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From the war on terror to the war on pandemics?

There’s a brief aside towards the end of Apollo’s Arrow which was intended as innocuous but in practice is unsettling. Nicholas Christakis draws a comparison between the potential impact of COVID-19 and other crises which have had a long-lasting influence upon social life. From pg 322:

The COVID-19 pandemic awakened Americans to the importance of public health in the same way that 9/ 11 opened our eyes to the sophisticated threats to our national security, the great recession to the fragility of our financial system, and the election of various populist leaders around the world in the twenty-first century to the dangers of political extremism.

Doesn’t this point to something sinister? It’s certainly preferable that there’s not a post-Covid social amnesia about the risk of pandemics, as the accelerating emergence of infectious diseases means not only won’t this be the last pandemic but the next one might be sooner than we imagine. There has been a tendency for past pandemics to fade into obscurity after they have passed, as can be demonstrated by asking those who lived through the 1957 and 1968 pandemics whether they remember them.

However this leaves us with the question of how forgetting is avoided. This framing by Christakis makes it easy to imagine the war on pandemics as a successor to the war on terror: an ideological and institutional apparatus for hyper-securitisation which transforms everyday life, organisations, the state and the legal frameworks which connect them.

I later came across this warning by Mike Davis in the Monster Enters. From loc 504:

it’s inevitable that the rightwing leaders in the White House, Downing Street, Beit Aghion, and elsewhere will seize every opportunity, as they did with 9/11, to appropriate new authoritarian powers, exploiting the consequences of their own inaction and disastrous leadership to set more precedents for closing public spaces, banning assemblies, and even suspending elections.

In fact it’s interesting to learn later in the Davis book how pandemic response in the US was in fact derailed by the war on terror. This passage from loc 1638-1654 suggests there’s past form for the strategic embrace of securitisation of pandemic response as a means to access funding streams. However it instead led to a serious brain drain away from infectious diseases:

Then, in September 2001, a new dispensation suddenly arrived in the form of poisoned letters contaminated with “weaponized” anthrax. DNA sequencing would later reveal that the anthrax strain used in the attacks almost certainly originated from the Army’s own laboratory at Fort Detrick, Maryland, yet this probable “inside job” became the principal justification for national hysteria about the threat of “bioterrorism” supposedly posed by Iraq, al-Qaeda, and other alien enemies of the United States.14 With shockingly little debate and without any real evidence that such a threat even existed, most public-health advocacy groups, as well as such leading Democrats as John Edwards and Ted Kennedy, became ardent shareholders in the bioterrorism myth. Even the liberal Trust for America’s Health glibly talked of an “Age of Bioterrorism” as if malevolent hands were already opening little vials of botulism and Ebola on Main Street. In fact, the irresistible attraction of the so-called “health/security nexus” was the billions that the White House was proposing to spend on Project BioShield, Bush’s “major research and production effort to guard our people against bioterrorism.” Many well-meaning people undoubtedly reasoned that, however farfetched the excuse, the Republicans were finally throwing money in a worthwhile direction and that some of the windfall would surely find its way to real needs after decades of neglect. Because the defensive preparations against bioterrorism borrowed heavily from pandemic planning, there was hope that influenza (previously shortchanged in the design of the National Pharmaceutical Stockpile in 1999) would be accorded its proper rank as a “most wanted” bioterrorist.

Categories: Covid-19

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