Security State

The reflexive securitization as an inevitable part of state-imposed quarantinism

Security and Health

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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Capitalism and Disease Vulnerability

Capitalism and Mental Health

by Sofia Falzberger, BA

While the second lockdown will have grave effects on Austria’s economy, it seems to be necessary in order to save lives. The infections need to be stabilized to ensure an intensive care bed for every person needing it. Cutting contacts, staying at home, saving lives- this is what the population is required to do.

What is different in the second lockdown though is that we still need to function. While the first lockdown came to all of us as a surprise and was quite all embracing- this second lockdown is harder to understand, harder to grasp.

“So, we should stay at home but then we should go to work. Within the first lockdown I was like telling myself, okay… It’s gonna be over soon. It’s okay to not do anything. I’m just gonna make this puzzle”, a friend of mine told me.

For her, what makes this second lockdown so hard is not that it is the second one but that within it, you are still expected to be functioning. While the first lockdown meant a halt in our capitalistic economic system, throughout this second lockdown capitalism is supposed to continue.

We don’t only need a healthy body. We also need a healthy mind.

The notion that we can only function within a healthy body is widespread within capitalistic societies. Capitalism’s highest premise is that we are functioning well, as it is this collective functioning that keeps this system alive.

However, it seems to me as if we are missing something in this equation. To function well we do not only need a healthy body. We also need a healthy mind.

And this healthy mind has not only been forgotten in capitalistic societies since the Corona Pandemic hit us. On the contrary, while Capitalism is constantly worsening society’s mental health it is still turning a blind eye on the subject.

The paradox we keep on reproducing

In the article A Mad World: Capitalism and the Rise of Mental Illness the author even dares speaking of mental illness as being the second pandemic we are constantly living in[1]. Another article, Capitalism and mental health states that the WHO estimates that more than three hundred million people suffer from depression worldwide[2].

While there is evidence that genetics and physical biomarkers are causing mental disease, the other important factor is environmental and societal causes. Our society prefers explanations based on genetic reductionism over others. Structural inequalities resulting from an economic system that builds upon capital accumulation and competition only, are widely ignored.

The truth is: the more our lives get turned into commodities, the more we feel alienated within them. Here Marx gave the example of a mother labouring (and it is work to give birth to a child!) her child. As soon as the baby is in this world, it gets turned into something doll-like, into a commodity. By this it is taken further away from the woman it came out of, the parents it was made from and the naturality of things. The market is taking this baby and claiming it for itself, alienating it even further from the parents[3]. This constant shift from things how they are, into a notion of things how they ought to be is driven by forces such as capitalism and advertisements. These forces have already been identified by Freud as the motor of increasing neuroses within a modern society. Psychoanalytic psychotherapist Sue Gerhardt also writes about how capitalism reshapes our brains and our nervous systems, stating that we would often be confusing ‘well-being with psychological well-being’[4]. All these arguments are also subsumed in Erich Fromm’s hypothesis that under capitalism humans become divorced from their own nature[5].

Inequality creates mental illness

Another point that this discussion should not miss is the inequality capitalism generates.  It is common knowledge that mental illness is developing out of inequalities and today we also have a lot of scientific proof for this. According to a report of the Royal College of Psychiatrists in London, “children from households with the lowest 20% of incomes have a three-fold increased risk of mental health problems than children from households with the highest 20% of incomes.[6]” This also comes back to the debate of work. In our modern society work is often portrayed as the individual’s fulfillment, as a sort of self-realization. However this argument only embraces a small minority of people (and even within this small minority one could question how self-fulfilling it really is to persistently have to prove oneself to be the best). What work actually does is, that it contributes to the feeling of alienation. A study conducted in 2018 in Britain states that 47% of the participants are considering looking for a new job[7]. Erich Fromm talks about human beings being active creators. Under capitalism however, we are forced to put all the energy in the labour, never mind a personal sense of connection to the outcome. What we create then, we rather produce. We no longer have a relation with the results of our work.

It is strange enough that we live under these conditions that steadily are bringing us further away from our human nature. But even stranger it is, that we know about it and still do not change a thing.

Even if it feels like it has already been mentioned a thousand times and even if it feels like a hopelessly optimistic approach, I will still say it: Maybe the Covid-19 pandemic can open our eyes and serve as a turning point towards a new, more just system.

For further information, read these articles:

David Matthews: Capitalism and Health (2019) in: Monthly Review, an independent socialist magazine.

Rod Tweety: A Mad World: Capitalism and the Rise of Mental Illness (2020) in: Hampton Institute.

[1]          Rod Tweety: A Mad World: Capitalism and the Rise of Mental Illness (2020) in: Hampton Institute. (last access: 03.12.2020, 14:37).

[2]          David Matthews: Capitalism and Health (2019) in: Monthly Review, an independent socialist magazine. (last access: 03.12.2020, 14:32).

[3]          Rod Tweety: A Mad World: Capitalism and the Rise of Mental Illness (2020) in: Hampton Institute. (last access: 03.12.2020, 16:37).

[4]          Sue Gerhardt The Selfish Society quoted in: ibid.

[5]          Fromm, The Sane Society refered to in: David Matthews: Capitalism and Health (2019) in: Monthly Review, an independent socialist magazine. (last access: 03.12.2020, 14:32).

[6]          Royal College of Psychiatrists London: No health without public mental health- The case for action: Position Statement PS4/2010 (London: Royal College of Psychiatrists, 2010) p.18, (last access: 03.12.2020, 14:28).

[7]          Investors in People: Job Exodus Trends: 2018 Employee Sentiment Poll (London: Investors in People, 2018) in:
David Matthews: Capitalism and Health (2019) in: Monthly Review, an independent socialist magazine. (last access: 03.12.2020, 14:32).