Originally, I started drafting this series of reflections on the COVID-19 pandemic in late March/April. It should come as no surprise that the relations, which were perceptible earlier in the year have continued into August. The late Johan Goudsblom has remarked that historical experiences of epidemic diseases are interwoven with wider sets of ongoing societal processes. These relations encompass the distribution of knowledge and belief systems, contrasting structures of public health organisation, in concert with power struggles within and between groups.
The most obvious process over the past few months has been the rapid epidemiologisation of societies through for example, authoritative posters promoting physical distancing and hand hygiene. Responses to the pandemic have unsurprisingly encompassed epidemiological questions about the incidence, spread and control of the disease. Political leaders, the media and medical authorities have contributed to the dissemination of terms such as ‘flattening the curve’ beyond an initial professionalised field of medical-scientific professionals to larger public audiences. The imperfect application of epidemiological concepts can have an unintended consequence of reducing the scope of societal relations into prioritising biological characteristics, for example through ‘immunity passports‘. The current epidemiologisation of relations is interconnected with the scientificated growth of the biomedical sciences over centuries, and hygenification processes noted by Goudsblom.
The pandemic has highlighted the coordination demands of globalised interdependencies, with overlapping cooperative and competitive pressures within and between societies. Cooperative pressures necessitate more open exchanges of expertise for the purpose of developing more verifiable knowledge about the virus, and wider societal repercussions. Localised healthcare responses have been interwoven with wider globalised collaboration and vice versa. The pandemic has also contributed to the acceleration and amplification of existing global power struggles. Sections of the media have used the problematic phrase ‘race for a vaccine’, which makes a reductive polarisation between winners and losers that further intensifies competitive pressures. The attempt in March by the US to attract researchers working on a COVID-19 vaccine from the German firm CureVac illustrates two contrasting approaches. The more closed approach by the current US administration and other governments that seek to monopolise information about the virus for their own exclusive benefit. In contrast to a more open approach that understands vaccine research as part of wider globalised collaboration.