Three Faces of “Our Big War” Against Covid-19

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by Ayşe Seda Yüksel

From the very first days, the discourse about the Covid-19 pandemic has been hijacked by the linguistic repository of war and warfare. Metaphors and phrases such as “war zone,” “on the front lines,” “fighting/defeating the enemy,” “being at war” naturalize a militarized language. Cynthia Enloe warns about this militarized language surrounding Covid-19: “Waging wars privileges masculinities and lures people into seeking human enemies.” In this commentary, I will briefly talk about how governments’ collective responses to the Covid-19 pandemic are embedded in a governmentality of warfare, global defense economy, and an affective politics of emotions that nurtures wars. 

Visibility: On City as the Scale of New Warfare 

In an article written in 2010, Saskia Sassen questions the locality of violence as the context that actually gives meaning to acts of violence. The urbanizing of war has altered our perception of the limits of violence related to warfare and reshuffled the hierarchy between forms of violence that are attached to it – specifically the hierarchy between structural violence and political violence. “Pulverizing a city is a specific type of crime,” she argues, “one which causes a horror that people dying from malaria does not.” In a rather recent book, Sassen and Kaldor revisit the idea of the urbanizing of war. The asymmetric wars – between a state and a guerrilla group – have brought the war into cities, or to put it differently, asymmetric wars have implied a rescaling of warfare in which the city scale has acquired a central role. The city has become a battleground between states and opposing armed groups that “infiltrated into the cities like a virus” in the eyes of the government. The civic capacities and components of cities, the mix of people and buildings, and the collective making of it place the city and the lives within it into a privileged position, not only in the eyes of the government but also of the armed opponents. Although warfare has been urbanized, the city still constrains the power that can destroy it. Its destruction means the ultimate attack.

The Covid-19 pandemic, just like urbanized asymmetric war, has created waves of transformations at different scales, yet it also shows the centrality of the city in our perception of solidarity, politics, and resistance. Despite its global impact, Covid-19 becomes especially visible and tangible in cities – in the empty streets and squares, enclosed parks, closed shops, and vacant gardens. The emptied city serves as a liminal space for our perception of the physical and economic destruction that the virus can create and its invisibility. Sense of security means going back to the streets and the old routines. Just like bombings or armed attacks pulverize the city and terrorize its inhabitants, Covid-19 assaults cities and hijacks our sense of normalcy. Approximately 850 million people suffering from severe health problems due to undernutrition (almost 1/3 are children) every year in some remote places and around 70 million people displaced due to wars and conflicts and scattered in refugee camps are still part of our sense of normalcy. Violence acquires meaning in a context with spatial and temporal dimensions — and structural violence is the most difficult kind to pinpoint. 

Mobility: Authoritarianism and the Affective Politics of Fear 

The current Covid-19 pandemic reveals the moral crisis of the neoliberal project, which has been carried out for years by governments through radical cutbacks in public spending, including public health. This neoliberal project, which has imposed a morality placing market efficiency and profit at its center to the detriment of the general public good, evolved through authoritarian and populist regimes in various parts of the world. There is already an important discussion regarding the relation between neoliberalism and authoritarianism. The Covid-19 pandemic has clearly shown us how they interact and how these interactions may deepen. 

Authoritarian and populist governments need wars, conflicts, and crises to generate a sense of emergency and to keep the support of their constituencies. Now, they have a real crisis, which has demolished the normal course of things. Waging wars comes with the suspension of democratic processes in which public debates are silenced and civil rights are arbitrarily suspended or limited. In the USA, “war against the virus” extended restrictions on abortion services in the name of freeing up public resources. In Hungary, the ruling party voted to cancel all elections and granted the prime minister the right to rule by decree – indefinitely. Among many other controversial edicts, the Hungarian government prohibited transgender operations. Under the lockdown, the Polish parliament has passed an almost total ban on abortion, a law introducing a two-year prison sentence for offering sex education, and another on protecting state property against Jewish claims.

While populists and authoritarian governments make use of the current crisis to bypass public debate and discussion, the Covid-19 pandemic has added an affective economy of fear as a further element to the global trend towards authoritarianism, which may explain the silence in the face of these developments. As Sarah Ahmed states, fear does not reside positively in a particular object, but is rather linked to the “passing by” of an object that “approaches.” The absence of the feared object creates the fear, and its invisibility results in the objectification of the fear in certain bodies – sticking stereotypes to certain bodies making them fearsome for those who should be afraid. The economy of fear, which is based on a politics of mobility and the continuous process of sticking signs, revalorizes and redefines the black man, the could-be-terrorist, or the migrant, resulting in the right to movement for some and the containment of others. 

The Covid-19 pandemic has reshuffled the internal dynamics of the global economy of fear that has long been based on the War on Terror. The “passing by” of the virus fosters a huge economy of fear, which has immobilized millions with their own consent. Yet, this new fear will be objectified one more time. Then, some will be given the right to mobility while some other will be denied this right and stigmatized. Trump’s insistence on defining the danger as the “Chinese virus” or “Wuhan virus” deepens racism in the US more than ever as it takes its cue from this economy of fear. Orban’s direct manipulation of this economy is an aggregated form of the refugee policy of the EU, which is best epitomized in the infamous EU-Turkey deal regarding refugees. In a press meeting, when asked about Iranian students expelled as part of the fight against the virus, Orban already revealed the links within this new economy of fear: “We are fighting a two-front war. One front is called migration, and the other one belongs to the coronavirus. There is a logical connection between the two, as both spread with movement.” 

Market: The Political Economy of Warfare 

The Covid-19 pandemic will inevitably aggravate global economic stagnation and deepen the ongoing crisis of neoliberal economies. Yet, it has created an unexpected economic boom in certain sectors of economy. Its effects on online shopping numbers and preferences are disputed. However, certain digital media platforms and videoconferencing technologies have recorded meteoric increases in their net worth. Interestingly, the defense industry also quickly adapted to the surveillance and modeling techniques of the “fight against the virus” and capitalized on the pandemic in multifarious ways that deserve attention. According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) annual report, global military expenditure had already been expanding before the Covid-19 pandemic in the face of the global trend of increased cutbacks in public health and education:  in 2019, it saw its largest annual increase since the 2008 economic crisis, reaching $1,917 billion. The top five spenders, which accounted for 62 percent of expenditure, were the United States, China, India, Russia, and Saudi Arabia.  China and India were the first ones to quickly adapt their defense industries to their “war against Covid-19.”

In a commentary, Eyal Weizman explains how the modeling technologies being applied in order to understand the spread of the virus are based on a viral-human algorithm that examines not only the behavior of viral life forms but also human behavior. Such modes of algorithmic analysis, mainly employed in the context of military targeting, collects patterns through “signature” drone strikes based on the circulation of populations in space, people’s use of facilities and infrastructure as well as physical contacts and relations. This algorithmic analysis then predicts future interactions between people that are tracked in order to decide whether they would pose an “imminent risk” or not. These pattern recognition algorithms that have been intensively used by the CIA on the Afghanistan-Pakistan borders or by the Israeli air force in Gaza are now brought into our daily lives thanks to security and military surveillance companies. 

Techniques of urban warfare such as isolation of the danger, tracking down connections, and forced lockdowns have been effectively employed by many governments, yet surveillance and modeling technologies have brought what has been already experimented upon on the frontiers of the war on terror and in exceptional war zones to cities. Drones, which have been the most expanding economic sector in the army industry in the last five years, are a good example.

Many governments are already using drones cleared for use in civilian space (such as Reaper MQ-9B) for various purposes, such as sporting events, etc. With the Covid-19 crisis, they are being used widely for monitoring, controlling, and patrolling. In Austria, the police force has announced the possibility of deploying drones to enforce social distancing. China, a major exporter of drones (see DJI fights), has already used them to deliver medical supplies and disinfect, and to control and monitor quarantine conditions. In Madrid and Nice, helicopters and drones are being deployed to ensure that residents are staying indoors during the lockdown. Research teams at the University of South Australia are currently working on designing a “pandemic drone” to help track virus symptoms such as coughing and fever. 

As warfare legitimizes state secrecy and surveillance, mobile technology firms and secret service personnel are also part of the picture. The National Center for Medical Intelligence, a component of the Pentagon's Defense Intelligence Agency, has been quite active in collecting information about the virus’s spread and impact in the USA. In Israel, Mossad is helping the government counter

Covid-19 through surveillance. In the UK, Boris Johnson appointed a senior figure in intelligence and defense with a specialization on China and cyber warfare to one of the top posts in UK’s “nudge unit”, which is involved in the campaign against the Covid-19 pandemic. Countries like Vietnam or India have forced their citizens to download contact tracing applications through very strict measures. Privacy International and Human Rights Watch (HRW) warned of an alarming increase in violations of privacy via mobile technologies. Just weeks into the pandemic, 14 nations were using applications to trace carriers of Covid-19 or enforce quarantines while some 24 countries already used telecommunications for location tracking. 

In Austria and Germany, the governments have encouraged their citizens to download Covid-19 related apps. In Austria, the application “Stopp Corona” has been downloaded more than 130,000 times. In Israel, 1.5 million people have downloaded "HaMagen," an application that warns its users if they have crossed paths with a Covid-19 patient. In Germany, the government is working on a “voluntary system,” an application that was developed by Fraunhofer Heinrich Hertz (HHI) telecommunications institute in collaboration with the Robert Koch Institute (RKI), the country's public health agency. Fraunhofer Heinrich Hertz (HHI) telecommunications institute has been quite active in the research and production of micro-drone defense systems

The future after the Covid-19 crisis is yet to be seen and should be left uncertain so that it might create the potential for an “antidote,” not only to the virus but also to the political and economic crisis that we have been experiencing for a long while. This antidote requires the patient recording and documenting of what is already happening as well as an astute observation of novel discursive and material links as they are being constructed.



1 : "Our Big War"






























Ayşe Seda Yükselis a post-doctorate researcher at the University of Vienna, Department of Social and Cultural Anthropology. Her current research interests include processes of capitalist urbanization, rescaling of state and development, political economy of wars and conflicts, city-making and city economies, Kurdish issues in Turkey.