The Individual (State and Society)

Date of publication
10.6. 2021.
Translated by
Nikolina Brala
, , ,

Something has happened. The “event”1This art­icle was cre­ated in ref­er­ence to the events in the three coun­tries I have stayed in since the begin­ning of the COV-​SARS‑2 pan­dem­ic, Germany, Serbia, and Poland. Also, its con­tents and con­text are largely the product of argu­ments, some­times very heated, with Gert Röhrborn. The ques­tions and some answers we have come up with are integ­rated into the text, for which I sin­cerely thank him. did not take place at the level of stat­ist­ics or Bergamo images of hor­ror. Nor did it take place at the level of restric­tions – today the cent­ral theme of vari­ous protests against the new nor­mal – which a few rejec­ted at first, regard­less of the increased affectiv­ity that accom­pan­ied them. The event took place at the level of feel­ing that the col­lapse – the col­lapse of the state, of the health care sys­tem, of eco­nom­ic paradigms, of cit­izens’ rights – came so sud­denly, so unex­pec­tedly, that the space for ques­tions about our polit­ic­al exist­ence sud­denly opened wide. The event is, strictly speak­ing, neither isol­ated nor the first of its kind. One might even say that its scope and depth are the effects of the accu­mu­la­tion of crises that shaped the polit­ic­al exist­ence in the 21st cen­tury and which have not yet been resolved, nor is it clear how, in the cur­rent polit­ic­al frame­work, they might be resolved once and for all. The moment when everything stops – a moment that could not have been pre­dicted des­pite the three-​tiered man­tra of mod­ern forms of gov­ernance based on pre­dic­tion, cooper­a­tion, and effi­ciency – actu­ally adds up to the ongo­ing state of emer­gency pro­duced by the war on ter­ror, the adjust­ment to uncer­tainty in pre­car­ity, and the con­stant threat of infest­a­tion, kid­nap­ping, and desec­ra­tion. The “event” ini­ti­ated by the pan­dem­ic leaned on 2001, 2008, and 2015, show­ing the unsus­tain­ab­il­ity of a sys­tem that inter­twines the indi­vidu­al, the state, and soci­ety in the spir­it of neo­lib­er­al secur­it­ari­an polit­ic­al rationality.

This entry will focus on the indi­vidu­al. The indi­vidu­al is defined as the basic unit of polit­ic­al, eco­nom­ic, and social life as con­figured by 19th-cen­tury lib­er­al­ism and then fur­ther shaped in the neo­lib­er­al con­di­tions of the late 20th and early 21st cen­tur­ies.2Zaharijević, Adriana. “Protiv indi­vidue: dein­di­vidu­al­iz­ir­ani politički sub­jekt” [“Against the Individual: Deindividualized Political Subject”]. Filozofska istraživanja, vol. 151, no. 3, 2018, pp. 651 – 666. The indi­vidu­al is a dis­crete, isol­ated, and indi­vis­ible entity, the basic unit of every form of social asso­ci­ation, the main party in a con­tract, the irre­du­cible hold­er of private interests. In con­creto, the indi­vidu­al is the ulti­mate and only true own­er of their own per­sona and affairs. This own­er­ship is groun­ded in a thor­ough know­ledge of their per­son­al interests, the indi­vidu­al capa­city to act accord­ing to this giv­en know­ledge, and the polit­ic­al capa­city to rep­res­ent it autonom­ously. To own one­self com­pletely implies inde­pend­ence from a state or oth­er high­er entity (this goes both ways; the indi­vidu­al is not depend­ent on the state nor can the state take away their inde­pend­ence); it implies sov­er­eignty and con­trol in the realm of one’s own interests, the power to decide upon them independently.

This entry will ques­tion wheth­er the notion of the indi­vidu­al in its clas­sic­al form can sur­vive the pan­dem­ic event. (It is, of course, quite anoth­er ques­tion wheth­er this notion should have been a basic concept of polit­ic­al, eco­nom­ic, and social the­or­ies in the first place, and what the world would have looked like if it had not been). That is, it is neces­sary to ask ourselves what the event teaches us about the indi­vidu­al, or about our desire, need, and abil­ity to fit into the nar­row frame of this seem­ingly uni­ver­sal cat­egory? The thes­is I will try to present is that indi­vidu­al­iz­a­tion, as well as the aug­ment­a­tion of the state, took place dur­ing the pan­dem­ic. However, it has also been shown that the indi­vidu­al nev­er stands alone; the self-​isolation of the indi­vidu­al is ensured by what exists as a social net­work of hands.

At first glance, it might seem that, dur­ing the pan­dem­ic, there was a dra­mat­ic increase in indi­vidu­al­iz­a­tion. By con­fin­ing us to our private estates, estab­lish­ing an appro­pri­ate dis­tance in pub­lic (some­times even private) spaces, pro­du­cing quar­ant­ines, and con­tinu­ously appeal­ing to our per­son­al respons­ib­il­ity, the pan­dem­ic sep­ar­ated, fur­ther dis­tanced, and scattered us in the name of con­trolling our own well-​being, in the name of our best interests. Paul Preciado delivered a strik­ing depic­tion of the exper­i­ence of indi­vidu­al­iz­a­tion as one of the first power­ful exper­i­ences of the pan­dem­ic, hav­ing fallen into a fever­ish half-​sleep in Paris just before the French gov­ern­ment imposed the first restric­tions on move­ment: “When I got up on March 19, a bit more than a week later, the world had changed. When I went to my bed, the world was close, col­lect­ive, vis­cous, and dirty. When I got out of bed, it had become dis­tant, indi­vidu­al, dry, and hygien­ic.”3Preciado, Paul B. “The Losers Conspiracy.” Artforum, 26 March 2020, The fact that we all found ourselves locked up, sud­denly and without warn­ing, split us apart and estab­lished the pre­scribed dis­tance that showed once again that the social and the phys­ic­al are dif­fi­cult to dis­tin­guish. Waking up in a world where the pan­dem­ic event had already taken place, Preciado was by no means alone in his fear – not of ill­ness or death, but of dying alone, of not being cared for – the con­stitutive fear of the mon­ad that the indi­vidu­al must be by definition.

The glob­al emer­gency has all but atom­ized us in our micro-​worlds. The emphas­is on the indi­vidu­al, as if it had just been dis­covered in the pan­dem­ic, speaks to the idea of a close, vis­cous, and dirty world from before. Before the pan­dem­ic, we were togeth­er; now, we are sep­ar­ate and on our own. This is sup­por­ted by the con­stant emphas­is on the import­ance of indi­vidu­al hygiene, indi­vidu­al respons­ib­il­ity, and indi­vidu­al con­trol. We are instruc­ted to wash our hands prop­erly because touch­ing – touch­ing anoth­er per­son, touch­ing the sur­faces on which oth­ers leave their marks, touch­ing ourselves, and per­haps trans­mit­ting the indir­ect touches of oth­ers – is poten­tially dan­ger­ous. We are made to accept the fact that it is not only the oth­ers who are dan­ger­ous – all the oth­ers who, until yes­ter­day, were dirti­er, more con­ta­gious – but that we as indi­vidu­als are dan­ger­ous; we are not only in danger, but we are also a danger. The vir­us has turned us into indi­vidu­als who fall prey to it regard­less of our status: princes, prime min­is­ters, para­med­ics, the home­less, the poor and the rich, men and women – to the vir­us, we are every­one and no one in par­tic­u­lar, reduced merely to bio­lo­gic­al hosts. Finally, we are made to prac­tice a basic form of self-​control that mani­fests as taut self-​discipline, from the rigid main­ten­ance of out­door dis­tance, through dis­in­fect­ing our hands mul­tiple times a day, to the care­ful and per­sist­ent impos­i­tion of struc­ture to our days in an attempt to pre­serve our men­tal and phys­ic­al health.

Behind the frantic remind­ers to prac­tice indi­vidu­al hygiene, respons­ib­il­ity, and con­trol is the old trope – left to their own devices, indi­vidu­als will act in their best interests, inev­it­ably act­ing in the best interests of soci­ety, which in itself is noth­ing more than a mere aggreg­ate of indi­vidu­als. In the case of a pan­dem­ic, for example, this trope could be trans­lated into max­im­um self-​restraint with min­im­al con­tact out­side of our homes, in which we act respons­ibly, that is, we con­tin­ue with our eco­nom­ic activ­it­ies as if the cir­cum­stances were “nor­mal.” In oth­er words, in every home, all work­er bees per­form their eco­nom­ic tasks – true, under altered cir­cum­stances that arti­fi­cially merge the pub­lic and the private, the sphere of pro­duc­tion and the sphere of repro­duc­tion – as if, in the pre-​pandemic world, every­one could work from home, as if the “home” were a space of peace and tran­quil­ity that now expan­ded slightly to accom­mod­ate a work­place, as if every house could be remade into an office for all its “employ­ees.” In addi­tion, the laissez-​faire aspect of this trope – let­ting indi­vidu­als be – almost pre­sup­poses that the vir­us trig­gers and fur­ther reg­u­lates the epi­demi­olo­gic­al situ­ation, where indi­vidu­al account­ab­il­ity pre­sumes a dir­ect rela­tion­ship between the indi­vidu­al and the vir­us, even as the state imposes dra­coni­an meas­ures that com­pletely chal­lenge the idea of own­er­ship over ourselves and our per­son­al affairs.

However, there are at least two fun­da­ment­al prob­lems with such a trans­la­tion. Let us begin with the appear­ance of laissez-​faire; from the moment of admit­ting that some­thing was really hap­pen­ing, indi­vidu­als were not allowed to make decisions about their own interests and in accord­ance with their per­son­al reas­on­ing and pur­poses. States have deeply influ­enced the move­ment and liber­ties of its cit­izens, often shift­ing full respons­ib­il­ity onto the indi­vidu­al and deny­ing them the abil­ity to act respons­ibly, which in vari­ous instances has led to the col­lapse of an import­ant polit­ic­al dis­tinc­tion between cit­izens and sub­jects. This hypo­crisy has been par­tic­u­larly pro­nounced in instances when the state has exploited the epi­demi­olo­gic­al situ­ations for what may have been polit­ic­al (for example, shut­ting down the alarm sig­nals jus­ti­fied by rais­on d’etat, such as elec­tions)4See Marušić, Antonela. “Razglednica iz države u vanred­nom stan­ju” [“Postcard from the state of emer­gency”]. Libela, 22 July 2020, or eco­nom­ic reas­ons (when work­ers are forced to come to the work­place because they are employed by for­eign firms, to which the state turns a blind eye, des­pite proven high risk and restric­tions it has oth­er­wise imposed). Lest we for­get, even in the most per­missive states, there were restric­tions that fell with­in the domain of the most strin­gent state con­trol: even where there was no parad­ing of com­bat rifles (like, for example, in Serbia), they were still a poten­tial part of the social mise-​en-​scène. States were “at war,” a strange war against the vir­us that, giv­en its human face, could always turn into some form of civil war or a com­plete apo­ca­lypse, as in Saramago’s Blindness.

Somewhere at the very begin­ning of the new epi­demi­olo­gic­al situ­ation, the Italian philo­soph­er Giorgio Agamben spoke out in what was prob­ably the most con­tro­ver­sial philo­soph­ic­al state­ment about the vir­us, espe­cially in light of the dra­mat­ic events that would soon become known world­wide as the “Italian scen­ario.” Declaring the epi­dem­ic as alleged and the urgent meas­ures as fren­et­ic and irra­tion­al in pan­ic pro­duc­tion, Agamben sees it as “a real state of excep­tion, with severe restric­tions on move­ment and the sus­pen­sion of nor­mal func­tion­ing life and work­ing con­di­tions through­out entire regions.”5Agamben, Giorgio. “Lo stato d’eccezione pro­voc­ato da un emer­genza immo­tivata.” Il Manifesto, 26 Feb. 2020,; See Agamben, Giorgio. “Izvanredno stan­je iza­zvano nemo­tivir­an­im hit­n­im sluča­jem” [“The state of excep­tion pro­voked by an unmo­tiv­ated emer­gency”]. Translated by Mario Kopić. Libreto. The vir­us oppor­tun­ist­ic­ally replaced ter­ror­ism as the state’s jus­ti­fic­a­tion for the seam­less intro­duc­tion of vari­ous restric­tions by rely­ing on the fear of indi­vidu­als, a basic emo­tion neces­sary for a state of excep­tion to func­tion as a nor­mal paradigm of power. Many have noted that Agamben does not stray far from his under­stand­ing of the state of excep­tion and bare life nor from Foucault’s descrip­tion of the supreme dream of a ruler in which the plague becomes a uto­pi­an biopol­it­ic­al situ­ation of estab­lish­ing utter con­trol over all indi­vidu­al bod­ies gov­erned.6Foucault, Michel. Discipline and Punish. The Birth of the Prison. Translated by Alan Sheridan, Vintage Books, 1995, p. 199. According to Agamben, a ruler’s dream of hav­ing a plagued state, in which he rules in such a way that naked sur­viv­al even­tu­ally becomes the only social value, abol­ishes social­ity.7Agamben, Giorgio. “Razjašnjenja” [“Clarifications”]. Translated by Novica Milić. Libreto, It seems, in fact, that in a state of emer­gency, there can be no social­ity: the only thing that can exist there is us as “reduced bio­lo­gic­al situ­ations” whose best interest is gen­er­ated out­side of us, shaped through restric­tions and con­stant sur­veil­lance, and motiv­ated by an end­less pro­duc­tion of fear of insec­ur­ity, and not by ration­al choice. Under such cir­cum­stances, an indi­vidu­al can­not be the true own­er of their own per­sona and affairs – their inde­pend­ence, sov­er­eignty, and inher­ently prom­ised self-​actualization are ser­i­ously com­prom­ised by the unchosen, state-​imposed con­cern for bare life.

Although many will agree with Agamben that a life reduced to mere sur­viv­al is unworthy of the name, few went so far as to deny the import­ance of urgent meas­ures in the name of free­dom – the inde­pend­ence and sov­er­eignty from which social­ity was then to be built – or, in oth­er words, to oppose a pan­dem­ic event. Roberto Esposito thus argued that while human­ity is essen­tially char­ac­ter­ized by its social nature, herd immunity (as one of the pos­sible state responses to the vir­us) is the most cur­rent form of thanato­pol­it­ics, even eugen­ics. Jean-​Luc Nancy calls for an exemp­tion for this vir­us, as well as recog­ni­tion of its excep­tion­al status. It is not that the meas­ures are excep­tion­al, it is the vir­us that is excep­tion­al. In its excep­tion­al­ity, it pan­dem­izes us all, turn­ing gov­ern­ments into “piti­ful execut­ors,” not cre­at­ors of a new paradigm of gov­ernance.8See Esposito, Roberto. “The Biopolitics of Immunity in Times of COVID-​19: An Interview with Roberto Esposito.” Antipodes, 16 June 2020,; Jean-​Luc, Nancy, “Virusni izuz­e­tak” [“Viral Exception”]. Translated by Ivan Milenković. Libreto, Even though this dis­cus­sion might seem to be a bick­er­ing of sav­ants who, in an effort to con­firm their own the­or­et­ic­al stand­points, renounce the com­plex­ity of the situ­ation,9See Gironi, Fabio. “On the Philosophy that Should Not Be.” Identities: Journal for Politics, Gender and Culture, 26 Apr. 2020,; Owen, Joseph. “States of Emergency, Metaphors of Virus, and COVID-​19.” Verso, 31 March 2020, that com­plex­ity is still very import­ant for our con­text. Whether we agree with Agamben and claim that the state has max­im­ized itself in rela­tion to the indi­vidu­al because that is the essen­tial struc­ture of the cur­rent form of state exist­ence, or wheth­er we admit that it has max­im­ized itself due to excep­tion­al cir­cum­stances that led to its pan­dem­iz­a­tion, one thing is cer­tain: a pan­dem­ic event is also an event of a max­im­ized state.

The epi­dem­ic, there­fore, has spurred two par­al­lel trends: indi­vidu­al­iz­a­tion and the aug­ment­a­tion of the state. Moreover, the pan­dem­ic does not elev­ate the state to an (author­it­ari­an) brute (although extremely crude author­it­ari­an strategies were recor­ded in vari­ous parts of the world). Instead, rely­ing on all pre­vi­ous crises since the begin­ning of this cen­tury, the state pos­i­tions itself in the role of supreme pro­tect­or, a bene­vol­ent Leviathan whose body is com­posed of count­less bod­ies of sub­jects who thirstily and anxiously look up to their sov­er­eign, entirely depend­ent on his wis­dom and rationality.

The 1651 cov­er of Hobbes’ Leviathan is extremely appro­pri­ate today – one might even say more appro­pri­ate than at any oth­er point in the last four cen­tur­ies. Individuals are tiny bod­ies com­pos­ing the gigant­ic, sym­bol­ic body of their ruler. They do not look at each oth­er or in any vague dir­ec­tion. Their backs are turned toward the view­er. Evenly dis­trib­uted and prop­erly arranged, all their gazes fix on a single point – the face of the sov­er­eign. The neo­lib­er­al dis­cov­ery that there is no soci­ety pushes the indi­vidu­al to the fore­ground (tiny bod­ies are torn loose from the sovereign’s body, still without look­ing at each oth­er or in any oth­er vague dir­ec­tion), and strictly insists that the indi­vidu­al is determ­ined by their abil­ity to care for them­selves inde­pend­ently. In moments of crisis, how­ever, all indi­vidu­als reas­semble into the Leviathan body, sep­ar­ated but integ­rated by the body of the sov­er­eign. Instead of “routine” inde­pend­ence, indi­vidu­als are now asked to cede their inde­pend­ence to the state and to adhere to its con­stant demand that self-​care is the only recom­men­ded form of care avail­able to the individual.

This coun­ter­in­tu­it­ive com­bin­a­tion of injunc­tions is part of a spe­cif­ic rela­tion­ship that is now estab­lished between the state and the indi­vidu­al – wheth­er the state acts pater­nal­ist­ic­ally (or mater­nal­ist­ic­ally), in an author­it­ari­an or indif­fer­ent man­ner. During the pan­dem­ic, the state demands indi­vidu­al respons­ib­il­ity (enforced through gentle or strict meas­ures), and the indi­vidu­al will­ingly or reluct­antly agrees to these demands while recog­niz­ing the state as the sole pro­tect­or – pre­cisely because the indi­vidu­al is being asked to, at least in part, give up their independence.

Of course, one might ask how this is pos­sible. How is it pos­sible to expect pro­tec­tion from those who have dis­mantled and des­troyed com­mon goods for dec­ades, how is it pos­sible that the first reac­tion to the “Italian scen­ario” is not a revol­ted cry for the state to take respons­ib­il­ity for the destruc­tion of health­care and oth­er social wel­fare sys­tems through privat­iz­a­tion and the planned erosion of social cohe­sion? Perhaps the answer lies in the fact that the indi­vidu­al as a polit­ic­al entity can only exist in cir­cum­stances where it is implied that social wel­fare sys­tems do not exist or are deteri­or­ated, and because the entit­ies that channeled and socially shaped the needs of indi­vidu­als no longer exist or have been altered bey­ond recog­ni­tion. Nowadays, there are indi­vidu­als who take care of their per­son­al needs, and there is the state, which comes into play espe­cially when indi­vidu­als fear that they can­not take care of them­selves. This estab­lishes an imme­di­ate, dir­ect rela­tion­ship that allows the indi­vidu­al to remain sus­pi­cious of any oth­er form of social inter­ac­tion and to focus only on them­selves in artic­u­lat­ing their per­son­al interests, while the state remains a guar­ant­or of pro­tect­ing the indi­vidu­al from “unac­count­able” threats such as ter­ror­ism, immig­rants, and vir­uses. During the pan­dem­ic, it became appar­ent that we had long since become accus­tomed to “repla­cing the hori­zont­al and asso­ci­ation­al sys­tems of solid­ar­ity with the ver­tic­al rela­tion­ship of each indi­vidu­al and the pro­tect­or state.”10Rancière, Jacques. “L’essence de l’Etat con­tem­po­rain.” Le Grand Continent, 10 March 2020,; See also De Gruyter, Caroline. “Fear of Loneliness. How the State Uses Insecurity?” European Council on Foreign Relations, 17 March 2020,

How does the state take care of the indi­vidu­al dur­ing a pan­dem­ic? The state speaks to me, it pro­tects me when it orders me con­stant and cal­lous self-​centeredness. The state pro­tects me from my child (by clos­ing kinder­gartens and schools), my part­ner (through ini­tial assess­ments of the neces­sity of phys­ic­al dis­tance that goes so far as to invade the mar­it­al bed), my aging par­ents (for whom spe­cial meas­ures are determ­ined which, giv­en their non-​economic status, are easi­er to apply, com­pletely ignor­ing the issues of dig­nity). By turn­ing every­one else into a source of con­ta­gion, the state becomes the only entity that can be trus­ted, at least tem­por­ar­ily, as long as the urgency of the meas­ures is jus­ti­fied by the pan­dem­ic event. By clos­ing the bor­ders to out­siders – which was the first for­eign policy act for a vast num­ber of states to reduce the influx of the “for­eign” vir­us – the state caused indi­vidu­als to close their per­son­al bor­ders as well.

Of course, those who could shut them­selves off and remain isol­ated. Those who could work from home and carry on as if everything were nor­mal, those who could rearrange some aspects of their lives so that they could sim­u­late nor­mal­ity. The fact is that since the begin­ning of the pan­dem­ic, there were many who, in order to carry on with their eco­nom­ic activ­it­ies, had to leave their homes – and come into con­tact with oth­ers, at a time when such con­tact was syn­onym­ous with act­ing against one’s per­son­al interests. There were also many who, in eco­nom­ic terms, had to act insuf­fi­ciently respons­ibly because the oblig­a­tions and respons­ib­il­it­ies with­in these “new nor­mal” cir­cum­stances became more numer­ous and com­plex. There were, finally, those who had no home or whose home was a col­lect­ive place and, by defin­i­tion, close, vis­cous, and dirty. At least for a short time, those who enabled an indi­vidu­al to be self-​sufficient were made vis­ible and high­lighted (and then for­got­ten again).

This spe­cif­ic insens­it­iv­ity or dis­reg­ard for all those who do not fit into the rather nar­row frame­work of a sov­er­eign own­er of their per­son­al affairs should not come as a sur­prise. It is a prob­lem that can­not be dis­en­tangled from the gene­a­logy of the idea of the indi­vidu­al. Although indi­vidu­als have always been thought of as any­one and no one in par­tic­u­lar, as a concept that is uni­ver­sally applic­able and abstract in con­tent, indi­vidu­als have always belonged to a rel­at­ively select set of those who fol­lowed and could fol­low their own best interests – which in itself has a very norm­at­ive mean­ing.11Zaharijević, Adriana. Ko je pojed­in­ac? Genealoško pro­pit­ivan­je ide­je građan­ina. Karpos, 2014. The extent to which “indi­vidu­als” are entit­ies defined by class, race, and gender is espe­cially evid­ent in times of crisis, when all indi­vidu­als should self-​isolate, when every­one should con­tin­ue to per­form their eco­nom­ic activ­it­ies, when every­one should stay at home. At this point, we can address the second issue with the pan­dem­ic trans­la­tion of the trope of the indi­vidu­al who, left only to them­selves, autonom­ously fol­lows their best interests.

Are women also indi­vidu­als, and can they pur­sue their own interests as men do? In a home-​work unit, do all mem­bers func­tion as if they were actu­ally in the work­place, act­ing “respons­ibly” toward their per­son­al eco­nom­ic activ­it­ies? Even in the case of a nuc­le­ar fam­ily with no par­tic­u­larly vul­ner­able mem­bers over 65, in which there are no mem­bers with dis­ab­il­it­ies, mem­bers with autoim­mune dis­eases; even in the case of a well-​to-​do fam­ily whose mem­bers can work from home, doing tasks that can be done vir­tu­ally; even in the case of a couple that val­ues equal­ity and builds a com­munity bey­ond pat­terns of viol­ence, the divi­sion of house­hold work and child­care per­sist as a con­di­tion for the pos­sib­il­ity of “nor­mal” eco­nom­ic per­form­ance, as a con­di­tion for the pos­sib­il­ity of someone being an indi­vidu­al. According to the data show­ing that unpaid house­hold work and care jobs dur­ing the pan­dem­ic have become even more con­sist­ently gendered com­pared to the pre-​pandemic peri­od, it seems that there can­not be more than one indi­vidu­al in the home-​work unit, and that indi­vidu­al is most likely male.12Margolis Eleanor, “Stop this retro non­sense about lock­down being a return to domest­ic bliss for women.” The Guardian, 23 Apr. 2020,; Chung, Heejung. “The return of the 1950s house­wife? How to stop coronavir­us lock­down rein­for­cing sex­ist gender roles.” The Conversation, 30 March 2020,; Stroh, Perlita. “Pandemic threatens to wipe out dec­ades of pro­gress for work­ing moth­ers.” CBC, 17 Aug. 2020,‑1.5685463. In addi­tion, there is no need to emphas­ize that the struc­ture of the home-​work unit is rarely so ideal. For women, the home can become a place from which they need to escape, but when that was made impossible by a lock­down, the home might lit­er­ally become a dun­geon.13See reports and stat­ist­ics on the impact of the pan­dem­ic on gender equal­ity, for example; see also Q&A regard­ing viol­ence against women dur­ing the pan­dem­ic on the World Health Organization web­site, pos­ted very early, on 15 Apr. 2020 –‑a-detail/violence-against-women-during-covid‑9?gclid=CjwKCAjw5p_8BRBUEiwAPpJO64vctncs_FpirBxnLbcWfgsVL6Pu48m3NmFAiCFT9A_VHIIkTXDXqBoCNdEQAvD_BwE.

In order for indi­vidu­als to be able to obey the state and remain closed off, i.e., be able to self-​isolate, those indi­vidu­als had to be looked after by a large num­ber of people who were recog­nized, at least briefly, as essen­tial – the ones col­lect­ing garbage, bak­ing bread, depos­it­ing salar­ies and pen­sions, pro­du­cing toi­let paper, selling med­ic­a­tion, assist­ing births that did not stop hap­pen­ing dur­ing the pan­dem­ic, look­ing after new­born babies in neonato­logy sec­tions, bury­ing the dead, mak­ing sure the elec­tri­city and the plumb­ing are work­ing.14Zaharijević, Adriana. “Kako nas je vir­us pod­se­tio da smo društvena bića?” Voxfeminae, 18 March 2020, In order for indi­vidu­als to self-​isolate, to become beings without skin, without hands, untouch­able, excluded from phys­ic­al trans­ac­tions, as digit­al con­sumers, digit­al vis­it­ors, digit­al lov­ers; out­side of and bey­ond encoun­ters and exchanges; con­tact­less, hid­den behind real or vir­tu­al masks such as the Zoom plat­form; pur­chasers of a pack­age whose name is an account that pays for a dis­tant busi­ness con­cern,15Preciado, Paul B. Ibid. someone had to deliv­er the pack­age to the door in per­son; someone had to wrap it; someone had to assemble its con­tents; someone had to pro­cure raw mater­i­als. These oth­ers are now referred to as “essen­tial work­ers” – essen­tial because they allow us to main­tain some semb­lance of the pos­sib­il­ity of being and remain­ing indi­vidu­als in states that have dev­ast­ated essen­tial sub­sys­tems of social welfare.

If the Victorians thought that indi­vidu­als are those who con­stantly isol­ate them­selves from oth­ers, who are always and primar­ily attuned to them­selves by their per­son­al interests, then quar­ant­ine sheds light on the whole illu­sion that such a pos­i­tion entails, in which every life is presen­ted as a poten­tial Robinsonade. The quar­ant­ine shows that between me and my self-​isolation stands a great num­ber of oth­ers who make it pos­sible (while the num­ber of essen­tial work­ers is by no means lim­ited to those most exposed – health care work­ers), as well as a whole range of those who can­not self-​isolate or can do so only par­tially. The pan­dem­ic has, there­fore, also shed light on soci­ety (or what is left of it), peek­ing out from behind the indi­vidu­al, who is neg­lected and squandered by the state. We should not for­get the words of Boris Johnson, spoken from deep self-​isolation, just before he was taken to hos­pit­al (which was then the first case of a high-​ranking state offi­cial being infec­ted): “One thing I think the coronavir­us crisis has already proved is that there really is such a thing as soci­ety.”16“There is such a thing as soci­ety, says Boris Johnson from Bunker.” Guardian, 29 March 2020, As if to delib­er­ately con­tra­dict his pre­de­cessor, who had declared that soci­ety does not exist, Johnson thanks – which is the same kind of per­form­at­ive grat­it­ude we heard from the world’s highest state author­it­ies in dif­fer­ent lan­guages dur­ing the first few weeks of the pan­dem­ic – doc­tors, phar­macists, nurses, and vendors. They are soci­ety, although at least some of them should be part of the state, and they exist along­side us who are individuals.

The “soci­ety” that peeked out from behind the indi­vidu­al, without which the world pop­u­lated by the own­ers of their own bod­ies, per­so­nas, and affairs obvi­ously could not exist at all, is fun­da­ment­ally unequal, and its inequal­ity is reflec­ted pre­cisely in the fact that it is com­posed of those who can­not obey the injunc­tion of the state to take care of them­selves. They take care of the indi­vidu­al so that the indi­vidu­als can fol­low their own interests and main­tain the appear­ance of their own self-sufficiency.


What did the pan­dem­ic teach us, as indi­vidu­als? To the vir­us, we were all really any­one and no one in par­tic­u­lar; to the vir­us, we are only indi­vidu­als: hol­low, empty, gen­der­less, col­or­less, aso­cial bod­ies that it makes its host. But the vir­us has also opened up a world of fun­da­ment­al inequal­ity that per­sists to serve the fic­tion about self-​sufficient indi­vidu­als and a state that can be removed from indi­vidu­als’ affairs. By pla­cing us in a situ­ation where the degree of social­ity is determ­ined by the degree of isol­a­tion – rather than by social respons­ib­il­ity or social justice – the vir­us has shown us to the extent to which we do not nor­mally live isol­ated in our self-​sufficiency. We are determ­ined by the sur­faces of the world on which we leave traces of ourselves, and, in turn, without know­ing it or want­ing to, we pick up traces of oth­ers. These sur­faces make us por­ous with­in our own bor­ders, while masks, visors, and rub­ber gloves show how dif­fi­cult, and per­haps impossible, it is to erect walls around our bod­ies. The vir­us has shown us that we are all vul­ner­able.17Butler, Judith. “Mourning is a Political Act amid the Pandemic and its Disparities.” Truthout, 30 Apr. 2020, Invulnerability is impossible pre­cisely because we are in-​discrete, un-​isolatable, and intrins­ic­ally insep­ar­able. The vir­us has also shown us that vul­ner­ab­il­ity is dis­trib­uted dis­par­ately and that the state works in favor to main­tain this inequality.

When the vac­cine race began, the World Health Organization urged that the vac­cine be made avail­able glob­ally, rather than pro­mot­ing “vac­cine nation­al­ism.”18So far, the Global Vaccine Access Initiative (COVAX) has been joined by 172 coun­tries, which do not list three key play­ers in vac­cine test­ing and pro­duc­tion – the United States, China, and Russia. See Kamradt-​Scott, Adam. “Why ‘vac­cine nation­al­ism’ could come up with a plan for glob­al access to a COVID-​19 vac­cine.” The Conversation, 7 Sept. 2020, This atti­tude was most wel­come: there can be no healthy nation in ill human­ity. Perhaps even more encour­aging was today’s news that, in the event of the dis­cov­ery of the vac­cine and its glob­al avail­ab­il­ity, it will be neces­sary to imple­ment thor­ough triage while defin­ing pri­or­it­ies. Essential work­ers, the eld­erly, people with spe­cial health risks – in oth­er words, people hid­den behind func­tion­al, “nor­mal” eco­nom­ic indi­vidu­als – will take pri­or­ity.19Rourke, Alison. “Global Covid report: young and healthy may not get vac­cine until 2022, WHO says.” The Guardian, 15 Oct. 2020, The vir­us has shown us that not all lives are equally import­ant. Perhaps we can learn from the “epi­demi­olo­gic­al situ­ation” that this has far-​reaching consequences.

Leave a Reply