Pathogenic Politics: Life, Death, and Social Responses to the COVID-19 Pandemic

Organizers: Jeremy Rayner (University of Calabria) and Theodore Powers (University of Iowa)

The emergence of a new global pandemic has produced wide-ranging effects that require scholarly attention. Accordingly, this panel addresses the emergent novel coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, it’s global contours, the wide-ranging transformations that it heralds, the policy dynamics that have unfolded alongside it, and the politics of truth and accountability that it implies for anthropologists, the public, and those leading responses to the pandemic.

Given that the COVID-19 pandemic is rapidly evolving, we invite papers that address a diverse range of themes:

  • The Political and Moral Economy of Containment and Treatment: The biosecurity measures that have been implemented in response to COVID-19–in particular, an unprecedented global wave of quarantine–have created widespread hardship and exacerbated existing social inequalities. How have the burdens associated with containment policy been apportioned along the lines of race, class, age demographics, and health status? How have the risks and dangers of the virus been constructed discursively, and incorporated into practice, in policy and in everyday life?
  • The Value of Life and Systemic Violence: the expected economic and political consequences of the pandemic and its containment have ignited debates over who is worth saving, at what cost, and to whom. How have these debates – and policies enacted in response to them – reflected historical claims to belonging in distinct ethnographic settings? More specifically, how have narratives around the virus been shaped by, and contributed to, longstanding social dynamics associated with colonial, racist, patriarchal, and class-based violence? On the other hand, what kinds of possibilities can we identify in collective decisions to prioritize the protection of lives?
  • Debt and Obligation: How have responses to the pandemic been shaped by existing policies of debt and obligation? From the constraints imposed by international financial institutions and bond markets on public finances to the indebtedness of firms and households, broader dynamics of power inform the various kinds of long-term obligations that connect people to each other and provide the context for care, abandonment, and contagion. How have these broader social processes informed the intimacies and labor associated with care work, broadly defined?
  • Sovereignty, Biopolitics, Necropolitics, and Bare Life: the centrality of policies of surveillance and control to containment efforts has provoked renewed debate about the purpose and limits of the sovereign state and central concepts from recent critical theory. How can anthropological research on the course of the pandemic and lived experience of distinct forms of control and of solidarity “from below” contribute to reevaluating these critical understandings of power?
  • Quarantine, Representation, and Ethnography: the conditions associated with widespread quarantine policy present challenges for responsibility and for truth, in research and in politics. Prohibition on circulation has made traditional social movement strategies to represent grievances from below by using “the streets” impossible, and often frustrated more individual solutions as well. The significance of internet connection has increased even further. At the same time, traditional ethnographic strategies have been rendered largely impossible. Under these conditions, how do we responsibly manage our relationship to the representation of the truth?

We invite papers that address these themes in a diverse range of ethnographic settings. We are particularly interested in accounts that engage with these questions in both the ethnographic present and across historical time in order to trace processes of continuity and disjuncture relative to modalities of power and policy processes, broadly defined.

The deadline for the submission of abstracts for review is May 1. Please send paper abstracts to both Jeremy Rayner ( and Theodore Powers (