001: Sars-Covs-2, Biosecurity: Lessons from the AIDS Pandemic

Through the early days of the pandemic, the UK government deployed the use of biosecurity discourse. This is significant because the use of such discourses demonstrates that the threat is not merely geopolitical but also biological and one which requires serious action. The deployment of biosecurity discourse by government officials like Health Secretary Matt Hancock, who made explicit reference to the “increasingly serious” threat that SARS-CoV-2 poses to both the British population and its health services, the UK government has sought to contextualize SARS-CoV-2 as a threat against the population, deploying biosecurity discourse. This is significant because the response to such a threat requires strict and powerful interventions targeted against SARS-CoV-2 to ensure the health of the population demonstrating that the health of the population is a matter of high priority for the government thus demonstrating that the health of the population has thus become the principle aim of the government.

We have to be careful when deploying biosecurity discourse because the consequence of transforming SARS-Cov-2 into a political problem through the deployment of biosecurity discourses means then that those with the disease may, in the most extreme of cases, be left to die because they ultimately pose a threat to the society and population as a whole. This may mean then that people with the illness associated with the virus may be prevented from treatment plans and denied access to important medical equipment like ventilators which would ultimately result in their death.  Moreover, through the deployment of biosecurity discourses, people who are healthy may seek to justify measures that remove the infected patients from society. This might be done by tacit support of policies designed to get rid of infected people supporting policies at one extreme by quarantining them away from the healthy populous in ‘covid colonies’; or providing support for forced euthanasia programs. Healthy people may even take measures into their own hands. State racism has always been dependent on localized strategies to meet its aim. Where governments decide not to isolate people with the virus, they may alternatively issue healthy people with ‘immunity passports’ or certificates. It is hard to imagine a scenario where these health passports do not result in some form of health-based discrimination against those who do not have them. People may well be denied jobs and means of work for failing to present such papers. This also poses a potential risk of increasing numbers of infected patients because people may self-infect in an attempt to acquire their papers or they may well forge them which poses a risk in itself. After the Holocaust, governments promised never again and yet it seems in their efforts to contain the spread of disease they have wish to replace the Star of David and the pink triangle with an immunity wristband.

The above have sought to highlight the biopolitical dimensions of SARS-COV-2 and the way in which it creates an expansion of a biopolitical economy of power and the risks that extend from this with the continued deployment of biosecurity discourses. By continuing with the deployment of biosecurity discourses there is a real chance that a wedge might be driven through British society causing a breakdown in social relations which would impact and hinder the ability to manage and solve pandemics in the future. Not only this, but there is a risk that when the pandemic passes as it invariably reveals a social fabric in tatters with hate crime and violence increased against the vulnerable people and since the violence is attached to the body, it has the potential to be carried through generations much the same way that traditional notions of racism and discrimination travels.

Furthermore, if we continue to define SARS-CoV-2 through security discourses and discourses of risk, we will invariably end up with a situation like we did with the AIDS pandemic whereby patients with HIV/AIDS were constructed as posing a risk to society and thus automatically transformed into juridical subjects. This means when someone acquires HIV they are immediately turned into a criminal-in-waiting subject despite the incredible developments in anti-retroviral drugs; PrEP and understandings around ‘undetectability’ for example. Fining those who break lockdown rules may unwittingly already be laying the ground for the criminalizing of SARS-COV-2 subjects. Furthermore, since SARS-Cov-2 is a global issue and the majority of countries around the world have been impacted by the virus, as respective governments try to contain the spread of infection and bring their domestic numbers down, they may deny access to carriers of the disease from entering their country. Again, we already see this with regards to HIV/AIDS. Up until recently, the USA denied people with HIV visa-free entry to the country with many countries around the world deporting, denying access and discriminating against visitors because of their HIV status. This is all justified on the basis that a person with HIV poses a threat the health of the population. There is a concern that proposed airbridges may ultimately lead to a similar situation where eventually those not “immune” will not be allowed to travel.

Communication is key, and we must therefore take stock of the way in which we communicate the pandemic to minimizes the risk of division that is likely to occur. We must be careful not to solely rely of discourses of risk and security (and biosecurity) and instead Governments and public figures must (where possible) deploy alternative discourses such as those related to development, community and humanity. We must not, as we did with HIV/AIDs, introduce red lines with regards to people’s health especially because we run the risk of further disenfranchising those communities most at risk viral diseases.