The Body Politics of Covid-19

The fifth entry in our coronacrisis series, from Kandida Purnell. Kandida is Assistant Professor of International Relations at Richmond, the American International University in London. Having previously published on the body politics of aspects of the Global War on Terror, war commemoration, and army/artist collaboration, Kandida is currently finalising her monograph Rethinking the Body in Global Politics (Forthcoming 2020, Routledge Interventions). Kandida is also continuing to collaborate with Natasha Danilova and Emma Dolan on the Carnegie-funded ‘War Commemoration, Military Culture, and Identity Politics in Scotland’ project while her solo research into Bringing Bodies Back: Repatriation and War Performance within Forever War is ongoing.


Bodies are contested sites of global politics. Some of you realised this before I did; some of you might want to know more about body politics; and some of you may not be used to thinking about bodies and ‘embodiment’ (that is, the unending and intensely contested process through which bodies come to be) at all. You might also be wondering if and/or how these things (bodies and embodiment) ‘belong’ within the discipline of International Relations (IR).  This post is for you all, and reluctantly yet hopefully ‘uses’ the Covid-19 pandemic and responses to it as a way into and forward for the study of body politics within IR and beyond.

Given the gravity of events unfolding around us and written in haste, this short post is intended as a ‘teach in’ on and introduction to thinking about body politics highlighting and providing some initial analyses of two interrelated, crucial, and particularly disturbing aspects of responses to the Covid-19 pandemic currently playing out. In part 1 I explain and discuss the metaphoricity of the body politic in relation to the ‘British’ response to Covid-19 and in part 2, and again within the UK context (due to my situation and for ‘convenience’ within the scope of this blog post) I discuss the necropolitics of body (un-)counting. This analysis is preceded by the brief contextualisation and situation of my thoughts within existing IR and other literature and the provision of a brief overview of my arguments on body politics to date (feel free to skip this bit and jump straight to the Covid-19 analysis).

 On Bodies, briefly

Bodies are contested sites of global politics. However, for the most part, IR has left the politics out of bodies by denying and/or occluding intensely contested processes of (re)embodiment while preferring to analyse, scrutinise, and politicise, the contest other units arriving with and/or comprised of already made bodies (namely “man, the state, and war”). In my endeavour to ‘rethink the body in global politics’ (this it the title of my first book forthcoming 2020), I have therefore followed some in IR – namely, but not only, Lauren Wilcox (2015) on bodies and violence, Stefanie Fishel (2017) on the body politic, Jessica Auchter (2014) and Tom Gregory (2016) on dead bodies and body counting, and Jenny Edkins on missing bodies (2011) and trauma (2003) – but also many from beyond. These include Achille Mbembe (2003 and 2019) on Necropolitics, Sara Ahmed on emotion bodies, wilfulness, and use (2004, 2014, and 2019), Judith Butler on performativity (1993), precariousness (2004), and vulnerability (2015), Diana Coole (2005) on agency, Jane Bennett (2010) on the vibrancy of matter, and Kathleen Stewart (2007) and Teresa Brennan (2004) on affect.

Through this theory and intensive empirical research (see Purnell 2015, 2018, and forthcoming 2020), I have described bodies as performative, lively, and ontologically insecure – always a process and always in process and explained and underlined the role of emotion/affect in this. However, in my previous studies – into for example the 2013-2015 Guantanamo Bay hunger strike and treatment of suffering and dead American soldiers – I have researched and written about extremely exposed and very obviously contested bodies. However, I have done this as a means to reveal the more subtle ways and logics informing how every body is contested as a site of no ‘less’ amounts of global politics. As a crisis concerning everybody, the Covid-19 pandemic has therefore done a lot of work for me – by revealing the management, manipulation, and pervasive political interventions into the lives/deaths and (re)embodiments of not only ‘extremely’ placed and exposed bodies, but including the ‘everyday’ bodies of you and I. In the following paragraphs, intended to demonstrate the merits of thinking/re-thinking the body in global politics, I provide some initial analyses highlighting particular ways bodies are being (re)produced, (ab)used, and contested through responses to Covid-19 I am currently witnessing in the UK.

1. The Body Politics of the Body Politic and COVID-19

As a metaphor, the body politic is a rhetorical device used to make political communities knowable and intelligible as a particular kind of human being. In this way alone, the thinking and practise of global politics is already profoundly embodied, with the international system populated by bodies politic and littered with body parts. Did you know the word Parliament refers to feet? Then of course there is the head of State, the public eye, and the undeniable arm of the army. However, this is more than a word game and really matters because metaphors materialise. Defined by Butler as ‘that reiterative power of discourse to produce the phenomena that it regulates and constrains’, as discursive formations, metaphors materialise by way of their performativity. Crucially and as such, the body politic  – a collective body comprised of human parts – should be considered no less imagined or real than bodies of other kinds. Fishel (2017) has already made such connections within IR while Ahmed (2014) has emphasised the politics of particular sections of society being made into particular body parts of the body politic. In this part of my teach in, the aim is to use metaphors surrounding and producing the Covid-19 pandemic and responses to it as a means to draw and build on these ideas and to illustrate how and whom ‘metaphors can kill’.

The below illustration by Ben Jennings – a pastiche of Leviathan’s 1651 Frontispiece (illustrated with the direct input of Thomas Hobbes and also included above) – was published by The Guardian on Friday 27th March 2020 to accompany David Runciman’s response to the Prime Minister’s approach to Covid-19. Runciman’s analysis returns to Hobbes, underlining that ‘to exercise political rule is to have the power of life and death over citizens’ and in the following section I respond to and expand on this point through my discussion on the distinctly necropolitical tendencies that Covid-19 is revealing. However, prior to this, Jennings’ illustration is in itself worthy of consideration for two reasons. First, the body politic depicted by Jennings appears today much as it did on Hobbes’ cover – as an individual, sovereign, bounded, and masculinised body comprised of human body parts. And indeed, with profound consequences on the conduct and character of global politics, the bodies politic populating the contemporary international system appear as such.

Purnell Image

Hence, while not emphasising the metaphoricity of the body politic at work here, Feminist thought in IR has long argued that the state is a masculinised, patriarchal construct. For example, in 1992 Wendy Brown found the man in the state. In a different vein, and again without explicitly underlining the work of the embodiment of political units in the international system, Anthony Burke has written on how the legacy of Enlightenment era ideas about the individual, rationality, and sovereignty play out in a military setting as fiercely (border) guarded nation-states driven by a  ‘nationalist ontology of war and security’ and makes war a ‘passionate ontological commitment.’ Fishel has gone to great lengths to bring insights from contemporary immunology and metagenomics into IR as a means to explain the ways in which this persistent ‘Leviathan’ body politic and the global politics it engenders are outdated and unfit for the purpose of facilitating good, supported lives and what she describes as ‘global thriving’. With specific reference to the Covid-19 outbreak and responses to it globally, this is extremely pertinent as outdated ideas about what it means to be a  strong, weak, and/or vulnerable bodies continue to circulate and shape policy responses. As Immunologist Samantha Le Sommer attempted to clarify in the face of common explanations for why some bodies ‘catch’ the virus on 30th March:

“Immunoscense & “weak” immune systems aren’t the same thing… this idea of a “weak” immune system is a myth, its “dysfunctional” immune system.(Le Sommer 30/03/2020, emphasis added)

What Covid-19 reveals is how the persistence of outdated bodily metaphors used within the general public and policy circles to (mis)explain the threat posed to human bodies materialise as apparently strong and independent bodies politic that are actually inherently vulnerable and precarious – unable and ill equipped to cope with Covid-19 and accordingly facing economic, social, and political crises of an entirely new order.

Second, Jennings’ illustration, again like the one commissioned by Hobbes, shows how the body politic is literally made up of human bodies – the population – with different members and sections of the population comprising different body parts.  Thus, taking metaphoricity (the idea that metaphors materialise) seriously, I was seriously alarmed by Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s command, given to the British populace during a March 5th appearance on daytime television, to ‘take it [Covid-19] on the chin’.  A response to pandemic entailing self-mutilation and a body part to be willingly sacrificed and therefore raising the question who will become the chin?

With reference to the handmaiden, the footman, and the one called mouthy (the one ‘reduced to the speaking part as being reduced to the wrong part’, Ahmed (2014) has discussed the metaphorical (and materialising) reduction of some(bodies) to the status of body parts ‘cut off from bodies’ and made the body parts of other bodies. As Ahmed explains, with reference to the arm, ‘some bodies will become arms, some bodies will employ others as arms’ (ibid: 57) In more recent work on use Ahmed has elaborated further, describing how, some body parts in service of the whole body ‘come to be treated as the limbs of a social body, as being for others to use’ (2019: 11 emphasis added) and warns that some bodies may even be used up entirely towards ‘in order to allow others to achieve their ends’ (ibid, 557). Returning to the question of which bodies have become the sacrificial chin part, as the Covid-19 pandemic spreads throughout the UK, it is certainly the case that a significant amount of bodies are being required to be not only used but used up completely through their service of the whole. Indeed, it has been predicted that 35,000-70,000 excess deaths to occur in the UK this year.

Given the lack of investment in health and caring services and particularly into Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) – the very purpose of which is bodily preservation – those exposed to Covid-19 while being used as nurses and carers are already being used up through their continued service within institutions failing to prevent their expiration. However the sacrificial chin part is seemingly comprised of more than ‘just’ nurses and carers. Worthy of note here is also the toxic masculinity of Johnson’s command (to take it on the chin) as well as the gendering of this body part. A large, prominent, well defined chin is typically associated with masculinity and indeed, British men are succumbing to Covid-19 in greater numbers than women and seemingly were the ones goaded on to ignore the initially vague social distancing guidelines and ‘take’ the virus on, in, for, and on behalf of other parts of the body politic – the ‘herd’ as Johnson de-humanisingly refereed to it (before making an at least rhetorical u-turn on his Government’s preferred ‘Herd Immunity’ strategy on March 15th). Moreover, it is largely masculinised labour that can not be done from home forcing for example labourers and construction workers to continue circulating right up to and beyond the UK’s March 23rd ‘lockdown.’ In addition, the whom of this apparently disposable chin part is also classed and raced – as the case of Kayla Williams (a 36 year old black woman  from London who died after being told by the NHS she was ‘not a priority’) initially hinted and the disproportionate amount of BAME NHS workers sacrificed during late March continues to demonstrate. However, with becoming ‘chinless’ being by definition a sign of weakness, the head of state’s self mutilating command is also not only rhetorically telling but is already proving materially self-defeating and unsustainable as it entails the physical using up of most vital and valuable parts.

Following the shameful admission by UK Health Secretary Matt Hancock MP on March 15th, that the ravaged National Health Service (NHS) had been left with only 5,000 ventilators and 20,000 deaths being framed as ‘doing well’, while South Korea for example (with a similar population) has seen only 149, I draw this first reflection to a close by returning to Michel Foucault’s observation (1980: 58, emphasis added), that ‘one needs to study what kind of body the current society needs.’ Taking this up has, for Fishel (2017), meant delving into metagenomics and immunology as a means to update knowledge of human bodies circulating within IR and policy circles so that the body politic might in turn become fleshed out in a healthier way – as ‘lively vessels’ open to and able to support ‘outsiders’ including viruses for example. However, while the lag between such new knowledge of the body and the body politics materialising as a result of outdated thinking goes on, I urge you to consider the use and implications of bodily metaphors in your own research areas going forwards.

2. The (Necro) Body Politics of Body (un)counting

I am not someone interested in numbers, and yet I write about body counts. When it comes to the contested production of dead bodies, of course, I realise ‘the numbers’ matter. However it is ways of (body) counting which fascinate and sometimes horrify me. I am not alone in this morbid fascination, with Auchter (2015) agreeing that “how the dead are counted and assigned value matters just as much as which dead bodies are counted.” Indeed, more than any number, ways of counting reveal the theory driving death tolls and indeed producing dead bodies themselves. In doing so, ways of counting therefore tell us a lot about the character of those doing the counting and presenting ‘the numbers’. Throughout the Covid-19 pandemic, I have been fixated by methods of (un)counting the dead which, discussed this second part of my ‘teach-in’, reveal the increasingly necropolitical logics informing ‘official’ Covid-19 body (un)counts.

For those new to the concept, necropolitics is oriented around death. Theoretically and spatially, it is the opposite side of life-oriented and life-affirming biopolitical policies that according to Michel Foucault (1976) ‘ensure, sustain, and multiply life, to put this life in order.’ In 2003 Mbembe brought necropolitics into the lexicon due to believing that ‘the notion of biopower is insufficient to account for contemporary forms of subjugation of life to the power of death’ (2003: 39-40). Within his articulation of necropolitics, Mbebme uses the case of slavery to illustrate how biopolitical policies may go hand in hand with and indeed be fuelled by the necropolitical the exposure of some bodies to ‘the power of death.’ The line between bio political and necropolitical techniques is indeed fine. However, necropolitical practices can sometimes be distinguished from biopolitical practices because they are deliberately obscured (rather than illuminated) by those who enact them due to a desire to save face.  In particular, institutions, organisations, and states espousing Liberal, humanitarian values and aiming to project a caring and protective image into the public eye are prone to this and hence, while not using the term himself and preferring to speak of thanatopolitics, Foucault (1976) linked the ‘the famous gradual disqualification of death’ to the rise of liberal capitalism – which in the late 18th and early 19th centuries saw graveyards moving from the centre of towns and cities to their peripheries and even rituals associated with death becoming ‘a shameful thing.’ It is therefore unsurprising yet ominous that a temporary mortuary is now under construction at Birmingham Airport while Covid-19 patients are to be moved, treated, and will likely die in newly repurposed out of town convention centres renamed as NHS Nightingale Hospitals. Including London’s Excel Centre. Perched on London’s Docklands, this now vast convention centre is geographically remote from the city centre and sits on top of London’s historic pandemic dead as during the plague victims arrived by river to be dumped into ‘plague pits’ on mass in this area. However, being sent here, without and out of the sight of even their families, there is a risk that – in line with the typical necropolitical (in)visibilities briefly described – those stricken with Covid-19 will slip out of the public eye and disappear completely.

The text of the UK’s Coronavirus Bill now passed into law, further demonstrates the UK Government operating in line with the necropolitical imperative. The bill’s instructions for ‘Managing the deceased with respect and dignity’ include limiting the possibility for a coroner to investigate a death, removes the need for a jury in the case of suspected Covid-19 coroner inquests, and removes the need for a second confirmatory medical certificate in order for a cremation to take place. Such measures pave the way for the further brushing under and away of Covid-19 deaths, to outside of the public eye’s sight. They also work to limit the scrutiny of fatalities produced by bodies’ necropolitical exposure to the power of death and therefore to safeguard necropolitics itself.

I am not the first to write on the topic of the specifically necropolitical aspects of Covid-19 and I surely will not be the last.  Indeed, they are many and becoming increasingly prevalent and being duly noted. In what follows I make a small contribution to this effort by expanding on necropolitical theory with reference to specific techniques of dead body production, management, and administration coming to light ‘thanks’ to the Covid-19 pandemic.

They are not even counting the nurses

If a body is not counted, it does not count. It may still have value, be useful, and even be used up, but that is a different matter. In this section I discuss the implications of the revelation  -made in the face of UK Health Secretary Matt Hancock MP by Donna Kinnairthey, General Secretary of the Royal College of Nurses (RCN) during a 2nd April BBC Question Time discussion on Covid-19 – that ‘they [the UK Department for Heath] are not even counting the nurses.’ I do this as a means to further reveal the necropolitical logics being fleshed out as dead bodies during this pandemic.

Towards understanding and revealing contemporary formations of necropolitics, I  have previously studied the treatment of US soldiers finding them to be valued extremely highly – as a “precious resource” no less to fuel the GWoT – yet going unseen and uncounted in death. For example, made during GWoT, I found “updates to Army body-disposal policies and repatriation practices working to cleanse [soldiers’] deaths and dying from the American vocabulary and vision” (Purnell, 2018: 157) as the body parts of American soldiers were incinerated in bulk and dumped as landfill by military subcontractors while the Dover Ban blacked out repatriations. In the case of Covid-19 those similarly valued highly – due to their function within the NHS and wider society – yet being uncounted are not soldiers but ‘key workers’ including nurses. Nurses are valued highly – clapped by the Prime Minister and Cabinet members who encourage the wider British public to join in in what has become a weekly national gesture performed to give thanks for their service on the ‘front line’. Yet nurses – including second year nursing students – problematically (See Enloe 2020) ‘called up’ to the ‘front’ are simultaneously discounted through their as low pay and have their lives cheapened due to not being afforded PPE while the dead bodies of those killed by Covid-19 are not counted at all within the Department of Health’s internal systems (as Kinnairthey revealed on Question Time).

In an effort to explain this apparent disjuncture, I return briefly to the case of American soldiers KIA. Here, to explain a similar slippage between the high value and un-counting and un-commemoration of dead American soldiers, I drew on Nicolas Rose’s (2007, 39) argument that, within ‘advanced’ neoliberal capitalist political economies, bodily matter is increasingly commodified as it is “extracted like a mineral, harvested like a crop, or mined like a resource.” In the case of the KIA, the counting, accounting, and holding to account along with visible, public commemoration and movement of the body politic towards closure that would be engendered could simply not be permitted within a ‘forever’ war. Similarly, in the case of Covid-19 – and while it would be premature to draw any conclusions – it seems institutions including the UK’s NHS in its current state can likewise not afford the expense entailed were nurses to be counted and accounted for – in terms of their bodily health. Such counting and accounting – for adequate PPE  for example, was simply not done in advance of the pandemic reaching the UK and if it were to be now would come at a cost to bodies accustomed to using others as a means to their ends. What remains to be seen is the extent to which those being used up can and will make themselves visible and known and in doing so become ‘wilful’ parts disruptive to the flow of the bodies within which their use is so vital.

2 thoughts on “The Body Politics of Covid-19

  1. Pingback: Are We at War? The Rhetoric of War in the Coronavirus Pandemic | The Disorder Of Things

  2. Pingback: Are We at War? The Rhetoric of War in the Coronavirus Pandemic (The Disorder of Things) | Uma (in)certa antropologia

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