On the 31st day of my quarantine, I received a call from a friend; he sounded upset and explained that he had just been stopped by the police while going for his daily run around the neighbourhood. According to him, the police approached him and spoke to him aggressively. They then questioned the reason behind his activity by making threatening remarks, repeatedly ordering him to go back home and reminding him that in other countries a man running around for no reasonable explanation would have been thrown in jail. This encounter happened in Italy, where, at the time, running alone in proximity to your house was still allowed.
“I told you the police would start abusing their power,” my friend told me. During the first weeks under lockdown—when the regulations were still blurred and our future uncertain—we did find ourselves repeatedly speculating on the possible threats that a state of emergency could mean regarding the state overpower and potential police misconduct. Yet, I partially disagreed with my friend: the abuse of power by the police isn’t a by-product of the pandemic, it has been happening around us for way longer. The only difference today is that under these exceptional circumstances, what was once only visible to those who were systematically targeted by the police has suddenly become visible to us all.
Law enforcement is playing a big part in managing the COVID-19 crisis as more and more countries all over the world are calling for an increase in restrictive regulations concerning social and physical distancing. As reported by Al Jazeera in a recent article on police violence on the time of pandemic, after a couple of weeks since a mandatory curfew was implemented in Kenya, there have been more deaths from the police than virus-related ones.
Kenya is far from being the only country accused of such behaviour. Stories of police brutality enacted in the name of control and the enforcement of rules have spread like the virus itself, showing officers in India, Mexico, Egypt and other countries threatening people in the streets, using physical punishment in public and forcing people to follow containment measures at gunpoint. As the days pass, it is evident why more concern over the sovereignty of the police is rising.
“The point is that the police—contrary to public opinion—are not merely an administrative function of law enforcement; rather, the police are perhaps the place where the proximity and the almost constitutive exchange between violence and right that characterizes the figure of the sovereign is shown more nakedly and clearly than anywhere else,” wrote the Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben in 1991. Fast forward 30 years from then, one could argue that his words are still relevant. What is happening in front of our eyes isn’t a shift in the way the police act, but rather the unsettling revelation of their unbridled power and sovereignty in countries all over the world.
Of course we should avoid making generalisations, but as police helicopters loom over our heads throughout Easter weekend and the mobility of citizens is (rightly) limited to maintain the spreading of the virus, it’s not just a right but an obligation to scrutinize and question the modalities in which those same rules are imposed on citizens. If we can learn one thing from this pandemic it is that, as solidarity and a shared sense of support are spreading, pre-existing inequalities and state flaws grow even larger.
It is in this mindset that we need to look at some of the police’s coercive attitudes, not as an unavoidable shift in behaviour, but as a testament to a systemic issue. The question right now is not whether law enforcement agencies need to undergo some changes or not; they clearly do and that’s not new. As we witness more and more police violence during the pandemic, the real question is whether this sudden awakening will remain among citizens, and hopefully governments too, once this crisis is over.
Since 9 March Italy has been under full lockdown: for the past two weeks and continuing, citizens have been told to stay at home, with the exception of grocery shopping, going to the pharmacy and practicing some limited outdoor exercise. The police patrols the streets and people who are found outside the house without justification or a self-certification can be fined or, in the worst case scenario, arrested. While Italy has been the European ‘precursor’ of this strict isolation, this scenario is either being put into place or will certainly be enforced in most European countries and beyond in a matter of days.
Overall, the rules are simple and the message clear: don’t leave your house unless necessary. Despite a shared feeling of claustrophobia induced by the sudden forced confinement, most citizens are adjusting fast to this new way of living. But as the days pass and the regulations tighten, new concerns over the safety of all citizens are inevitably raising. Staying home doesn’t equal safety for everyone.
The data made public from Telefono Rosa—an Italian organisation that provides a range of support and help for women and children victims of domestic violence, sexual and psychological violence, stalking or mobbing—shows that compared to the same period last year, in the first two weeks of March the calls to their help-centre have dropped by 55.1 per cent: from an approximative 1,104 calls they have only received 496 so far.
In any other situation, such a drastic decrease in numbers would’ve been interpreted as an accomplishment, but in this specific scenario, these numbers indicate an alarming situation: victims of domestic abuse usually call if their abuser isn’t in near proximity. Being stuck for 24 hours, seven days a week, with a violent individual not only means higher risk of violent episodes, but it also stops victims from seeking help.
If just for a moment, and it already feels absurd to do so, we put aside the state of financial precarity that a huge chunk of the population is facing because of the economy’s current stall, and focus on the social and psychological conditions in which some citizens are forced to live during this quarantine, the spectrum of inequality that looms over this newly imposed set of rules would appear in all its prominence.
The struggles of confinement do not only affect those whose domestic environments are threatening, but they’re taking a considerable toll on the people whose lives are directly managed by the state. During the first week of isolation, there have been over 8 prison riots throughout Italy. Some inmates violently responded to the government cancelling all family visits in a short term attempt to prevent the coronavirus from entering the prisons.
The Italian government tried avoiding what could potentially turn into a catastrophe: overpopulated prisons (with 61,230 inmates over the official capacity of 47,231 places) and a weakened sanitary system budget meant that all the isolation requirements applied on the outside would be unattainable inside Italian prisons.
In Spain, someone wrote the message ‘The romanticisation of the quarantine is a class privilege’ and hung it on a white sheet from their balcony. The image widely circulated on the internet, mainly and simply because it was astoundingly true. The bigger the house, the bigger the windows, the bigger the gardens, and the more pleasurable this quarantine will be. Having access to the necessary means for a healthy quarantine is without a doubt a class privilege, but I’m afraid we’re just realising that it is way more than only that.
The ultimate paradox of this quarantine is that the virus itself has no barriers when it comes to infecting. COVID-19 doesn’t discriminate between gender, class, or race—it can get us all. And yet, the conditions in which people navigate this state of emergency and will eventually emerge from it are profoundly different. “We could say that it treats us equally, puts us equally at risk of falling ill, losing someone close, living in a world of imminent threat,” wrote American philosopher and gender theorist Judith Butler in a piece published on Verso a few days ago titled Capitalism has its Limits.
“Social and economic inequality will make sure that the virus discriminates. The virus alone does not discriminate, but we humans surely do, formed and animated as we are by the interlocking powers of nationalism, racism, xenophobia, and capitalism,” further explains Butler. And she couldn’t be more right. As we all experience this unsettling lifestyle, at times even romanticising the surreal changes it is bringing into our lives, some are left with little rights and even less hope.
As the spread of COVID-19 grows exponentially and as the magnitude of the health, economic and social consequences that this pandemic will have on society are still incalculable, one thing remains certain: the flaws of our socio-economic structures are violently revealing their fallibility, flowing from the cracks that were left uncared for and that are now opening wide.
The cases mentioned above are Italy-based, and surely each country will respond to the emergency according to its own legislation, but what is happening in Italy is exemplary of what worsens during a state of emergency: the vulnerable inevitably get more vulnerable.
Don’t get me wrong, I am not asking to give up on the desperate irony, the memes, and the mood-lifting online group gatherings most of us are enjoying in order to cope with the situation. New forms of digital aggregation and solidarity are coming out of this, and we should by no means disregard them. This unexpected shift of rhythm has to be cherished and made the most out of, but as we do so, it is worth keeping both eyes open on what these restrictions might mean to those of us whose experiences aren’t worth any romanticisation.