Declaring War on a Virus Ignores the Neoliberal Policies That Put Us Here

On March 30, CNN correspondent Miguel Marquez visited Brookdale Hospital in Brooklyn, New York, and subsequently referred to hospitals treating COVID-19 patients as “medical war zones.” Political leaders like New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio and global media outlets have repeated this kind of language of war by reminding us that measures preventing public gatherings last occurred during World War II.

Adopting war metaphors to describe our present experience of the pandemic is dangerous because it obscures the structural differences between war zones and pandemic zones, and encourages U.S. citizens to see themselves as victims of war. What is unfolding in the U.S. with COVID-19 is not a state fighting a war against its enemies, but a state-corporate assemblage that is maximizing its profits and using the pandemic as an excellent market opportunity.

Using war metaphors has allowed an egoistic and incompetent president to self-fashion himself as a hero. Donald Trump calls himself “a wartime president” and defines his response to COVID-19 as a “war against the virus.” These claims would probably surprise many in countries such as Afghanistan and Iraq, where people have been subjected to drone surveillance, bombs and U.S. occupation for nearly two decades. Moreover, the U.S. recently announced it would slash $1 billion in aid to Afghanistan during a time when it is estimated up to 80 percent of the population there could contract COVID-19 and the country already does not have the means to handle the pandemic.

In light of the two-decade long “war on terror” and a longer history of imperial violence unleashed on countries around the world, using war metaphors for the COVID-19 crisis actually perpetuates the indifference many U.S. citizens feel toward the victims of its imperial wars. For example, the term “war on terror” identifies no clear enemy, and its imprecise nature has allowed U.S. forces to carry out extraordinary renditions and to torture and kill anyone it deems the enemy. Similarly, to think of the virus as an invisible enemy entering the U.S. from outside allows the state to carry out violence indiscriminately against perceived enemies and hide the inadequate measures the state has taken to protect the most vulnerable.

We’ve already seen in previous decades how the “war on drugs” criminalized racial minorities in the United States while distracting from U.S.-backed “low-intensity” conflicts in Central America. Today, survivors of those conflicts and their descendants are perishing in overcrowded prisons and Immigration and Customs Enforcement migrant jails. The language of war and invasion from outside veils the racist and classist response of the state to the present crisis, and ignores the realities of why a disproportionate number of African Americans are dying from COVID-19.

It is not a coincidence that the United States has 2.5 times more prison cells than it does hospital beds. More than 2 million prisoners, disproportionately African Americans and people of color, remain at high risk behind bars; immigrants remain locked up in migrant jails, which were horrific before the outbreak of COVID-19; those without homes remain on the streets, vulnerable to infection and police sweeps; and Asian immigrants and Asian Americans alike face increased attacks as the president of the United States keeps calling COVID-19 a “Chinese virus.”

Instead, we should think of our collective vulnerability as emerging out of the destabilizations produced by 40 years of free market economic policies. Author and journalist Naomi Klein has called the present moment one of “coronavirus capitalism,” to highlight how states and corporations profit from disasters and conflicts when people are at their most vulnerable. Neoliberalism is the dangerous ideology of individual freedom that has driven policies of privatization, deregulation and financialization. Neoliberalism is dangerous because it subordinates human need to market metrics, privileges competition over cooperation and is incapable of delivering long-term solutions, operating as it does according to short-term gain.

For we feel panic not simply because of the virus’s potential to kill us, but also because of the neoliberal economic policies that have left us woefully under-prepared to meet this global pandemic. Even those officials at the “front lines” of fighting this virus, such as New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, have for decades systematically supported underfunding health care. At a moment in history when millions of people are losing their jobs, large swathes of the U.S. population lack access to insurance that can pay for the hospitalizations and medications they will need to save their lives.

Many hospitals around the country have been unable to cope because our health care system does not maintain hospital capacities beyond what is profitable. Hence, the panic many of us feel is amplified because we know that we may not receive the care we need, even as those who are wealthy will. COVID-19 is not the equalizer our politicians have made it out to be; it will in fact exacerbate inequality and disproportionately impact health care workers, the poor, people of color and other vulnerable groups.

The panic we feel as we face the reality of the inadequacy of our social safety net is exacerbated by the despair we also feel as we witness how COVID-19 is not forcing politicians and corporations to abandon policies that are killing us, but instead enabling them to do the exact opposite.

COVID-19 is indeed a shock to the present political and economic regime, but what neoliberal practitioners are doing is assembling a response intended to expand corporate and elite power and wealth. So, even as millions of people are in fear of their lives and are unemployed, the neoliberal state is helping corporations more than survive, made amply clear by the fact that a large part of the $2 trillion bailout is reserved for corporate well-being.

Using war language suggests that there will at some point be a victory, a defeat of an enemy. Rather, we might kindle our hope for the world by rethinking the entrepreneurial and individualist common sense produced out of neoliberalism, and instead pool resources, share information and creatively collaborate to survive this global health threat.

Here we are thinking of efforts made by so many collectives to produce face shields or masks (using personal or university 3D printers) to donate to health care workers or to invent open-source designs for ventilators that can be constructed with basic materials. These hope-driven strategies operate across national borders, are attuned to scientific data and need, and respond to the challenges of climate change rather than opportunistic calls to nationalism.

These are some of the voices and examples we should turn our attention to now, to spark our own creative and collaborative reservoirs, and to drown out the war calls.