A politics of arrival

virus Covid-19


The arrival of the corona virus Covid-19 in Europe was staggered, uneven, belated and sudden. The first reported case of infection may have been on the 27th of January 2020 in Germany, but the virus as a political body arrived in Europe sometime at the start of March.


I say political body to draw out a couple of things. The first is the time lag, two months of inaction. We knew the virus was coming but it barely caused a ripple. Life was business as usual.
The second is of course that a virus has no body but that it needs one, a surrogate body in order to become a subject of regulation, of control. That means by its regulation the virus itself becomes the subject of completely different narratives on arrival at different places. The virus of course is oblivious to them all.


We can look at both in a timespan between December and March.
To start at the beginning in Wuhan very early in December 2019 when the virus made the jump to the human body. From that moment onwards the virus was the subject of political manipulation. The doctor in Wuhan Li Wen Liang who sounded the alarm of its existence to his fellow medics on the 30th December 2019 was immediately detained by the Chinese government charged with spreading false rumours. He died a month later from the virus.
The doctor's leak however forced the Chinese state to formally confirm the existence of the corona virus in a new strain. We could say the virus arrived that day, the 7th January 2020. Or then maybe a week later? - when the Chinese Health authorities released its gene sequence to the world. But the space and time in the weeks before in December and the way they served the Chinese state to keep a lid on it still dogs the mind. Much happened in that time undisclosed before Dr Li Wen Liang could come out. December returns again and again in an ongoing struggle between the authorities own pronouncements and China's citizen activists.


But what was taking place in Europe (in place of any preventative thinking) is not an untypical example of a viral imagination to embody things. Or how the corona virus dropped into our fake news times. Climate change alarmists and deniers were pushed off the table by corona virus alarmists and deniers. All the action was online.
Reading social media I could separate out two strands of discussion – one that began with Chinese eating habits and the other on the advantages of Chinese authoritarian rule in the social control of an epidemic.


As the first strand evolved, a telling feature was how the focus on the Chinese broadened out uncritically to people and cultures in other parts of the globe who still have a direct relationship with natural habitats; in a lurid way as stories of bush meat merged with Oriental wet markets in even the broadsheets. Senegal and Guinea became as much the site of discussions as Wuhan. Vital differences, the implications of these crossovers were unstated or lost in the spaces of measured debate. The debate about industrial monoculture, its footprint, its viruses and its extortion of Nature fell into the background. The connection between our life style demands and the daily loss of forest and natural habitat – 80,000 acres every day - and how that fuels an illicit trade in wildlife was secondary to a modern demonology of the primitive lumped onto others. The silent terror we inflict on Nature that found a voice through the virus was silenced.


At the same time, we watched the images in Wuhan as the Chinese tried to contain an epidemic now killing thousands. The lock down, the round-up of infected suspects for quarantine, the sealing of apartments. The jailing of whistle blowers and dissenters. This was about China and its totalitarianism.
So in our viral minds two strands of controlling an epidemic and of social repression combined. But in a space of the Other and not the us. The two months paradoxically created the feeling of a safe sanitised distance. This was a politics of non-arrival.


On the 11th of February 2020, the World Health Organisation officially named this new corona virus Covid-19. It was another moment of arrival, now of an Inauguration.
Not that it caused a stir but by the 1st of March it was clear that the pandemic/epidemic had settled here in Europe, in the West. Covid-19 was now in territory with a mindset very different to that of the Chinese state. Another post-imperial space but bound by liberal laws in a belief system by which it could set itself apart. A belief system naturalised into affirmations that encompassed Nature and Society, that expected Nature to behave differently inside it as opposed to outside.


We can see this in how its leaders chose to play with its name. What mattered was the signposting to the population leveraged by its political system as a vote bank. Most telling was Donald Trump's White House with its Chinese virus even as late as 18 March 2020. The language had to be clear to be effective - to assure the vote bank that the virus was about the elsewhere.


The virus was being placed for work in another narrative as the condition of its arrival. The narrative of an order that came with a fortress mentality – of walls, fences, sanctions, pre-emptive wars. Its war on terror, the endless war that buys protection, immunity from the Other. Terror as the means on which its security is built.


All this was normalised - for what is used against Nature is used against the Other. It is both how naturalised and normal terror had necessarily become. But this the virus Covid-19 penetrated.
The psychoanalyst Sergio Benvenuto on the subject of the corona virus (English version in Corona virus and Philosophers) wrote of its disruptive potential whereby the norms of the us versus them, me versus the other “collapse and we’re all equally dangerous, the gipsy is no more dangerous than my own daughter, racist categorizations lose all their mobilising charm at a stroke.
The virus as a political body turns our understanding of terror back to front. It tells us: We or You are all terrorists. Everyone becomes equally dangerous; a bearer of terror without discrimination.
Or as Benvenuto writes, “We are not in danger, we are the danger”.


We are the danger. It's the force of routine which hides that but the corona virus with its unprecedented assault on routine marked another moment of arrival - when the foundational belief in "back to business as usual" lost its surety. That now is both a compulsion and a doubt. The one subject who recognises it well is the refugee because the refugee is someone who can not go back.
The virus as a political body tells us: We or You are all refugees. The refugee understands that in the politics of arrival there are always many arrivals if unrecognised but whereby each goes further from how it was, from the sureties of going back.


Yet the overwhelming question is, what explains the capacity of Covid-19 to bring us to this moment? To fracture the routine of human life at every possible scale. Why the seismic difference from other viruses, say the HIV virus of the 80s, or more recently the corona SARS virus of 2003, or the Ebola virus of 2013. Because unlike these viruses, Covid-19 for most part does not kill; if it did it would kill its own space of transmission. Rather it exemplifies the rule of 'less is more'; this virus optimises the time to remain without symptoms in each transmitting body.
And further, Covid-19's transmission from body to body is almost perfectly non-discriminatory and through the contact space of the everyday rituals of the normal. That is, the virus depends on the very normality a social order embodies. It is an attack on the normal; yet in far more senses than by its use of the normal to kill the weak. Because it brings out the hidden terror in the normal indiscriminately and in multiple ways. What that augers beyond arrival is another story.


Back in early December at a certain time and place in the body of a so-called Patient 0, the technical term for a first infected human, virus Covid-19 would have arrived. The certainty of arrival as an original moment is lost. It has taken three months and more but we have seen how its politics of arrival also unfolds through us. 



/ Posted at nettime 05.04.20.
/ Minor edits here, correction of date typo.