Understanding Digital Biosurveillance Using the ‘Plague Management Model’ of The Middle Ages

In Madness and Civilization (1961), Foucault discusses an epidemic – leprosy. Although, with monitoring and isolating the population, leprosy vanished at the end of the Middle Ages, but the structure and mechanisms of controlling the population with disciplinary interventions and regulations – not aiming at a single body, but the management of the entire population, remained functional. Foucault theorized and called this mechanism ‘biopower’ in The Will to Knowledge, Foucault’s first volume of The History of Sexuality (1976). Now, one may wonder how the Middle Ages epidemic (leprosy) and a 21st century pandemic (coronavirus) are similar, especially when both are antagonistic in their biological patterns – the former being less contagious and slow in its development, and later being highly contagious. What categorically unites these two plagues is the end product – a regulated and disciplined populace. During early modernity, the ‘Plague Model’, as Foucault describes, was superseded by a new model of power that had its roots in fear of the plague. “If it is true that the leper gave rise to rituals of exclusion and the great Confinement, then the plague gave rise to disciplinary projects” (Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison,1975). The fear of the plague created a space to construct a population that abided by the coercive laws without any resistance. And, for this reason, he further adds, “To see perfect disciplines functioning, rulers dreamt of the state of plague”, because for a governing body, utopia can only be created in a society that has been plagued and requires an exercise of disciplinary power by the government. 

What Foucault theorized then, has become a reality today. The Coronavirus pandemic has become a biopolitical project, surviving and thriving on the fear of the plague (the virus). As advised by the medical body, government bodies worldwide have deployed national surveillance, eliminating all democratic liberties under the pretext of a health-safety-survival model. Thereby, manufacturing disciplinary power mechanisms of the body and regulatory mechanisms of the population.

Deploying The Panopticon Gaze Amidst COVID-19 

As described by Foucault, the panopticon gaze blurs a subject’s association between himself in a ‘being seen/seeing’ dyad. For example, in a periphery ring, subject is seen by others without ever completely seeing. But, the authority guard of the ring standing on the tower sees everything without ever being seen. “The Panopticon is this case, becomes a marvelous machine which, whatever use one may wish to put it to, produces homogeneous effects of power” (Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison,1975). And, the power produced here, comes from the accumulation of knowledge gathered through observation in a circular motion, with knowledge and power reinforcing each other. This machine not only manufactures discipline through knowledge gathered through surveillance, but reinforces self-regulation methodologies within subjects as well. “He who is subjected to a field of visibility, and who knows it, assumes responsibility for the constraint of power; he makes them play spontaneously upon himself; he inscribes in himself the power relation in which he simultaneously plays both roles; he becomes the principle of his own subjugation.” (Foucault, 1977).

Now, consistent with Foucault’s notion of the panopticon gaze and its binary mechanism of surveillance and self-regulation as the unsurpassed form of social control in a society, one can deduce how the Panopticon Gaze, which was once a metaphor to study the relationship between the mechanism of fabricated social control of subjects in a disciplinary situation, is now a global reality amid the Coronavirus outbreak. From Russia, Philippines, India, Hungary, Ghana, to Israel, leaders have subjugated draconian laws to restrain, regulate and restrict the movement of civilians – a full-blown normalization of panopticon governmentality. For example, the Russian government introduced a surveillance mechanism back in 2020 to track the coronavirus-infected population. While this can be considered a precautionary measure to contain mass contamination, its deployment has surpassed the rudimentary level of monitored and controlled surveillance. From location tracking applications, CCTV cameras with facial recognition, tapping cell phone data, credit cards to QR codes, one can categorize this form of intrusive digital policies as nothing but a ‘cyber-gulag’. On the other hand, in India, Prime Minister Narendra Modi made it mandatory in 2020 for 303 million employed Indians to download the Arogya Setu app, a sophisticated surveillance system, outsourced to a private operator, with no institutionalization oversight. This raised serious data security & privacy concerns. With no Indian legislation in check that protects the online privacy of Indians in-depth, the users of this app had no choice but to accept the clause dictated by the government. The terms and conditions of this app state clearly that the government can use the data for commercial purposes. Additionally, the policy states that the data can be retained for medical and administrative intervention. This interdepartmental exchange of private information is more scrupulous than surveillance policies deployed in countries like Singapore and Israel. 

The deployment of these draconian laws can be viewed as a method to exemplify a form of ‘biosurveillance’ – through which power is being exercised invisibly and permeating all aspects of our lives. The coronavirus pandemic has fortified a shift to a more intense and penetrating form of a biosurveillance culture. The real threat is not how these exorbitant and punitive laws are repressing the citizens, but how they are cautiously contrived and willingly woven in it. In other words – internalizing the idea that we require State-sponsored surveillance to stay safe and secure. In this context, voluntarily participation of subjects to be a part of mass surveillance to avoid the fear of plague, panoptic surveillance becomes an apparatus of manufacturing self-regulatory and obedient subjects, making the exercise of power easy to propagate and flourish.

A Three-fold Typology of Biosurveillance Amidst COVID-19

Panoptic biosurveillance that produces self-discipline, is just one way of deploying biopower methodologies on the populace. This process is a single-faceted approach that ensures that each subject is self-regulated. So, what about the population? How to assert control over the populace? This is achieved with biopolitics – where the State’s focus shifts from manufacturing disciplinary power mechanisms of the body to regulatory mechanisms of the population. Biopower here, is threaded through the fabric of the entire social order (Anders 2013; 3-4). This means that individuals are no longer simply subjected to power, but also vehicles it to produce a disciplined population (Rangan and Chow 2013; 401).

However, I think that the surveillance system that forms the nucleus via which biopower is generated, must be explored more than just a function of individual and populace control. We need to explore the typology of surveillance in order to understand this system in regards to COVID-19. The three-fold typology of biosurveillance exclusively functions to fortify biopower – surveillance as a means to self-discipline, disciplining the populace, and cessation of populace activities that threaten the cohesion of power. I have already discussed the first two typologies of the biosurveillance amidst COVID-19, in relation to Foucault’s concept of the panopticon surveillance. Let’s explore the last typology. So, how does biosurveillance becomes a means to terminate activities of citizens that possess threat to the continuity of power? By stripping the populace of its democratic liberties and rights to dissent – all in the name of healthcare and medical emergency. For example – Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte (on April 2nd, 2020) ordered police and military personnel to “shoot dead” any protestors, human rights activists, and opposition who would defy his lockdown measures. The manifestation of the proverb ‘Killing two birds with one stone’ became a reality, both literally and statistically. Soon after his authoritarian command, a 63-year-old man was shot dead by the military in Nasipit, a small town in the southern province of Agusan del Norte, on April 5th, 2020. Since last year, thousands of protestors and human rights activists in the Philippines have been imprisoned in crowded jails, which defies social distancing and magnifies the probability of mass contamination. This unprecedented health crisis should not become a weapon to annihilate dissent and control the population. “They should be used to effectively deal with the pandemic—nothing more, nothing less,” said, Michelle Bachelet, a United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights. A similar narrative was deployed by the President of Ghana Nana Akufo-Addo, who introduced an ‘Imposition to Restrictions Act’ in 2020. This new law normalizes shooting, thrashing, and whipping anyone who defies the rules. This act not only gives the President the dominion to use the loaded gun at his own accord, but commands security officers to use guns, whip, and tear canisters against anyone, if found disobeying the lockdown measures. In its all account, this law neither has any sunset clause nor mentions COVID-19 in its legislation.

What one must question is the use of non-medical mandarins of powers to contain the virus and the deployment of coercive methodologies to preserve the pathological strategies of those in power. If this continues, then the power will emerge from authoritarian to totalitarian, with each citizen carefully fabricated and willingly woven into it. This will give birth to the classic dilemma of a liberal democracy – where you must do a rigorous analysis and strategize to de-commodify the healthcare sector, re-tool the Subject-State relation, without deserting the collective solidarity to fight the pandemic, or simply surrender to the State.

Parul Verma
Parul Verma
Parul Verma is a political analyst and a human rights activist. Her work analyses transnational conflict, peace-building and peace-keeping in relation to Israel-Palestine, Northern Ireland and Kashmir. She has also written extensively on minority lynching and violence against women in India. Her work has been published in more than 20+ academic journals and international media establishments. Her part-time job involves talking gibberish to her two naughty rabbits – Whiskey and Beer! For any query or feedback, contact her at parul_edu[at]icloud.com.