COVID-19: What it means to think violently

COVID-19: What it means to think violently

Birgit Poopuu, Elisabeth Schweiger and Elena Simon

Why did the protective masks run out in two months? But rockets and bombs that kill Syrians did not run out in 9 years? Stop making what kills people. Make what helps them to live. #Coronavid19 #SaveLives (@AmaniBallour, Twitter, 24.03.2020)

We are currently facing a pandemic that will hurt many people. The crisis exposes the shortcomings of our world’s militarisation: we are not running out of weapons, but we have run out of what is needed to respond to this crisis humanely. We live in an increasingly securitised and militarised society with unfair market hierarchies that allow a ‘good life’ for some but not others. Even though many of us knew this already and have been standing up against it, the crisis has made it more visible and brought it home to many. All around us we see the grave state of our health, education, social welfare sectors because of disastrous policy-making, because of the way we have previously shelved investing in them and we see how the most vulnerable are the most exposed to the multiple repercussions of the crisis.

The violence of militarisation and decades of neoliberal economic policy are now becoming ever more tangible and have been pointed out by many. But there is something else underlying the policies and practices that goes beyond violence generated by policies. Underlying the policies, responses and practices is a violence in our very thinking. We need to explore how the material structures that have limited how we can react to COVID-19 have also affected how we think and see the problem at hand. This violent way of thinking remains at the service of and affected by imperialism, militarism, patriarchy, and capitalism. But this also reaches into our routine and everyday ways of speaking and acting.

We have had a prevalence of seeing violently for a long time now – our peace preparedness has been constantly swallowed up by our war preparedness and at the same time a lot of energy has been invested in making good life available for a select few – which explains why since the pandemic started many heads of state have not been able to act responsibly or see our planet’s and people’s security and well-being near and far rather than state and market security. The current way of dealing with the pandemic has been like putting out a fire, or like fighting an army at war. Indeed, it is telling how many governments and media reports have seen the crisis through a war metaphor. To frame a problem as a threat – an enemy to defeat – and to zoom into particular aspects of the threat at the cost of many others means to already think violently. It means to understand a threat as something distinct out there which the homogenised ‘self’ encounters, ignoring structural violence that has enabled vulnerabilities that are far wider than ‘the threat’.

Underlying these militarised ways of addressing Covid-19 is a violent way of thinking that relies on drawing borders and lines of distinction between self and other. The ‘other’ here figures in different ways: as the subaltern whose suffering is neglected and who becomes disposable in comparison to the white, healthy and wealthy; as the ‘other’ who her/himself becomes understood as the threat, the poor, the migrant, the ‘unhygienic’; as the opinionated ‘other’ who promotes views that challenge the proclaimed necessity that all think and act uniformly against the enemy as an absolute priority. To think violently then also means to invest in the idea that there is only one truth which dictates what uniform action must look like; that the State knows what is best for society and all others are not only wrong but are dangerously wrong.

Isn’t it weird that people living from paycheck to paycheck are supposed to have months of savings for emergencies while billion dollar corporations are so poorly managed they’re on the brink of bankruptcy after a week of reduced profits. (@Veggitales Facts, Twitter, 22.03.2020)

The power relations underlying these decision-making processes are still as problematic as they have always been: state power is centralised through emergency laws restricting individual liberties based on advice from white, middle class, male experts. But the power relations underlying these processes are also as productive as they have always been, generating fast and uniform decision making and because of our fear, we overlook the dangers they pose.

This can be a deliberate choice, weighing up the medical risks for society against the political risks of not challenging the authoritarianism that is generating the rules and laws we are following. But quite often it is an unconscious process, in which we are swept away by the social dynamics that have already created a violent way of framing the situation. The ‘self’ created through these violent ways of thinking is not a democratic body. Instead it defers to the state as actor, companies as the ones in need of safeguarding, and away from everyday, collective agency. Individual agency is confined to passivity: stay home and save lives. In State we trust.

The danger of silencing critique, industrial struggle and resistance to ‘unity’ is very real. Afterall, the call to reaffirm the national ‘self’ is an emotional appeal to support the same authority that ignored pleas to transform the system into a greener, more just and less violent one. Values other than physical health or priorities other than the sheltering of ‘us’ from Covid-19 are silenced and marginalised. This is not the time for talking about climate change, ongoing bombing attacks, poverty, exploitation and working conditions, water scarcity, or refugees dying in the Mediterranean; unless the above are linked to the threat of Covid-19.

To unpack the violence within this emotional extortion we need to dig deeper than pointing to the flaws in government intervention and to the marginalised groups that the State has very clearly not thought of and has no intention to act on (such as refugees, for example), and ask about the agency within the emergent crisis. The trope of a ‘fast-moving’ situation that acts upon us, dilutes the fact that the situation is being made fast – by someone, to paraphrase Cynthia Enloe. In this case it is the lethal ignorance of health workers’ advice and years of allegiance to austerity over need by the proponents of a capitalist system that is driven by profit. The crisis communication over Covid-19 has been characterised by day-to-day updates, sudden changes in strategy and a logic of escalation that made the lives of millions unpredictable and more fragile.

And while a smoke-screen is created by the news occupied with reporting on Covid-19, other problems are not addressed: the coming recession that is accelerated by the ongoing trade war between the USA and China; patent laws and private (or nationalised) profit in pharmaceuticals and health provision that have a death toll attached to them already – be it in trading less effective and out of date medicine in postcolonial countries, or in simply holding power over who can access vital knowledge. The economic sanctions the USA is upholding against Iran, Cuba and Venezuela are as deadly as the bombs in Iraq and Yemen or the plight of refugees.

The possibility that there is a plurality of truths and that what is best for society indeed should develop from a multiplicity of values and viewpoints is rejected when we think violently. Instead we streamline our thinking into a hierarchy of expertise that supports our belief of the one Truth. Yet one blinkered answer, as we have seen, tends to ignore many who are made vulnerable by this situation. This violent way of looking at the world – what we might call a violent lens or a violens – produces the threat as an external enemy which the self encounters and neglects to grasp the structural relationships through which vulnerability is created.

This needs to change. If we cannot voice radical imaginations of a fairer future now, then we are on a path that continues to craft a more violent future. There is an urgent need to start seeing differently, to place pressure on the government to move from a logic of fighting against threats in a state of crises to preventing and facing up to interlinked injustices from climate change, inequalities within and between societies, to health care and provision and build a more livable world. If this shift in perspective is made, then political agency becomes more widely shared and we can create a world where many worlds fit.


Birgit Poopuu is postdoctoral research fellow in international politics at Aberystwyth University. Elisabeth Schweiger is associate lecturer in politics at the University of York. Elena Simon is a PhD researcher in politics and international relations at the University of Sheffield. Birgit Poopuu would like to acknowledge that this work was supported by the Estonian Research Council grant (PUTJD760).

Image: ‘The World’ by political cartoonist, Amany Al-ali. Used with permission.