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COVID-19 and the neoliberal state of exception

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In late February 2020, the Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben criticised the Italian media and government for prescribing quarantining and social distancing without sufficient evidence that COVID-19 was any different from the usual influenza virus.

For Agamben, these measures created what he has described in his work as a "state of exception" - a heavily militarised situation in which the government acquires unusual powers over citizens and their civic freedoms. In a state of exception, the state authorities curtail freedoms in the name of "safety" that they alone can ostensibly guarantee.

Quarantines, lockdowns, and governmental monitoring all over the world in the last several weeks also remind us of what French philosopher Michel Foucault describes as an exceptional mode of political control introduced by the plague in 18th-century Europe. "The plague is the moment," Foucault writes, "when the spatial partitioning and subdivision (quadrillage) of a population is taken to its extreme point, where dangerous communications, disorderly communities, and forbidden contacts can no longer appear."

Governments partitioning populations to limit the spread of an infectious disease is a flagrant display of an "exhaustive, unobstructed power that is completely transparent to its object and exercised to the full". For Foucault, quadrillage in the time of contagion reveals naked governmental power.

While Agamben has likely changed his mind about the severity of COVID-19 following more than 10,000 deaths in Italy alone, his Foucault-inspired argument about a "state of exception" warrants a closer look. What does the "state of exception" mean in a primarily neoliberal world order where governmental "power" is inseparable from the interests of the private sector?

How do we make sense of the initial hesitation of many governments over asking citizens to stay home or declaring a state of emergency? Why didn't the US government immediately assert its "unobstructed" power to bring the situation under control?

Consider first the varying degrees of reluctance demonstrated by several governments to impose a lockdown or mass quarantining measures. By all accounts, lockdown measures in the Chinese city of Wuhan were extremely strict. But the lockdown came only after a certain "tipping point".

While the Chinese government's own fears of the effects of a pandemic certainly played a role here, this tipping point was also the product of pressure from non-state actors, both domestic and international.

As The Guardian recently reported, the Chinese government knew of the earliest COVID-19 case in November 2019. By mid-December, there were about 60 confirmed cases. But instead of looking into the possibility of an outbreak, the Chinese government reportedly censored media reports and even cracked down on whistleblowers concerned about a new SARS-like virus emerging in Wuhan.

While the WHO China office issued an international alert concerning the situation of "44 patients with pneumonia of unknown etiology" on........

© Al Jazeera