Covid: The Ethical Disease

by | 13 Mar 2020

This morning, as I was cycling down a road I frequently take on my way to work, I came across a blockage, big orange plastic net boards cutting across the way, stopping all traffic from going through. Some road works, nothing out of the ordinary. It just meant I could not pass through, had to find another way. While manoeuvring my bicycle backwards, a word rose up to my mind like undigested breakfast, an unrelated word, nothing to do with the situation in hand really, where did it come from, such nonsense

The word was covid. My mind was toying with me. Freely associating while cycling, automatic writing of words on the bitumen, whiffs of syllables from passers-by: covid is stoppage. The term itself, assigned by the International Committee on Taxonomy of Viruses, is a glottal stop: Co-STOP-Vi-STOP-D-STOP-19. Swallow in between: COrona VIrus Disease 2019. As opposed to previous coronaviruses, CoViD-19 is not only the virus, but the Disease as well. Although to carry the virus might not mean that one has developed the disease, the name itself has already decided: the virus is the disease.

Covid is the disease of stoppage, of ‘social distancing’, of ‘self-isolating’ (all these new terms that will no doubt find their way in the Oxford Dictionary very soon), of no-handshakes-no-hugs, no flights, no passing through. It’s the perfect metaphor for our time, where sovereign walls are being erected, armies are being called upon to defend whole continents against the oncoming humanity, officials visit spaces of unspeakable violence and congratulate the efforts of the defender, and neo-colonising attitudes reinforcing the moral predominance of the origin are springing up everywhere across the globe. We all have this disease, even if our bodies try to resist its full development. We are victims of our complying complicity. Covid is simply spreading itself on top of our acquiescing bodies, a thin layer of sanitiser and fear.

But just like a sanitiser fails to distinguish between viral and useful bacteria, in the same way we fail to distinguish between stoppages. At the time of writing, Italy is currently in a phenomenal lock-down stoppage, whereas the UK government is still mulling over the possibility of taking any sort of measure (and the US carries on with business as usual, which means of course the business of closing the border – again). Stoppage one: the Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte said “In the choices that I have made up to now I have taken account of all interests. But I made a deal with my conscience, we will always put the health of Italians first.” Stoppage two: the UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson aired the theory, admittedly without fully subscribing to it (but begging the question, who on earth came up with that theory? and why would a prime minister ever even consider mentioning it?) that we might as well “take it on the chin, take it all in one go.” Economy versus, what, bravado? English stiff upper lip? Eton mess?

There is a stoppage that is calling us in the name of the virus: at this stage, CoViD-19 is mostly a developed-world disease that threatens the elderly and the vulnerable in terms of either underlying health issues or repeated exposure to the virus. This means that the majority of the population, including children and their parents, can afford to ignore it. That the driven 30s and the beaming 40s, even the strapping 50s, can carry on with business as usual. So we are mostly ok. Right?

No. Because if we think like that, we have failed. We have already succumbed to the disease. The challenge of Covid is monumentally ethical. Covid demands of us a quintessentially Spinozan ethics of positioning, of emplacing one’s body in a geography of awareness of how affects circulate between us and others. And others are of course the ones we stand next to on the London tube, our elderly parents, our asthmatic or cancer-suffering friends, our diabetic acquaintances. But others are also the ones who, faced with covid, have become joint presences, intimate but geographically remote connections, unidentifiable flows of causalities. We are all collective bodies, with histories and futures, bacteria and mites, mobile phones and prostheses, moving along like clouds of affects, emanating presence and attachments, fears and desires. At any one moment, we carry about us our whole lives and deaths, and we converge with other bodies, human and nonhuman, forming temporary or more lengthy assemblages. We are all collective bodies leading collective lives with other collective bodies. So when the Italian PM says that he is putting Italian lives first, he is both right and wrong: by putting Italian lives first (or non-italians who happened to be this side of the border, refugees in transit through italy, undocumented migrants who do not respond to the Italian identity), the globe as a whole becomes a safer place for the vulnerable – a rare philosophical moment of inversion, when the cheap invocation of some notional national cohesion actually has the butterfly effect of benefitting non-italians everywhere.

Covid asks of us to assume an ethics of withdrawal. Not a simple withdrawal of social distancing and saying no to handshakes. Yes, these too perhaps, but these are just ways in which to rethink and revisit our ways of being: recall for example that moment of western supremacy, when the refusal by a Muslim couple in Switzerland to shake hands cost them their citizenship. Ethics of withdrawal is planetary. It is a withdrawal from standard preconceptions of how the capitalist world should look like, what progress is, where our responsibilities lie. It’s a question of finding other ways to do it – whatever that is, whether supporting the self-employed who cannot afford not to work, allowing social life to continue in the face of the virus, connecting differently with the world.

Covid demands an ethics of self-positioning (physically and at the same time ethically) in relation to other bodies, of removing ourselves from the collectivity that we might harm despite our best intentions, of thinking beyond the edge of our skin. Covid must be stopped from reaching the vast refugee camps across the world. Covid must remain a developed country disease where national health systems are generally better equipped to deal with the crisis. Covid’s curve must be flattened so that the vulnerable part of the population will not be exposed at the same time and repeatedly to the virus. And we must do this by taking measures of withdrawal at the heart of ‘largely unaffected’ Britain or wherever else still considers itself unaffected (as if this could ever be possible). This is the ethics of withdrawal: neither a spectacle of media panic in which each one of us overindulges with morbid fascination; nor, however, a show of lack of fear and business as usual, and bravado of the type we will survive – yes, we might (although many of this we, won’t). The ethics of withdrawal before Covid is a show of a planetary collectivity, where we finally understand that our bodies are all connected, and that taking precautions in London will mean that more people will survive in the refugee camps or in the less developed world with more fragile health systems. It is ultimately a show of removing oneself from the mania of ‘progress’, with its global pollution, climate change and anthropocenic irreversibility, and allowing the planet to take a breath. The Virocene, a taste of which we have been having with the various viruses of the past few years, throws into relief the ultimate continuum amongst the various bodies, whether this continuum is desired or undesired.

At the height of crisis, where the limited amount of ventilators are more precious than any other medical implement or practice, Covid seemingly brings us before the choice of intubing one human being over another, both of whom are suffering of what is essentially bilateral interstitial pneumonia. And so, the medical personnel is asked to choose to save one critically ill person over the other. They are asked to give an answer to something as monstrous as this. But the only possible answer is neither, nor. The answer is to withdraw from that false dilemma, one life over the other, one vulnerability over the other, and one calculation of survival probability over the other. The only possible answer is to not be asked that inane question. Covid’s vociferous command is that the disease is already here, and that the only response is to withdraw in time from having to ask the dreaded question ‘who to save first.’

Andreas Philippopoulos-Mihalopoulos, Professor of Law & Theory at the University of Westminster, London, and Director of The Westminster Law & Theory Lab. / /


  1. As much as I dislike Boris Johnson, it’s a bit cheap to criticise him for the ‘take it on the chin’ idea when that’s exactly what he was saying we shouldn’t do.

    • Not quite; he said “I think we need to strike a balance” between the hit on the chin and taking “all the measures that we can now to stop the peak of the disease being as difficult for the NHS as it might be”

  2. What about the source and cause of the virus and respect for animal life? Speciesism needs addressing – there is much much more to the planet than human bodies. ‘Planetary collectivity’ means little without including all life.

    • This is absolutely correct, it is as true now as it was a few weeks ago, we need to be ethically responsible and see how our bravado might impact someone less fortunate, here or in other countries, and act responsibly.


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