refiguring the healthy population

Yesterday, Xinhuashe circulated #动态清零怎么看怎么干# (image below), which translates as #how to understand and implement dynamic zero-Covid. Inside the parentheses, the question is raised: “if so many countries are ‘lying down,’ #why are we persisting with dynamic zero-Covid#? The answer to the question hinges on how population governance works in China. According to the article to which the weibo tweet refers, there are over 50 million elderly Chinese who have not yet been vaccinated. They are all vulnerable to catching and dying from Covid. Anyone who doesn’t comply with current protocols is (implicitly) threatening the health of those 50 million elders. Indeed, the rhetorical power of these tweet hinges on an unspoken assumption: what is more anti-social than threatening the lives of elders? Thus, alternative opinions on how the outbreak should be handled are not simply debates about public health protocols, but also and more importantly pose a serious challenge to social stability because they are intrinsically anti-social behaviors.

In trying to think through the logic behind the connections between public debate about health protocols and social stability, re-reading Susan Greenhalgh‘s work on population governance has proven incredibly useful. Her basic point is that the politics of reproduction is a key feature of modern government, especially how we imagine embodied relationships between past and future. Population governance touches on all aspects of citizen rights and obligations, specifically access to birth control and abortion. However, during the late 20th century, population governance has expanded to include how societies organize access to healthcare, economics (workforce ratios), environmental issues (population densities) and the meaning of human life (gerontology as an expanding field of study, for example). Population governance also shows up how eugenics have shaped modern politics throughout the world. In other words, population governance has become central not only to how we imagine ourselves as belonging (or not) to society, but also to how governments justify which public health programs to pursue and how to implement them.

This past year, government responses to Covid have revealed different assumptions about population governance, especially with respect to lockdowns, quarantines and vaccinations. As political measures, each of these strategies make salient that a contagious disease like Covid challenge understandings of where one body begins and another ends, and what that means in terms of how much freedom an individual should have over their body. In 2020, for example, when people worldwide were dying from Covid, China’s mass lockdowns successfully prevented widespread deaths associated with respiratory breakdown. However, in 2022, as vaccines have been developed and the omicron variant is less virulent, but more contagious than 19, new questions about citizen rights and responsibilities are raised: does everyone have a responsibility to be vaccinated, especially if an asymptomatic carrier can unknowingly infect someone else? Is a government ever justified in, and if so under what conditions, making vaccinations mandatory for an entire or portion of its population? What about wearing masks?

For many US Americans, population governance is understood through individual rights, especially through the figure rights over our own bodies. With respect to Covid, for example, the individual is a critical agent: I decide to get jabbed, to wear a mask, to stay at home during a lockdown. Downside, is that during 2020 people were getting infected and dying of Covid because they wouldn’t stay at home and/or where a mask. However, in China, population governance has been understood through government actions that aim to make China as a whole stronger: vaccinations, quarantines and masks are understood as contributing to the greater good, especially the country’s success in returning to quasi-normal circa 2020. Even as North Americans and western Europeans kept holding super-spreader events, Chinese cities were re-opening and safely moving about. Downside, is that during 2022, when there are vaccines, masks, and a less deadly variant of the virus, there is no space for debating current protocols because to debate protocols is to take a stand on where society as a whole is headed, which in turn can mean criticizing the government.

As it is being enforced, zero-Covid is an explicit representation of population governance, which is read as an allegory of the Chinese nation. It is this underlying logic about the social meaning of population and how it is to be governed that explains why hashtag dynamic zero-Covid has linked non-compliance with social instability. This is not an instability that is caused by the disease itself (because as far as we know, no one has died from omicron), but rather the ideological instabilities caused by different understandings of how omicron–and by extension Chinese bodies–should be managed and by whom.

2 thoughts on “refiguring the healthy population

  1. Though nations around the world are tackling the same virus, Covid was quickly absorbed into each country’s grand narrative: in the UK, the talk of ‘duty’ and the comparison with WWII was constant; in the US, debates on mandates immediately turned partisan and became debates about governmental interference; in Australia, where Anglo individualism works along with Asian style lockdowns & Zero-Covid policy, the myth of its exceptionalism is further reinforced.

    In China, no surprise, Covid morphed into one of those historical moments (floods, SARS, earthquakes, Olympics…) that manifest the strength of the system, the socialist values with Chinese characteristics. The discussions on Covid policy on Weibo have been once again framed in the dichotomy between ‘westernisation’ and ‘finding one’s own path’, a framework that the country is still not ready to forfeit 161 years after the Qing dynasty’s Self-Strengthening Movement. (How interesting that Hong Kong’s failure in the pandemic is seen by the Mainlanders as the failure of the western governance, while seen by the Anglophones as the failure of China’s Zero-Covid…)

    Despite all the talks of ‘global village’, people live in their own bubbles and echo chambers. Covid creates little global dialogues on population governance, but reinforce the domestic agenda and obssessions of different countries.

    • Hi Sice, it’s true: we keep reproducing ourselves despite our better intentions, and also within and against shared global circumstances. This intensely “glocal” (there has to be better word) situation is one of the reasons I tell students that it doesn’t matter what the object of your ethnography is, eventually it will show us how local and global and regional logics can be simultaneously true, anywhere on the planet. Then you can start thinking about relations of power and the movements of desire.

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