Offline: COVID-19—a crisis of power, The Lancet, COMMENT| VOLUME 396, ISSUE 10260, P1383, OCTOBER 31, 2020
COVID-19 is about the politics of the body. In a series of lectures and essays in the 1970s and early 1980s, Michel Foucault (who died in 1984) argued that the discipline of public health emerged with the birth of capitalism in the 18th century. The body came to be understood as an instrument of economic production, of labour power, and so became a subject of significant political interest. Medicine and public health were endorsed as tools to enhance these productive forces, to ensure that people were fit for work. The priority given to the body as an important determinant of mercantilist prosperity ran parallel with a further historical turn—the meaning of government. The idea of government began with the narrow objective of retaining jurisdiction over a defined territory. But in the 18th century, European governments incorporated the idea of economy into their practice. Economy then referred to the family. Advances in statistical measurement brought attention to an entirely new concept for governments to consider—that of population. Governments switched their focus from families to populations as the units on which their political economies depended. Population became, according to Foucault, “the ultimate end of government”.