Violence during covid-19: on immunity and community

By Maria Wemrell

While we have all experienced consequences of the covid-19 pandemic, the force of its impacts have been decisively different across individuals and groups. Corona has exacerbated existing societal inequalities, with stark disparities being seen in death rates and possibilities to maintain economic livelihoods during lock-down and social distancing. It has furthermore been widely recognised that lock-down measures during covid-19 have aggravated the suffering of many through the increasing risk of intimate partner violence (IPV). Domestic violence during covid-19 has been referred to in terms of a double or shadow pandemic, as an increase in prevalence has been reported in many countries. Although professionals from IPV support organisations in Sweden attest to, so far, having seen varying effects of covid-19 on the demand for support, an increase in IPV has been signaled here too.

A major reason for the elevated risk of IPV – alongside additional and interrelated sources of covid-19-related stress such as illness, financial or employment issues and increased responsibilities for child-care and domestic work – lies in people’s increased confinement to their homes, potentially together with or under the increased control of abusive partners. In descriptions of typical IPV dynamics, social isolation is a central aspect. Through such isolation, which often increases over time together with the violence, the ability of victims to ask for and receive support becomes increasingly limited. Meanwhile, their vulnerability to processes of normalisation of violence and internalisation of the perpetrators’ interpretations of events are heightened. During covid-19, social isolation has been further augmented through difficulties in accessing support organisations, both due to more restricted movements in public spaces and the current pressure on healthcare institutions. Confinement to the home has also accentuated vulnerabilities to online violence and stalking. In the words of Olga Persson, chairperson of the women’s shelter umbrella organisation Unizon, “the measures against corona are of benefit to violent men”.

While IPV support organisations in Sweden have worked to adapt their services to the new conditions, having received some additional governmental funding for the purpose, it is questionable whether these efforts have been sufficient to match the heightening of IPV risk due to covid-19 control measures. Particularly because IPV as a public health issue has already been inadequately addressed in the absence of covid-19, in Sweden as elsewhere. With regards to deadly violence in Sweden and other European countries, for example, other forms of homicide show variability over time while intimate partner homicide numbers have remained “more stable”. And as noted by a women’s shelter professional with regard to IPV in Sweden, before the onset of covid-19, “nobody is immune to it”. 

In his book Immunitary Life, the British sociologist Nik Brown writes about the blending of biological, legal, political, philosophical and metaphorical notions of immunity, which he argues to be central for the understanding of medicine and biopolitics in our time. Brown picks up Roberto Esposito’s concepts of immunitas and communitas, and Peter Sloterdijk’s notions of immunity and community, as respectively denoting complementary if not polarised forces at work in medicine and society. Immunity is here related to historical and cultural shifts away from community or “the commons”, in favor of biological technologies and political movements encompassing personal isolation, security and defense.

Coming from a primarily legal and philosophical vantage point rather than a medical one, Esposito traces a common etymological root (munus) of the concepts of immunitas and communitas, assigning to the latter a meaning of gift giving, mutual obligation, service or reciprocity. Communitas thus denotes a notion of belonging through mutuality, but also of potentially burdensome duty. The notion of immunitas evolved, according to Esposito, to encompass protection or freedom from such obligatory reciprocity. Existing in a relationship of “tension with the communal or solidaristic ethos of collective openness, of mutuality and of shared interests” (Brown 2018, p 3), immunity denotes – in medical and judicial, corporeal and institutional senses – exemption and separation. To Esposito, this concept of immunity – or of freedom from duty – is central to the logic of the modern Western political order, with regards to issues of property, security and individualism. 

Brown emphasizes that Esposito posits communitas and immunitas as both having positive and negative aspects, and as being involved in continuous and complex interactions. Immunitas represents a power which is crucial for the preservation of life. Still, if taken too far, the so called immunitary paradigm can, Brown notes, align with the undermining of social circulation and with excesses of isolation, containment, enclosure and privatisation, alongside martial law and fascist authoritarianism. Towards the end of its scale, defensive protection can become destructive to the point of “the sacrifice of the living” (Esposito in Brown, p 23). 

Brown continues to write, with reference to Sloterdijk, about market capitalism and particularly neoliberalism as entrenching the forces of immunity to the detriment of community, through the erosion of common spaces and experiences. Neoliberalism drives a wedge, Brown writes, between those who are able or privileged enough to construct their own immunity regimes and those who are dispossessed of such. Immunity is, in other words, made unevenly available in a market-place where some can afford to pay to be protected from others who are excluded from such spheres of immunity. The fragile mutualities of welfare states, and the collective distribution of risk underpinning social insurance, are thus hollowed out together with forces of community.  

As noted by ethnologist Britta Lundgren during a recent conference address, efforts towards addressing covid-19 have largely prioritised immunitas, to varying degrees and in different ways across nations and contexts. Meanwhile, many have observed that the weakening of welfare states affected by recent decades of neoliberal reform have become evident through, and have exacerbated the effects of, covid-19. Negative effects of neoliberal policy on health-care, and on its ability to respond to crisis, have thus been pointed to in the context of, for example, the UKthe USA and Sweden. According to Carlo Caduff, the “destruction of lives and livelihoods” (2020, p 2) imposed by covid-19 and the measures taken to control it are largely attributable to neoliberal policies which have created fragile, underfunded and understaffed health care systems unable to cope with the pandemic. Notions of solidarity have indeed been used during covid-19, Caduff continues, but in the sense of a joint defense towards the threat to a societal body under attack, while the unequal pressure placed on different people by such defense efforts have largely been obscured. In this context, the effects of neoliberalism have been referred to as a form of structural violence directed particularly against the most vulnerable segments of society. Meanwhile, with regards to IPV, (neo)liberal rule has been tied to a shift away from understanding the issue as a structural problem involving gender and power, towards conceptualising it in terms of obstacles and vulnerabilities pertaining to individual persons and groups. Thus, IPV has arguably become seen as less of a problem of the community, and as more of an issue from which most of “us” are likely isolated if not immune. Such understanding of IPV, as an issue involving particular individuals, has obviously affected how we as a society deal with the problem. As Brown or Sloterdijk might have put it, then, forces of immunity – or of the hollowing out of the commons – had gone far before the arrival of covid-19, with severe effects on our ability to preserve life and livelihoods during the pandemic. 

A major question, then, lies in how we in the face of the recent and massive forces of immunitas can mobilise a complementary and sufficiently powerful drive towards communitas, for the purpose of sustaining life and alleviating violence during and after covid-19. 

Brown writes, with Esposito, about whether or how immunity can be used in service of relatedness. How can we use a politics of immunisation against oppressive forces that place a higher value on some lives than on others, or that aim for “power over life” rather than for a “politics of life”? In other words, how can “the individual and the community [be] immunised against the risk of exclusion, negation and banishment”? (Brown 2018, p 25). Along related lines, how is it possible to strengthen movements towards “immunity” against micro-sphere power dynamics in the form of IPV, through reinforcing notions of relatedness and community?

Through the reevaluation and rebuilding of care, solidarity and mutual rights and obligations, in movements that promote non-violence alongside the value and welfare of all, forces of immunitas need to be blended with those of communitas. In the words of Tithi Bhattacharya, with reference to covid-19: “We don’t need social isolation. We need physical isolation and social solidarity”. 

Maria Wemrell, Senior Lecturer, Gender Studies, Lund University

September 30, 2020

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Lund Gender Studies Contributions

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