How the Acceleration of Death Precipitated by Covid-19 Exposes State Crime

Photograph Source: Carl Campbell – CC BY 2.0

It did not take long. Three weeks after the outbreak, the Hungarian parliament conferred formidable executive powers on prime minister Viktor Orbán, allowing him to rule by decree. Israel was even faster. Immediately after the government announced a nation-wide lockdown, the Justice Minister barred thecourts from convening, a move that indefinitely postponed the corruption hearings against prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Meanwhile, in Chile the government sent the military to public squares once occupied by protesters.

The introduction of emergency measures to address the Covid-19 crisis is undoubtedly necessary, but numerous governments have also exploited the pandemic to undermine democratic principles, violate human rights and perpetrate crimes against citizens and migrants.

Yet the pandemic has not only unleashed new state crimes; it is also exposing underlying and largely hidden crimes. Like an earthquake that shatters a city, filling the streets with debris and leaving only the bare infrastructure exposed, Covid-19 has been uncovering the structural violence that states have instituted against their own populations. Also like an earthquake, the destruction and death in the pandemic’s wake are neither inevitable nor entirely natural 

Structural Violence as State Crime

Despite being less visible than violence employed by state agents, such as the police, military and security forces, structural violence is nonetheless lethal. This form of violence is embedded in social institutions and policies and tends to harm people by preventing them from meeting their basic needs. It often leads to many fatalities, while disproportionately affecting specific populations.

People frequently fail to recognise that the violence emanating from social structures is a manifestation of state crime, which, in our research, we define as a form of violence that involves human rights violations perpetrated by states to advance organisational goals. They don’t see this criminality because structural violence tends to precipitate social death, which is gradual, and therefore fails to generate the kind of visceral shock we are currently experiencing as the pandemic spreads across the globe.

The attritional violence perpetrated against the Rohingya in Myanmar—initially through stigmatization and the denial of access to education, livelihood and health care—was, for instance, effectively hidden from view. It was only after the genocidal violence of 2017 that Myanmar’s systemic violence was widely exposed for the world to see. Similarly, Covid-19 has illuminated the structural violence informing our societies through its acceleration of death.

Indeed, local newspapers in the worst affected countries immediately began reporting on their own health services, providing countless graphs of government investment in healthcare infrastructures and personnel. In the UK we learned that there are only 2.5 hospital beds and  only 2.9 doctors per 1,000 people, compared with an OECD average of 5.4 and 3.4 respectively. A connection was then drawn between the Tory’s austerity policies and the mounting body bags, and the British people could readily see that their government’s policies kill.

Exposing existing inequalities

The fatal consequences of treating healthcare as a commodity rather than as a basic right and of distributing healthcare unevenly within society have now become devastatingly clear. Although data is still limited, the claim that Covid-19 is an equalizer, killing the rich and poor, black and white alike is simply untrue. Numbers released on April 7 suggest  that in Chicago, black Americans account for 68 percent of the city’s 118 deaths and 52 percent of the roughly 5,000 confirmed coronavirus cases, despite making up just 30 percent of the city’s population.

The fact that African Americans are dying at double the rate of their percentage in society underscores their systematic marginalization, a strategy characteristic of most forms of state crime. And while structural racism may be more pronounced in the United States, preliminary data in the UK suggests that  black people are significantly overrepresented in Intensive Care Units.

In a similar vein, the representation of the elderly during the crisis reveals that they are perceived as dispensable, while the pandemic has also laid bare how poverty renders people more exposed. Poor people have neither the resources to cope during this crisis, nor do they have a safety net to catch them.

Of course the situation in the global south will likely be much worse. Wide scale exploitation of resources, political corruption, repression and poverty create an intensified vulnerability to ‘natural’ disasters like earthquakes, floods and pandemics.

Adam Hanieh, points out that this disaster is largely human-made. The poor state of public health systems across most countries in the South, which tend to be underfunded and lacking in adequate medicines, equipment, and staff are due to ‘the subordination of poorer countries to the interests of the world’s wealthiest states and largest transnational corporations’.

UK State Crime and the pandemic

Social and economic structures are rarely understood as state crimes, because crime is generally perceived as a discrete act defined as criminal by law. But, as we have witnessed in the past few weeks, austerity measures that starved the NHS of necessary resources, while not formally illegal, have led to many unnecessary deaths and should be considered a crime.

Thus, the acceleration of death precipitated by Covid-19, while wreaking its own havoc, is also exposing the structural crimes of our governments. Although welfare packages—unthinkable just two months ago—will help some people get through this crisis, the most vulnerable remain without support. What we need now is to dismantle the very structures that precipitate the crimes. What we need, at the very least, is a Green New Deal.

Neve Gordon is Professor of International Law, at the School of Law in the Queen Mary University of London. His is the co-author of Human Shields: A History of People in the Line of Fire. @nevegordon 

Penny Green is Professor of Law and Globalisation at Queen Mary University of London. She is the founder and Director of the International State Crime Initiative. She has authored many books and articles including State Crime: Governments, Violence and Corruption (with Tony Ward). @pennyjgreen