Foucault: Covid-19 and Power
24th September 2021
By: Beth Mason, BA Sociology student
This time last year* we could never have imagined being in the midst of a pandemic nor having our behaviour controlled so much by the government. Johnson has overseen enormous restrictions on liberties including two national lockdowns. Perhaps this is justified in order to contain Covid-19 but it raises serious questions over power, surveillance and control which can be linked to Foucauldian theory. Covid-19 is an infectious disease caused by the newly discovered coronavirus. It has led to over a million deaths worldwide and has changed the way people live their daily lives. To what extent is increased surveillance and control necessary?
Foucault’s idea of Panoptic Surveillance
The panopticon was designed by Bentham and is a circular shaped prison with an inspection room in the centre. A guard can sit in the inspection room and effectively see all prisoners at all times (Couch et al, 2020). Foucault uses the panopticon to explain how surveillance becomes internalised by the individual. This state of permanently feeling watched means individuals become their own agents of surveillance by complying with expectations (Foucault, 1979). Panoptic surveillance is an apparatus of discipline and a clever form of coercion (Foucault, 1979).
Panoptic Surveillance and Covid-19
This idea of panoptic surveillance is seen in many of the government responses to Covid-19. One example is the digital track-and-trace app which was created to inform users continuously and instantly when they have been in contact with a carrier of the virus. Therefore, our phones are enabling ‘continuous control’ as we are constantly checking them and if we are notified that we have been in contact with someone with Covid-19 we immediately must self-isolate, thus, we are self-disciplining (Bunz, 2020). Furthermore, the app raises issues around data protection; how much personal data is acceptable for a government to store on its citizens? Additionally, the promotion of the track and trace apps on social media and use of hashtags like #lockitdown, #covidiot and #stayathome encourage conformity (Couch et al, 2020). Moreover, at one-point people were encouraged to call the police if their neighbours were not following government guidelines and this is an example of peer surveillance. There are new surveillance technologies under development such as pandemic drones that can ‘monitor temperature, heart rate and can detect people sneezing and coughing in crowds’ (Gibson, 2020). The pandemic has produced exceptional levels of surveillance and people have accepted this out of fear of Covid-19, despite ethical issues and potential breaches of privacy (Couch et al, 2020). Consequently, Covid-19 has led to the normalization of extended surveillance. Is this justified in order to tackle the pandemic?
Foucault’s notions on Power and Knowledge
Foucault looks at the relationship between power and knowledge. Those in power can produce forms of knowledge and that knowledge increases their power (Foucault, 1979). In relation to Covid-19 the government is our centralized source of information and the population trust the government and they believe this information is factual. To help with the public health emergency caused by Covid-19 the government has made lots of rules which have prevented us from going out, meeting people, and dealing with issues such as face coverings and self-isolation. Slogans such as “the rule of 6” do not adequately summarize the regulation and can lead to confusion. Details of these rules are often presented shortly before implementation and can lack clarity and may vary in different communities. One example of this is the unequal treatment of religious festivals. Diwali and Eid had to be celebrated within your household during lockdown whereas there is an easing of regulations for Christmas. The Government also introduced an Act of Parliament – the Coronavirus Act 2020 which was rushed through Parliament and included changes in the law such as new police powers in relation to potentially infectious people and changes to the government’s surveillance powers. This relates to ‘shock therapy’ which is the exploitation of national crises by pushing through controversial policies while citizens are too emotionally and physically distracted by disasters or upheavals to mount an effective resistance (Klein, 2008).
Furthermore, the media has the power to produce knowledge. Initially the government along with the media used fear to control the population particularly through whipping up moral panics by publishing daily death tolls. Images of empty supermarket shelves led to bulk buying of products such as toilet rolls and this is an example of moral panic where the media amplified an issue which led to an irrational response (Cohen, 2011). This shows the media’s power in influencing behaviour.
Biopower is a Foucauldian concept which refers to surveillance, monitoring and discipline imposed on populations by the state to manage births, deaths, reproduction, and illnesses (Foucault, 2008). This concept can be applied to Covid-19. Initially, the government included ‘herd immunity’ as a possible response to the Covid-19 pandemic which is a form of indirect protection from infectious disease that occurs when a sufficient percentage of a population has become immune to an infection, whether through vaccination or previous infections. However, the idea of the whole population being exposed to the virus and the elderly and vulnerable dying as a consequence was deemed as unacceptable, so the Government introduced lockdown to save lives. With the introduction of the vaccine, the Government have drawn up a hierarchy of the order in which groups will receive the vaccine based on risk. These government responses to Covid-19 have the power to determine who lives and who dies.
The Covid-19 pandemic is an unprecedented and incredibly challenging situation to manage. New knowledge about the virus is constantly evolving and there are global and national pressures about how to respond. In such a crisis, it is essential to have strong and powerful leadership. There is no time for long debates or discussions and decisions do need to be made rapidly. Perhaps, in order to manage the virus, surveillance and control is necessary. However, there are ethical issues which should be considered, laws and rules can still be deliberated after implementation and the population have the right to know what underpins the pandemics measures.
*This piece was originally written in January 2021, and so the post is referring to January 2020, pre-pandemic.
- Bunz, M. (2020) Contact Tracing Apps: Should we embrace Surveillance? Available at: Contact Tracing Apps: Should we embrace Surveillance? (kcl.ac.uk) (Accessed: 12 December 2020).
- Cohen, S. (2011) Folk devils and moral panics: the creation of the mods and rockers. Abingdon, Oxon: Routledge.
- Couch, D. L., Robinson, P. and Komesaroff, P. A. (2020) COVID-19—Extending Surveillance and the Panopticon. Journal of Bioethical Inquiry. 17, pp. 809–814.
- Foucault, M. (1979) Discipline and punish: the birth of the prison. Harmondsworth: Penguin Books.
- Foucault, M. and Collège de France (2008) The birth of biopolitics: lectures at the collège de france, 1978-79. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.
- Gibson, C. (2020) UniSA working on “pandemic drone” to detect coronavirus. Available at: https://www.unisa.edu.au/unisanews/2020/autumn/story11/. (Accessed: 12 December 2020).
- Klein, N. (2008) The shock doctrine: the rise of disaster capitalism. Camberwell, Victoria: Penguin Books.