As the United States finally begins to take haphazard steps at taking the COVID-19 pandemic seriously, several politicians have already begun comparing the global health crisis to a war. Joe Biden made the comparison numerous times during the Democratic debate on Sunday and President of France Emanuel Macron has declared war on the virus while the emergency powers granted to him are set to last 2 years.
A war is a state of emergency and exception. In modern nation-states like the U.S., a declaration of war grants the executive branch (the President is the Commander-in-chief) powers that it would not have otherwise. This is why Congress must approve acts of war. It is one of the checks of power on the Executive Branch to prevent the potential abuse of war-time powers. Sometimes the declaration of an emergency is necessary and good. For example, when a city declares a state of emergency, they can spend money they otherwise can’t access. And, the coronavirus is certainly a national, really a global, emergency that requires mass movements of supplies, money, resources, and people. Right now, the United States is considering resorting to war-time powers that would allow for the requisition of industries to produce necessary materials like masks and ventilators.
But, how can you declare war on a virus? The spread of a virus might have political effects, but a virus is not a political agent. A virus can’t feel, it can’t want, and it can’t desire. It just does.
War is a political act carried out by groups – it’s not something that individuals can declare or execute. It is always a collective action and always carried out against another group of people. Notice that the things we have decided to declare war on are not concrete locations or groups. How do you wage a war against poverty? Against drugs? Who are the targets? The question is not what is war being waged against, but who.
Since 9/11, war and terrorism have been used aggressively as justification for limiting our political and personal freedoms in the name of our protection. Terrorism was the shield George W Bush and his co-conspirators carried when they lied about the existence of WMDs in Iraq, a war that is still occurring almost two decades later. The Patriot Act created a sophisticated global surveillance network that continues to spy on the phone calls, text messages, emails, and metadata of any and all Americans. The war on terror is what enables secret no-fly lists, which you can be placed on for any reason, without your knowledge, to be discovered only when you’re at the airport, and with no process for correction or complaint.
Often, the actions taken in the wars against poverty or drugs actively harm the people the war is ostensibly meant to protect. For example, it is often argued that providing drug users with safe-injection sites encourages drug use. Yet, we know that providing these spaces not only prevents the spread of diseases from sharing needles, reduces stigma, and provides an avenue for potential intervention. In the war against poverty, school children are denied food because they owe “school lunch debt” and districts deny donations in order to teach families a lesson.
Wars against terrorism or drugs or poverty are wars without end. Not because we can’t imagine a world without poverty or create real social programs to eliminate it, but because the continued existence of addiction or poverty justifies the erosion of norms and rights and the expansion of surveillance, control mechanisms, and violence. Almost any action can now be justified under the banner of national security and there will always be someone else you can label a terrorist.
War will be the language used to justify all sorts of behavior in the coming months. It will be used to justify why some should live and others should die. It will be used as an excuse to bring out sweeping changes, some of which are needed but some of which will be subtle expansions of power smuggled in under the name of protection. We need drastic measures now. But, it matters what these changes are. We can’t allow the violence and seduction of war to blind us to new erosions of our rights and freedoms. For example, the Israeli government has already allowed the Shin Bet to expand it’s extremely invasive surveillance systems to mass surveil everyone’s phones to ostensibly track people they think may have the virus. The United States is considering doing the same by partnering with shady companies like Palantir and Clearview.
The war against poverty never seems to target employers who don’t pay their workers enough or steal their wages. It’s a war against poor people. The war on drugs never seems to target drug companies who push highly addicting opioids. Only drug users. The war on an illness like HIV/AIDS never seems to target companies who price-gouge HIV medication. Only HIV+ people. The war on terror cannot contain terrorism, it can only name more terrorists. The target of a war on coronavirus is not the virus. It is the people who carry it or who can carry it. That includes everyone.