Framing the Crisis: COVID-19

We are in crisis. Nothing could be more self-evident: a global pandemic has ravaged the human species, and it is a crisis. Or is it?

It seems indisputable: COVID-19 is a crisis. But what does this statement signify?

For one, this is a declaration about a virus that gives structure to an amorphous phenomenon. In other words, the virus COVID-19 becomes ‘an event’ in the ongoing flux of phenomena through this performative declaration. At its most basic level, then, ’crisis’ is a narrative device. As such, it is a term that creates narrative structure: it is a means to define an event and to delineate a beginning and an end—something that, as we’re learning now, is practically impossible in the case of a disease.

But we also must remember that ‘crisis’ is a concept. And like all concepts, it has a history. The concept of crisis has been foundational to Hippocratic medical grammar, Aristotelian legal language, Christian theology, Marxist political economy, and European traditions of historiography and critical theory. It has migrated between these discursive domains and has contributed to the articulation of their various practices (medicine, historiography, critique). 

Moreover, that particular conceptual history has engendered our deep-seated presumption that crises are the result of inevitable tendencies, such as contradictions between opposing forces (labour versus capital in Marxist theory) or discrepancies between competing realities (the world versus human knowledge of the world for critical theory). Indeed, its particular conceptual history has made the term crisis foundational to the ways that we apprehend events in our constant apprehension of competing phenomena (’this is a crisis’). And it is the primary way that we indicate the significance of those events in that constant flux (‘this is a crisis and therefore a historical event’). Put succinctly, the concept of crisis qualifies our world: it determines what gets to count as an event; what gets inscribed as ‘History’; and what is defined and delineated as an error, as a departure from the supposed correct path of history, as a normative problem.

How can a virus be implicated in norms? you might ask. What else could a global pandemic be called but a crisis? After all, human life is at stake. Indeed, naming a set of events or a situation a crisis sounds like a mere semantic act, or a speech act. And the statement, ’This thing is a crisis’ seems semantically justified with respect to a global pandemic that is raging through human populations. But ‘This is a crisis’ is not a mere empirical observation that can be unproblematically represented in a semantic act. Instead, ‘This is a crisis’ is a logical observation—it is a claim. And it is, moreover, a conceptual claim. Let me explain.

We have an empirical observation: virus. And that observation is based on a distinction, virus/not virus. That’s a first-order observation. A virus can only be known (observed) based on distinctions that define what it is not. You can have another observation: virus present—meaning there is a virus in my presence or a virus not in my presence. And that’s a second-order observation based on this first-order observation virus/not virus. Building from that, the claim ‘Virus in my presence is a crisis’ qualifies an observation and is conceptual. In other words, the empirical observation ‘virus’ is different from the conceptual claim, ‘virus is a crisis’. The point is that a virus is not naturally occurring as a crisis. Saying that it is one—claiming that the virus is a crisis—is a way of qualifying an empirical observation. In this way, we bring an empirical observation into the conceptual realm. In this way, the concept of crisis is foundational to the practice of framing disease as an intelligible and historical event.

Why does this matter? After all, a virus in my presence is not a good thing. It matters that we recognise that crisis is a claim because, as a proposition, it is our primary means of qualifying the observable world, of qualifying a situation, of qualifying history.

Our contemporary world seems to be fundamentally defined by a situation of protracted crises, each of which corresponds to empirical observations. For instance, we have a global health crisis, which corresponds to the empirical observations ‘virus’ or ‘SARS-CoV-2′ or ‘COVID-19’. Or we have an environmental crisis, which corresponds to the empirical observations ‘fires’, ‘floods’ or warmer ocean temperatures. Or we have a socio-economic crisis, which corresponds to statistical representations, such as income distributions and wealth inequalities. 

We carry out research on these crises in order to better understand them and, hopefully, correct them. For example, when it is determined that there is a financial crisis, as in 2007, scholars and investigative journalists seek to describe the impact of the crisis on various populations. Then we have (mostly post hoc) publications on how the financial crisis impacted people. A very different approach would stop to first ask constitutive questions about the concept of crisis. Some of those constitutive questions would be: What, specifically, is identified as being in crisis? When is crisis declared, and why at this particular moment as opposed to another? Crisis for whom? And by whom? Ultimately, when crisis is declared, certain questions are enabled, while others are foreclosed.

Therefore, the ultimate question is: what is at stake when we claim crisis? What are the effects of this claim? This is an important question because it compels us to be explicit about the assumptions that structure and inform our efforts at solving the crisis, or our manner of problematising something as a crisis. Solving it means that we assume that we all agree about what exactly is in crisis and for whom. This means that we seriously consider the tangible effects of the concept itself on the formulation of truth claims. In the case of COVID-19, this is something to consider.

***

Today, crisis signifies a global health pandemic. Nothing could seem more natural: the ultimate crisis for humans is not having an immune response to a virus. This is literally an existential crisis. However, we do have an immune response to COVID-19, an overwhelming one that can be catastrophic but also crucial to our methods of developing a vaccine. So if the global pandemic is not an existential crisis that threatens the existence of the human species, what kind of crisis is it?

The most obvious answer is that COVID-19 is a public health crisis: humans were not prepared to fend off this biological intruder, which is unusually virulent or unusually transmissible.

But as the anthropologists Andrew Lakoff and Stephen Collier have shown, we were prepared. We only need to look to Lakoff’s research to better understand the consolidation of what he calls the ‘global health security assemblage’. Lakoff traces the emergence of the very notion of ‘preparedness’ as a governmental strategy in the United States that involved the consolidation of forms of knowledge and practices from disparate domains, including national civil defence, emerging management, and international public health. He also tracks the formulation and displacements of what constitutes an emerging disease since the late 1980s, when the HIV-AIDS pandemic put an end to our assumption that infectious diseases had been contained by public health measures. At that time, the biosecurity agencies concluded—and don’t forget this was four decades ago—that our future global ecology would entail the continuous emergence of new diseases for which we have no existing immunity. In the late 1990s, the US biodefence initiative, focusing on anthrax, prepared for an eventual bioterrorist attack. Furthermore, as Lakoff documents in an essay on the formation of ‘experimental virology’ as part of a pandemic-preparedness strategy, funding for basic research was also significant, growing from $15 million in 2001 to $212 million in 2007. The outcome was that an entire global biosecurity apparatus was put in place.

Did it not apply to COVID-19? Did the COVID-19 virus somehow make the national global biosecurity apparatus in the United States ineffective or irrelevant? Or was COVID-19 a radically different virus or mode of infection?

The urban policy expert Bryna Sanger, who co-authored After the Cure: Managing AIDS and Other Public Health Crises (with Martin Levin) provides a response to these questions. In a 15 May 2020 post subtitled ‘Lest We are Forced to Repeat Past Mistakes’, she wrote: 

The Covid-19 crisis, despite its broad spread and massive economic impact, is not so different from many of the public health crises the United States has faced over the years. But the current environment of political denial, weak, and uneven policy response, poor and confusing communication, and contentious intergovernmental relations are predictable and typical threats to effective response. They are, in many ways, challenges of management and competence, more than they are failures of science or public health.

If science had failed us, we would not have been able to sequence the COVID-19 genome or develop a vaccine. That sort of failure would have been an epistemological crisis, or the failure of existing forms of knowledge to apprehend and represent phenomena—that is, to account for the events and experiences we share. Thankfully, epistemological crisis didn’t transpire. 

On the other hand, the ‘challenges of management and competence’ were myriad. For instance, given the existence of pandemic preparation, it’s extremely hard to understand why no standardised system existed for managing a pandemic. The Atlantic magazine’s account ‘Why the Pandemic Experts Failed’ describes how the magazine’s temporary initiative became a crucial pandemic data source for the US government due to the utter lack of standardised metrics and a standardised national system for testing, as well as the inability to track data relating to testing, hospitalisations, positivity rates and death tolls. And this wasn’t merely a lack of administrative capacity at national and federal level. The Covid Tracking Project, which was launched by two journalists at The Atlantic in collaboration with a data scientist and teams of volunteers, testifies to that lack of capacity as well as the extent to which the ‘obsessive’ production of data in the American national health system did not translate into actionable data for effective public health management.

***

As in the United States, in France and in Europe more broadly, entire governmental apparatuses for managing an acute pandemic had been put in place over the past decades. But even in France, where the quality of public infrastructure far surpasses that of US infrastructure, the ‘challenges of management and competence’ undermined pandemic preparedness. This situation has been described as ‘une crise organisationnelle’, the subtitle of an astute real-time inquiry into French bureaucratic decision-making in the heat of the pandemic. The authors show how the nature of the regime in power structured the response to a public emergency: in France, protracted and widespread strikes against reforms shaped the Macron government’s strategy, which then diverged from the preparedness map. Likewise, bureaucratic fragmentation (the formation of ad hoc committees, the challenges of ‘coordinating coordination’ between agencies and newly created advisory units) and organisational drift led to particular responses to the pandemic—or to a lack thereof. In other words, institutional dynamics generated a particular crisis, or particular practices for managing the COVID-19 virus. It’s important to account for those practices, which constitute the crisis, instead of merely naturalising the crisis as something that exists outside of socio-political relations and institutions.

Most importantly, as Henri Bergeron, Olivier Borraz, Patrick Castel and François Dedieu show, in Europe (as in the United States and Australia), preparedness for pandemic risk had been displaced by a focus on terrorist risk. This focus is part of an extant normative regime that puts geopolitical questions, including questions about migrants, refugees and immigration, above health and welfare questions. Most importantly, this focus speaks to the question of what is at stake in the claim to crisis (‘this is a crisis’).

***

Framing matters. Frames create the boundaries for inclusion and exclusion, thereby delineating the targets of intervention and the limits of knowledge. Framing the crisis and thereby formulating the questions that inform crisis management occur at many levels. There are geopolitical framings, mentioned above, which are informed by norms regarding what counts as ‘human security’. There are also methods for modelling and representing, which are equally informed by assumptions regarding normative life, biological integrity, or what we take to be biological security.

The COVID-19 virus and the COVID-19 pandemic were both largely produced as objects of knowledge and intervention regarding biological security through data sets and statistical models. Modelling was used to determine appropriate strategies: for example, mitigation versus suppression. Different models are based on different assumptions, such as what constitutes a natural category of humans, which in this case generally consisted of ‘susceptible, infected, recovered’. Of course, models necessarily reduce complex subjects to single categories, but they also, relatedly, simplify social interaction. The latter is accounted for differently—and with differential consequences—in, for instance, compartmental models, individual-based models, and network models, respectively.

The COVID-19 pandemic has become known to us almost exclusively as a statistical visualisation made of curves and waves. These visualisations give shape to the epidemic, creating what David Jones and Stefan Helmreich have called ‘wave narratives’ that serve as both predictive devices and persuasive techniques. These statistical models and visualisations generate truth claims that are distinct from those that might be generated by possible alternative assumptions about what to represent, how to represent it and how to mobilize or act upon those representations. This is a point made forcefully by the physician and historian of science Warwick Anderson in his recent critique of statistical modeling as a reductive method for making quick and decisive judgements under conditions of uncertainty, or the reliance on the reproduction number of the virus as the definitive representation of a complex socio-epidemiological unfolding.

Thankfully, these models were debated and demands for disclosure of assumptions, uncertainties and normative values were articulated in the interest of maintaining a reflexive or critical view of the statistical representations that were establishing particular public strategies. But these debates had little impact. By reducing heterogeneity, we reduced complexity and hence the capacity to pursue alternative framings and pathways. We chose, in the words of the eminent historian of science C. E. Rosenberg, the ‘contamination view’, or a focus on transmission ‘of morbid material’ between humans, over the ‘configuration view’, which takes into account the larger ecology of viral life. This latter view is elaborated in extensive published research on disease ecologies, which could have served as our ‘cognitive PPE’. But COVID-19 was constituted as an epidemiological crisis, thus foreclosing its representation in more heterogenous terms—or as a complex, mutually constituted epidemiological and socio-economic phenomenon, as a matter of human welfare and not only biological security.

We need to ask: what best represents human security?

To answer that question, we can’t blindly accept declarations of crisis. This doesn’t mean that they aren’t true. That is, the decision to not blindly accept declarations of crisis doesn’t equate with the denial of an individual’s claim that they have experienced crisis or the disavowal of a community’s claim to an experience of crisis. It just implies a commitment to investigate the formulation of crisis. How is the claim to crisis formulated? What are its terms? How is crisis constituted as something that we act upon?

Crisis is an object of knowledge. We claim it, we define it, we establish its contours or limits, we manage it, and so on. It has differential consequences or effects for various populations and communities. And that’s important.

European social theory tells us that crisis implies a turning point. Crisis involves a turning point because it involves epistemological transformation. In other words, at least according to conventional social theory, crisis signifies the transformation of knowledge production and the production of truth statements. But we need to stop and reflect: when crisis is declared, to what extent are we in the midst of normative transformation, or the emergence of novel normative standards? We should ask whether, by declaring the COVID-19 pandemic a crisis, for example, this is because certain truth claims no longer hold. Is this the case?

Perhaps it’s still too soon to say. Perhaps patents for vaccines will become a contested legal category, affirming the transformation of truth claims about property rights and human welfare. And perhaps a vaccination campaign that is financed and managed on a global scale will become standard practice in years to come. Perhaps. However, and unfortunately, for the most part, we can see quite distinctly how, in the case of COVID-19, the crisis claim implicitly reconfirms norms about public health and what we consider to be human security. In that case, there is no epistemological transformation—no new truth claims.

In the United States, the crisis claim is implicated in very serious and deep racial and socioeconomic disparities in public health and welfare—and these are the norm. These disparities include differences in living and work conditions, and differential access to medical care. The response to COVID-19 as a public health crisis didn’t serve to attenuate or address those inequities. To be sure, the Urban Institute, a US think tank, reports that the 2021 American Rescue Plan Act will reduce the poverty rate from a 2018 rate of 13.9 per cent to a projected 2021 rate of 7.7 per cent. This is a significant reduction and is testament to the power of public welfare. But unfortunately this represents a one-year reduction (for 2021) that is largely dependent on federal stimulus cheques paid directly to families. These relief programs will terminate; the structural causes of poverty remain.

As in the United States, the persistence and exacerbation of income and wealth inequality is a feature of life in France and in the United Kingdom. Without a universal basic income, or ‘baby bonds’ to address the racial wealth gap, or a ‘universal basic capital’ fund that provides equity and therefore wealth redistribution to citizens, the ‘COVID-19 crisis’ will engender neither the epistemological nor the structural transformation that crises are thought to instantiate.

To the contrary, the claim to crisis has only served to exacerbate socio-economic inequalities, because public welfare is not a core feature of pandemic preparedness. This is the case in the United States, which is one of the more dramatic examples of income inequality due to differentials in income earned from capital (as opposed to income earned from labour). In countries across the world, food insecurity has increased, including in Europe and North America. Indeed, these inequalities are global in scale and are exacerbated by vaccine nationalism.

Regrettably, despite longstanding pandemic-preparedness regimes, public welfare is not included in the Global Health Security Index, the standard bearer for benchmarking different countries for their respective capacities to manage ‘catastrophic biological events’. Sadly, despite grossly widening socio-economic inequalities both within nations and across the globe, and despite all the suffering and ongoing bereavement, human security defined in terms of public welfare has not emerged as a new normative regime.

The Limits of Science Communication

Chloe Ward, Mar 2021

Knowledge and scientific understanding could have been a democratic inheritance… Instead the West—that is, a powerful, liberal consensus in the West—doubled down on an elitist, technocratic politics, inattentive to social need or the growing crisis of democratic representation…

About the author

Janet Roitman

Janet Roitman is University Professor at The New School and Honorary Professor at RMIT. She is the author of Fiscal Disobedience: An Anthropology of Economic Regulation in Central Africa and Anti-Crisis.

More articles by Janet Roitman

Support Arena

Independent publications and critical thought are more important than ever. Arena has never relied on or received government funding. It has sustained its activities largely through the voluntary work and funding provided by editors and supporters. If Arena is to continue and to expand its readership, we need your support to do it.

Leave a Reply