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The New Role of the State?

COVID-19: New Articulations of State and Economy

June 25, 2021

The significance of the COVID-19 pandemic is still unfolding. Until the virus is controlled, if not eliminated, we will not fully know which responses worked well. But it is already clear that some countries have been more successful in controlling cases and reducing excess deaths from any cause. It is also clear that the pandemic has produced a new rationale for state intervention oriented to mutual aid as well as supporting private business. This article addresses this aspect of the pandemic.

The pandemic can be considered as a global crisis. Crises tend to disrupt accepted views of the world and how to “go on” in it, calling into question theoretical and policy paradigms as well as everyday routines. Although pandemics have long been recognized as a potential threat, the COVID-19 crisis was initially largely construed as an exogenous, accidental shock that threatens humankind. This is reflected in the biopolitical discourses of security to protect the population and in militant discourses directed against internal threats (e.g., migrant workers, the Roma population). In contrast, the pandemic crisis can be traced to capitalized agriculture invading the natural world and creating conditions for diseases to cross from animals to humans. COVID-19’s diffusion also reflects global trade and international travel, making it easy to switch countries and continents. The incidence of the pandemic is nonetheless uneven: different political regimes construe it differently, prioritizing biopolitical security, defense against enemies within, or wealth over health.

Explaining the UK’s poor response

This article focuses on Europe and North America, where poor performance may stem from a strategy to subordinate the polity more directly and durably to the “imperatives” of “globalization” as construed in neoliberal discourse. This strategy promotes “precarity” in society as a disciplinary tool to reinforce the financialization of everyday life, with growing inequality in wealth and more stratification within classes. It also accelerates the turn from welfare states with shared citizenship rights to a coercive workfare regime and, especially in the USA, chances of imprisonment. Neoliberalism privileges market forces and uses state power to expand them. In contrast, COVID-19 privileges the state as a key actor, private-public partnerships, and unconditional solidarity (mutual aid), and resurrects the caring society.

The UK is a neoliberal political regime that was ill-prepared for the pandemic in terms of its organizationally fragmented, decentralized, and poorly coordinated set of public and private entities. The Government was also distracted by the need to implement Brexit, with a new Prime Minister oriented to his public opinion ratings. This said, the British health system was ill-prepared for the pandemic. Spending on healthcare per person was reduced to an average increase of 1.2% from 2009 to 2018, which did not match the growth of healthcare needs. There is a shortage of over 40,000 nurses, 2,500 general practitioners, and 9,000 hospital doctors as well as a shortfall in intensive care equipment.

Past governments had prepared a pandemic strategy that was a technocratic blueprint that did not reflect the poor condition of health and social care infrastructure, including ventilators and personal protective equipment, and the precarity of workers and marginal groups. Reflecting on its 2011 Influenza Pandemic Preparedness Strategy, the British government’s policy “followed the science” as presented by the Scientific Advisory Group on Emergencies. The science was based on a misleading analogy with influenza epidemics, reflecting an expectation that the virus would cause an extra 250,000 deaths that would be handled through triage (allowing the elderly to die, dispersing the sick to care homes). When public opinion rejected this, the Government attempted to flatten the curve of rising infections to delay the spread of the virus and then imposed national strategies, with some devolution. This was followed by establishing tiers of lockdown, often too little too late. Indeed, low levels of sick pay mean that the financially insecure continue to work, even when unwell. This has contributed to the high level of infection and fatality.

The Government has failed to establish a functioning test-trace-isolate system and, due to its obsession with the private sector, has not connected local services and national agencies to deliver a coherent response. There is no systematic follow-up of isolating or quarantining persons, except travelers returning from designated countries. Coronavirus testing in the community in the UK is delivered outside the usual NHS structures, without the good medical supervision seen elsewhere (e.g., Germany, Ireland, and South Korea). The vaccination policy, however, has been handled well through the health service.

The UK prioritized wealth over health in its response to COVID-19, which backfired. Indeed, protecting health is also more effective in defending the economy. In the US, the UK, Sweden, and Brazil, governments refused at first to note the deadly nature of COVID-19 and to protect lives. Keeping (big) businesses going mattered more. This led to late lockdowns and social isolation measures, then “light” lockdowns that did not suppress the virus; and then too early relaxations, leading to a revival of the pandemic.

The success of strong state action

While COVID-19 is a global pandemic, however, there is little coordination of responses among politicians as opposed to scientists. Instead, pandemic and vaccine nationalist solutions are prevalent in advanced capitalist societies and little effort or money is spent on coordinating a global vaccination campaign. This is particularly clear in the Global North, which expected pandemics to affect the Global South. Yet, regardless of whether a country is democratic or authoritarian, an island or continental, Confucian or Buddhist, communitarian or individualistic, if it is East Asian, Southeast Asian, or Australasian, it has tended to manage COVID-19 better than any European or North American state. Zero-COVID policies like those in New Zealand, Singapore, Vietnam, Taiwan, and Australia, where strong state action and public health measures worked, are better than herd immunity policies that rely on tolerable deaths, gradual build-up of immunity, and/or wide vaccination policies. We can expect that post-COVID-19 inquiries will critique the neoliberal response and recommend good investment in adequate public health and care infrastructure with strong support for effective state action.

Bob Jessop, Lancaster University, UK <b.jessop@lancaster.ac.uk>

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