Lennard Davis, In the Time of Pandemic, the Deep Structure of Biopower Is Laid Bare, Critical Inquiry, Volume 47, Number S2, 26 June 2020
In regard to disability, the ableism that puts on a compassionate mask in milder times now reveals its brutal face. While laws like the Americans with Disabilities Act acknowledge human rights and subjectivities involved in disabled identity, a pandemic brings into play a war of survival whose rules are simpler and deadlier. Limited resources and pressured levels of triage create a situation in which medical decisions have to be made quickly and almost reflexively. When those kinds of pressured judgments occur, health practitioners must rely on a wartime gut reaction as well as a combination of health ethics templates and cost-benefit analyses assessing whose life is worth saving and whose is less so.
Any metric used for determining who should get limited resources will inevitably be drawn into a eugenics sinkhole. It is here that biopolitics and thanatopolitics display a unity that might have seemed to have been in opposition. The urge to let live and the urge to let die morph nicely into each other. In order to let live, doctors must let die. An unenviable choice arises at every tension point in every hospital in every country. This proliferation of life/death decisions blunts the emotional response to what might be seen as programmed executions or even annihilations. While biopolitics and thanatopolitics have been drawn to dramatic personae like the comatose patient and the concentration camp prisoner, the more mundane bit players—the person with mobility impairments or the cognitively disabled person—barely get attention. Those in disability studies are well aware of this minor role assigned by the majority to the minority. Yet the actuality is that the disabled or Deaf person experiences the effects of communitas and immunity on a rather consistent and, to others, undetectable basis.
In some sense, the discussion over the healthy person is a discussion about the formation of the modern citizen. As Michel Foucault and others have noted, the development of a medical system is of course also a system of control. If it works well, it is hidden and undetectable—powered by self will rather than heavy-handed regulation. And the system has worked very well, until now when the evolution of the word health suddenly becomes more clearly a way of talking about power and setting one group over another.