The Virus does not Discriminate, but Social and Economic Inequality will Ensure that it Does 

By Judith Butler on April 7, 2020

Photo: Bill Hackwell

This article was written the day before Bernie Sanders dropped out of the presidential race.

The enforced isolation coincides with a new recognition of our global interdependence during the new time and space imposed by the pandemic. On the one hand, we are being asked to sequester ourselves in family units, shared living spaces or individual homes, deprived of social contact and relegated to spheres of relative isolation; on the other hand, we are faced with a virus that quickly crosses borders, alien to the very idea of national territory.

What are the consequences of this pandemic when we think about equality, global interdependence and our mutual obligations?

The virus doesn’t discriminate. We could say that it treats us equally, puts us equally at risk of getting sick, losing someone close and living in a world of imminent threat. By the way, it moves and attacks, the virus shows that the human community is equally fragile. At the same time, however, the inability of some states or regions to prepare in advance (the United States is perhaps the most notorious member of such a club), the strengthening of national policies and the closing of borders (often accompanied by fearful racism) and the arrival of entrepreneurs eager to capitalize on global suffering, all testify to the speed with which radical inequality, including nationalism, white supremacy, violence against women, queer and trans people, and capitalist exploitation find ways to reproduce and strengthen their powers within pandemic zones. This should not surprise us.

Health care policy in the United States highlights this in a unique way. One scenario we can already imagine is the production and marketing of an effective vaccine against COVID-19. Clearly desperate to score the political points that will ensure his re-election, Trump has already tried to buy (with cash) the exclusive U.S. rights to a vaccine from the German company, CureVac, funded by the German government. The German Health Minister, with displeasure, confirmed to the German press that the offer existed. A German politician, Karl Lauterbach, commented: “The exclusive sale of a possible vaccine to the United States should be avoided by all means. There are limits to capitalism. I assume that he opposed the “exclusive use” provision and that this rejection will apply to Germans as well. Let us hope so, because we can imagine a world in which European lives are valued above all others: we see that valuation developing violently on the borders of the European Union.

There’s no point in asking again, what was Trump thinking? The question has been asked so many times in a state of absolute exasperation that we cannot be surprised. That doesn’t mean that our outrage diminishes with every new instance of immoral or criminal self-aggrandizement. But if you succeed in your enterprise and succeed in buying the potential vaccine by restricting its use to American citizens only, do you think those American citizens will applaud your efforts, happy to be freed from a deadly threat when other people will not be? Will they really love this kind of radical social inequality, American exceptionalism, and value, as you defined it, a brilliant deal? Does he imagine that most people think that it is the market that should decide how the vaccine is developed and distributed? Is it even possible within his world to insist on a global health problem that should at this point transcend the rationality of the market? Is he right in assuming that we also live within the parameters of that way of seeing the world?

Even if such restrictions on the basis of national citizenship were not applied, we will surely see the rich and those with health insurance rushing to ensure access to such a vaccine when it becomes available, even if this means that only some will have access and others will be condemned to greater precariousness.

Social and economic inequality will ensure that the virus discriminates. The virus alone does not discriminate, but humans surely do, shaped as we are by the interlocking powers of nationalism, racism, xenophobia and capitalism. It is likely that in the coming year we will witness a painful scenario in which some human creatures will assert their right to live at the expense of others, re-inscribing the spurious distinction between painful and ungrateful lives, that is, those who at all costs will be protected from death and those lives that are deemed not worth protecting from illness and death.

All of this is happening against the backdrop of a presidential race in the United States where Bernie Sanders’ chances of securing the Democratic nomination now seem very remote, though not statistically impossible. The new projections that establish Biden as the clear favorite are devastating during these times precisely because Sanders and Warren advocated “Medicare for All,” a comprehensive public health care program that would guarantee basic health care for everyone in the country. Such a program would end the market-driven private insurance companies that regularly abandon the sick, demand out-of-pocket expenses that are literally unaffordable, and perpetuate a brutal hierarchy between the insured, the uninsured and the uninsurable. Sanders’ socialist approach to health care could best be described as a social democratic perspective that is not substantially different from what Elizabeth Warren presented in the early stages of her campaign. In her view, health care coverage is a “human right,” meaning that every human being is entitled to the kind of health care they require. But why not understand it as a social obligation, one that comes from living in society with one another? To achieve popular consensus on such a notion, both Sanders and Warren would have to convince the American people that we want to live in a world where none of us denies medical care to the rest of us. In other words, we would have to accept a social and economic world in which it is radically unacceptable that some have access to a vaccine that can save their lives when others must be denied access because they cannot afford or cannot rely on health insurance to do so.

One of the reasons I voted for Sanders in the California primary along with most registered Democrats is because he, along with Warren, opened up a way to re-imagine our world as if ordered by a collective desire for radical equality, a world in which we came together to insist that the materials necessary for life, including health care, would be equally available no matter who we are or whether we have the financial means. Such a policy would have established solidarity with other countries committed to universal health care and therefore would have established a transnational health care policy committed to the realization of the ideals of equality. New polls are emerging that reduce the national election to Trump and Biden just as the pandemic is stalking daily life, intensifying the vulnerability of the homeless, the uninsured and the poor.

The idea that we could become people who want to see a world in which health policy is equally committed to all lives, to dismantle the market’s control over health care that distinguishes between the worthy and those who can easily be abandoned to illness and death, was briefly alive. We came to understand each other differently when Sanders and Warren offered this other possibility. We understood that we could begin to think and value outside the terms that capitalism imposes on us. Although Warren is no longer a candidate and Sanders is unlikely to regain his momentum, we must ask ourselves, especially now, why do we still oppose treating all lives as having equal value? Why are some still enthusiastic about Trump securing a vaccine that will safeguard the lives of Americans (as he defines them) before all others?

The proposal of universal and public health revitalized a socialist imaginary in the United States, one that must now wait to become a reality as social policy and public commitment in this country. Unfortunately, at the time of the pandemic, none of us can wait. The ideal must now be kept alive in the social movements that are less interested in the presidential campaign than in the long-term struggle that awaits us. These compassionate and courageous visions that receive the taunts and rejection of capitalist realism had enough of a hold, causing an increasing number, some for the first time, to wish for change in the world.

Let’s hope we can keep that desire alive.

Source: El Ciervo Herido, translation Resumen Latinoamericano, North America bureau