COVID-19 Health Medicine Security State Surveillance

Podcast: COVID-19 in the history of biopolitics

By Nicolas Friden BA & Carlos Solsona Ribes BA & Camilla Wallner BA

This podcast episode discusses COVID-19 and the vaccination debate in the context of the history of biopolitics.

Asia China COVID-19 Ethnicity General Surveillance

How the Xinjiang crisis was made gloomier by the pandemic

Xinjiang detention centres in Onsu, Aksu, as identified by a technical journalist. Source:

By anonymous author

In this blog post I want to talk about the plight the Uyghurs face in China since the beginning of the pandemic. A crisis like this puts the socially vulnerable in a more vulnerable spot, especially in a country with a sizable amount of its population living in poverty, and has no social welfare system like China.[1] During the various lockdowns in 2020 worldwide, most people were confined to home, many people lost their job or livelihood, with no employment payment, no income or savings, and many struggled to pull through. The Uyghurs and other ethnic minorities in Xinjiang suffered way more than that. The Uyghur communities in southern Xinjiang have much higher poverty rates than the Han communities, as a result of long-term discrimination policies against their Muslim identity. In recent years, their culture, language and religion have been further suppressed by the regime in the name of national security, many fell victim to the “re-education” camps or forced employment schemes.[2]

Xinjiang is a vast region located in the northwest of China, home to over 13 million Uyghurs and over 1 million Kazakhs, who are the ethnic and cultural minorities. News reports and investigations showed that since 2015, numerous ‘re-education camps’ were being built all around Xinjiang, and it is estimated that over 1 million Uyghurs and Kazakhs are being detained in such camps, facing brainwash, mental and physical abuse day by day.[3]

In the beginning of the pandemic, many migrant workers were eager to return to big cities for work, but were forced by the lockdown to stay home for more than two months. As a result, thousands of Uyghurs were being sent across the country, to fill up the vacuum of labour following the first lockdown. Many were forced to wear GPS bracelets to track their whereabouts.[4] According to a report by the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, Chinese government sent approximately 80,000 Uyghurs to other regions of China to work in factories, including for many international brands like Nike, Apple, BMW and Volkswagen.[5] In July 2020, a New York Times visual investigation found that Uyghurs were also included in a government-sponsored forced labour program to produce face masks, in order to satisfy the skyrocketed global demand of P.P.E.. Much of the mask production was for export.[6] Besides all of this, hundreds of thousands of Uyghurs and other minorities were forced to undertake hard and manual labour in Xinjiang’s vast cotton fields and the garment factories, where 20% of the world’s cotton is from.[7]

Another report by China Tribunal also reveals that the detainees in the “re-education camps” are victims of organ harvesting, a practice that is not at all uncommon in Chinese prisons.[8] China has one of the lowest voluntary organ donor rates in the world, with the spreading of Covid-19, there were concerns that the Uyghurs were being “killed-on-demand” for Chinese Covid-19 patients, as China announced its first double-lung-transplant for a Covid-19 patient, who waited only five days for a “consenting” donor to provide a perfectly matching set of lungs.[9]

There were two major lockdowns in Xinjiang in 2020, the first one was from mid-July to early September, when the rest of China reported almost no new cases every day. The same measurements like those in Wuhan were imposed there, people were not allowed to leave their home, some building gates were sealed with iron bars, and residents were forced to take unknown medicine every day.[10] Around this time it was also reported that a mass female sterilization campaign was being carried out among the Uyghur population,[11] similar to the one carried out nationwide in the 1980s and 90s, as a result of the one-child policy.

Being the most heavily policed area of the world, “covered by a pervasive network of surveillance, including police, checkpoints, and cameras that scan everything from number plates to individual faces”,[12] most people could never move freely before the pandemic. Many questioned the scale of the outbreak in the cities, and expressed their concern of possible outbreaks inside of the ‘re-education camps’.[13] Given that ‘[t]hose camps are especially vulnerable to contagious disease due to the cramped cells, lack of medical resources and generally dire conditions.’[14]

The second lockdown in Xinjian was carried out from late October to late November in the area of Kashgar, where most Uyghur communities and ‘re-education camps’ are located, harsh measurements were imposed on its residents again. According to the news reports and studies, the human rights violations in China continue to deteriorate during the pandemic. In January 2021, the U.S. government declared that the Chinese government has committed genocide on Uyghurs and other ethnic minorities of Xinjiang,’, it was by far the strongest condemnation by any government against the Xinjiang crisis,[15] hopefully more countries will take part in the joint effort to end such atrocities against humanity.


  1. CNBC. (2020, May 28). China has over 600 million poor with $140 monthly income: Premier Li Keqiang. CNBC TV18. Retrieved from,China%20has%20over%20600%20million%20poor,monthly%20income%3A%20Premier%20Li%20Keqiang&text=China%20has%20over%20600%20million%20people%20whose%20monthly%20income%20is,Li%20Keqiang%20said%20on%20Thursday

2. Lee, Elizabeth.(2020, Oct 23). POVERTY IN XINJIANG, CHINA. The Borgen Project. Retrieved from

3. Uyghur Human Rights Project. (2020, February 18). “IDEOLOGICAL TRANSFORMATION”: RECORDS OF MASS DETENTION FROM QARAQASH, HOTAN. Retrieved from

4. Dong, Han. (2020, March 12). 大批新疆维族人被强制送往内地工厂外出须戴定位. World Uyghur Congress. Retrieved from

5. Xu, Cave, Leibold, Munro and Ruser. (2020, March 01). Uyghurs for sale. Australian Strategic Policy Institute. Retrieved from

6. Xiao, M., Willis, H., Koettl, C., Reneau, N., Jordan, D. (2020, July 19). China Is Using Uighur Labor to Produce Face Masks. The New York Times. Retrieved from

7. Sudworth, John. (2020, December). China’s ‘tainted’ cotton. BBC NEWS. Retrieved from

8. Nice et al. (2020, March 01). The Independent Tribunal into Forced Organ Harvesting from Prisoners of Conscience in China. China Tribunal. Retrieved from

9. Werleman, CJ. (2020, March 10). Are Uyghur Muslim Organs Being Illegally Removed to Save China’s Coronavirus Patients? Byline Times. Retrieved from

10. Kang, D. (2020, August 31). In China’s Xinjiang, forced medication accompanies lockdown. AP News. Retrieved from

11. Zenz, Adrian. (2020, June). Sterilizations, IUDs, and Mandatory Birth Control: The CCP’s Campaign to Suppress Uyghur Birthrates in Xinjiang. The Jamestown Foundation. Retrieved from

12. BBC NEWS. (2021, January 20). US: China ‘committed genocide against Uighurs’. BBC NEWS. Retrieved from

13. Dick, S. (2020, August 08). Dual threat: Coronavirus not the only battle in Uighur ‘re-education’ camps. THE NEW DAILY. Retrieved from

14. Rogin, J. (2020, February 26). The coronavirus brings new and awful repression for Uighurs in China. Washington Post. Retrieved from

15. BBC NEWS, 2021.

COVID-19 Social Media Surveillance Technology

Thinking about Contact Tracing Apps

Photo by Markus Winkler on Unsplash

By Charlotte Fleischmann, BA

The following thoughts on contact tracing apps try to give a new perspective on their purpose. They question the trend in society not wanting to share private information with the government while sharing it at the same time publicly through social media.

The majority of people criticising contact tracing apps do not want to share private information, or in concrete words do not want to share their location and by consequence their daily routines or habits.

This is understandable in a way: location or spatial data provides really delicate information and various types of knowledge can be derived from one’s location. From movements, we know where a person works, lives, shops, and visits friends. We are able to learn a lot about a person but also about communities by “just” having knowledge about their location.

If you now think: “Well, I will never gonna get this tracing app on my phone”, I invite you to remember what other sources of information as delicate as spatial data within a tracing app is publicly accessible of you. Maybe you have a Facebook-, Instagram-, Google Mail- or WhatsApp- or LinkedIn-Account. Social Media and so many other sources are publicly providing a mass of spatial-, and other types of data from the majority of people.

If it is not from social media, there are still other ways to find aggregated information such as official statistical data from governments, data from insurance companies, or data from news media.

These channels of data often do not provide personalized information about people. But we should not forget the bigger picture of data analysis. The objective of data analysis is finding meaning and correlation in incredibly huge amounts of data. Findings derived from so called big data are not about that one certain person, it is about finding patterns in an aggregate of “digitalized reality” concerning activities, opinions, circumstances, and habits of people. I am not saying that personalized data is not playing a huge role in data analysis, but this is mostly the case when an analysis has the purpose to explain a company what advertisement best fits for a certain person. To make it more concrete: personalized information is mostly used from companies for the purpose of marketing.

Let us also remember that what is now called data is digitalized information. Information has always been important for societies and will always be. The main difference between then and now is the capacities of storage, the amount of data and the speed in which data can be processed. Of course, these differences bring up new consequences for society, which should be considered, but still the principles of the impact of information and knowledge on society is as important as it has always been. As Francis Bacon once said: knowledge is power.

But back to the criticism of contact tracing Apps: not wanting to share spatial data, even if it is for the purpose of public health, illustrates that it is important for our society that personal data is not used without consent even if it is for a society’s own good.

Why is there a tendency to think that data will be used against us? And why do we fear this on the one hand, but on the other proudly share family photos on various social media platforms? This matter seems irrational for me and brings me to the conclusion that our global society is in need for an open discourse regarding the subject of data collection, analysis, and use. We need to inform ourselves, so that we do not start sticking to irrational fear, when it comes to the matter of data. But I also call upon institutions, NGOs, governments, organizations, and companies to speak openly about this subject and share aims and objectives concerning the matter of data analysis in a transparent and explicable manner.

If this will not soon be the case, stories like failed attempts to introduce a contact tracing app in order to tackle the COVID-19 pandemic will repeat over and over. We need to be clear about both sides of the coin: There are negative impacts in every innovation, in every new trend. But there are also good intentions, good reasons, and eventually good outcome from innovations if we are just able and ready to use it right. The good side of the coin cannot be realized, however, if we live in the bewildering situation of on the one hand sharing loads of data on social media and on the other being afraid of sharing data within an app that would help us to tackle the pandemic.

This blog-post does not only want to question the view on data related matters in our society. It also wants to take an effort in informing about the potential of contact tracing apps for the solution of this crisis in line with this recent statement by the WHO:

“COVID-19 has heavily emphasized how contact tracing is crucial for managing outbreaks, and as part of the strategy for adjusting, and eventually lifting, lockdowns and other stringent public health and social measures. As the pandemic develops further, it will be a core measure to manage further waves of infection”


The sources below contain further articles about functioning, purpose, objectives, outcome of contact tracing apps and about the on-going debate. I hope this blog post is providing an incentive to read and think further about data analysis in relation to contact tracing apps, but also in terms of other topics.

Budd, J., Miller, B.S., Manning, E.M. et al. Digital technologies in the public-health response to COVID19. Nat Med 26, 1183–1192 (2020).

Ienca, M., Vayena, E. On the responsible use of digital data to tackle the COVID-19 pandemic. Nat Med 26, 463–464 (2020).

World Health Organization. Public health surveillance for COVID-19 Interim guidance (2020)

World Health Organization. Online global consultation on contact tracing for COVID-19 (2020). COVID-19: Surveilllance, case investigation and epidemiological protocols

Siffels, L.E. Beyond privacy vs. health: a justification analysis of the contact-tracing apps debate in the Netherlands. Ethics Inf Technol (2020).

Lanzing, M. Contact tracing apps: an ethical roadmap. Ethics and Inf Technol (2020).

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.


Ackerknecht, E. (2020) Anticontagionism Between 1821and 1867. BHM,(March–April 1948).

Bundesministerium Inneres (2020). Nehammer: Zusätzliche 215 Millionen Euro für Sicherheit der Menschen. BMI. 13.11.2020.

Bundesministerium Inneres (2020). Nehammer: Kontrollen werden auch am Wochenende fortgesetzt. BMI. 13.11.2020.

Bundesministerium Inneres (2020). Verstärkte Kontrollen am kommenden Wochenende bei Einreise nach Österreich. BMI. 13.11.2020.

Bußgeldkatalog (2020). Corona-Bußgeldkatalog: Das kosten Verstöße. buß 13.11.2020.

Bußgeldkatalog (2020). Polizei in der Corona-Krise: Welche Befugnisse haben die Beamten?. buß 13.11.2020.

Buzan, B., Waever, O., & Wildede, J. (1998). Security : A new framework for analysis. Boulder, Colo. [u.a.]: Rienner.

Der Standard (2020). Österreich vor zweitem Lockdown: Welche Maßnahmen nun kommen könnten. 13.11.2020.

FAZ (2020). Gegen „unsichtbaren Feind“ : Trump „im Krieg“ gegen das Coronavirus.

Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung Online. 13.11.2020.

Hanke, T. (2020). Macron sieht Frankreich „im Krieg“ und schränkt Bewegungsfreiheit ein. Handelsblatt. 13.11.2020.

Pietralunga, C. & Lemarié, A. (2020).« Nous sommes en guerre » : face au coronavirus, Emmanuel Macron sonne la « mobilisation générale ». Le Monde. 13.11.2020.

Strahler-Pohl, L. (2020). Die Welt befindet sich im Kampf gegen ein Virus – aber nicht im Krieg. Der Tagesspiegel. 13.11.2020.

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).

Epidemics and Gender Vulnerability

Violence against women as a shadow pandemic during COVID-19

By Beverly Mtui, BA.

How the world is fighting two pandemics concurrently

During the COVID-19 pandemic, we have been reminded that women are affected differently by health crises and emergencies. Professor of history at the University of Agder in Norway, May-Britt Ohman Nielsen, says that “infectious diseases affect women and men differently, primarily because they have different roles and functions through history. The greatest difference regarding illnesses and pandemics is that women often take on emotional responsibilities” i.e. additional care work.[1]

Women are differently affected by epidemics than men

Interestingly, if we take a closer look at history, it appears that women usually have a higher life expectancy than men during epidemics. In the research article Women live longer than men even during severe famines and epidemics[2], the life expectancy of women and men for seven high-mortality populations during extreme mortality conditions between the years 1773 and 1933 was analyzed. It was revealed that even in the face of adverse conditions such as famines (Swedish famine in 1772–1773, Irish famine in 1845–1849 and Ukrainian famine in 1933), epidemics (Icelandic epidemics in 1846 and 1882) and slavery (Freed Liberian slaves from 1820-1843 and Plantations slaves in Trinidad from 1813-1816), women tended to survive better than men.[3] Furthermore, the research shows even for less extreme famines[4] that the overall impact was greater for men than for women, also in regions where the mortality rate for women was generally higher than for men.[5]

The global numbers of COVID-19 deaths paint a similar picture. According to the rapid risk assessment Coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) in the EU/EEA and the UK – eighth update of 8 April 2020, a total of 74 066 deaths have been reported worldwide by 7 April 2020 with 51 059 deaths being reported from the EU/EEA countries and the UK.[6] Despite higher age groups being generally more affected by COVID-19, the risk assessment reports that “for all age groups where the outcome of cases was reported, there were more deaths among males overall”. [7] In fact, the male-to-female ratio for deaths was 2.1.[8]

Good Time Being A Woman?

Taking all of this into account, one would probably agree with North American country artist Emily Reid and think “Good Time Being A Woman.” Unfortunately, not so much: women have been fighting an additional battle. One that existed even before COVID-19 startled the world. Calling it the “Shadow Pandemic”, UN WOMEN highlights the increase of the human rights violation that is violence against women during COVID-19. “Globally, 1 in 3 woman have experienced physical or sexual violence mostly by an intimate partner”. However, UN WOMEN states that “data and reports have shown a rise in all types of violence against women and girls, particularly domestic violence, since the outbreak of COVID-19”.[9]

In order to understand this phenomenon, we must first deconstruct the term violence. In Violence in War and Peace,[10] Philippe Bourgois analyzes the normalization of violence in society and targets the “continuum of violence”: Violence as such is divided in four different layers: political, structural, symbolic and everyday violence. The interplay of structural and symbolic violence strengthens and amplifies everyday violence that conversely allows the continuation of symbolic and structural violence, and effectively leads to political violence. On the other hand, political violence can induce new forms of structural and symbolic violence leading again to different expressions of everyday violence.

Increases of violence on several levels

In addition, it is clear that violence in all its forms intensifies and fortifies in situations of crisis, particularly health crises, as shown by an increase in gender-based violence and intimate partner violence during the earthquake in Haiti in 2007, Hurricane Katrina in 2005, and the eruption of Mount Saint Helens in the 1980s, disasters that led to unemployment, family, and other stressors.[11] Evidently, this is reflected in the current pandemic in the following ways:

Increase of everyday violence: According to UN WOMEN, there has been an increase in reports of domestic violence and calls to women support services, particularly during the COVID-19 lockdown period of March-April 2020. In France, reports of domestic violence rose up to more than 30%, and Singapore as well as Cyprus also experienced a rise in emergency calls to women’s helplines of more than 30%.[12] Why? According to the Council of Europe, particularly during the lockdown i.e. “isolation and confinement leads to higher levels of domestic, sexual and gender-based violence”[13].

Increase of structural and symbolic violence: Economic impacts for women such as earning less, working more, unpaid care work, increased risk of unemployment due to caring for children and people in need, and thus increased risk of poverty.[14]

Increase of political violence: UN WOMEN states that in conflict-affected areas where people depend on humanitarian aid, particularly women and children are at highest immediate-risk for COVID-19. Furthermore, women and girls are more vulnerable to gender-based violence in refugee camps, when practicing hygiene at latrines or water distribution sites.[15]

As May-Britt Ohman Nielsen emphasised: “Pandemics are a magnifying glass that sheds light on social conditions, gender included.[16]Therefore, if we ask who is affected by COVID-19, we must also ask how, as it is clear that COVID-19 has an even severer impact on women worldwide.

“Gender-based violence […] is a profound health problem for women across the globe. Although a significant cause of female morbidity and mortality, gender violence is almost never seen as a public health issue.”[17]

[1], accessed November 28, 2020.

[2] Zarulli V et al., “Women Live Longer than Men Even during Severe Famines and Epidemics,” Yearbook of Paediatric Endocrinology, September 11, 2018.

[3] Zarulli et al. 5.

[4] Dutch Hunger Winter, the famines of Madras and Bombay, five south Asian famines, the Bengal famine, and the famine in the Matlab region.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) in the EU/EEA and the UK – eighth update, accessed November 28, 2020.

[7] Coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) in the EU/EEA and the UK – eighth update, 6.

[8] Ibid.

[9] The Shadow Pandemic: Violence against women during COVID-19, UN WOMEN, accessed November 28, 2020.

[10] Philippe Bourgois, “The Power of Violence in War and Peace: Post-Cold War Lessons from El Salvador,” Ethnography 2, no. 1 (2001): 5–34.

[11] Shalini Mittal and Tushar Singh, “Gender-Based Violence During COVID-19 Pandemic: A Mini-Review,” Frontiers in Global Women’s Health 1 (September 8, 2020).

[12], accessed November 28, 2020.

[13], accessed November 28, 2020.

[14] Policy Brief: The Impact of COVID-19 on Women (2020), UNITED NATIONS, accessed November 28, 2020.

[15] UN Secretary-General’s policy brief: The impact of COVID-19 on women; Transcript of the UN Secretary-General’s virtual press encounter on the appeal for global ceasefire, UN, 23 March 2020., accessed November 28, 2020.

[16], accessed November 28, 2020.

[17] Lori Heise, “Gender-Based Abuse: The Global Epidemic,” Cadernos de Saúde Pública 10, no. suppl 1 (1994): 135–45.