Humanity’s Catastrophe: Following Sylvia Wynter in the Age of Coronavirus

by | 10 Apr 2020

The news of Kayla Williams, a black woman from Peckham, dying of suspected Covid-19 after being rendered “not a priority” by paramedics on the scene has sat like a stone within me. Apart from being further proof that communities sitting at the intersection of racial and wealth inequality bear the burden of dying from preventable causes disproportionately, her death is symptomatic of a deeper current of structural prioritising of some and de-prioritising of others that predates this crisis.

In this blog I want to explore the socio-economic dynamics driving the responses to and effects of this health emergency. In a world ordered by racist and capitalist mechanics, forces of inequality are informing and being re-inscribed cyclically by the measures being taken. The xenophobic impact of coronavirus on east-Asian communities has been widely discussed but the shadow of racism is present across lived experiences of this pandemic by marginalised communities. With neither this viral pandemic nor racism showing any signs of abating, I want to take this opportunity to draw out the overlapping of these phenomenon and dare to wonder how we give humanity a different future.

With this in mind it is imperative that we avoid the imperial trap that obsesses over local responses to global designs, but rather see the pandemic as a global response to failing Western bourgeois design.

Observing the initial transmission of the infection outside of China demonstrates the entanglement of social and economic capital that follows it. Medical anthropologist Aida Benton’s theorising of the current pandemic as a manifestation of ‘racialised geography of blame’ offers a useful frame to analyse the initial obsession with China as the origin point, and the consequent xenophobia towards East Asian communities and narrowed testing criteria that overlooked community transmission for weeks across the World. This singular focus on origin coupled with European hubris overlooks the colonial flows made apparent. Though the virus does not discriminate, its movement across borders from China to Europe, United States, and South Korea, appearing on a cruise ship, and turning New York, London and Milan into hotspots shows the flow of socioeconomic capital. It is evidence that though viruses move within bodies, some bodies are freer to move across borders than others by virtue of their nationality, race and capital

The perverse logics of ‘bordering’ that are implicit on preservation, protection, and exclusion that neither viruses nor those with privileged passports care for are made more explicit through techniques such as ‘social-distancing’ and ‘lockdowns’ that individualise notions of contamination and exacerbate our tendencies of self-preservation. Though the situation is one of an acute emergency, the techniques stated above are realising themselves in a world ordered by inequalities that has stigmatised both historically and presently racialized, queer, and lowered caste communities. Segregation, discrimination and dehumanisation are all baked in to the practice of structural social distancing that further exposes racialised, indigenous, queer, and Dalit communities to polluters, insecure housing, lack of sanitation, economic peril, and reduced access to healthcare. Structural social distancing and placing members of these communities into lockdown through immigration detention, imprisonment and other legislative forms that restrict their physical and economic movement has a direct impact on their life expectancy. Without addressing these inequities, simply washing your hands for 20 seconds and keeping a distance of 2 metres will not save the lives of structurally marginalised communities.

The privileging of markets over people has placed the aggravated burden of individual infectiousness on the marginalised who are overrepresented in occupations that need face-to-face contact and are gig-economy jobs. The nature of such work places workers at greater risk of infection, exacerbating associated precarity with rare access to paid sick leave and health insurance and forcing those already vulnerable to choose between their health and their income. In the eugenicist reasoning of ‘herd immunity’ and natural selection, poverty automatically leaves you deselected.

Looking at this pandemic and government responses to it beyond a purely biopolitical lens requires us to place race and caste front and centre in our analysis, not as a classification emerging from biocentric notions but as a set of socio-political processes of differentiation and heirarchization projected on to the biological human body. The disciplining of humanity by these ‘racialising assemblages’ de-prioritises the care required by Kayla Williams, detainees in immigration detention centres, garment workers and truckers in India while prioritising corporate bailouts, private healthcare and arms deals.

Daring to give humanity a different future beyond the pandemic of coronavirus and racism requires a radical re-imagining of humanness and the ethics of being-human-in-the-world. Our current conception of humanness reifies ‘a genre of human with Western bourgeois values’ as hypothesized by Caribbean philosopher Sylvia Wynter. This Human is modulated by an imperial knowledge system and origin stories that explain our being and produces the categories of the rational/irrational, selected/deselected, and prioritised/deprioritised.

This view of the human condition is overrepresented as the only narrative through which the stakes of human freedom are to be understood and evaluated. This story is re-told compulsively until it naturalises itself as common sense, as the only possible realisation of how the world must be. Getting trapped in this re-inscribing loop fails us from noticing that the stories underpinning the figure of the Human are in fact narratively constructed, and that it is our continued acceptance of this narrative that naturalises the biocentric Human stories. Our acceptance means that we fail to notice that evolution, natural selection and biocentricity are all origin stories with an ontological effect.

Implicit in this narrative are those who have been casted as non-Humans or less-than-Humans. They are tied into this system by the trap of liberal universal Humanity, which reifies a purely biological human subordinated to the accumulation of capital. The discourse that “we are all born equal” is influenced by the fact of inequity that shapes our differential position in the world. Nonetheless, the pervasive mirage of universal Humanity coerces our commitment to itself as we continually invest in its knowledge systems and legitimise the origin stories that created it – often to our own detriment

Nowhere has this paradox been made better visible recently than in the organising of present global relationships (predicated on Malthusian narratives of natural selection). Only few days ago the World Bank declared that countries would have to implement structural reforms to stave off the economic crises exacerbated by the pandemic, the same reform policies that have driven states in the Global South, predominantly in Africa and Latin America, to poverty. The United States of America, amidst the pandemic, imposed new sanctions on Iran whose social security and healthcare systems have already been crippled by generations of sanctions. The schema self-replicates in the practices and enunciations of what it means to be Human by those who most powerfully and convincingly imagine the “right” characteristics of Humanity.

Disrupting this narrative and imagining possibilities of humanness beyond the restraints of nationality, race, gender and capital, invites a furthering of the “gaze from below”. Moving the perspective away from the above articulations of Humanity to give humanness a different future could mean giving it a different past that is species-inclusive and anti-biocentric. Instead of trying to reclaim ourselves within the hegemonic concept of Humanity, we must follow Wynter’s lead in condemning it as no longer sustainable and bring back in to consideration other self-conceptualisations that supersede imperial universality.

The contradiction of humanness is that despite processes that place us into specificities, we are a compound of other living beings and species, nothing has made that more clear than this pandemic which has not only spread across geographic lines but also beyond species. Belonging to all places together through origin narratives, reimagined pasts, or material technologies of global interconnectedness weaves with each entity a relationality that places us in solidarity with them while being detached to our differences, but never indifferent of them.

Imagining a different future for humanness does not lie in a new definition but in interrogating what it means to be(come) human – as a process of everlasting evolution, praxis of being, a relational act. Reimagining the human as a verb that is alterable and dynamic, existing as a living form within asymmetrical relationships can introduce a reciprocity and care for humanity and other living and non-living beings. As Mbembe states, through this reimagination, becoming-human-in-the-world becomes contingent not on birth, origin or race but on journeying and transfiguration that demands from us to confront and engage the interstices and borders of coloniality within and outside us.

For the oppressed, the future will have been now and if local responses to the global crisis are anything to go by, now is perhaps the time to give the Human a long-overdue makeover, or as Sylvia Wynter states,

“…the struggle of our new millennium will be one between the ongoing imperative of securing the well-being of our present ethnoclass (i.e. Western Bourgeois) conception of the human, Man, which over represents itself as if it were the human itself, and that of securing the well-being, and therefore the full cognitive and behavioural autonomy of the human species itself/ourselves.”



  1. Weheliye A. G, Habeas Viscus : Racializing Assemblages, Biopolitics and Black Feminist Theories of the Human (Duke University Press 2014)
  2. Cesaire A, Discourse on Colonialism (Monthly Review Press 1972)
  3. McKittrick K (ed.), Sylvia Wynter : On Being Human as Praxis (Duke University Press 2015)
  4. Mbembe A, Necropolitics (Duke University Press 2019)
  5. Wynter S, ‘Unsettling the Coloniality of Being/Power/Truth/Freedom: Towards the Human, After Man, Its Overrepresentation–An Argument‘ [2003] The New Centennial Review 257
  6. Benton A, Border Promiscuity, Illicit Intimacies and Origin Stories: Or what Contagion’s Bookends Tell us About New Infectious Diseases and a Racialized Geography of Blame (Somatosphere, 6th March 2020) <> Accessed 26th March 2020

1 Comment

  1. The story of Kayla Williams that the blog begins with is an illustration of structural and systemic violence that prioritizes some lives over others. Whose lives matter? It is not clear that shifting the understanding of what it means to be “human” will address the core issues of colonial and patriarchal Western paradigms, rather it is more like moving the goalposts and altering the narrative, not addressing the issue. The idea that there is a shared global notion of “our current conception of humanness” is already deeply steeped in Western-centric thinking, how can it move towards a solution. Especially when Franz Fanon’s revolutionary humanisms and those of Indigenous scholars in the south are ignored. Wynter’s work is often pressed into service for arguments that favor trendy white ideas like “post-humanism” again this is an argument rooted in privilege that fails to address neoliberal individualism at the service of a necropolitics that has no critique of capitalism.


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