By Jonathan Schmidt, BA
Facing the current corona pandemic most European countries have decided to impose profound restrictions of their citizens’ everyday life, social contact and mobility. Despite the medical appropriateness and necessity of quarantine in epidemic outbreaks, it becomes a whole new discussion as it is to be imposed on a national or even global level. It is difficult to maintain acceptance of such highly restrictive measures, so governments are increasingly using their legislative and executive powers to ensure the success of their quarantine strategies. As society attempts to combat the pandemic and mitigate its many impacts, the debate is slowly shifting away from medical issues towards homeland security. This blog post is intended to show how closely the medical approach of quarantine to contain the further spread of a virus is intertwined with the authoritarian use of state violence.
What does the Covid-19 epidemic tell us about the political system in which we live?
Dealing with epidemics is not only a question of medical and technological concerns, but also strongly influenced by political convictions and prevailing ideologies, as Erwin Ackerknecht already formulated in the 1940s. He argued, that the way governments react to epidemics could be read as an expression of the dominant political regime. In his text, Ackerknecht (1948) distinguishes between autocratic, or at least more authoritarian, conservative systems that prefer the use of a restrictive approach to disease in the form of compulsory vaccinations or quarantine and more liberal, democratic political systems that favor less intrusive strategies but instead structural developments in the sense of expanding preventive measures (cf. Ackerknecht, 1948). His argumentation is probably based on the experience of totalitarianism, which was widespread in Europe in the inter-war period and culminated in the Second World War. Ackerknecht (1948) follows a binary argumentation, contrasting quarantinism and sanitationism, authoritarianism and liberalism, individual freedom and mandatory community spirit (cf. Ackerknecht, 1948). Although this might appear like a convenient simplification of things, there is some interesting observation in the correlation between political regimes and their handling of epidemics, which can be traced in todays “fight” against the Covid-19 pandemic.
Looking at the paradigm of the policies to manage pandemics that prevails in most parts of the Western states, it becomes clear that they base their strategies on the enforcement of quarantine, social distancing, and the sealing off of large sections of public and cultural life, “giving priority to the interests of the community and the state” (Ackerknecht, 1948: 156). As many of the measures for this kind of reactionary strategy inevitably come with a high degree of renunciation and loss of personal freedom, the term “enforcement” is the key word to focus on. In particular, quarantine and night curfews, as first imposed by the Austrian government under Sebastian Kurz on December 2 and further tightened after December 26, can certainly be seen as a kind of deprivation of liberty that not all people are willing to accept without further ado (cf. Der Standard, 2020).
Imposed quarantine regulations become law
Most European nation states attach great importance to reassuring communication tactics and appeal to reason and morality in the first place, but they do not hesitate to impose highly restrictive regulations that have to be followed under the rule of law. What can be observed during the current second lockdown is a further tactical escalation as part of the strategy to handle the Covid-19 pandemic. The German government has introduced a specific corona-related catalogue of fines that implies fines starting from 200 euros for the disregard of contact regulations, up to 25.000 euros for failure to comply with the notification obligation, and, in addition, prison sentences for disregarding the ban on assembly (cf. Bußgeldkatalog, 2020). This is just an example for the partly drastic sanctions that have been imposed in almost every European state. What I would like to emphasize is the fact that many governments have already adopted a strategy for dealing with the Covid-19 epidemic that will inevitably lead to increased use of executive forces. There are new rules and orders that have been imposed, and now governments must use their executive powers to ensure compliance with the law. With reference to the analytical concept of Ole Weaver (1998), one could speak of a reflex-like defense attitude, which manifests itself in increased securitization.
The Austrian Ministry of Interior regularly publishes numbers to demonstrate its effort to combat the Covid-19 pandemic. A successful fight against the pandemic thereby seems to be closely linked to tight police controls in public places and at the external borders. Within just one weekend in September 2020, the Austrian border patrol controlled about 230,000 people. In addition, more than 90,000 checks were carried out within the country’s borders in a so-called “Schwerpunktaktion”, where 1.000 offences were reported and fined (cf. Bundesministerium Inneres, 2020). Those numbers just give an indication about how resources intensive and bureaucratic such restrictive handling of an epidemic can be and how heavily the chosen strategy of quarantinism relies on an assertive security apparatus that disciplines the population on unpopular rules. To strive for the ideal of a disciplined social body of this kind can be found in an authoritarian, military context – a reference that is also used these days.
The global Covid-19 pandemic is indeed a deadly threat to a large part of society, especially the elderly and people with pre-existing conditions – so there is a necessity for governments to fulfill their constitutive duty and ensure the safety of their citizens. Most people would agree on that, but nevertheless the chosen “lockdown”-strategy is perceived as a dramatic incision into personal freedom. So how to legitimize the quarantinism, restrictive regulations, fines and the increased use of executive power?
War rhetoric to prove the need.
“Nous sommes en guerre”, we are at war – this is what the French President Emmanuel Macron repeated six times during a television address (Pietralunga & Lemarié, 2020). He also pleaded for the mobilization against an invisible enemy, using vocabulary that Donald Trump also used. After long hesitation to acknowledge the presence of such a virus, the US president mobilized thousands of national guard soldiers, recruited reservists, rapidly established military field hospitals and made use of a 1934 law allowing the government to manage the private sector to uplift the production of ventilators (cf. FAZ, 2020). But not only the controversial US president commits to the establishment of a war economy – Pedro Sanchez, the Spanish president also adopted this strategy.
It is this war rhetoric that is used to swear the people in, to appeal to their discipline, their sense of community, their sense of duty and their trust in the government and its decisions. Unpopular arrangements, the loss of civil liberties, the need for an excessive increase in the use of law enforcement agencies – all this is to be justified by the degree of urgency and severity of a war-like situation (cf. Straehler-Pohl, 2020). The proclamation of war brings people closer together – closer to each other and closer to the one who calls. Even though this sounds cynical these days, metaphorically spoken, this is what the war rhetoric is meant to achieve.
It has long ceased to be a medical debate
Regarding this approach to handle the Covid-19 pandemic, it seems that governments, which choose the quarantism strategy inevitably have to resort to authoritarian measures. In order to achieve presentable results this whole approach relies heavily on restrictive laws violating civil liberties, which are understandably only respected if the executive enforces them. What can be observed is that this strategy shifts the whole debate from a health-related issue to a security issue that is strongly linked to the state monopoly on the use of force. Today, it is more about how to control, how to enforce rules, how to discipline people, how to get used to circumstances. We have lost sight of the fact that there must be structural changes in order to find real long-term solutions. Unfortunately Covid-19 has not yet been understood to the extent that structural solutions could be found, and that is totally fine. But it cannot be helpful to reflexively persist in war-like defensive attitudes and debate the enforcement of laws, instead of focussing on medical solutions. The experience of the first lockdown and the meager results of the current lockdown during the Christmas season have proven that the strategy of quarantinism can only be a short-time and provisional solution that carries many risks on a political level.
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