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Analyzing the Coronavirus Pandemic from a Foucauldian Perspective

This article attempts to address the coronavirus pandemic within the framework of French thinker Michel Foucault’s (1926-1984) conceptualizations. Foucault’s conceptualizations of “biopower” and “governmentality” can be used as analytical tools in the analysis of  different countries’ management of the coronavirus. The vaccination campaign has been steadily continuing in many countries. Amid this process, however, concerns and debates about the vaccines have also been on the global agenda.

The COVID-19 virus is continuing to spread all over the world with nearly 90 million confirmed cases in 190 countries and almost two million deaths.[1] The COVID-19 virus, which emerged in Wuhan city of China in December 2019, spread all over the world in a very short time and led to significant changes in the domestic and foreign policies of almost all countries. What started as a health crisis soon began to affect the political decision-making processes of countries with its economic and security dimensions.

Source: BBC News

In the international arena, COVID-19 has gone beyond a health crisis. Considering the economic costs, even great nations such as the US and the UK have not been successful in crisis management. The insufficiency of international institutions such as the WHO and the EU in this process is another side of the coin.

Unfortunately, in the early days of 2021, the COVID-19 pandemic remains a serious threat to humanity. The development of a vaccine against the virus can be seen as the most promising development in this process. By the end of 2020, vaccination had started in countries such as the US, China, Israel, Russia, Bahrain, Canada, Chile, Mexico, and the UK. More than 18.9 million doses in 39 countries have been administered so far.[2]

With regards to Turkey, it is known that Turkey received the first batch of 3 million doses of the Chinese-produced vaccine Sinovac in late December. The samples from the vaccines are currently being tested in national laboratories. Furthermore, the Minister of Health Fahrettin Koca said that Turkey is also currently seeking ways to increase the doses of the vaccine developed by the Germany-based BioNTech.[3]

The Pandemic from a Foucauldian Perspective

Foucault’s term of “bio-power” can simply be defined as the power of exercising control over populations by the governments. The governments regulate and control populations through “biopower” (based on the application of political power on all aspects of life). Foucault’s analysis of power in Discipline and Punish was an analysis of anatomo-politics of the body focusing on the penal system.[4] The new type of power that Foucault emphasized was biopower, meaning “the administration of bodies and the calculated management of life.[5] Biopower is directly related to the well-being of populations; therefore, governance based on biopolitics requires paying attention to diseases such as COVID-19. Today, as governments pursue ways to manage the coronavirus crisis, vaccination is one of the most applied strategies. Vaccination can be seen as a tool of biopolitics.

Another concept coined by Foucault is “governmentality.” Governmentality can basically be defined as the sum of the techniques and strategies used to make a society governable. Governmentality requires multiple actors in human conduct. Besides state agencies, these actors include NGOs, scientific experts, the media, corporations, as well as natural processes such as pandemics that erode governance.[6] In this regard, it can be argued that the COVID-19 pandemic has been a critical agent affecting state policies.

There are various policies of governments in fighting the coronavirus pandemic. These policies differ from region to region and country to country. Every government has applied a different biopolitics approach. For example, the UK adopted the “herd immunity” policy in the early days of the outbreak of the pandemic; however, this caused the infection of thousands of people and created a serious problem. The Chinese government preferred to keep the government’s fight with the pandemic as a secret state policy. As for Turkey, the Turkish government adopted a strong social welfare state approach in managing the coronavirus crisis. A good example of social welfare state policy has been the Vefa Social Support Group. The group was established by the Interior Ministry to help citizens over the age of 65, particularly those who live alone or with chronic ailments.[7] It should be noted that Turkey has not begun vaccination yet unlike many European countries; this can be regarded as a challenge to effective governmentality.

As noted above, every government has adopted a different approach based on their own style of “governmentality” and “biopolitics” but the purpose of each government has been the same: efficient management of the crisis caused by the COVID-19 virus. In brief, vaccination is a significant step on the path to efficiently managing the crisis.


[1] “Covid-19 pandemic: Tracking the global coronavirus outbreak,” BBC, (Accessed on 9 January.2021), https://www.bbc.com/news/world-51235105

[2] “More Than 18.9 Million Shots Given: Covid-19 Vaccine Tracker,” Bloomberg, (Accessed on 9 January.2021) https://www.bloomberg.com/graphics/covid-vaccine-tracker-global-distribution/

[3] “Turkey seeks access to more doses of BioNTech vaccine,” Hurriyet Daily News, 8 January 2021, https://www.hurriyetdailynews.com/turkey-seeks-access-to-more-doses-of-biontech-vaccine-161470 

[4] Michel Foucault, Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison. Translated by Alan Sheridan. (New York: Vintage Books, 1977).

[5] Michel Foucault, History of Sexuality (Vol.1), (New York: Pantheon Books, 1978), p. 40.

[6] J. A. Baptista, “Governmentality,” 2018, https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1002/9781118924396.wbiea1372

[7] Begum Burak, “Coronavirus as a litmus test for Turkey’s soft power and social welfare state policies,” Blogactiv.eu, 11 May 2020,  https://blogofbburak.blogactiv.eu/2020/05/11/coronavirus-as-a-litmus-test-for-turkeys-soft-power-and-social-welfare-state-policies/

CONTRIBUTOR
Begüm Burak
Begüm Burak

Begüm Burak is an associate researcher at the French Institute for Anatolian Studies (IFEA). In 2018, Dr. Burak became one of the founding members of www.ilkmade.com, a social and professional network for political scientists.

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