Creative Commons License
licensed under
creative commons

Understanding the Coronavirus Pandemic with Foucault?


Coronaviruses viewed under an electron microscope (source: Wikimedia Commons).


It looks like a biopolitical dream: governments, advised by physicians, impose pandemic dictatorship on entire populations. Getting rid of all democratic obstacles under the pretext of "health," even "survival," they are finally able to govern the population as they have, more or less openly, always done in modernity: as pure "biomass," as "bare life" to be exploited. It is no coincidence that such notions are increasingly invoked by high theoreticians like Giorgio Agamben (who introduced the concept of "bare life" in contemporary political theory), but also here and there on the web in the works of those critical critics who purport to explain what is happening with "Foucault" in their toolbox. The notions of "biopower" and "biopolitics" are too seductive, they appear as catchwords of the hour in whose bright light the truth of governing in pandemic times is revealed.

But the problem is that to assert this is particularly implausible given, for instance, the U.S. government's spectacular failure in times of Covid-19—and it has very little, if at all, to do with Foucault and his thought. While Michel Foucault coined the concept of "biopolitics," he not only dropped it fairly quickly but also developed three models of thought with regard to three infectious diseases, which help us better understand government in the face of a "pandemic" than the semantic cudgel that is "biopolitics."


But it is necessary, first, to examine this concept. Foucault had introduced the concept "biopolitics" in 1976 in his book La volonté de savoir (the first volume of the "History of Sexuality") in order to characterize the emergence of new political aims and strategies in Europe in the second half of the 18th century. "This was nothing less than the entry of life into history," Foucault writes, "that is, the entry of phenomena peculiar to the life of the human species into the order of knowledge and power, into the sphere of political techniques."[1] Modern societies had created the technical and political possibilities to regulate the life of the species as such. Thus, Foucault argues, "what might be called a society's 'threshold of modernity' has been reached when the life of the species is wagered on its own political strategies."[2]

What he meant was, first, simply the increase of a state's population by means of particular policies around birth such as the strict punishment of abortion and infanticide as well as measures against infant mortality and the like, but also general state health policies, and finally the entire field of eugenics and the politics of "racial hygiene" to "increase" the "quality" of the population in many countries in the first half of the 20th century. As we know from the history of the 20th century, its flipside was racism, that is, the distinction, according to Foucault, between "what must live and what must die."[3]

It is not necessary to know a lot about history in order to understand the devastation caused by this racism as the flipside of the biopolitical "investment of life." And no doubt, every modern power, every government since the 18th century must concern itself more or less seriously with the life and health of the population. Yet, it would be a misunderstanding to conclude from this that government in modernity and postmodernity is derived entirely from this concern, that government is to be understood outright as biopolitics. There are plenty of governments who could care less about the life and health of the many—not least because their bodies are needed less and less for the creation of growth and wealth.


Even if the analytic value of the concept of biopolitics should not be underestimated, it should be noted that Foucault effectively gave it up already in 1979. Why? To understand this, it is worth starting fresh and following the trace of infection that runs through Foucault's work. I focus, here, on the fact that Foucault returned time and again to three infectious diseases and described the political response to them as models for three different forms of government: leprosy, plague, and smallpox.

Foucault's first great book, History of Madness, published in 1961, starts with the following sentence: "At the end of the Middle Ages, leprosy disappeared from the Western world."[4] While it didn't disappear completely, the great "infirmaries," the leprosaria, were increasingly emptied to make room—according to Foucault's somewhat controversial thesis—for the exclusion from society of the poor, vagabonds, the sick, and the mad. Leprosy and the leprosaria that became houses for the poor and mental asylums in early modernity were, for Foucault, a first model of power: power separates the healthy from the sick, excludes deviants and the mad from society, ideally outside the city gates, so as to, essentially, no longer care about them.

The Plague Model

Also in early modernity, however, this leprosy model was, Foucault argues, superseded by a new model of power, which emerged around fear of the plague. Foucault develops this model in his 1975 book Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison. There, he argued that since the 17th century, a new regime of power had emerged: disciplinary power. Deviants were no longer simply excluded and locked up. Rather, "everyone"—children, soldiers, workers, prisoners, the poor, etc.—were subjected to a rigorous discipline that served not least as a practice of strict work discipline and, thus, a "making productive" of their bodies.

Again, Foucault proposed as the model for this dark vision of a totally administered society the administrative response to an infectious disease: "If it is true that the leper gave rise to rituals of exclusion, which to a certain extent provided the model for and general form of the great Confinement, then the plague gave rise to disciplinary projects."[5] The early modern plague regulations he cited design a system of uninterrupted control of all borders and crossings in the city and demands the strict confinement of citizens in their homes: "It is a segmented, immobile, frozen space. Each individual is fixed in his place. And, if he moves, he does so at the risk of his life, contagion or punishment."[6]

The authorities of the 17th century, Foucault argues, dreamed the "political dream" of discipline, that is, the vision of "an organization in depth of surveillance and control, an intensification and a ramification of power." Foucault is not speaking of cities in which the plague had really broken out but of the "utopia of the perfectly governed city[/society]," for which "the plague (envisaged as a possibility at least) is the trial in the course of which one may define ideally the exercise of disciplinary power."[7] "In order to see perfect disciplines functioning, rulers dreamt of the state of plague," just as jurists and theorists of the state dreamt of the state of nature in order to think about ideal laws.[8]

The Smallpox Model

The path to the third model is more winding than that from the leprosy model to the plague model. In the meantime, Foucault had started to doubt his rather dark theory of power. It seemed increasingly implausible to him to conceive of modern societies on the model of a great disciplinary machine, as he had proposed in Discipline and Punish—almost as if modern societies were completely surveilled and controlled plague cities…

In his analysis of modern governmental rationality, the—primarily economic—freedom of individuals emerged in a new way as something irreducible, "something absolutely fundamental:" modern, concretely liberal governmentality is a form of government "that can only be carried out through and by reliance on the freedom of each."[9] In order to clarify this historical transformation, Foucault developed a new model: "smallpox or inoculation practices."[10]

The problem is here posed very differently; it is no longer about discipline like in times of the plague: "the problem [is] knowing how many people are infected with smallpox, at what age, with what effects, with what mortality rate, lesions or after-effects, the risks of inoculation, the probability of an individual dying or being infected by smallpox despite inoculation, and the statistical effects on the population in general." Accordingly, in the face of smallpox, it is a problem of "epidemics and the medical campaigns that try to halt epidemic or endemic phenomena."[11]

The authorities of the 18th century responded to smallpox with statistical observation by measuring the incidence of illness and empirically with attempts to protect the population from infection through inoculation. However, and according to Foucault this is the important point, within a liberal governmentality the kind of risk management based on such a perception of the problem must not go so far as to turn into a discipline of individuals, because this would undermine their freedom, which is necessary for the system. Thus, "to govern too much is to not govern at all."[12] A state that is too strong destroys its own goals—it must respect the relative "impenetrability" of society, even at the cost of a certain risk of infection.

In other words: the smallpox model of power is essentially based on power's abandonment of the dream to completely eradicate pathogens, intruders, germs, to surveil society "in depth," like in times of the plague, and to discipline the movement of all individuals. Instead, power coexists with the pathogenic intruder, knows of its existence, collects data, compiles statistics, and wages "medical campaigns" that may very well take on the character of a normation[13] and disciplinarization of individuals. But discipline, let alone comprehensive discipline, can no longer be a reasonable goal of liberal power. Only where it nevertheless pursues this, where power wants to return from the smallpox model to the plague model, it becomes authoritarian and eventually totalitarian.


It is clear that Foucault did not speak of real pandemics but that he used infectious diseases as models of thought in order to organize forms of power according to ideal-typical patterns. We are in a different situation: we live in the midst of a pandemic and are subject to, or observe through the media, different modes of appearance of power and government. So what can the three models that Foucault developed teach us?

First: There are transitions and overlaps between the different forms. The complete lockdown of Wuhan rigorously follows the plague model, and every curfew ultimately does so, too. The models show that curfews are necessary when that statistical knowledge cannot be gained that makes possible the liberal smallpox model.

Only when systematic tests supply massive amounts of data about infected and non-infected people, like for example in South Korea or Singapore, is it possible for governments to restrict themselves to isolating the infected and recommend caution for the rest of the population, without however having to impose a lockdown. It is possible to say this without irony or malice: that public life goes on and the economy continues to function in South Korea or Singapore is precisely the liberal promise of the smallpox model.

Second: the plague model remains a threat, even a danger. This includes, for instance, that in Morocco the corona-related curfew is imposed with tanks in the streets and harsh military measures, that in Israel prominent voices warn of a "coup" executed by Netanyahu under the pretext of the fight against Covid-19, that Victor Orbán in Hungary is planning a transition to government by decree, or that in the United States Attorney General Barr is seeking permission to hold prisoners indefinitely without trial. But it also includes that the storage and evaluation of movement data of everyone carrying a mobile phone is unlikely to easily be relegated to a purely technical possibility after this crisis. The liberal smallpox model fundamentally and always requires that the power of the state be monitored with suspicion.

Third: The smallpox model of power describes, more or less but nevertheless fairly accurately, the form of government in times of a pandemic that the European governments adopt, despite all differences and many national egotisms. The strategy to #flattenthecurve means to reckon with the pathogen and to know that it cannot be eradicated, but to "extend" its distribution over time in such a way that the health system can handle it. And the strategy of prohibiting gatherings of several people does not amount to discipline—for what purpose?—but rather is something like a narrow but well-justified and understandable framework the state sets for individual behavior. In general, the call to observe rules of "social distancing" belongs without doubt in the sphere of liberal techniques of government, which are fundamentally based on individual freedom and must respect this freedom. To take care of oneself, to protect oneself, but also, as can widely be observed at the moment, to find forms of neighborly or solidary organization are techniques of the self that fill the liberal contours of the smallpox model with the concrete material of social self-organization.

Fourth: … but the leprosy model is lurking in the background. It emerges in the idea that appears here and there that one should let old people die "to save the economy"—or it becomes factual reality when retirement and nursing homes are abandoned and their inmates die locked up and alone, as is reportedly the case in Spain.

Postscript on techniques of the self

In his lectures on the history of governmentality in which he developed the smallpox model and spoke at length about neoliberalism, Foucault did not use the concept of techniques of the self. Even if there is an internal connection between his quite positive evaluation of (neo-)liberalism and his concept of techniques of the self, which he examined in the 1980s by using the example of antiquity, it is by no means the case that Foucault regarded techniques of the self as a form of power wrapped in the cover of liberality, as is often asserted today (indeed, he explicitly rejected precisely this interpretation in his lectures). The opposite is the case: the "relationship of self to self" and thus the possibility to conduct oneself in a particular way that is, precisely, not determined by power was, for him, the basis of the subject's freedom. Consequently, as Foucault said in 1982 in his lecture, "there is no first or final point of resistance to political power other than in the relationship one has to oneself."[14] Today he might add: and resistance to the virus. Or simply: take care.

This essay was first published in German in Geschichte der Gegenwart and has been translated for the G+C Blog by Verena Erlenbusch-Anderson.

[1] Michel Foucault, The History of Sexuality, Volume 1: An Introduction, trans. Robert Hurley (New York: Vintage, 1990), 141–142.
[2] Foucault, The History of Sexuality, 143.
[3] Michel Foucault, Society Must Be Defended: Lectures at the Collège de France, 1975–1976, trans. David Macey (Penguin Books, 2004), 254.
[4] Michel Foucault, History of Madness, ed. Jean Khalfa, trans. Jonathan Murphy (London and New York: Routledge, 2006), 3.
[5] Michel Foucault, Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison (New York: Vintage, 1995), 198.
[6] Foucault, Discipline and Punish, 195.
[7] Foucault, Discipline and Punish, 198.
[8] Foucault, Discipline and Punish, 199.
[9] Michel Foucault, Security, Territory, Population: Lectures at the Collège de France, 1977–1978, ed. Michel Senellart et al., trans. Graham Burchell (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007), 49.
[10] Foucault, Security, Territory, Population, 10.
[11] Foucault, Security, Territory, Population, 10.
[12] Michel Foucault, "Espace, Savoir et Pouvoir," in Dits et Écrits IV, 1980–1988, ed. Daniel Defert and François Ewald (Paris: Gallimard, 1994), 273.
[13] In Security, Territory, Population, Foucault introduces the term "normation" to describe the norm typical of disciplinary techniques, which he distinguished from the normalization that characterizes biopolitical regulatory techniques.
[14] Michel Foucault, The Hermeneutics of the Subject: Lectures at the Collège de France 1981–1982, trans. Graham Burchell (New York: Picador, 2005), 252.

  1. Comment by P Ignatius Prabhakar

    The present pandemic situations across the globe arises a situation of the notion of irresponsiblitality versus responsibilitality of the regimes. The power yields to virus situating them in an unprecedentant status resulting in the prevailing ambiguity amongst the subjects, be it the ‘being ruled'!

  2. Comment by alex gunn

    This is a horrendous account of Foucault work on biopolitics, you make no mention to biopolitics you merely reference three previous epidemics that Foucault talks about. Your inability to apply the theory most likely stems from your lack of understanding of Foucault work regarding biopower and therefore you should start there. Also don't you think that because America failed to contain the pandemic this is more than indicative of biopower. Your governmentality dictates the framwork for the techniques of power thereby you rationality informs the way in which you use these powers. Years of neoliberal governmentality has meant that government apply the same free market economics to the pandemic thereby resulting in a poor outcome. What can be gained from looking at pandemic responses from the 1800, the technologies are different, the governmentality is different, the way we conduct ourselves is different. Regulatory power acts in the most subtle ways, it is regulatory, the biopolitics of the pandemic are obvious, stark and worrying and were never going to work they were too large for us to conduct ourself within. This is a poor, poor article that needs a lot of worl

  3. Comment by Manipal Hospital

    The novel variant of coronavirus is a member of the RNA viruses family originated from the city of China, Wuhan. This virus is similar to Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome Coronavirus (SARS Virus, 2002) and The Middle East Respiratory Syndrome Coronavirus (MERS/ Camel Fever, 2012) which had previously caused pandemic illnesses.

    Few viruses are called Zoonosis which means that they have the capability of infecting both animals and humans, similar to H1N1 virus (infecting Pigs and Poultry). The Coronavirus or Wuhan virus is a novel virus which has modified itself possibly by picking up the antigen from infected bats (which are natural reservoir).

    By taking some proteins from an organism the virus assumes a new form called A Novel Virus. This New virus will be able to escape the immune system which was previously designed to counter the older version of the Virus. By escaping host defense, it can cause widespread disease and mortality. This virus being spread easily by the respiratory route can cause Global Pandemics in quick time.

    Fears of spreading virus have already pushed airlines around the world to reduce flights to China and also restricted passengers from China to other countries. There are global notifications in place by the regulatory authorities of infectious disease. Coronavirus has been declared as a global emergency.

    Coronavirus is a RNA (Ribonucleic Acid) virus which is temporarily named "2019-nCoV." There are four types of RNA viruses Alpha, Beta, Gama and Delta. The alpha and beta can cause human infections. The current viral strain is the Beta variant.

    The incubation period, from the virus entry into the body and manifestations of symptoms, is about 4 to 14 days. Most cases the person will start showing symptoms which are predominantly respiratory symptoms of cold, fever (98%), cough (76%), fatigue (44%) some people can also have diarrhea (3%).

    In a FEW CASES, there could be progression to involve the lower respiratory tract of the lungs and manifest it as atypical pneumonia and cause multi-organ dysfunction syndrome with secondary infection and shock. This is the point wherein the infection becomes fatal, however, most others would recover without any complication or sequelae.

    In the current scenario, the origin seems to be the bats in close proximity to humans. Sometimes there is an exchange of secretion and suddenly the virus which was inert becomes infective to the humans. Once that happens then it can become more contagious and can be transmitted from one person to other.

    Coronavirus Signs & Symptoms
    Coronavirus Symptoms include fever, cough, cold, shortness of breath, and difficulty in breathing. In more critical cases, coronavirus infection can cause pneumonia, severe acute respiratory syndrome, kidney failure and even death.

    Dr. Manohar KN, Consultant Physician, Manipal Hospitals, Old Airport Road, Bangalore says, that the virus spreads through droplet infection and by coughing or sneezing it can transmit from one person to others. This virus can survive in nature only for few minutes but in cases of overcrowding and "uncovered" coughing or sneezing the respiratory secretions can be present on the surface and gives a chance to spread from one person to other, called fomite method of transmission. It is better if people voluntarily isolate themselves when they have symptoms of common cold, as most people can have a simple presentation of the disease but act as a "carrier" and pass on the infection to their close contacts who can have a critical manifestation of the disease.

    Coronavirus Precautions
    If you are sick be at home till it gets completely cured.

    During the course of illness, if feeling unusually tired, or breathless consult to the nearest doctor as soon as possible especially those who are a high-risk group.

    Follow Three C's – Clean, Cover and Contain. There should be enhanced personal hygiene – cover your cough or sneeze, wash the hands frequently, avoid unnecessarily touching the nose, eyes and mouth with unwashed hands. Discard the used tissues and masks in a closed bin. Avoid Shaking Hands and stick to "Namskara".

    Avoiding close contact with people who are sick.

    If using the mask, avoid frequent touching of the mask.

    Wash Hands between handling raw and cooked food.

    Thoroughly cook meat before consumption.

    Children and the elderly should be more careful.

    Pregnant ladies should definitely be more conscious.

    People with other medical conditions like obesity, diabetes, asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease(COPD) should be more careful.

    Avoid crowded places and close contact with flu people.

    Encourage Self Quarantine.

    Prevention – An ounce of prevention is better than a Pound of Cure
    As of now, there is no vaccine or definitive treatment available, there is a pressing need to develop the best supportive care. Try to avoid the chance of getting infected. Sending a circular to schools, colleges, and workplaces, regarding the precautions will be useful. Besides, reassuring the public that coronavirus infection is not universally fatal form one of the most important pieces of advice. Cases of fatality, are only the tip of the iceberg and do not represent or include the vast majority of cases who recover without any sequel or who show only a few symptoms.

  4. Comment by Rewfjcm.k

    'turewalklp. Tgyhujikolp;'
    Drftgvyhujikolp;Uthwwuop[.fgvcg6kkkkjhi;;utrdqwsedrftgyhujikol;phhczxszxdcfvgbhnjiklvbhnjkl vbnm,.l;/'

  5. Comment by PfbXJ

    Drug information leaflet. Drug Class.
    <a href="">can you get cheap lyrica</a> in the USA
    Actual trends of meds. Read information now.

Enter your comment below. Fields marked * are required. You must preview your comment before submitting it.