Who or what is being tested in pandemic times?
The coronavirus pandemic is witness to a great proliferation of two types of tests. The first type is testing – new medical diagnostic tests as well as epidemiological models that simulate and project the course of the virus. In the second type, actors, organizations, and institutions are being tested in this moment of social and political crisis.
It should not be surprising that testing and being tested are taking place in such abundance in this pandemic time of crisis. As a medical crisis, testing is vital for health care at the individual level and for public health at the social level. And it is entirely understandable that individuals, organizations, and institutions will be tested in a moment of political and social crisis. Taking the conjuncture of these two major types of tests as its background, I analyze the similarities and differences between the different kinds of tests in order to understand their entanglements in the crisis.
As proxies or projections, tests are critical moments that stand for something. This representational aspect of testing has particular importance at this moment. Our political institutions have elaborate means, elections, checks and balances, protocols and procedures for making claims about representing people. In parallel, our scientific institutions have elaborate means, peer reviews, rules, protocols and procedures for making claims about non-humans. But the virus does not respect the institutional boundaries of politics and science. It kills, invisibly and powerfully, and has effects in almost all domains of life. And the more it is a crisis, the more the scientists, and the politicians, and lawyers and activists and journalists do not respect them either. The crisis of the pandemic – a medical problem, a public health problem – is also a crisis of representation.
In thinking about the politics of representation, history suggests that we should give consideration to the role of demonstrations. Inciting people out onto the streets is a kind of test. How many people will respond to the call by a particular party or alliance or movement? The moment of demonstration stands out, and organizers can point to it as a kind of proof. It can also take place as a kind of trial run that stands for the ability to mobilize for disruption, for example, or other forms of action. But in the late winter and spring of 2020, the streets are empty. Where are the demonstrations about the coronavirus?
In fact, they are present almost every time we open our newspapers, our laptops, our smart phones. For weeks now during our morning rituals, we have been preoccupied with graphic demonstrations of the virus. Compulsively throughout the day, we study images representing the morphology of the virus and the charts and figures demonstrating its behavior. Then, before going to bed or already in bed but before going to fitful sleep, we look one more time to update the chart. And with the next new day, coffee in hand, we refresh the graphs again as our loved one asks, “where are we on the curve?”
This is where tests come in. Tests are a way to represent the virus. For example, with counts of persons infected, those with symptoms, of hospitalizations, and of deaths, its virulence can be estimated. To do so, medical and public health personnel test people. “The virus,” in the first instance, takes the form of counts of cases. But as the situation becomes an epidemic and then a pandemic, increasingly, the virus is represented less in the form of counts and more in the form of models. And so, although indeed more and more people are being tested, it is more significant to say that increasingly, and increasingly politically, it is the models that are being tested.
For many of these projections the test of the effectiveness of the model is whether it brings about policies and behaviors that change the world. Models are interventions. Their purpose is to demonstrate what would happen if a given course of action is taken or not taken. One test of their effectiveness is whether they can leverage a politician (or government or administrative decision-maker) to adopt a policy, whether for example, to lockdown or open up economic activities. Another test is whether they can be used by the politician to demonstrate to the public the need for policies such as social distancing. And still another is to demonstrate that the politician has responded well to the crisis by pointing to the gap between projected deaths and actual deaths, in this way taking attention from lives lost in an attempt to highlight lives saved.
That we inhabit the graphic space of the representation of the model has significance for the performative role of models in politics and social life. Demonstrating something doesn’t automatically make it happen. But the more we inhabit the world of the demonstration, the more we use it as a way to experience the world and our actions in it. What can I do to protect myself, my loved ones, medical personnel, the aged and vulnerable in my community? Don’t spread the virus. Work from home. Stay inside, practice social distancing. But what can I do that will have an effect that I can see? Flatten the curve.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
David Stark is Arthur Lehman Professor of Sociology at Columbia University in New York and Professor of Social Science at the University of Warwick. In 2019/2020, he is a Fellow at the Wissenschaftskolleg zu Berlin.
A longer version of this article has been published in the journal "Sociologica".
More articles of the series "Wiko Briefs - Working Futures in Corona Times" can be found here.