Brent Steele By: Brent Steele
Professor of Political Science and International Relations
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31 Oct 2020 : The case for the ‘moral equivalency’ of a war on Covid (but just in the US)

I know all the problems with securitizing health threats. It’s awful. It definitely leads to stigma. It’s a bad way to confront them. Stefan Elbe, Jeremy Youde, Owain Williams, Sophie Harman and so many IR health all-stars have talked about the downsides of it. The most recent and comprehensive and persuasive case against securitization of the Covid pandemic was written by Nathan Alexander Sears, and it’s hard to ignore or pivot from. I get it. It’s right. I know.

Further, I live in a country that is aesthetically, cosmetically, and culturally obsessed with war and security. With the military. With ‘respecting’ the troops. A country enamored with the memory of ‘victory’. The New American Militarism, as Andrew Bacevich called it, is firmly entrenched in US society and its culture.

But I also live in a country that has failed miserably in its response to Covid. A threat that requires collective action has been met with a Digital Underground ‘Doowutchyalike’ approach to the pandemic. You miss haircuts? Doowutchyalike. Oh, you want your kids to go back to school without masks for YOUR own sense of 'normalcy'? Doowutchyalike. You don’t want to wear a mask? Or socially distance? Or prohibit big crowds? Doowutchyalike.

The result is a country seeing its highest spikes ever, record cases and record hospitalizations. My own state of Utah, which at one point had its act together and was containing the pandemic while other states went blissfully along as if it was a hoax, is seeing these same spikes and now talks openly about rationing protocols on who to treat and who to turn away from its own limited hospital resources.

So here’s my conditional, cautious, but still urgent case for making the fight against Covid something akin (stripped of the masculinist virtues) to what William James once called ‘The Moral Equivalent to War’. I’ll maybe regret this. But I have no other ideas and I want the dying and sickness to stop. My country is rudderless.

So here’s five reasons for this call.

The first, and most direct, is that Covid has already been securitized anyway. It was done of course in a stupid and racist and wholly shortsighted way. The concerns of scholars like Elbe regarding securitizing health threats is that while it will draw attention and mobilize efforts towards a health issue, it can lead to stigmatization. The problem with the Trump approach to Covid in blaming it entirely on a particular country is that it’s provided all of the stigma and none of the mobilization. Call it the ‘China virus’ and hope it all resolves itself. But at the same time require zero sacrifice. Zero collective effort. Zero national strategy. The result has been horrific bias and even violence against our Asian-American citizens while cases continued to spike.

Yet I don’t think that’s the only way to consider securitizing a pandemic – it doesn’t have to be exclusive and stupid.

So, secondly, making this a national security effort might generate, channel, and focus even more collective effort on what is needed. It may enable a recognition of those who are and have been all along part of such effort on an everyday level (wearing masks, taking an extra step to socially distant, grabbing a sanitizer bottle, etc). James defined the ‘moral equivalent of war’ via its ‘disciplinary function’. What one needs in a society confronting an out of control pandemic is discipline. And there are a number of US Americans who have stoically disciplined themselves and done the right thing. But of course it’s not enough.

This would at the same time isolate the people who are responsible for spreading the virus that’s killing so many. Here the stigmatized are not, as in the typical securitization story, those acquiring Covid. It’s those willingly or negligently spreading it. The message here is important. Some believed early on that you can isolate the vulnerable population while others run free. You cannot do that when community spread is so prevalent. In essence, that kind of thinking is why community spread is so prevalent. Because of people ignoring the virus. Who deny its presence. Who show up without masks. Who snicker when you have a mask on. Who protest the idea of masks itself. So, isolate them as being against the moral equivalent of this war. Isolate them as being anti-patriotic. Isolate them as people who don’t care about others. In spite, and yes perhaps precisely because, they drape themselves in American flags to show how ‘patriotic’ they think they are.

Third, as mentioned above, the US is a highly militarized society, at least superficially and aesthetically. [This is why I circumscribe this JUST to the US – I don’t advocate this outside of this polity and probably outside of this time]  How did the US recognize the sacrifice of health personnel in the early stages of the pandemic? Rather than the ‘clap for carers’ in the UK, or even providing necessary PPE that was in short supply, the US in all its decadent symbolism and performative panache, provided jet flyovers like one finds at the beginning of football games.

Calling this a ‘war’ effort, or a sense of patriotic sacrifice, is a less than ideal but nevertheless pragmatic resonant nod to a political community that has been routinized into thinking about (if not fully practicing) war-like collective action.

This is delicate ground of course. The war on poverty, the war on drugs, the war on terror, all produced horrible consequences that neither eliminated poverty or drugs or terror but led to a lot of racist tropes and high incarceration. A better analogy is the home front during international wars – World War II especially. But even more urgently than that war, one doesn’t have to go abroad to find Nazi monsters to destroy. There are 230,000 dead and rising right now who never left the US and died in their homes or care centers or nearby hospitals. All one has to do now to be a patriot is to stay home when you can, wear a mask when you must, and otherwise use your internet, your smartphone, and just hang in there. Is this more difficult than rationing, as the ‘Greatest Generation’ did - gasoline, tires, sugar, meat and shoes? No, it's not. And it's what needs to be done, and many have and continue to do it. 

Fourth, finding a US moral equivalent of a war against Covid would better and more directly recognize the sacrifice of essential workers, and especially health and medical professionals who have been working in some cases around the clock for various waves and spikes of the pandemic since March. Here I don’t want to be cautious at all. The pictures of these workers when they are done with a shift, when their faces are chapped, look like battle weary soldiers. I think about the messages I have received from my heroic friend Curt Collins when he’s completed another marathon shift in his hospital network in Michigan, or the holding it together for others and then breaking down that one sees in interviews of these workers – all of this, every bit of it, discloses heroes who are traumatized, processing what the past 24-48 hours, or week or two weeks, have entailed for them.

Further, in the spirit of not armoring the Humvees, ‘going to war with the army you have not the one you wish you have’ we have another facsimile of lack. It’s the lack of proper equipment, the lack of preventive measures that would alleviate these workers’ burden and labor, the lack of preparation and strategy. Indeed, it all seems to echo the sending of soldiers to fight a whack-a-mole war, and then abandoning them on the battlefield. The willful spread of the virus all in the name of ‘freedom’ seems precisely like the kind of narcissistic society that I was warned about by the neoconservatives and Boomer evangelicals I recall from my youth, those who tsk-tsked that decadent society of the 1990s. Those folks once told us Gen Xers that OUR decadence would itself lead to a collapse of the US. Well, folks, there's a different decadence afoot, and here we are.

When I see protestors wanting restrictions lifted, protestors showing up at public health officials houses (like some did at our selfless and heroic Utah Coronovirus task force director, Dr Angela Dunn, to protest … something?), protestors yelling at counterprotesting essential workers, I see in stark relief a reality of what has been largely a myth – the protestors of the Vietnam war spitting on a returning soldier. Except this time, it’s really happening.

On this fourth point, a final element. If this is/was (the moral equivalent of) a war, then what does it say about those who gave up? Worse … those who surrendered, decided the war was over, to an enemy in Covid that never acknowledged that surrender and just kept on killing? This is worse than France in 1940. And the partisans still fighting are the ones like Dr Dunn, or my buddy Curt, or anyone who took this shit seriously from the get-go and kept on fighting even if others denied the seriousness of that fight from the start.  The people who, hearkening James’s definition, were disciplined enough to stay at home, to wear a mask, but who also checked in on others and got their groceries if they were too afraid. The people who sacrificed and still sacrifice for the greater good.

Fifth, a US moral equivalent of a war against Covid would better enable a US polity to mourn the dead. Such mourning has happened only in fits and starts. For if Covid is a hoax, or overblown, or just 'like the flu' (I can't believe I still hear this), then people dying are not worthy of mourning.

Now, the US has trouble dealing with trauma. It tends to ‘act out’ its trauma, rather than ‘work’ through it, as Kate Schick has brilliantly demonstrated. The memory of US wars, however, enabled spaces and places throughout in the form of memorials, practices (Veteran’s Day, Memorial Day, etc), and moments of silence, to think, grieve, contemplate and mourn. Some have even pointed out on twitter, cable entertainment networks and other media how each day’s Covid numbers stack up with battles. How each month’s totals stack up with particular wars. This is grim. It’s also admittedly apples to oranges – those in battle to some degree sign up for it, or at least go willingly knowing they are sacrificing for (presumably) the national interest. The pandemic’s dead have no choice. The pandemic’s permanently injured also have no choice.

And yet, the connections are left unsaid but remain important – both were preventable. Both did not have to happen. Many, most, if not all of those dying from Covid right now, as I type this, didn’t have to. THAT is the tragedy. THAT is the pathos. THAT is the boiling point of rage, but also sadness, and even helplessness.

I don’t know what will happen on Tuesday with the election. But I do know that this pandemic will keep going unabated for some time in the United States. I do know that if Biden wins he will try to make this into a collective effort. There are drawbacks to securitizing this pandemic. But if it’s already happened, then we might as well get it right and slow the dying down as much as you can. If you can.

I hope we can.

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