📑 Permanent Pandemic – Will COVID Controls Keep Controlling Us?

Bookmarked Permanent Pandemic, by Justin E. H. Smith (Harper’s Magazine )

No matter what happens with the virus—whether or not it keeps evolving in ways that legitimate new drastic measures—the technologies it has ushered in are largely here to stay. These technologies will continue to have applications in industry, commerce, dating, and other affective strategizing; some might even hold out the promise of “fun.” But the principal application will be in the domain of what Michel Foucault called “governmentality”: the set of techniques and strategies, preferably deployed in the form of under-the-radar nudges, by which a population is caused to do what those in power want.

Justin E.H. Smith questions whether the controls brought in during COVID will in fact keep controlling us long after the threat has passed. For Smith, this past few years have laid the ground work for a new regime that is as much about technology as it is about the pandemic.

The new regime is as much a technological regime as it is a pandemic regime. It has as much to do with apps and trackers, and governmental and corporate interests in controlling them, as it does with viruses and aerosols and nasal swabs. Fluids and microbes combined with touchscreens and lithium batteries to form a vast apparatus of control, which will almost certainly survive beyond the end date of any epidemiological rationale for the state of exception that began in early 2020.

The consequence to questioning COVID maximalism has been to risk being ostracised.

Dissenters risk being labeled not only conspiracy theorists, but eugenicists or even advocates of genocide, should they venture any reflection on the costs and benefits of public health policy other than what we might call “COVID maximalism”: the view that we must keep social-distancing restrictions in place wherever there is any risk of harm to the elderly or immunocompromised, no matter what other risks such restrictions cause, whack-a-mole-like, to pop up in turn. But as anyone who is familiar with the literature in medical ethics, or who served on hospital ethics boards before the pandemic, can tell you: there has always been prioritization and triage, and this is not necessarily a reflection of injustice, though of course it can be that.

This has had the consequence of creating a new fringe.

Dissenters risk being labeled not only conspiracy theorists, but eugenicists or even advocates of genocide, should they venture any reflection on the costs and benefits of public health policy other than what we might call “COVID maximalism”: the view that we must keep social-distancing restrictions in place wherever there is any risk of harm to the elderly or immunocompromised, no matter what other risks such restrictions cause, whack-a-mole-like, to pop up in turn. But as anyone who is familiar with the literature in medical ethics, or who served on hospital ethics boards before the pandemic, can tell you: there has always been prioritization and triage, and this is not necessarily a reflection of injustice, though of course it can be that.

For Smith, we have subsequently stepped into a future leading to “digitally and algorithmically calculated social credit, and the demise of most forms of community life outside the lens of the state and its corporate subcontractors.”

In short, even if you are not leaving your house and scanning your QR codes at cafés and museums, you are still furnishing data about yourself near-constantly. There are no immediate signs that this data is going to be used for anything other than inane microtargeted advertising, but once the technological structure is in place to make social credit scoring possible, it does not seem far-fetched to imagine a world where our standing as citizens is determined, say, by the eco-rating of our online purchases.

I have read before how the current pandemic is a political one, but looking at it the way Smith does, I guess all pandemics are political (or biopolitical) as he suggests. I am just left wondering what the actual solution is if as Smith suggests that he is ‘broken’ by it all?

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