Notes on March reading

COVID-19 From The Margins: Pandemics, invisibilities, policies and resistance in the datafied society – Milan, Treré, and Masiero 

Introduction: COVID-19 seen from the land of otherwise – Milan, Treré, and Masiero

This chapter outlines the issues we face in trying to have data driven policy (in the context of the pandemic), particularly in regard to the assumption that data can be complete and objective. This book is seeking to highlight voices which are traditionally maligned in society and in data collection.

Three conceptual tenets are used to do this: theorising from the margins; data poverty; and the datafication of anti-poverty programmes. Theorising from the margins refers to talking about power inequalities, as well as the margins being sites of struggle against the mainstream datafication process. The South is included in this and is defined as a resistance and subversion to (data-driven oppression). Data poverty is often a reflection of existing inequities but in the pandemic, people have become more tied to their personal data. This limits individual agency around data extractivism and requires an analysis of on-the-ground impacts on individuals. The datafication of anti-poverty programmes has accelerated in response to the pandemic. This again highlights the new types of vulnerabilities thrust upon already precarious people by the pandemic and the need for organised resource allocation based on inclusive data. 

Five themes are subsequently explored in light of these tenets: human invisibilities and the politics of counting. This regards the data management and disease surveillance of the pandemic, using the lens of Data Justice; perpetuated vulnerabilities and inequalities. This is essentially about showing how people in already vulnerable or precarious positions have been put in even more jeopardy during the pandemic, with the focus here being on giving voice to these experiences; datafied social policies. This includes data on who can get assistance (and how much), as well as welfare becoming increasingly contingent on maintaining a digital identity; technological reconfiguration in the datafied pandemic. This is about how technology has been repurposed for community oriented uses during the pandemic and the shifts seen in data protection (both loosening and making some people more visible/protected); and pandemic solidarities and resistance from below. This is about the voice offered to marginalised people on digital platforms and how to support this voice e.g. solidarity through data visualisation. 

It then notes three processes of the book’s writing and production. Firstly, the book is multilingual. This is to challenge the English-language dominance of academia, as well as to allow people to express themselves in their own languages, which helps form viewpoints of the world. Secondly, the book was written over the course of May to October 2020 and positions itself as a part of ‘instant history’. Thirdly, the book has a focus on conversation and stories of experience. This includes having less experienced writers, who may be more experienced in the field they are writing about. This again seeks to offer voices to those traditionally marginalised (in this case, within academia).

Disrupting ‘Business as Usual’: COVID-19 and platform labour –Van Doorn, Mos, and Bosma

This chapter examines the pandemic’s impact upon those who work in platformised delivery services. This platformised labour has accelerated and intensified over the pandemic, but it is acknowledged that it was an existing issue prior to the pandemic as well (a reflection of more long-standing income inequality, rather than something entirely new). 

However, the increase in prominence of labour platforms changes how people work and get paid, as well as how governments manage citizens. It has been made evident that those workers deemed most essential are often those paid the least (and offered the fewest protections, in terms of the pandemic). The support services that are offered by companies like Uber and governments (should such support exist) is often so byzantine as to discourage anyone actually making use of it. Given this situation, these workers often have no choice but to continue working, despite the dangers present in the pandemic. These workers are often first-generation immigrants with few in-country support systems, further adding to their precariousness and their need to continue working. 

The chapter also mentions the increasing public-private partnerships seen during the pandemic, such as the New York State Government using Uber to deliver food to vulnerable people. Platform services are becoming increasingly infrastructural in this way, acting as privatised digital utilities that control and capitalise upon critical data flows. 

Contextualising COVID-19: Sociocultural perspectives on contagion – Deborah Lupton – 2020

This isn’t the first pandemic (and likely won’t be the last). Pandemics (and other forms of contagions) tend to foreground existing inequities, making it impossible to continue to ignore these issues. It is therefore worth examining how pandemics and epidemics have been dealt with previously. This article goes over disease outbreaks since the 1970s.

Since the 1970s, we have seen issues like Ebola, HIV/AIDs, SARS, etc. Many recent outbreaks have been zoonotic, promoting a more ecological (less anthropocentric) perspective to disease. The One Health approach positions humans as interrelated with other animals in the global ecosystem, for example. COVID is the latest outbreak of this kind and, while it does have sociocultural and political similarities to previous outbreaks, it is not exactly the same. One of the main differences is that COVID isn’t limited to an already marginalised people. Everyone can get it, causing huge social and economic ramifications. The global and ubiquitous nature of COVID makes it more similar to the Spanish Flu than more recent outbreaks.

Various approaches to understanding outbreaks are outlined here e.g. social histories focus on the scapegoated populations; political economy examines the intersection of socioeconomic structures and health outcomes; social constructionism views health as historically and culturally situated; foucauldian theory examines governmentality of citizens through disease, and the individualisation of biopolitics; while Beck’s (1992) risk society offers a similar critique of individualism but through globalisation; postcolonial theory examines how healthcare contains structural discrimination, particularly in colonised countries. 

The scapegoating of a population is returned to here, discussing how a population deemed ‘deviant’ is often blamed for the outbreak e.g. non-straight people and intravenous drug users with HIV/AIDs. This involves creating an enemy of ‘health’ (alienating this population), to ensure ‘normative’ citizens feel safe. There are macro-political (both state and international level) responses to outbreaks too, which again highlight issues such as the inequitable access to medicines globally. 

Sociocultural perspectives are helpful for examining zoonotic pandemics like COVID, as this perspective looks beyond the human. This is said to embrace intersectionality, given its comprehensive focus. Ethnographies are of particular use for understanding ‘epidemic spaces’ and humanising those deemed ‘problem populations’. The sociocultural approach to previous pandemics is worth considering when discussing COVID then, as it allows for a historical, spatial, and temporal contextualisation of this pandemic, which (again) is neither the first nor likely the last. 

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