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Corona Multiple

20. Mai 2020

Translating SARS-CoV-2 into the Capitalocene

In a context of global inequality, the ontological status of the SARS-CoV-2 virus changes according to the socio-technical network into which it is integrated. Jannik Schritt discusses how the virus travels and translates around the globe in context-specific ways producing different effects and exacerbating pre-existing inequalities. In light of the context-specific transformations of the virus, the question is whether a global standardized approach of isolation and lockdown that builds on a decontextualized equivalence construction is apt to manage the pandemic.   

Introduction

The SARS-CoV-2 virus is spreading around the globe in high speed, simultaneously slowing down our public, economic and social life. Often, we come to think about the spread in terms of diffusion, a term borrowed from natural sciences. Driven by a gradient in concentration, the terms suggests an initial movement from a region of higher concentration (e.g. from Wuhan) to a region of lower concentration (e.g. the rest of the world). However, this concept of diffusion is misleading because the virus (as any other travelling element) neither simply diffuses without the help of an extraneous force and carrier, nor does the virus remain the same while travelling. I argue that in order to understand the dissemination, transformation and context-specific effects of the virus around the world, we need to focus on how the virus translates differently in contexts of social and global inequality, and how this translation further exacerbates inequality in the Capitalocene[1] – a distinct geological epoch, in which the principle of capital accumulation has penetrated every corner of the planet’s biophysical environment. Indeed, major reasons why the corona virus has likely jumped from animals to humans are the progressing spread of urban areas and capitalist extraction zones into the habitats of wild animals on the one hand, and capitalist factory farming on the other.[2]

Factory chicken farm and coal mine.
Images from Wikipedia licensed as public domain and creative commons.

How the virus travels among humans is also related to the Capitalocene. First, the virus needs infected bodies or particular surfaces to be able to travel. The virus does not necessarily spread to neighboring regions first, such as Tibet with only one positively tested person so far, but to those places most connected to the source. Looking at the carriers, we quickly come to understand that it is first of all the global middle class that has spread the virus, due to their high mobility and resources. In the contemporary era of a “supply chain capitalism”[3], the Lombardy region in Italy, from where the virus spread within Europe, is highly connected to the Wuhan region in China due to the textile and leather industry “Made in Italy”. With Europe (and then the United States) as major epicenters of the crisis after China, several African countries imposed travel bans on certain European countries and nationals, and quickly anger and resentment towards European travelers was expressed[4]. Second, looking at the infection and mortality rate of the virus in different countries, places and social classes, we see that demographics, climate factors, hygiene practices, containment policies, the size of individual or family living space, (mal)nutrition and the capacity of the health system all transform the virus into a ‘virus multiple’[5]. Although the virus is (still) identified as the SARS-CoV-2 virus by virologists despite it being mutating,[6] its ontological status and its effects are very different depending on the network into which it is integrated. This process of ontological change into a ‘virus multiple’ is called ‘translation’, and it has a lot to do with social and global inequalities in the Capitalocene. Third, it is obvious that the richest countries have the most resources to absorb the economic shocks the crisis produces. While calls for solidarity within the European Union and around the globe to combat the economic crisis are currently debated at the highest political level, migrants and refugees at the EU borders are left unprotected in highly overcrowded camps. Moreover, with compromises of solidarity proving to be difficult even among the EU member states, most countries in the Global South, whose health systems had been privatized under the austerity measures imposed by the IMF and the World Bank, are left to their own devices in combating the virus. They need to  continue to deal with the Bretton Woods system and private philanthropic organizations such as the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation that pursue their own neoliberal agendas of privatized health care. 

In the following, building on Djelic’s[7] work, I will discuss three different diffusion paradigms and show the workings of the respective translation processes involved. Djelic identifies three main types of diffusion studies: diffusion as epidemiology, diffusion as encounter with embeddedness, and diffusion as mediation and construction. I will show that in order to understand the dissemination of the SARS-CoV-2 virus and its various effects, we have to consider all three forms of diffusion and the underlying translation processes simultaneously.

Diffusion as epidemiology – translation as equivalence construction

The first type “diffusion as epidemiology”, conceptualizes diffusion as spread and adoption of travelling elements (such as viruses) by individuals based on several pre-defined factors and processual stages. Thinking diffusion in this way, we could say that the adoption of the virus depends on the risks of infection that an individual person takes such as hygiene practices and the person’s contact frequency and proximity to other people. This implies a collective ethics calling for solidarity with people at risk (older people and/or those with pre-existing medical conditions). This ethical perspective, however, is never far from blaming those who do not conform to the precautionary measures. In a fundamentally unequal (global) society not every person has the same possibilities of conforming to these measures. First, only some of us have the privilege to work from home without any wage cuts, while others must keep coming “in” to work and have regular contacts with colleagues, customers or patients. Again others experience extreme income losses or even lose their jobs. Some of them might be provided with protective gear, others are not. Second, those with access to running water, soap or disinfectants and a spacious home find it a lot easier to conform to social distancing (or rather physical distancing) and the recommended hygiene practices. People in the Global North stockpile toilet paper as the epitome of ‘civilization’ separating humans from their animal nature, ‘the civilized’ from the racialized and ‘uncivilized’ others, thus revealing an inherent dimension of class and gender bias, and racism.[8] In the same sense, we might interpret the stockpiling of guns as the epitome of ‘pure capitalism’ in the US: ‘The American dream’ where every man is the architect of his own future and thus of his(!) own protection, exemplifies the white, male Capitalocene. For others, access to housing space, running water, soap, disinfectants and toilet paper is a privilege. Thus, while the global middle class has spread the virus around the globe in the first place, it is the poorest and most marginalized who suffer the most. Moreover, it might even be the less privileged who will finally be blamed by the middle class for not conforming to the containment measures, paralleling a kind of collective ethics that has been observed in other fields as well such as consumption in ‘ethical capitalism’ in which eating expensive, healthy, organic and fair-trade food produces a moral highground of the middle class over those who cannot afford it.[9]

Screenshot of the Johns Hopkins University webpage on 5/15/2020 (https://coronavirus.jhu.edu/map.html).

Research in this type of thinking diffusion is mostly comparative and based on aggregated quantitative data reducing history “to ‘chunks’ of data that can be objectified and measured” (Djelic 2008:10). It is precisely this “diffusion as epidemiology” that operates in the mapping of the corona virus by the Johns Hopkins University counting the total number of confirmed cases, deaths and recoveries for all countries across the globe (see screenshot above). Here, the underlying translation mechanism is equivalence construction between contexts. In counting cases of infection, death and recovery across the globe, all infected, dead and recovered bodies are seen as equivalent, although in some cases of infection, for example, the SARS-CoV-2 virus has not caused a COVID-19 illness; in other cases deaths are counted as caused by COVID-19 because the bodies have been tested positively, although these people clearly had additional co-mortalities. The classification practices thus open a space for various politics of translation through which governments try to control the official infection and mortality rates. There are, for example, large doubts about the numbers in Russia, where pneumonia-related deaths have largely increased without COVID-19 confirmations. And China in particular is said to highly control its mortality and infection rate. Counting urns in Wuhan, some have even estimated a total of 46,800 deaths in Wuhan alone.[10] Producing “just the right numbers” is important for national and transnational governmentality to produce compliant national populations on the one hand, and export one’s own model of governance as superior to the rest of the world’s on the other. While very low numbers might cause skepticism and a loss of trust in the national government, large numbers could reveal misgovernment and a failure to address the crisis properly. 

Diffusion as encounter with embeddedness – translation as ontological change

The second type “diffusion as encounter with embeddedness” depicts diffusion in the sense of context-specific adaptations and transformations (Djelic 2008). The idea behind this paradigm is that a travelling element such as the virus is integrated into a new network in the context of its destination, thereby transforming not only the network into which it is integrated but also the element itself while adapting to the network. The translation process is about changing the ontological status. Research here looks into adaptations and transformations of both the virus and the context in comparative ways. The point is that the virus not only completely changes the social and economic life in context-specific ways and the pre-existing network including demographics, climate factors, living spaces, economic activities, (mal)nutrition and the capacity of the health system impact on the ontological status of the virus in terms of infection rate, severeness of symptoms, and mortality rate. A hot and dry climate might lower the survivability of the virus on surfaces outside of infected bodies, thereby lowering the infection rate. A particular young population will have less severe symptoms on average. Bustling (informal) economic activities, fully packed public transport systems and a high physical proximity with several people sharing one room or a small house raises the infection rate. Older people, people with pre-existing medical conditions or people with malnutrition symptoms might experience more severe illnesses and a higher risk of mortality. A low-capacity health system or difficulties in accessing the health system in the first place equally increase the mortality rate. In sum, depending on the context of destination, the virus never remains the “same”, since its changing hazardous nature affects poor, vulnerable and marginalized people the most. Comparing the numbers collected by the Johns Hopkins University of confirmed cases of COVID-19 with those of total deaths between countries, we might get a hint of the mortality rate for each country, which is fluctuating between 1,3%  for Germany and more than 12% for Italy.[11] However, these comparisons are highly problematic because of the different testing capacities, testing practices and politics of translation in the countries (see above). Virologists estimate that in some countries less than 5%, in others up to 77% of those infected have been tested.[12]Given that the SARS-CoV-2 virus not always produces the COVID-19 disease, we can only vaguely guess the real infection and mortality rates. Moreover, a national infection and mortality rate risks to blur inequalities within nation states. While national statistics in most countries are available for the age structure, gender and pre-existing medical conditions of those who died, aspects of social class remain largely invisible. 

Washing hands before boarding the bus in Uganda. (Image by Isaac Kasamani)

In the same vein, the virus-induced transformations of the social and economic networks and the effects on personal well-being are most severe for the less privileged. With national containment policies being enacted in terms of physical distancing, isolation, testing, and hygiene practices, its effects are very different when it comes to social inequality. When India announced a curfew for the whole country, it is easy to imagine the difference it makes for those living in slums with many people packed in one room compared to those confined to their luxurious suburban villas. Reports from India show massive human rights violations with migrant workers being sprayed with chemicals for ‘disinfection’. With inequality as a foundational principle of structuration in the Capitalocene, the same is true for all countries, at least to some extent. The extent of its effects is based on the degree of inequality given. Due to confinement policies in Germany (and other countries), for instance, we witness an increase in domestic violence against women and children. As a repercussion of COVID-19, a Chinese city experienced a peak in divorce cases immediately after the curfew had been lifted.[13] In several countries in the Global South, youths protested against confinement polices. The perspective of an economic breakdown seems more threatening for these youths than the virus itself. Severely affected are also refugees all over the world, who live in overcrowded refugee camps with hardly any access to health systems, running water and sanitary installations. Due to new compartmentalization policies, to which I shall turn in the next section, procedures for granting the rights of asylum in the EU have been suspended in Greece. Here, refugees are stuck in a prolonged limbo situation, waiting in overcrowded refugee camps with hardly any possibility to conform to physical distancing and hygiene practices. While these people are the biggest losers of the crisis, some large capitalist corporations such as pharmaceuticals, mail-order firms, communication companies and software providers are among its biggest winners. 

Diffusion as mediation and construction – translation as standardization 

The third type “diffusion as mediation and construction” focuses on the (re)construction of the travelling element in the context of arrival in which it is embedded (Djelic 2008). The underlying translation process in this diffusion type is not associated to fluid adaptations and transformations of the travelling element as in the previous case, but involves controlling and managing the element’s ontological change. If, for example, the travelling element should stay the same, the network of arrival into which the element is embedded needs to be (re)constructed in the same way as in the context of departure. The rationale behind this form of translation is for the travelling element to either remain unaltered if possible or to transform in a controlled and preferred way. In the case of SARS-CoV-2 this kind of translation process attempts to cope by copying or imitating the most successful containment policies across the globe. Also focusing comparatively on containment policies in different countries, research on this diffusion and translation type resembles the second type, but it shifts the perspective from the effects of the virus to the countermeasures taken. Leaving little room for creativity, it is interesting to note that the standardized countermeasure in place in most countries by now is based on the lessons learned during the Spanish flu in the early 20th century, namely strict isolation.[14] Some countries such as the US, UK or Turkey were slow in taking isolation measures, while others such as Sweden and Brazil forgo harsh containment policies, but most governments have (for the time being) reclaimed the primacy of politics over economics. Around the globe, the return of the nation state can be observed: unilateralism, border closures, and a mostly national race for protective equipment and oxygen ventilators to enlarge the capacities of the national health systems. As a result, market prices for ventilators and masks have soared. Even the capitalist race for pharmaceuticals and vaccination has shifted from a purely economic one (filing a patent) to a nationalist one with a German start-up company reporting of a Trump administration offer to take them over in order to be able to produce exclusively for the American market (it was publicly denied afterwards). Other newspapers reported an attempt of the Trump administration to divert the delivery of protection equipment from China to the US instead of Germany. Moreover, tracing social contacts with mobile phone location data is used to help isolating infected bodies more quickly, thereby slowing down the infection rate. How the tracing is done, might differ from country to country but many governments are currently developing such tools. Moreover, a lot of governments have granted themselves exceptional powers to deal with the crisis – in the case of Hungary without any time limits. The overall goal of these containment policies is ‘to flatten the curve’ for the health systems and intensive care units to be able to deal with COVID-19. For some countries in the Global South where hardly any ventilators are available, the question is whether flattening the curve through containment policies will have any positive effect at all, since enlarging the capacity of the health system to a hundred ventilators or so would be a drop in the ocean. The rationale behind is buying time to completely dry up the virus, or hope for medicine or vaccination to be developed in the future. Another unresolved question is, whether a totally different age structure in at least some parts of the Global South compared to the Global North would justify a lockdown.[15]

Lockdown in a Mumbai residential building. (Image by DIVYAKANT SOLANKI/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock)

Whether tracing apps and other preemptive measures are implemented in an authoritarian surveillance mode or rather in a democratic mode of governance offering alternatives that comply with data protection laws will be important in the actual race of promoting the most effective governance system. So far, China that has self-reportedly ‘stopped’ the spread of the virus, seems to promote its authoritarian governmentality as the most superior form, sending relief shipments with medical and protective equipment all over the world to showcase not just solidarity but also its superiority. In Germany with very low mortality rates, the government, media and civil society seek to promote a different approach arguing that democratic forms of government are mostly effective, while authoritarian and populist governments are dangerously slow or late responders. In an attempt to promote one’s own model as superior, countries and societies in the Global South that have so far been only mildly affected by the virus with low infection numbers are predicted to experience future catastrophes without acknowledging agency, efforts and success in combating this crisis or others in the past. While the West could learn a lot from their experience in successfully combatting Ebola[16], it shows that knowledge flows are still largely unidirectional and embedded in colonial patterns of thought that help to confirm and reproduce one’s own superiority.[17] In this context of global inequality, it is not surprising that conspiracy theories circulate in the Global South (and the Global North) relating the spread of the virus to a Western complot. Some of them, such as the testing of vaccines on African populations first, build on long-term colonial and post-colonial experiences and might not be so conspirational considering that vaccination in Africa is on top of the agenda of organizations such as the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation (although the testing of the vaccines not only takes place in Africa). However, there are also new forms of solidarity emerging both on the local level and on the sub-regional level with some commentators already claiming that the crisis will lead to a more just, equal and solidary world, and might even bring global capitalism to an end. These comments draw hope from the crisis, which is a fundamental human strategy to cope with uncertainty, but so is its instant marketization in the Capitalocence. How the world will transform in this new global `synthetic situation’ (Knorr-Cetina, 2009), in which everyone can digitally observe the emerging catastrophe all over the globe in ‘slow motion’ (https://coronavirus.jhu.edu/map.html), might also be related to the question who wins the race in staging, promoting and exploiting its own governance system as being the most effective. And it is obvious that those countries with the most resources are at least in the pole position to translate the SARS-CoV-2 virus into a less dangerous threat, and to economically, politically and socially recover in the aftermath of the crisis.

Conclusion

In Germany (and beyond), we often hear the statement from media sources and politics that the SARS-CoV-2 virus affects “all of us”. But it does not affect us all in the same way, as I argue here. On my Facebook page, several times statements from friends were posted comparing the situation of physical distancing in Germany with the political and economic isolation of Palestine over years or the fear of people living in warzones like Syria. While these statements meant to express empathy, they play down people’s experience of war, economic hardship and colonialism. Even more so, there is no global ‘corona situation’. Instead, we experience a situation of ‘corona multiple’: an unequal translation of the SARS-CoV-2 virus in the Capitalocene in which the virus translates and transforms differently according to the context-specific networks into which it is integrated, although standardized global containment measures are designed to prevent these adaptations. I used three different forms of translation to illustrate the dissemination of the SARS-CoV-2 virus across the globe: translation as equivalence construction, translation as ontological change, translation as standardization. Translation as equivalence construction suggests one global corona situation according to which the corona virus is similar everywhere. Such classification practices open room for politics of translation through which governments try to control the official statistics. Translation as ontological change revealed that the SARS-CoV-2 virus transforms differently according to the network into which it is integrated. Spread translocally by the global middle class, it is the poorest and most marginalized people who suffer most from the virus, amid reports that the global elite is already stockpiling ventilators in private to ensure access and treatment in case of contraction. Translation as standardization revealed how standardized containment measures around the globe try to manage and control the ontological status of the virus. However, this standardization enforces patterns of social and global inequality in the Capitalocene. Isolation policies that might make sense in the Global North seem questionable in at least some parts of the Global South with completely different age structures, hardly any social security mechanisms and little health system capacities. This raises the question of whether and how we can use the contemporary ‘crisis multiple’ to work towards structural change in order to combat inequality – globally and in our own countries. 


[1] The term goes back to Andreas Malm, who first proposed it in a university seminar in Lund, Sweden, in 2009.

[2] Jenia Mukherjee and Amrita Sen, “Is Covid-19 a “Capitalocene” Challenge?” (11 May 2020) <https://seeingthewoods.org/2020/05/11/is-covid-19-a-capitalocene-challenge/>.

[3] Anna Tsing, ‘Supply Chains and the Human Condition’ (2009) 21(2) “Rethinking Marxism” 148.

[4] Brandaan Huigen, “‘Stay on your continent!’: Coronavirus and the alarm of European spread in South Africa” (23 March 2020) <https://boasblogs.org/witnessingcorona/stay-on-your-continent/>.

[5] Annemarie Mol, “The body multiple: Ontology in medical practice” (Duke University Press, 2002) (‘Mol 2002’).

[6] Virologist can identify the genetic codes of the virus to reveal their travel history. The routing of the virus has caused, for example, controversy and political dispute between Germany, Austria and Italy accusing each other as the first platform of its diffusion in Europe. 

[7] M.-L. Djelic, ‘Sociological studies of diffusion: is history relevant?’ (2008) 6(3) “Theory and Society” 538.

[8] Abril Saldaña and Ariadna Acevedo-Rodrigo, “The toilet paper panic: coronavirus and reflections from confinement” (9 April 2020) <https://doi.org/10.1093/ser/mwn008>.

[9] Slavoj Žižek, “First as tragedy, then as farce” (Verso, 2009) (‘Žižek 2009’).

[10] Lea Deuber, “Pekings seltsame Corona-Statistik” (31 March 2020) <https://www.sueddeutsche.de/politik/corona-covid-19-china-wuhan-statistik-1.4863551>.

[11] A new study on the real infection and mortality rate in Heinsberg, Germany, suggest that the mortality rate of the virus in this German region is 0,37% (Hendrik Streeck and others, Infection fatality rate of SARS-CoV-2 infection in a German community with a super-spreading event” (2020) <https://www.medrxiv.org/content/10.1101/2020.05.04.20090076v1>.

[12] Berit Uhlmann, “Die Lücken der Statistik” (1 April 2020) <https://www.sueddeutsche.de/gesundheit/coronavirus-zahlen-statistik-1.4864439>.

[13] Global Times, “Chinese city experiencing a divorce peak as a repercussion of COVID-19” (7 March 2020) <https://www.globaltimes.cn/content/1181829.shtml>.

[14] Alfred Nordmann, “Mit Kreativität können wir Corona besiegen” (25 March 2020) <https://www.zeit.de/wissen/gesundheit/2020-03/solidaritaet-coronavirus-besiegen-kreativitaet-technologie-philosoph>.

[15] James Fairhead and Melissa Leach, “One size fits all? Why lockdowns might not be Africa’s best bet.” (22 April 2020) <https://africanarguments.org/2020/04/22/one-size-fits-all-why-lockdowns-might-not-be-africa-best-bet/>.

[16] Paul Richards, “What Might Africa Teach the World? Covid-19 and Ebola Virus Disease Compared” (17 March 2020) <https://africanarguments.org/2020/03/17/what-might-africa-teach-the-world-covid-19-and-ebola-virus-disease-compared/>.

[17] Paul Dziedzic, “Plötzlich Apokalypse: Jetzt, da es den Westen getroffen hat, herrscht auf einmal Untergangsstimmung. Aber zum Glück gibt es noch die »Sorge um Afrika«” (26 March 2020) <https://wirkommen.akweb.de/2020/03/ploetzlich-apokalypse/>.