentence remains unfinished because Villani died of the plague before he could complete it.

Let it not be our legacy that in trying to control the narrative of this virus in blaming others or using this as a political tool, we lose sight of following what science has shown works. There is very good reason for everyone to self-isolate so that we can, in our collective and often disagreeable humanity, finally agree that we don’t want to wipe out the elderly and those with chronic medical conditions from the planet. That much, I would think, is worth staying inside and opening up that book you keep saying you’ll get to one day.

Julian Vigo is a journalist, scholar, film-maker and editor of Savage Minds. Her latest book is Earthquake in Haiti: The Pornography of Poverty and the Politics of Development (January 1, 2015). She can be reached at: julian.vigo@gmail.com. Read other articles by Julian.