In 2020, in order to adjust our lenses to COVID-19 world conditions, we suspended our regular monthly announcements and started a series of special editions aimed at situating sexual politics in the pandemic scenario. In this new editorial format, selected materials were organized in relation to the economic dimensions of COVID-19 and the political responses of States in the face of the crisis. We have also identified and republished relevant analyses of the pandemic as a biopolitical crisis and, most principally, mapped its effects on sexual politics.
In March-April 2021, when the first year of the outbreak of the pandemic in Brazil was being completed, we thought it could be productive to take stock of this year, which, in fact, has not yet ended. We have, therefore, selected and combined content from previous editions to offer an overview of this first cycle of the COVID-19 crisis in relation to the various angles or dimensions above mentioned.
Invited authors – In the three 2020 Special Issues, we had the contribution of invited authors who prepared special articles for SPW analyzing varied contexts and emblematic episodes of the pandemic, as well as hot topics of sexual politics.
In the first edition, Amaral Arévalo and Humberto Meza wrote about how States were responding to the pandemic in El Salvador and Nicaragua, in the first case through repression and arbitrariness and, in the second, Ortega has taken the same negationist route of Trump and Bolsonaro.
In the second edition, Debjyoti Gosh drew parallels between alcohol prohibition policies implemented during the pandemic in South Africa and India. Lorena Moraes wrote about the problems reported in official COVID-19 testing research in Brazil, including harassment and violence against field staff. Jacob Breslow analyzed potential restrictions of trans rights implied in new policies designed by the Ministry of Women and Equality in the UK in the early stages of the pandemic. Bárbara Sepúlveda and Lieta Vivaldi Macho reported on the feminist mobilization in Chile against dictator Pinochet’s great-niece appointment as Minister of Women Affairs. And, we have also re-published an article by David Paternotte on the limits of the “backlash” conceptual framework to analyze anti-gender politics.
In the third edition, Massimo Prearo critically examined the warm welcome registered in relation to the statement made by Pope Francis in a documentary in favor of same-sex civil unions. Lastly, in an interim mini announcement published in September, we have translated an article by Andrea Dominguez about the new wave of moral panic that broke out in Latin America in the months of June and July.
The lethal routes of the pandemic
The first wave of COVID-19 began in China and spread through the so-called central economies, before spreading to other regions. Its effects have become especially harmful in countries of the global South, especially in Latin America, which is today the epicenter of the pandemic. As it is well known, Brazil is now the most drastic example of the impacts resulting from the poor conduction of state responses. But, when this edition was being finalized, a New York Times article pointed to the possibility of India following a similar route.
Between June and July 2020, as isolation measures eased, a second wave hit Europe. In December 2020, one year after the SARS-CoV-2 pandemic was officially recognized in China, the world registered more than 74 million cases and 1.6 million deaths. Africa was the only continent where the impacts of COVID-19 remained at low levels (except in South Africa), a pattern that captured the attention of scientists (see here). In March 2021, the world reached the mark of more than 125 million cases and 2.7 million deaths, and we have started talking about a third wave or even the possibility of COVID-19 becoming seasonal like other flu epidemics.
Throughout the year, a persistent theme was the differential vulnerability of people and groups in terms of COVID-19 exposure and lethality, evidenced by the greater number of infections both among black people and black Latinos in the Americas and in slum areas in other regions. The differential pattern of the epidemic also drastically affects indigenous populations, for example, in the Brazilian Amazon region, but also in communities of native people in North America, as it happened in the Navajo reservation. These tragic events have inevitably revived the painful memory of continuous exposure of Amerindian peoples to lethal diseases throughout colonial and post-colonial history. To learn more about the current state of the pandemic, check here.
COVID-19 and the economy
The scale, speed, and impacts of the COVID-19 crisis are directly linked to the conditions of capitalism in the 21st century, that is, the effects of neoliberal policies over the past four decades, which have eroded labor rights and other social protection networks, deliberately promoted precarious forms of work and de-funded or privatized health systems. Notwithstanding, David Harvey noted that the least neoliberal countries have responded better to the crisis.
In mid-2020, an OECD forecast predicted that in the forty-seven largest world economies, GDP decrease would surpass eight percent in the year. Other analyses registered a marked increase in inequalities and of reduction in the quality of life in vulnerable regions, in the poorest countries and among social groups living in a state of high precariousness. The situation of migrants (especially those without paper) has become particularly dire in terms of economic survival, exposure to the virus, but also of lack of access to health services.
And, while entire sectors of the economy were destroyed by lockdowns and quarantines, call center companies, digital sales and trade corporations, and delivery service platforms operations continued at full throttle or even expanded during the crisis. In these sectors, jobs were not lost, but workers did not have adequate protection, began working excessive hours and risked overexposure to the virus. In the online journal BotPopuli, Argentine feminist researcher Flora Partenio examined the Latin American scenario and reported how digital platform workers were politically mobilizing despite these enormous constraints.
In addition, in various contexts, the new coronavirus crisis served as a smokescreen to hide classic patterns of labor exploitation and environmental destruction. In Ecuador, for example, a major oil spill — which coincided with the exponential increase in the death toll from the pandemic in Guayaquil – – did not have the proper media attention it would have got at another moment.
In this catastrophic scenario, in a very high number of countries, women constitute the majority of the labor force subject to precarious work regimes and were, therefore, the most drastically affected by COVID-19. In Brazil, for example, women make up 82 percent of the informal labor market, being concentrated in domestic work, the so-called care economy. Quite correctly, the economic crisis caused by the pandemic has also been named “shecession” because, by 2030, it can throw 453 million people back into poverty, of which 279 million would be women (see a compilation).
On the other hand, this drastic gender differential impact has given greater visibility and recognition to the centrality and meaning of the care economy. This dimension gained much visibility since the beginning of the epidemic and has been the subject of numerous articles and debates. In one of these articles, Helen Lewis stressed that COVID-19 has widely highlighted both the persistent sexual division of labor and the centrality of care. Not only are women at the forefront of the health response, but they are largely responsible for sustaining life and quarantined people. Due to this exceptional scenario, the feminist perspective of the care economy has entered the mainstream debates on economics and, in some countries, such as Argentine, this dimension is now a component of the national economic policy (see a compilation).
In doing an assessment of COVID-19 and sexual politics, another not minor aspect to consider is that, due to the non-recognition and criminalization of the provision of sexual services, the effects of the pandemic were dramatic for sex workers around the world. This is illustrated in a series of articles and analyses on Brazil, Colombia, Argentina, Bolivia, Mexico, Thailand, Bangladesh, USA, France, and Spain (see compilation). In confronting this crisis, the Global Network of Sex Workers Project (NSWP) and UNAIDS issued a joint call for governments requesting sex workers not to be excluded from emergency worker protection packages, especially in those countries where sex work is criminalized.
But, several reports have also shown that moral stigma and unjustifiable bureaucratic requirements have prevented sex workers from accessing emergency aid against COVID-19 in Canada, France, Thailand, and Japan. In contrast, in New Zealand, one of the few countries that defeated COVID-19 — and where sex work is fully decriminalized — prostitutes were able to easily access emergency social protection measures. In March 2021, in Brazil, which is the current epicenter of the crisis, sex workers from Belo Horizonte took to the streets, protesting that they were not included in the list of vaccination priorities defined by occupational categories. Lastly, it is interesting to note that, as an apparent effect of the pandemic crisis, the global media has predominantly approached prostitution as work, abandoning the moral treatment that usually dominates press articles on this topic.
The political economy of vaccines
An unavoidable chapter of the pandemic economy concerns the complex geopolitical and geo-economic dynamics related to vaccines. In SPW’s first edition in April 2020, we talked about the frantic competition between pharmaceutical companies in their rush to create the first vaccine, which, in some cases, involved falsifying data. At the end of the year, we called attention to the creation of the COVAX platform, established by WHO to facilitate the access of poorer countries to immunization, underlining the enormous challenges for the production, transport, and logistics of vaccines. By March 2021, the COVAX effort was unfolding into a much more robust proposal of an international treaty aimed at ensuring rapid health responses in global pandemic situations.
On the other hand, since 2020, many other obstacles to universal access to vaccines have become evident, in particular, “vaccine nationalisms” and, above all, the primacy of profit and accumulation that continues to prevail in pharmaceutical production. This last barrier is manifested in the dire resistance of rich countries to bend intellectual property laws attached to vaccines and other products necessary to ensure a proper universal COVID-19 response, which was proposed by India and South Africa at the WTO.
Then, as we were finalizing this annual round-up, another deleterious trend emerged in relation to vaccine distribution. In Brazil, access to vaccines started to be privatized as big companies began lobbying for new laws that will allow the private sector to buy vaccines for their employees without any counterpart to the public sector (and even with a reduction in their income tax). As Isabela Kalil analyzes, if approved, these laws will result in a shameful “sanitary apartheid” in a country that is now the epicenter of the global pandemic and where its containment is entirely out of control (read in Portuguese).
Politics during COVID-19
De-democratization, negationism, resistance
Since the beginning of the pandemic, a semantic of war has been spread worldwide that potentially justified states to adopt old and new forms of surveillance and violence to respond to the crisis. The pandemic has aggravated the trend towards democratic erosion that has been underway in many contexts in the course of the last decade or so. Throughout 2020, coercive state interventions and restrictions of the press as well as of freedom of expression and association, have multiplied across the world. In 80 countries, where 51 percent of the world population lives, the lowest rate of freedom of expression was recorded in 20 years. Russia, India, and the Middle East stand out in this group. But, as Masha Gessen noted, the U.S. is also to be included in this list because the Trump administration’s management of information on COVID-19 was very similar to disinformation methods used by the Soviet government during the Chernobyl disaster. In addition, in June 2020, when containing the protests mobilized by the Black Lives Matter in Portland, the Department of Homeland Security has behaved like political police (see here and here).
According to Chinese feminist researchers Cai Yiping and Ai Yu, in China, the original epicenter of the pandemic, COVID-19 contributed to the use of new and sophisticated forms of state digital surveillance, leading to even higher standards of coercion, repression, and censorship. Also, articles published by ProPublica and NYT show that internet control systems established in 2014 have been used since the first moments of the pandemic to censor all information that addressed the severity of the disease. Thus, it is not surprising that, in the second half of 2020, political pressures on Hong Kong were taken to the extreme, culminating with the suspension of the mandate of four pro-democracy parliamentarians in November, which led the other members of the bloc to resign. This fact was interpreted by some observers as the end of political autonomy guaranteed to the territory in 1999.
In India, the pandemic has also meant the reduction of democratic spaces, which had already been shrinking, as was made evident in the late 2019 Modi administration’s brutal reactions to rallies against the Citizenship Amendment Act. The pandemic has also sparked stigmatization and persecution of Muslims and aggravated arbitrary measures against voices from Indian civil society, but also from international organizations. In September, Amnesty International suspended its activities in the country after having its bank account frozen. The controls established in response to COVID-19 have also worsened political conditions in Kashmir and Assam, areas that have long been subject to a “state of exception”.
Authoritarian acts justified by the pandemic have also been recorded in other Asian countries, such as the Philippines, where President Duterte authorized security forces to shoot people who disobeyed lockdown rules. In Sri Lanka, there has been a frank hardening of the political regime since mid-2020. The same happened in Myanmar, where in March 2021 a new and bloody military coup has taken place. In Vietnam, state censorship has grossly compromised the positive public health impacts of policies to combat the pandemic in the country.
As COVID-19 spread, even when its impacts were not as extensive and dramatic as in other regions, patterns of coercion and arbitrariness were also recorded in Burundi, Kenya, Uganda (especially against LGBTTI people), and Zimbabwe (see compilation). In South Africa — the country hit the hardest region by COVID-19 — while democratic conditions were preserved and non-coercive public health policies have been adopted, episodes of eviction and extreme police violence against workers and immigrants have multiplied.
In North Africa and the Middle East, the intensification of the state of political coercion and control was also striking. In Algeria, for example, state control of COVID-19 has paralyzed the ongoing insurgency since the beginning of 2019. In Egypt, for the first time since General Sisi came to power in 2013, there were widespread protests around the country, which have been violently repressed.
Although with less intensity than in other regions, authoritarian and arbitrary measures have also been registered in Latin America. The most striking example was that of El Salvador, analyzed by Amaral Arévalo, but also in other Central American countries (with the exception of Costa Rica), such as Honduras and Guatemala, but also Bolivia, Ecuador, Peru, Venezuela, and Panama, where general population or specific groups were subjected to state violence justified as a fight against the pandemic.
Europe and Turkey
The intensification of arbitrariness, coercion, and censorship has also occurred in Eastern Europe, particularly in Hungary, Poland, Russia but also in Turkey, countries whose regimes are known for their authoritarian traits. A thought-provoking comment on how Bosnia’s leaders reacted to COVID-19 suggests that, in various contexts, states responded to the pandemic using police and authoritarian methods simply to show that they were “doing something” but also because they do not have the “effective capacity to take care of their citizens”.
Against this gloomy backdrop, it is essential to mention that a few countries escape this description. These are contexts in which successful responses to the epidemic did not imply de-democratizing effects. The most cited example since last year was New Zealand, but Germany, Argentina, Barbados, South Korea, Denmark, Iceland, Norway, Portugal and Taiwan should also be mentioned.
Negationism: the other side of the response to COVID-19
Between March and July 2020, intellectual debates about the pandemic, especially in the European context, but not exclusively, have strongly focused on states of exception, arbitrariness, and securitization as the main traces of state responses to the crisis (see the subsequent section COVID-19: biopolitical implications). However, it should be said that, even when the pandemic has, indeed, propelled authoritarianism and arbitrariness in many contexts, this trend coexisted with another strand of state responses guided by the minimization of the scale of the pandemic, the systematic boycott to measures of prevention (such as lockdowns, social isolation, and mask use) and even discredit of vaccines. As it is well-known, in facing the pandemic, a number of leaders made the deliberate option of not controlling the disease as a way to rapidly achieve “herd immunity” and preserve the economy (and “individual freedom” in their own versions). This negationist position was also used by a few of these leaders as a strategy to please their political base and preserve power at any cost.
This type of response, quite significantly, was adopted by ideologically disparate regimes. To the right of the political spectrum, the list includes Trump in the US, Boris Johnson in the UK, Bolsonaro in Brazil, Lukashenko in Belarus, and the Turkmenistan dictatorship (see a compilation). On the left side, so to speak, it also includes López Obrador’s left-populist government in Mexico, Ortega‘s authoritarian regime in Nicaragua, and the laissez-faire guidelines initially adopted by the Swedish Social Democratic government, which, in the early days of the pandemic, would be cited by members of the Bolsonaro’s administration as a model to be followed. It should also be noted that both Bolsonaro and López Obrador (AMLO) have claimed that “their people” would biologically resist the virus as a way to downplay the dangers of COVID-19. According to Bolsonaro, “Brazilian people are very resistant because they swim in sewers and do not get sick” and, in AMLO’s view, the ancestors of Mexican people today have survived many other epidemics in the past.
In April, Boris Jonhson developed a serious condition of the SARS-CoV-2 infection, and after this personal experience, the country’s policy guidelines have been changed and sharp restrictions and preventive measures were adopted. These rules were eased between July and December but became very rigid again after the surge of the English variant of the virus in the second half of the year. Due to the high lethality of COVID-19 in the country, Sweden would also change its response guidelines. In Mexico, the installed technical capacity of the public health bureaucracy appears to have, somehow, contained the impacts of the president’s negationist position.
But, in other countries, negationism continued its course with rather disastrous effects. In the U.S., this route would be interrupted by Trump’s electoral defeat. But, in Brazil — where four Ministers of Health have occupied the post since April 2020 — denial is fully alive in presidential speech acts. And, as shown by the 10th edition of the Rights in the Pandemic Bulletin, prepared by Conectas Human Rights and the Center for Studies and Research on Health Law (CEPEDISA), it can also be tracked in a series of measures taken by the federal government, since 2020. The result has been catastrophic: 350 thousand deaths, the collapsing of the in various states, the emergence of new, more infectious, and perhaps more lethal COVID-19 variants, and the risk of a funerary collapse, which could have serious implications for soil and water contamination by other pathogens. Brazil has, indeed, become the direst pandemic hot spot of the entire planet (see a compilation).
On the surface, these negationist stances seem to be in opposition to the surveillance and control models, which potentially derive into pandemic-related states of exception. But, as Sonia Corrêa noted in an essay, both frames imply the state management of humans, or human populations, as biological beings. Both are, therefore, fundamentally biopolitical. In the case of the negationist position, the figure of “herd immunity”, which lies at its cores, implies the supposition that the pandemic can follow its natural course: even if many people die, the strongest will survive, but the economy would be saved. In an interview with The Nation, Judith Butler critically described this supposition as a strategy of deliberate neglect of a neo-Darwinian approach anchored in the nineteenth-century ideology of the “survival of the fittest”. Taking this same argument further, in his sharp criticism of Bolsonaro’s conduct, the Brazilian medical doctor Arnaldo Lichenstein has correctly added that, under pandemic conditions, neo-Darwinism bluntly means eugenics.
Throughout 2020, while increased arbitrariness and authoritarianism were underway, paradoxical protests have also sprouted. In the global South, popular mobilizations involved mainly workers, migrants, and poor people protesting against the economic and spatial effects imposed by lockdowns and, in some cases, against severe forms of state coercion and violence. In China, researchers and health professionals contested state censorship of COVID-19 data and demanded protective equipment and better working conditions. A strike by women health care workers has also broken out in India. In the United States, after the assassination of George Floyd on May 25, the massive demonstrations of the Black Lives Matter emerged, which, although not directly associated with COVID-19, would become one of the most important political facts on the American and global scene in 2020 (read more).
However, a little later, in the Americas and in Europe, a different string of protests began that contested quarantines, lockdowns, social distance, and mask use. While in the United States and in Brazil, these streets were taken by supporters of Trump and Bolsonaro, similar demonstrations used the same repertoire, although with less impact, in Canada, Mexico, Chile, and Argentina (see compilation).
In the U.S., as of July 2020, these demonstrations would unfold into protests sparked by QAnon. This overlapped with the electoral dynamics, gaining quite intense contours before culminating in the Capitol riot of January 6, 2021 (see a compilation).
In Brazil, the scenario was also grotesque and politically dangerous. Between May and June 2020, these protests enmeshed with a climate of coup d’état as Bolsonaro encouraged and participated in demonstrations calling for military intervention. Since then, despite ups and downs, these anti-lockdown protests have not waned. Even under the catastrophic conditions of early 2021, Bolsonaro’s voter base continues to be negationist and opposing preventive measures, advocating for the so-called “early treatment” with chloroquine and ivermectin — whose ineffectiveness and risks have been repeatedly proven — and promoting anti-vaccine conspiracy theories.
Similar protests erupted in Europe gathering political actors located at opposite sides of the political spectrum. They began in the summer and continued to proliferate as the second pandemic wave prompted several states to adopt new restrictive measures.
In almost all of these protests, anti-abortion and anti-gender forces were present and, in some of them, they were their main leaders. As was the case with anti-gender campaigns of the last decade, the repertoire used in these demonstrations replicates and inverts the language and images used in feminist, LGBT+, and left protests. This is strikingly illustrated by the use of the slogan “my body, my choice” by women protesting against the use of masks in the U.S.. Alrik Schubotz, one of SPW’s contributors, in analyzing the cacophony at play in Berlin protests, observed that these contradictory patterns challenge both liberals and the left to clarify with greater courage and precision their ethical and epistemological parameters in relation to the meaning and effects of COVID-19.
COVID-19: Biopolitical implications
From the start, the pandemic was inevitably addressed as a biopolitical crisis. The three 2020 Special Issues have dedicated a specific section to this mode of interpreting COVID-19 as well as states and societal responses. In the last issue, published in December, we noted that the pandemic implied an interesting shift in what concerns who was reading the crisis as biopolitics. To a large extent, until 2020, biopolitics was a frame mainly used in certain areas of academic knowledge production which have thrived while discussing the pandemic throughout the year. But the pandemic seems to have transported these lenses to mainstream vehicles and other spheres of the public debate. A striking illustration is, for example, Christopher Caldwell’s article “Meet the philosopher who is trying to explain the pandemic“, published by the New York Times in August 2020, which is devoted to translating Giorgio Agamben’s controversial positions on the Italian state’s responses to COVID-19 to the American audience. Even more significant was the commentary “Offline: COVID-19 – A crisis of power“, signed by Richard Horton, editor of The Lancet, in the journal’s October issue, which includes the following elaboration:
We continue to live in this era of governamentality, where individual actions are shaped by power that claims its legitimacy in scientific truth. Public health developed amid these social and political currents. Governments saw the health of populations as the foundation for protecting and augmenting the productive economic forces of the state.
Such recognition is not exactly trivial in a journal that constitutes the main reference of mainstream biomedical and public health thinking. And, the transportation of the biopolitical reading lenses to these other spheres of writing and parlance is, indeed, welcome because COVID-19 has updated and, in certain cases, radicalized governmental, technological, and scientific devices for the large-scale management of the social body (le corps social). As it will be seen in the next sub-section, it has also reactivated the well-known pattern of converting people and social groups, especially the most vulnerable, into “harmful vectors” of infection that are to controlled or even eliminated.
At the beginning of the pandemic, Richard Parker commenting on the lack of testing for COVID-19 in Brazil noted that, as it happened during the HIV/AIDS epidemic, the response to COVID-19 could easily boost discourses and practices destined to blame, stigmatize and produce violence against “others”. And, in fact, this was already happening worldwide.
In India, health professionals and vulnerable groups such as Dalits, people with disabilities, women, and, above all, the Muslim population very quickly became the targets of various attacks. In China, female front-line health workers had their heads compulsorily shaved. In countless countries, people who failed to comply with quarantine rules have been subjected to state coercion and violence, including lethal violence, as was the case in the Philippines.
Another markedly biopolitical feature of the pandemic is differential vulnerability. As underlined by Judith Butler, on the one hand, the virus exposed our shared precariousness, on the other, however, its risks and effects – be they pathological, social, or political – have been radically differential when age, health condition, race, gender, sexual orientation, gender identity, ethnicity, caste, class, and place of residence are to be considered. This differential vulnerability is tragically illustrated by the fact that the very first woman to die of COVID-19 in the state of Rio de Janeiro was a 63-year-old domestic worker, therefore at risk, exposed to the virus by her employer who she cared for and who had been infected on a trip to Italy.
No less importantly, COVID-19 implied the adoption of old and new modalities of spatialization or spatial segregation. The first modality to be addressed is compulsory domestic confinement or quarantines that resulted in a marked increase of gender-based violence, including sexual violence — especially against children and teenagers — and even murders (see compilation). By July 2020, the mainstream press was already naming this phenomenon as the “invisible epidemic” of gender-based violence. However, other situations are to be considered when analyzing the effects of confinement, such as the malaise and violence experienced by LGBT+ people, who were forced by the pandemic to return to their families’ households where they are not well treated. And, may we not forget that the effects of the pandemic are even more drastic in the case of persons who are incarcerated.
Lastly, in some Latin American countries — Panama, Peru, and the city of Bogotá — governments adopted sex/gender criteria to determine who could leave the house each day of the week to avoid agglomerations. In the article she wrote about this novel troubling trend, Sonia Corrêa noted that segregation rules based on sex/gender reify the biological determinism of sexual dimorphism, immediately placing non-binary people at greater risk and vulnerability in the face of state coercion. It also contributes to crystallizing the so-called “natural order” of sex/gender, reactivating the deep cultural layers upon which sexual division of labor and male-female inequalities are grounded.
Right from the start, the biopolitical features of the pandemic were subject to an intense intellectual debate, which was largely prompted by the aforementioned critiques of Giorgio Agamben in relation to what he viewed as a harshly arbitrary response of the Italian state to COVID 19. In a brief article, published in March 2020, the philosopher interpreted the pandemic as an “invention” intended merely to justify the “exceptionality of state measures”, which sparked a series of reactions and criticisms.
Amongst these various thought-provoking reflections, we would like to highlight the exercise developed by Philipp Sarasin. In his article, Sarasin goes back to Foucault to identify and differentiate the two modalities of state regulation of bodies aimed at containing diseases, or to, using Foucault’s terms, to “make live and let die”. In our view, Sarasin’s perspective is analytically productive because it outlines more nuanced cartographies of how the COVID-19 pandemic is manifested as biopolitics. In his mapping, the pandemic has, in fact, led to vertical measures of containment and strict surveillance, which can potentially translate into exceptional powers and, eventually, into state violence. However, as he argues, in other contexts responses were mostly guided by the Foucauldian “smallpox response model” based on methods of aggregate epidemiological measurement, modulation, confinement, and “consensual” social isolation. In Sarasin’s view, while this modality also unfolds in “emergency health states”, this does not imply that they are automatically converted into “states of exception”.
Then, when this annual round-up was being finalized, we had access to the article “The COVID pandemic and social theory: Social democracy and public health in the crisis”, authored by British feminist Sylvia Walby, which adds additional nuances to this cartography. Walby critically revisits the ongoing debates on COVID-19 and biopolitics. But, in examining the place and meaning of science in contemporary political conditions, she interrogates some of the connections established by Foucault between scientific knowledge and power, offering new angles for the interpretation of COVID-19 as a “crisis”. Above all, as the title indicates, Walby introduces to the debate the paradigm of “social democracy” as a counterpoint to authoritarian patterns of pandemic management, which, according to her, should be always thought of as a ramification of neoliberalism.
Sexual politics in the COVID-19 landscape
Since the beginning of the pandemic, attacks by anti-gender and anti-abortion forces, as well as the political regimes to which they are associated, have not cooled down. In the period between March and April of 2020, conservative religious voices (usually engaged in anti-gender and anti-abortion campaigns) were already contesting analyses and scientific data concerning COVID-19 and propagating interpretations of the pandemic as a conspiracy or divine punishment. In the U.S. and Brazil, almost immediately, political and legal disputes flared up regarding the closure of churches which, in both countries, continues to be the subject of an intense debate (here and here).
These forces have also used the pandemic as an opportunity to attack gender legislation and to create additional barriers to abortion rights and services, especially in Latin America. Catholic leaders in Argentina interpreted COVID-19 as a punishment for efforts to legalize abortion and, in Mexico, for feminist radicalism and sexual diversity rights approved. Evangelical churches also circulated pamphlets that taught women to behave like good wives during quarantine.
In Israel, Rabbi Meir Mazzur declared that the epidemic was a punishment for Pride Parades and, in Europe, conservative Catholicism linked the spread of the virus to the so-called “demographic winter” in reference to the falling fertility. In Poland, where there are now cities that prohibit the presence of LGBT+ people, the ruling Justice Party has also used the pandemic to quickly approve a total ban on abortion. In the U.S. and Brazil, anti-gender forces manifested their blunt anti-intellectual ideology by supporting presidential speech acts that disqualify the seriousness of the pandemic and antagonize scientists.
In the realm of anti-gender crusades, however, one novelty of 2020 is that feminist voices that staunchly oppose gender, the queer perspective, and trans rights have gained substantial space and greater political visibility. As analyzed by Jacob Breslow, these feminist views are jeopardizing UK’s gender identity policy guidelines. Even more fierce clashes are underway in Spain, where a new gender identity law proposed by Unidas Podemos failed to reach consensus within PSOE (which leads the governing coalition) and it is now the subject of an intense and rather ugly debate (see a compilation).
In June 2020, feminist attacks on trans people gained a new scale when J.K. Rowling, author of the Harry Potter book series, made open statements against the use of female toilettes by trans women. Without intending to exhaust the origins, motivations, and implications of these harsh controversies underway, we recommend the essay by Laurie Penny, the interview by Judith Butler for New Statesman, and the article by Alyosxa Tudor in LSE’s blog Engenderings that offer insightful reflections on these novel frontlines on anti-gender politics.
Finally, as already mentioned, anti-gender forces linked to religious neoconservatism and the right were engaged in negationist protests against lockdowns, social distancing, mask use, and vaccines. In anti-lockdown protests, the new formation known as QAnon became prominent in the United States and promoted conspiracy theories that linked the pandemic and COVID-19 vaccines to the supposed strategies of global elites as well as pedophilia. These discourses, as well as other related digital politics trends, have spread far beyond U.S. borders (see a compilation). These dynamics were looked at more closely in the SPW mini announcement published in September (read here and here).
Later on, as vaccines began to show positive results, U.S. religious anti-vaxxer strands started to argue against their use because they would contain fetal tissue deriving from abortion procedures (mainly a Catholic argument), or else, that vaccines would be carriers of the HIV virus (mainly a Evangelical arguments). Rumors have also spread about the lack of safety of vaccines, their side effects and supposedly unscrupulous science. This propaganda revitalized previously existing layers of anti-vaccine feelings in the U.S., Brazil, and Europe, by there hampering immunization campaigns. In this scenario, Brazil once again occupies a peculiar place, because these conspiracy and panic-propelling narratives were propagated by public authorities, including the president, who bluntly declared he would not be vaccinated because the vaccine could turn people “into a chimp… or a crocodile.. or else a man’s voice could become just like a women’s voice”.
As Claire Prevost argued in an article published in openDemocracy, in March 2020, the state of abnormality and emergency that COVID-19 installed on the planet seemed to be creating very favorable conditions for anti-gender and anti-abortion forces to diffuse their agendas, to call for the closing of borders, but also to gain greater control over the power of states — in those contexts where they are already installed — or to plan the future electoral use of tragedies resulting from the epidemic. Then, in The Nation, Benjamim Teiteulbaum retrieved the perception on the meaning of the pandemic as expressed by two main figures of global right politics: Alexandr Dugin (known as Putin’s guru) and Steve Bannon. As the article reports, although Dugin and Bannon radically disagree about the role of the West and the United States in the world system, both consider that the pandemic will enhance systemic changes that may enable their political views and proposals, which are based in a stark repudiation of modernity in its multiple manifestations.
Other relevant facts
Despite the gloomy, complex and very uncertain global context in pandemic conditions, other relevant and positive events took place in 2020 sexual politics landscape that also deserve our attention.
In May 2020, Costa Rica became the first Central American country to approve same-sex marriage. Subsequently, however, the same Court issued another decision on conscientious objection (in Spanish), which may create obstacles to the implementation of the law.
On June 15, the US Supreme Court made a historic decision in favor of non-discrimination in the labor market, which includes sexual orientation and gender identity. Two weeks later, on the 29th, the Court also declared Louisiana’s law unconstitutional that prevented abortion clinics from operating, except under very strict conditions.
In Brazil, the forces that oppose gender in education, including the Escola Sem Partido movement suffered several defeats as the Supreme Court reaffirmed the constitutionality of gender curricula in education.
In Europe, the German legislature approved a ban on the advertisement and practice of sexual conversion therapies in minors. Later , more than 60 members of the European Parliament called for a ban on such practices across Europe.
In June, Victor Madrigal, the UN independent expert on protection against violence and discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity released the report on the “Practices of so-called “conversion therapy”” .
Furthermore, several relevant discussions and some positive results on gender and sexuality took place in the June-July and September sessions of the UN Human Rights Council, when resolutions on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women and Girls, the Elimination of Female Genital Mutilation and the elimination of gender and race discrimination in sports were approved.
In September, a joint declaration on the right to abortion was also presented to mark the 28th of September. And, at the UN General Assembly in New York, a special session was dedicated to mark the 25th anniversary of the 4th World Conference on Women in Beijing, when a declaration that reaffirms the 1995 commitments was signed by 82 states.
In early December, the Fernández government fulfilled its electoral promise and tabled a new bill calling for the reform of the abortion law in Argentina. On December 10th, the law was approved by the House with 131 votes in favor and 117 against and sent to the Senate where, on the 30th, the proposal was approved. This voting was a notable victory for feminist tenacity in defending the right to abortion in Argentina and Latin America more broadly speaking (see a compilation).
Vatican politics: scattered events, a same plot
Significant facts have also happened in Vatican politics. In early October 2020, Pope Francis I published his new Encyclical named “Fratelli Tutti”. Two months later, the creation of the Council for Inclusive Capitalism with the Vatican was announced, this being a platform that gathers big corporations and philanthropic institutions such as the Ford and Rockefeller Foundations (see a compilation). At the end of November, El País reported that Francisco I, after creating 73 new cardinals, has now the control of the cardinal college that will elect his successor. Also, between the publication of the new Encyclical and the El País article, the news broke that the pope had made a statement in favor of same-sex civil unions in the documentary “Francesco”, directed by Evgeny Afineevsky. The news had a widespread and effusive reception in the media and among LGBT+ and even feminist activists.
Commenting on the episode, political scientist Massimo Prearo posted a note on Facebook that would be later turned into an article for SPW. Subsequently, Sonia Corrêa revisited the episode in connection with other relevant events of the period, including the U.S. elections. Both analyses offer elements to better grasp why the condemnation of same-sex marriage proclaimed by Francis in March 2021 should not come as a surprise.
Sexuality & Art
For this edition, which revisits the first year of the pandemic, we feature ‘Diva’, the work of Brazilian artist Juliana Notari, which sparked intense debates at the end of 2020, with wide international repercussions. We also retrieved the Sexuality & Art content featured in the three previous Special Editions on the works of English Anna Dumitriu, Brazilian Ventura Profana and Argentinean Léon Ferrari.
“Diva”: Vulva and Wound by Juliana Notari
Christianity contested , by Léon Ferrari
Profane Fortune, by Ventura Profana
Engineered Antibody, by Anna Dumitriu
History of Pandemics
COVID-19 and the classics
What Machiavelli knew about pandemics – New Statesman
COVID-19 and Biopolitics
The Invention of an Epidemic, by Giorgio Agamben – European Journal of Psychoanalysis
Viral Exception, by Jean Luc Nancy – Antinomie
The Losers Conspiracy, by Paul B. Preciado – Art Forum
Laissez COVID19 faire, laissez COVID19 passer?, by Gabriela Arguedas – Journal of Medical Ethics
States of Emergency, Metaphors of Virus, and COVID-19 – Verso Books
Articles on COVID 19 and Biopolitics compiled by SPW (July-December, 2020)
Covid-19 and Politics
Capitalism Has Its Limits, by Judith Butler – Verso Books
Revisiting Restrictions of Rights After COVID-19 – Health and Human Rights Journal
Wendy Brown: Explaining Our Morbid Political Symptoms – Jacobin Magazine
The Resentment That Never Sleeps – NY Times
COVID 19 and Economics
Anti-Capitalist Politics in the Time of COVID-19, by David Harvey – Jacobin
What Liberalism Gets Right — And Wrong – Jacobin
In India, the pandemic is creating new borders – openDemocracy
Disease Has Never Been Just Disease for Native Americans – The Atlantic
Anti-Gender and Anti-Abortion Politics
Unnatural feelings -The affective life of ‘anti-gender’ mobilisations, by Clare Hemmings – Radical Philosophy
Backlash: A misleading narrative, by David Paternotte – LSE Engendering
Paul B. Preciado: The Hot War – e-flux
Genders and sexualities
The Coronavirus is a Disaster for Feminism – The Atlantic
A Transition on Pause – The Baffler
Reactions to the Detrimental Effects of COVID-19 on LGBT People – Il Grande Colibri
COVID-19 and HIV/AIDS
In This Pandemic, Personal Echoes of the AIDS Crisis – The New York Times
10 Lessons from HIV for the COVID-19 Response – Open Society Foundations
What Lessons Does the AIDS Crisis Offer for the Coronavirus Pandemic?, by Masha Gessen – The New Yorker
The Ghost of Margareth Sanger – NY Times
A Year of Radical Political Imagination – NY Times
My Body, My Voice – Marie Stopes International
Evidence summary on safe self-management of medical abortion – Marie Stopes International
COVID-19, reproductive rights and abortion
The Sexual Health Supply Chain is Broken – The Atlantic
Practices of so-called “conversion therapy” – UN’s Independent Expert on SOGI
Issue Brief COVID-19 & LGBTQ older people – HR Campaign Foundation
A Guide for Europe: Protecting the Rights of Women and Girls in Times of COVID-19 Pandemic and its Aftermath – Amnesty International, IPPF, Women’s Link Worldwide
Vulnerability Amplified: The Impact of The COVID-19 Pandemic on LGBTIQ People – OutRight International
Interactive platform on Saoirse’s abortion story – Abortion Support Network
Female Gaze – British Journal of Photography
Webinar: African Feminist and Anti-Capitalist Responses to COVID-19 (African Eco-Feminist Collective)