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by Rachel Bedek, Diploma student at Durham University and will begin an integrated PhD programme in Autumn 2020

The novel Coronavirus (COVID-19) brings with it another new event: this is the first time that the world population has been subject to the imposed restrictions of respective governments en masse. Carl Schmitt posited the relationship between the sovereign and the state of exception in his work Politische Theologie (1922), stating that “sovereign is he who decides on the state of exception.” Now, what constitutes a ‘state of exception’? This is widely discussed. However, this pandemic warranted a significant response, invoking exceptions to the routine use of law by sovereign states on behalf of the populace, for the purpose of common protection. COVID-19 ushered in a disruption in the rhythm of daily life in an unprecedented way: it felt as though the world had stopped spinning. As we began to slow down, the relationship between the individual and the state was brought to the forefront our consciousness for, for perhaps many, the first time. This disruption of our daily monotonous routine illuminates what constitutes normalcy and unmasks the power structures that frame the function of everyday life. These powers of exception reveal us to ourselves rather than simply innovate. As a consequence, we are confronted with understanding citizenship from a different perspective in recognizing this power.

The social awareness that this exceptional event provokes manifests in discussions that are multi-faceted, dynamic, subjective… and public. Different narratives have emerged country to country concerning the governmental response to the pandemic. These narratives are evidenced through the use of language by leaders and by the restrictions set forth that garnered praise in some situations, and scrutiny in others. We see how different governments constructed a narrative that either fostered trust and support or sparked the emergence of counter-narratives that thrust the dualistic nature of the state and citizen relationship into the public arena.

As we observe the public response of citizens to both the pandemic and the action of the state, a more conscious social awareness can be birthed in us. Notions of human worth and ‘good’ citizenship reveal to us the powerful narratives at work. However, counter-narratives also illuminate the historical issues that have produced and perpetuated the social divides we now live with, and which the virus acts upon. As an example, we see discrepancies emerging in the mortality rates among different demographics in America.[1] It is impossible to make sense out of this data without reference to the systemic prejudice that affects communities of colour. This data is subject to interpretation; and this interpretation is often shaped by the narratives of state power we feel comfortable with. Who the state protects, why and how, are important questions that can only be negotiated in the political arena. However, as citizen actors have confronted these powerful competing narratives, grassroot movements have sought to find voice. We are in a moment when we need counter-narratives that can acknowledge the systemic issues the virus has laid bare, and garner collective citizen support.

The Covid-19 pandemic warranted active state responses for the purpose of citizen protection. We have two actors in this situation: the state who imposes the restrictions and its citizens who are subject to it. The varying responses to this event by different states and the subsequent, plural, reactions by its citizens illuminate the narratives of protection, citizenship and state power that we live with. It is the complexity of these narratives, and the movements that they spark, that warrants thoughtful reflection in the months to come. What is revealed to us for now is the dominant ideas that shape our public life, and their significance for the kind of actions that we believe characterize the ‘good’ citizen. What we have to decide is how comfortable we are with these narratives, and where we might, together, find convincing counter stories.

[1] APM Research Lab Staff, The Color of Coronavirus: COVID-19 Deaths By Race and Ethnicity in the U.S. (American Public Media, 24 June 2020) [accessed 25 June 2020].