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Solidarity and COVID-19

A Foucauldian analysis (2021) Netherlands Journal of Legal Philosophy

Solidarity is often presented as a core value underpinning our dealings with the COVID-19 pandemic. Politicians called for it to persuade teenagers and adolescents to help protect vulnerable senior citizens, or to stimulate citizens to unburden the care workers by obeying the social distancing and other anti-corona regulations. Out of solidarity the EU members states decided to provide member states with the lowest rates of vaccination with extra ‘solidarity vaccines’. The United Nations as well as human rights organizations worldwide frequently called for international solidarity among countries to fight the COVID-19 pandemic.

In these examples, ‘solidarity’ is conceived as a moral value or political principle that can be invoked to press or encourage citizens, states and governments to take care of vulnerable or poor persons, groups or countries, without asking something in return or even at considerable cost for themselves. Lacking in this conceptualization is that in order to put solidarity into practice, it needs to be embedded in a social infrastructure, a common ‘world’, where people meet, act and interact with each other. Even global solidarity, though based on the idea of an imagined community of mankind, not only represents a moral or political value but also a social, infrastructural dimension. Social conditions, concrete practices and social contexts in which people live and act together, and experience their interdependence, are as important for putting solidarity into practice as moral or humanitarian considerations.1 This is especially the case in times of crisis: social connections strengthen social resilience and increase the chances for survival.

This article investigates what effect the measures to fight and control the coronavirus, taken by governments under the banner of solidarity, have on the conditions that motivate people to care for others, nearby and far away, without expecting something in return. I will argue that lockdowns, quarantines, corona apps and other disciplining and controlling measures negatively affect the social cohesion in society as well as the quality of the public sphere. The disciplining and controlling mechanisms that governments enforced on individuals and the population at large weaken what Hannah Arendt called the ‘web of human relationships’, the intangible world in-between people that originates in people’s acting and speaking directly to each other.2 Moreover, the options to interact with strangers vastly declined, which also erodes the conditions that enable and motivate people to care for unfamiliar or strange others.

This article starts with the entrance of the modern concept of solidarity in the western political domain. Elaborating on the historical studies of Michel Foucault, it shows how the intertwinement of a medicine of epidemics and a national state enabled nations to express solidarity and take care for the poor, diseased and miserable within the national borders. Over the course of centuries this intertwinement resulted in health regimes that subject all citizens for their own good to disciplinary and controlling mechanisms. Second, I portray the anti-corona measures as an ensemble of medical interventions, disciplining and controlling mechanisms. I will argue that the side-effects of these mechanisms and interventions, which governments enforced in order to lower the infection, morbidity and mortality rate due to COVID-19, significantly limit the opportunities to act together and practice solidarity. Bottom-up initiatives, democratic deliberation and public exchanges of arguments hardly had a chance to develop. I conclude that, in order to uphold the practice of solidarity, it is not only important that the regulations taken to fight and control the coronavirus are turned back after the epidemic, but also that both governments and citizens invest in the restoral of social cohesion, the public sphere, democratic deliberation and, more generally, the web of relationships that conditions what we as human beings are.