H-Alter
zaraza.jpgUnless you had watched ‘Contagion’ or listened intently to public health specialists, COVID-19 arrived unexpectedly to shake up everyday life and social, political and economic structures around the world. The nature of pandemic-induced changes has, of course, been different for different people in different moments and in different places. Here, I want to discuss only one of many elements of this change, namely the concept and practice of ‘value’.

How has value been revalued and what are the implications of this for a more emancipatory future? It is definitely the case that the pandemic has solidified a heterogeneous category of "essential workers", including rubbish collectors, cleaners, delivery drivers, healthcare workers, and others, operating according to radically different spatio-temporal frames from those staying home. Such workers often face extended working hours and/or periods of time distancing from other family members and friends. As messages of "stay home" shifted to a vaguer register – ostanite odgovorni (stay responsible) in Croatia - the question of time-work-discipline is posed in new ways by oscillating exhortations to "work from home" and "come to work", both "if at all possible".

Designation of essential workers included more than the health and social care workers usually discussed, and regularly and ritualistically applauded, and extended to farmers, supermarket staff, workers in utilities, transport workers, and others forming distinctive "value chains". There is A shift from hierarchies of (monetary) value and over-consumption, at least in the overdeveloped world, requires public provisioning, decommodification, and investment in local communitiesa close correspondence between these jobs and the fulfilment of basic human needs, including: food and water; housing; healthcare; hygiene; shelter; energy; and various kinds of security. Crucially, many of these jobs are poorly paid, precarious, some are included within the "platform economy", and, in parts of Europe, many disproportionately involve racialized minorities and migrant workers, and are precisely those most intensively subjected to time-work discipline. In the health and social care sector, the least valued jobs, such as cleaners, tend to be undertaken by women. Succinctly put, "the workers who are most important in the sense of what they actually do are so often valued so little under capitalism".  

Nancy Fraser has argued that the COVID-19 crisis has rendered the work of caring, above and beyond "care work", more visible, eroding for many both the physical and discursive boundary between production and reproduction. At the same time, care is much more than a familial task carried out in the "domestic" or household arena and, again, the pandemic draws attention to this as "lockdown" and travel bans limited the capacities to care for family members of those in the diaspora, or even those living away from those they care, as well as limiting access to "homecare" services, literally meaning those in need of support were forced to depend on those at hand such as neighbours, or on remote and haphazard  volunteer and charitable efforts. The pandemic concentrates minds on the question "what, exactly, is the purpose of "unessential" jobs?", to quote Fraser again. Gough has even suggested that some of this labour is actively "destructive".  

The other crucial aspect of "value" during the COVID-19 crisis has been the ways in which the biological nature of COVID-19 has merged with institutional factors and social and political judgements regarding whose lives are worth saving and whose are not, who is to be "protected" or "shielded" in the term adopted by the UK Government, and who should be "stigmatized", "excluded" and rendered "undeserving". The pandemic has revived a never quite dormant assemblage of "eugenicist" thought and practice that, in broad brush stroke terms, involves the identification of "undesirable" traits "and subsequently discouraging the survival and reproduction of individuals who have them in order to improve society". Just as it is argued that only a fit body can fight off the virus, it is a small step to the assertion that only a fit body politic can successfully "wage war" The impact of the wearing of face masks on the deaf community, particularly those who lipread, was ignoredagainst the pandemic. In situations where demand for healthcare resources outstrips supply, it is a very thin line between "letting die" and "making die" as the conventional practice of "triage", prioritizing those most likely to be saved in situations of scarce medical resources melds with a notion of "those worth saving", bundled together into a "scorecard" to make a rapid assessment of which patients should receive critical care. In the UK, it was recently revealed that several categories of residents in care homes were given a status of "do not resuscitate" by doctors without their consent.

Age-specific discourses on COVID-19 abound, whether treating high mortality rates of older people as "inevitable" and "normal" or treating the behavior of young people whose chance of dying from the virus seem to be statistically low as "selfish and reckless". Many countries introduced a form of, intended or unintended, curfew on older people, with Serbia, for example, allowing those over 65 to go out of the home only in the early mornings when no-one else was allowed to venture out.Recreating a value-based division between ‘active’ and therefore ‘deserving’, and ‘passive’ or ‘frail’ older people did not threaten the core of these discourses, amplified, of course, in the shameful practice in the UK and elsewhere of moving older people out of hospitals into care homes without a COVID-19 test, resulting in mass deaths.  In Croatia, the long-term care system was effectively frozen, allowing no new entrants or visitors, such that these homes became ‘total institutions’ in Goffman’s sense.

In a revived eugenicist assemblage, people with disabilities or chronic illness face extreme vulnerability during the pandemic, akin to a kind of In a revived eugenicist assemblage, people with disabilities or chronic illness face extreme vulnerability during the pandemic, akin to a kind of "dispensability", amplified by the multiple ways in which their needs and demands are rendered invisible and irrelevant"dispensability", amplified by the multiple ways in which their needs and demands are rendered invisible and irrelevant. Public health plans and, indeed, messaging is effectively targeted only to "non-disabled persons" as those with "special needs" are seen as of lesser value when resources needed routinely, such as oxygen tanks, ventilators and protective equipment are suddenly in short supply. As only one example, until very recently, the impact of the wearing of face masks on the deaf community, particularly those who lipread, was ignored; indeed, the very rationale for universal mask wearing, that it may limit transmission with minimal negative impacts, is implicitly ableist in its normalizing assumptions. Croatia lists "people with particular forms of disability" including mental health conditions (termed "damage" or "handicap"), disabilities on the autism spectrum, and people with intellectual disabilities, as well as people with hearing challenges, as exempt from wearing masks, but without suggesting any alternatives.

What should be clear is that the dynamics of the pandemic are complex and contradictory, both reproducing and intensifying dominant systems of value whilst simultaneously disrupting them. Of course, reconfiguring the "public" and "private" spheres, valuing unpaid work and household/domestic labour and, indeed, redefining the relationship between productive and reproductive labour, redefining what is "essential", what is desirable and what is "wasteful" or "destructive", are all clearly central here. Both explicit and implicit eugenicist assumptions and practices need to be exposed and opposed. A shift from hierarchies of (monetary) value and over-consumption, at least in the overdeveloped world, requires public provisioning, decommodification, and investment in local communities. A "care commons" based on ideas of mutual solidarity, interdependence, and reciprocity, as well as the celebration, not demonization, of "frailty", must substitute for current hierarchies of value.


 

Acknowledgements
This is a revised version of part of a chapter submitted to a Leksikon političke teorije pandemije to be published by Centar za društveno-humanistička istraživanja. Thanks to Bojan Bilić, Leyla Safta-Zecharia and, above all, John Clarke for comments and suggestions on earlier drafts. I dedicate this text to the memory of David Graeber whose work on value remains inspirational for so many of us.  
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