Intervention – “Governance of the COVID-19 Pandemic: What Masking Reveals for Cognisant Citizenship and the Potential for Biopolitics-from-Below

by Mark Whitehead (Aberystwyth University) and Kelvin Mason (para-academic)

In this essay we critique the governance of the first phase of the COVID-19 pandemic via examining the measure of face coverings or masks. Drawing on the work of Michel Foucault we examine governance in the UK and US for expressions of different forms of power relations. Our approach is characterised by a wariness of authoritarian government, looking to the citizen and community to construct forms of what Foucault dubs counter-conduct. Monitoring both mainstream media and interactions on social media, and conducting a survey, we enquire into how citizens might act to enable governance of the pandemic in which democratic participation in decision-making is ensured. We draw particular attention to the contrasting strategies of neoliberal governmentality and biopolitics-from-below which have been emergent features of COVID-19 governance. Ultimately, we argue for more flexible and fluid power relations in pandemic governance. Most especially, we recognise the need to involve and empower citizens and local communities. We argue too that citizens need to embrace and even thrive upon uncertainty as a foundation on which to construct counter-conduct and thence biopolitics-from-below. This piece builds upon, and responds to, previous publications in the Antipode Interventions series pertaining to questions of governance (Hannah et al. 2020a) and scientific expertise during the COVID-19 pandemic (Tulumello 2021).

Introduction

Regulating the public wearing of face masks during the COVID-19 pandemic has been based on the translation of uncertain science into policy and policing via expert advice. Expert advice is, then, a key feature in governance. The objective of our critique of governance is to present a snapshot that reveals how citizens of liberal democracies might resist overbearing or authoritarian government, including of ourselves and each other by ourselves and each other. On the other hand, such citizens need also to be wary of embracing a libertarianism that wholly undermines governance while allowing COVID-19 free-rein. Learning from the governance of the pandemic could prepare citizens and governments for even greater challenges in the future, notably climate change.

Turning to Foucault for our analytical framework, we consider the construction of these resistances as “counter-conduct”. For Foucault counter-conduct was not blinkered, wilful resistance. Rather it was reflexive, demanding that citizens understand how they are being conducted and how that could be otherwise (see for instance Demetriou 2016). We interrogate the how of government in order that “we might perform the art of not being governed quite so much” (Sokhi-Bulley 2014). As Matthew Hannah and colleagues phrase it, we are actively recognising “the need to protect democratic ‘freedoms’ of participation in decision-making” at a time when crisis mitigates against such freedoms (Hannah et al. 2020a). Ultimately, we argue that neoliberal governmental strategies to govern the pandemic have been ineffective. We explore biopolitics-from-below as a means of promoting the care of self and others in times of uncertainty.

Foucauldian Framing

Sovereignty is a form of government by the state where subjects are dominated, its ultimate measure being coercive violence. Central to disciplinary power is rendering people’s physical beings and their behaviours visible; both are then regulated by largely non-violent means, optimally by people themselves. Biopower and biopolitics focus on government as a means of sustaining a population, typically that of a nation-state: “biopower, or power over life, concerns making live or letting die” (Hannah et al. 2020b: 4). Biopolitics is the how of biopower, its measures and techniques.

Governmentality as an analytical approach focuses on “the mundane business of governing everyday economic and social life, … the shaping of governable domains and governable persons, … and the new forms of power, authority, and subjectivity being formed” (Rose et al. 2006: 101). Neoliberal governmentality seeks to minimise authority’s interventions in the life of the population. We are concerned with neoliberal governmentality wherein conduct is directed at, and thence also by, individual freedoms: the good of the population is equated directly with the good of the individual. The neoliberal logic of governmentality dictates that “individuals themselves should be ‘supported’ only in their quest to cease needing support” (Hannah et al. 2020b: 13).

While neoliberal governmentality tends to subsume biopower in liberal democracies, we recognise the persistence of the latter in responses to the pandemic, and are alert to its counter-conduct potential – raising the possibility of “a democratic biopolitics” or a “biopolitics from below”. In this context Panagiotis Sotiris (2020) asks: “Is it possible to have collective practices that actually help the health of populations, including large-scale behaviour modifications, without a parallel expansion of forms of coercion and surveillance?”

Locking Down a Methodology

In a comparative study we focus on contrasting cases in the UK and US. As befits research critical of insular nation-state governance, we also cast sidelong glances at the wider world for telling contextualisations. As researchers locked-down in Wales and Denmark, respectively, our glances are frequently in those directions, drawing on our lived experiences.

We monitored mainstream and social media, contributing to debates around the COVID-19 pandemic (see for instance Mason 2020; Whitehead 2020). We also closely monitored public health sources, especially the World Health Organisation, the US Centres for Disease Control and Prevention, and Public Health England. We looked too to the Statens Serum Institut in Denmark and relevant Welsh Government advice. An online survey elicited 70 responses from people living in England and Wales. We asked people whether they wore a face mask or covering and, if so, what type, where and when they wore it, and why they wore it. We posed the same questions to a key-respondent resident in Michigan. Analysing the survey, we looked for comments on governance, knowledge of the science of COVID-19 with respect to face coverings, and traces of counter-conduct.

Some Problems with Masks

Vis-à-vis the public wearing face masks to reduce the risk of COVID-19 transmission, we recognised three problematic areas. Physically, mask wearing, if done poorly, might increase the risk of virus transmission; it could also lead to a false sense of security, meaning that other preventative measures were neglected. Philosophically, there was no constant and static truth to tell for expert advisers and thence governments as the science shifted (nevertheless, experts advised and most governments governed as if certainty existed). Politically, some citizens either forcefully accepted the “truth” they were told or rejected it with similar vigour. Some then acted on their newfound beliefs as if there were a single true truth, to the point of abusing, assaulting, and even killing “unbelievers”. By contrast much of the population went with the flow and obeyed government, whether meekly or grudgingly. Such responses appear antithetic to developing counter-conduct.

Governance of the pandemic reveals a more general problem for societies dealing with issues that depend on understandings and interpretations of science. Governance tends to demand evidence that is certain and static, a condition antithetic to science itself. Without sufficient certainty for a governable degree of consensus, however, already deep fissures in liberal democracies may increasingly descend into irresolvable, even physical, conflicts. Societies in which governments and citizens are unable to comprehend, accept, and discuss uncertain science render themselves physically, philosophically and politically unstable. States that recognise the perils of acknowledging uncertainty may veer to sovereign power relations.

How Late It Was, How Late?

The translation of scientific insights into expert advice on mask wearing shifted over time. From being considered generally unnecessary in public space through the first few months of 2020, experts and thence government have increasingly advocated masking. One reason for this shift was political: the WHO was initially influenced by a desire to reserve a limited supply of medical masks for health workers (see for instance Bai 2020). Latterly, the potential for aerosol transmission of COVID-19 has been an influence on expert advice, implicating the precautionary principle. Throughout, the advice as translated by governments, as well as discussions in both mainstream and social media, often failed to distinguish between types of face covering. Moreover, online advice from government bodies in both the UK and US was sometimes difficult to decipher and/or contradictory. Additionally, such advice frequently contradicted WHO recommendations, while the WHO’s advice on the wearing of face masks by the public was itself contradictory. We note the lack of action by governments in both the UK and the US vis-à-vis WHO recommendations for community education, and enabling and empowering citizens and communities to “own” the response to COVID-19.

The Politics of Expert Advice

The advice of scientists cannot be politically neutral but is inevitably a product of the prevailing conditions governing knowledge making (Foucault 1994). This does not mean it is always in concord with the government. In the UK, former Chief Scientific Adviser David King accused the government of acting too slowly (Wainwright 2020), while Neil Ferguson, an epidemiologist advising the current government, said that if lockdown had been introduced a week earlier, deaths from COVID-19 could have been halved (BBC News 2020). If expert advice is not explicitly political, it is often politicised. On 22 August 2020, President Trump tweeted that “the deep state, or whoever, over at the FDA” (Food and Drug Administration) was obstructing efforts to combat COVID-19, the implication being that they sought to thwart his re-election.

Pandemic Government by Governments (1): The Government of the UK

UK government advisers remained sceptical of the efficacy of face coverings throughout the early months of the pandemic. A review of the minutes of meetings of the Scientific Advisory Group England (SAGE) up to 7 May revealed “10 reasons given for not making general face masks/coverings compulsory” (Hunt 2020). Government advisers consistently noted that there was not conclusive evidence that coverings were an effective measure against transmission (e.g. 10 Downing Street 2020a, 2020b). However, anecdotal evidence from Asia, where masks are widely used by the public, studies of masks used against other respiratory viruses, evocations of the precautionary principle (e.g. Greenhalgh et al. 2020), lobby group pressure (e.g. Lane 2020), and other governments around the world mandating face masks, combined to influence administrations in both the UK and the US.

The UK government was under pressure from “both sides” – those who believed they were in thrall to epidemiologists (e.g. Ford 2020), and those who thought that they were ignoring the science (e.g. Ward 2020). On 12 March 2020, for instance, Chief Scientific Adviser Sir Patrick Vallance proposed pursuing “herd immunity”. On 14 March, over 229 scientists signed an open letter to the government criticising Vallance’s proposal and calling for tougher measures against COVID-19 (Arrowsmith et al. 2020). Bearing in mind the uncertainty that such disagreements between experts generated, it is now conventional wisdom that the government reacted too late:

In the UK, lockdown measures were put in place some weeks too late to alleviate the rapid spread of the severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2) … The UK government’s delay in implementing physical distancing measures centred on how long the population would tolerate strict lockdown measures and on an ill-defined and dangerous notion of the creation of herd immunity by natural infection.

(Anderson et al. 2020)

The devolved governments of Northern Ireland, Wales, and Scotland have responsibility for health and education. Each government has its own Chief Medical Officer and Chief Scientific Adviser, who should coordinate with their London counterparts. However, as the UK began to ease lockdown, its four governments took markedly different approaches, generating rancour between them and increasing uncertainty among citizens. Generally, Wales and Scotland were more in tune with WHO recommendations:

As one Tory put it to me last week, [First Minister of Scotland] Nicola Sturgeon has succeeded in creating a contrast between her government’s “cautious and communitarian” approach to COVID-19 and the idea that [UK Prime Minister] Boris Johnson’s administration has been “chaotic and market-driven”.

(Harris 2020)

The UK government vacillated between the neoliberal governmentality that is its credo and the reluctant exercise of biopower to sustain the health of the population. In the process it took the opportunity to introduce the Coronavirus Act, which increases sovereign power and threatens civil liberties. The government’s biopolitics have been shaped by the advice of influential scientific advisers and institutions. Some schools united to pressure the government into mandating face coverings, for instance. We might dub this institutional or civic influence “a biopolitics-from-between”.

Pandemic Government by Governments (2): The Government of the US

Throughout the pandemic, President Trump was at odds with his scientific advisers and public health agencies. The CDC recommended face masks for public use on 3 April. On the same day the President said publicly that he was choosing not to wear one. He then shared a tweet mocking Joe Biden for so doing. Culturally, in some quarters of the US wearing a face mask has been linked to being unmanly, a coward, a communist, and/or foreign. On 18 July, the President stated that he would not legislate to require citizens to wear masks. His statement followed on the heels of a leading member of his own administration’s Coronavirus Task Force, Dr Anthony Fauci, urging state governors to be “as forceful as possible” to get everyone to wear masks.

Published in late June, a study that became influential identified airborne transmission of COVID-19 as the dominant mechanism of transmission and stated that the “wearing of face masks in public corresponds to the most effective means to prevent interhuman transmission” (Zhang et al. 2020). The science was shifting, and most state governors heeded the consequent advice of the CDC and Dr Fauci. As of 17 August, CNN recorded that 35 states plus the District of Columbia mandated face masks in designated public spaces (CNN 2020).

Wearing masks became a highly charged political issue in the run-up to presidential elections. President Trump made personal freedom the rationale behind his refusal to legislate on the measure. Face masks – particularly the lack thereof – became a signifier of political allegiance. Trump’s campaign was infamous for the absence of face coverings at rallies.

Governing Ourselves and Each Other (1): In the UK

Our research interactions and a survey on social media registered that a number of people chose to wear face masks in certain public spaces from early in the pandemic, disparaging expert advice. This counter-conduct manifested as the opposite of wilful resistance: these people enacted a biopolitics-from-below. Although this group included those who were vulnerable, others were healthy and low-risk. Many mask wearers strongly advocated that their peers follow suit.

Advocates of masks either expressed certainty about their effectiveness or cited the precautionary principle. Most stated that they were wearing a face covering to protect others rather than themselves. This belief was fuelled and fostered by myriad articles in the media, on occasion written by representatives of masking lobby groups (e.g. Borunda 2020; Tufekci et al. 2020). At the same time, even in areas with low infection rates, many of the same people expressed fear of contracting COVID-19. Wearing a mask thus signalled a good citizen, protecting others and the self. One aspect of this biopolitical citizenship, as one of our survey respondents stated, was “making a point of wearing them to remind others we’re not out of the woods”. The author of a study on the impact of wearing masks on social distancing (Luckman et al. 2010) said that wearing a mask is something you have to do actively, and it reminds you a crisis is happening: “It gives a sense, I think, of responsibility … to everybody that they’re a member of society and they’re doing something for the greater good” (Grover 2020).

A parallel aspect of this virtuous citizenship is disciplinary, however. It incorporates the accusation: I’m wearing a mask to protect you; why aren’t you doing the same for me? Across the world, this sort of attitude led to incidents where people not wearing face masks were verbally and sometimes physically attacked. This included people with health conditions that mitigated against mask wearing, people with disabilities, survivors of domestic violence, and others exempted from the practice. Disciplining the wearing of masks was problematic (see e.g. Walker 2020), and societal violence has not been one-way traffic: people have been assaulted – even killed – for questioning others who were not wearing masks or trying to enforce legislation (e.g. Drury 2020; Keay 2020; Porterfield 2020).

Governing Ourselves and Each Other (2): In the US

Although the majority of citizens supported legislative measures to curb COVID-19 (see e.g. Czeisler et al. 2020), wilful resistance to masks has been especially rancorous in US politics. Ostensible “grassroots” resistance by groups of mainly Republicans and libertarians ran parallel to the pronouncements made by a populist POTUS. A “swing state” which narrowly backed Donald Trump in the 2016 presidential election, Michigan has been a protest hotspot. Governor Whitmer imposed strict stay-at-home orders from 23 March to 1 June, which succeeded relatively well in checking the spread of the virus.

On 15 April, the Michigan Conservative Coalition organised “Operation Gridlock”, and an estimated 3,000 people in vehicles blocked the roads of Lansing. The protest was supported by right-wing US politicians and media, with President Trump tweeting “Liberate Michigan!”. The central issue for protesters was livelihoods. Expressing the general mood, some told the media: “We need to feed our families”; “We can’t eat, we can’t live!”. The political message from organisers and their supporters was that communism was more deadly than COVID-19, and that the governor was guilty of “overreach”. On 30 April people, including the extreme-right Michigan Liberty Militia, protested as the governor sought to extend measures. Defying the law, most protesters did not wear face coverings, and armed men entered the state capitol (Beckett 2020).

To what extent protests such as those in Michigan are an expression of “neoliberal-governmentality-from-below” is open to question. The protests were largely organised top-down and most often by groups campaigning for the re-election of Donald Trump. Although the protests ran contrary to public health interests, in their podium speeches protesters did pose valid biopolitical questions, querying the translation of science into dubious disciplinary measures.

In Michigan, then, wearing a face mask was less a virtue signal than it was a political statement. Certainly not wearing a mask was an indicator of voting intention. If wearing a mask indicated taking communal responsibility for some citizens, for others it signified an assault on individual freedom. As an expression of the right to self-govern, and eschew collective biopolitics, the Michigan mask protests reflect the cultural effects of neoliberal governmental norms; namely, having minimal concern with taking actions that protect others unless such actions align with your own socio-economic interests.

Knowing Nothing and Telling Our Truths

Particularly in the instance of face coverings, governance of the pandemic involved dealing with uncertain science and varying expert translations of that into advice. The US President patently struggled with comprehending the science, while both the US administration and the Westminster government found themselves at odds with scientific advisers on several occasions. At the heart of these disagreements was a tension between the biopolitical protection of public health and sustaining neoliberal economies. Arguments for focussing on the economy tend to assert the potential for greater individual suffering in a future blighted by recession. The citizens in our survey, meanwhile, struggled with the science of face coverings as a measure against COVID-19. This was not only because that science was uncertain and contested, but also because it was poorly communicated by government. We note here a conundrum of translating uncertain science into specific measures: if the effectiveness of masks is unproven, which type of mask should we advise people to wear?

Neoliberal governmentality was the dominant power relation driving the Westminster government and, all the more so, the US administration. Indeed, President Trump explicitly equated biopolitics in US states with suppression of individual freedoms. In the UK, neoliberal governmentality was evidently tempered with a greater measure of attention on the health of the population. This was impressed upon the Westminster government by the actions of civil society groups, for example scientists expressing common concerns and schools uniting to challenge economistic policies that would affect them. While scientists intervened politically on the side of a particular interpretation of science, schools declined to compromise on safety in order to satisfy the government’s agenda of not only getting children back to school but concomitantly getting parents back to work.

The devolved governments of the UK and the governors of most US states tended much more towards biopower, putting the immediate health of populations ahead of future economic concerns and individual freedoms. However, none of these governments extended biopower to anything like the disseminated biopolitics that was consistently advocated by the WHO: community education, empowerment, and tailoring measures to the local context based on interaction with communities did not emerge as prominent features of governance. Where local measures were applied in England they were often at odds with the views of local government. Though no correlation between community consultation and efficacy can be made, for the most part such measures proved unsuccessful.

Our choice of case studies contrasted citizenly obedience in the UK with wilful resistance in Michigan. Neither of these responses amounts to counter-conduct. Overall, the population of the UK revealed itself to be remarkably in accord with the exercise of disciplinary power. When face coverings were mandated in specified public spaces, notably on public transport, the population were again more than compliant, with stories of people disciplining each other. As we illustrated, some citizens who embraced the precautionary principle with respect to wearing face masks engaged in “trans-precaution”, taking action against those not wearing masks in the absence of certainty that such non-compliance constituted a threat (see Hannah 2010).

Paradoxically, face coverings became a means of surveillance. Wearing a mask in the UK, for example, identified the wearer as a good citizen rather than deviant, criminal, or culturally “other”. On the other hand, the absence of a face covering revealed people as “public health traitors” (to use Topple’s [2020] words). While we have observed that the majority of US citizens approved of face masks as a measure against COVID-19, choosing whether or not to wear one also signalled the likely political disposition of the person surveilled.

Conclusions Unmasked

Expert advice on masks has reversed over the course of our research. One year into the pandemic, the “conventional wisdom” is that aerosol and not fomite (contaminated surface) transmission of COVID-19 poses the greatest risk (see e.g. Tapper 2021). In the US, this has translated into advice from the CDC, endorsed by Dr Fauci, that it makes “common-sense” to double mask, i.e. to wear a cloth mask on top of a surgical one. Such advice is a turn to a scientifically cognisant biopolitics that underscores the defeat of Donald Trump in the presidential election. Although the UK government has not (yet) strengthened its regulation on face covering, other European governments, notably Austria and Germany, specify the wearing of a FFP (filtering face piece) on public transport and in shops.

Population groups in nation-states across the world have displayed contrasting reactions to their governments mandating the wearing of face masks in public spaces. Broadly speaking, libertarians have reacted strongly against such measures, railing against excessive interference in people’s lives. On occasion this opposition has resulted in violence. Meanwhile, what we might term “more civic-minded citizens” have not only been compliant, but have also become active proponents of mask wearing, on occasion castigating dissenters.

Neoliberal governmentality fared badly in response to the pandemic. As the devolved governments of the UK and, more markedly, governance in Denmark illustrates, an administrative approach driven by biopower was more effective (see e.g. Worldometer 2020), as well as better supported by the citizenry (see e.g. Devlin and Connaughton 2020; Nation Cymru 2020). Recognising the efficacy of biopolitics, we also acknowledge the validity of concerns about individual rights and freedoms with respect to governance of the pandemic, and of crises more generally. In the shorter-term at least, developing counter-conduct and enhancing democracy may not be conducive to sustaining public health (though see Henley 2020).

Biopolitics-from-below would appear to offer the possibility for a more adaptive and legitimate basis for responding to public health crises. That said, the social capacity for such responses has been eroded by decades of neoliberal governmentality in places such as the UK. Our analysis of the governance of the pandemic suggests the need for more flexible and fluid power relations across scales. Recognising calls for better international cooperation between governments, we would argue for much better communication and coordination between national, regional, and local government. To mix tool-using metaphors, broad-brush governance applied across a nation-state is a blunt instrument. Most especially, we recognise the need to involve local communities in governance. The development of counter-culture would likely involve in-place communities demanding decision-making powers vis-à-vis measures to counter COVID-19. The citizens of sparsely-populated and lowly-infected Ceredigion, for example, while taking into account the distribution of health services across Wales, were well-placed to consider more moderate measures than the nationwide lockdown. The construction of such politics must be wary of veering to either the disciplinary, a tendency we highlighted among UK citizens, or the libertarianism that marked dissent in the US. Any biopolitics-from-below that seeks to sustain a population should also be cognisant of individual freedoms while not privileging economy over society.

Into this mix of more reflexive and dynamic power relations needs to be stirred a Nietzschean appreciation of uncertainty (see Weiner 2020), specifically with respect to science and thence expert advice and policy. Throughout the pandemic, the majority of medical scientists, experts, governments, and citizens have yearned for certainties that, we suggest, were always already impossible. We appreciate that embracing uncertainty when it comes hand-in-glove with the spectre of death is a “big ask”. We would argue, however, that citizens need to rise even higher to the challenge: to thrive upon uncertainty. At once obvious and paradoxical, uncertainty is one aspect of life that we can always be certain of.

Striving for certainty in the pandemic reflects a widespread desire to get back to normal. Widespread but far from universal. Pre-pandemic normality was for many already uncertain, wretched, and fearful. During the pandemic some citizens and communities thrived on uncertainty that sparked new creativities – for instance in getting necessities to vulnerable people. In this regard, local government, in the UK at least, has proved more responsive than “command-and-control” central government. It is uncertainty that drives the human quest for knowledge, not only to establish new short-term and workable certainties, but also to reveal new mysteries and avenues to explore. The uncertainties of the pandemic have challenged us to question what we know and how we know it, revealing new truths about community and governance while spurring us to live those truths. Uncertainty reveals possibilities for constructing counter-conduct and biopolitics-from-below.

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