The crisis of the pandemic is clearly enabling a new era of state surveillance. But it is also facilitating new means of establishing and justifying borders and divisions within populations.
The lockdowns enforced across the world in response to Covid-19 have been a terrain of experimentation of digital technologies, modes of control and strategies for gaining citizens’ consensus. Tracing-apps, drones and immunity certificates have gained centre stage in the media during the lockdowns to monitor citizens’ movements and their access to public services. The hypothesis that these technologies might remain in place and be normalised after the end of the pandemic is not just a worry but, rather, a very likely scenario. These concerns are fully shared here. Nevertheless, I suggest, an exclusive attention to surveillance partly overshadows political technologies for governing the national population and, together, racialised mechanisms of confinement that have proliferated during the pandemic and in the name of protecting both citizens and migrants.
But are surveillance and direct control the only modes of power we should critically interrogate and challenge? How to formulate a critical discourse about the governing of populations during Covid-19 without falling in the binary opposition between individual freedoms and collective responsibility? This intervention argues for shifting the focus from a debate centred on obligations and restrictions – e.g. on saying “yes” or “no” to face masks – towards an analysis of the incorporation of sanitary measures for justifying differential confinement. The measures and obligations enforced by states against Covid-19 (face masks, social distance measures, physical distance and hand washing), I argue, should be situated in a hygienic-sanitary rationale of governing. Relatedly, I suggest that claims around public health have been progressively emptied in favour of hygienic-sanitary logics, and the former has been conflated with the latter.
The enforcement of hygienic-sanitary borders needs to be closely scrutinised not only due to the control these exercise on people’s movements but, more broadly, for the discriminatory containment measures they legitimise on some sub-populations and for preventing that they become unquestionable interventions. By speaking of “hygienic-sanitary borders” I refer to bordering mechanisms which enact forms of racialised containment (towards migrants) and which fix rules of citizens’ good behaviours in opposition to “irresponsible conducts”, in the name citizens’ common good.
Scholars have engaged with the biopolitics of public health in relation to health diseases (Elbe, 2008) and, more recently, by focusing on the management of Covid-19 (Esposito, 2020). As Daniele Lorenzini has pointed out, “biopolitics is always a politics of differential vulnerability” (Lorenzini, 2020) and, therefore, far from exposing anyone to the same risk, the pandemic has rather worked as an accelerator of inequalities.. More broadly, Foucault’s understanding of biopolitics has been mobilised for highlighting the ways in which during the pandemic populations managed “in depth, in all its fine points and details” (Foucault, 2007: 58) and are targeted by health policies on the basis of calculation of vulnerability and risks.
Yet, little has been said about the public hygiene rationale which is at stake in the spectrum of anti-Covid measures; and, in fact, unlike analyses on biopolitics, Foucault’s reflections on public hygiene are surprisingly marginalised in the debate on global health issues and on Covid-19. In the Course at the College de France Abnormal (1974-1975) Foucault stresses that in the nineteenth century “psychiatry was institutionalized as social safety, as hygiene of the whole social body” (Foucault, 2003a: 118), which means it was legitimised to function for social protection purposes and for detecting “a certain danger, even when it is not yet visible to anyone else” (120). In fact, public hygiene is about preventing all factors that might “endangering public safety” (141).
In the Course Society Must be Defended (1976-1977) Foucault reiterates this point by arguing that from the late eighteenth century on, the main function of medicine was to enforce and teach public hygiene (Foucault, 2003b: 244). The notion of public hygiene is clearly distinguished from health by Foucault in The Birth of Social Medicine (1977) where he defines the former as “a technology for controlling and modifying those elements of the environment which might promote the health or, on the contrary, harm it” and connects it to the notion of salubrity (Foucault, 2000: 151).
A similar analysis was conducted by the sociologist Robert Castel who in The Psychiatric Society (1976) retraced the genealogy of the social medicine and explains that in the nineteenth century it was legitimised for providing the national population with a “frame of hygienic and rational existence” and for controlling life’s milieu (Castel, 1976: 140). Instead of subsuming public hygiene under the homogenising label of biopolitics, a critical understanding of anti-Covid measures requires grasping the racialised differences through which confinement is enacted. For instance, this happens by containing migrants in the name of their own good and of citizens’ safety, and by moralising citizens who act “irresponsibly”, that is without complying with the compulsory or recommended hygienic measures.
Overall, the governing of the pandemic reveals that biopolitical mechanisms are inflected in hygienic-sanitary terms, which means that first, claims about health become coextensive with hygienic standards and practices; and, second, hygienic measures become ways for enacting internal differentiations (e.g. among good and bad citizens’ conducts) and for subjecting sub-populations to racialised unequal treatments. In which ways are Foucault’s and Castel’s insights on public hygiene helpful for understanding our present? In fact, their works refer to specific historical moments and are not directly related to global health diseases. However, we can mobilise their analyses on public hygiene as analytics for disentangling public health, hygienic-sanitary borders and differential forms of confinement. Such a focus on hygienic-sanitary measures enables grasping nuances of power which are not simply about top-down control nor only about pervasive surveillance but, I suggest, about rules of conducts and racialised confinement in the name of public good.
Contain (some) to protect
A few weeks after the start of the lockdown in Italy, on April 7 the Italian government declared its ports “unsafe” for letting migrants disembark: “due to the emergency situation triggered by the pandemic […] the Italian state cannot guarantee safe spaces” to the migrants rescued at sea and that, therefore, “for the entire duration of the national sanitary emergency, the Italian ports do not match the necessary criteria to be considered a Place of Safety ”. In so doing, a measure of sheer containment was officially taken in the name of migrants’ own safety, as long as Italy stated to be unable to take care of people seeking asylum due to the pandemic.
A few months later, in summer 2020, the link between migrants’ arrivals and Covid-19 was crafted by the right wing but also by some members of the government: “the virus is mainly spread through people’s movements: tourists, businessmen, commuters, but also migrants. Yet, migrants who come by the sea come illegally, and while legality fosters health, illegality enhances the pandemic”, the former Italian Minister of the Interior, Marco Minniti declared.
Along similar lines, on the Greek islands asylum seekers had been subject to discriminatory and protracted lockdowns, being confined in the hotspots for months – while tourists and Greek citizens could freely circulate from May onward: this differential measure were taken with the twofold official goal of preventing migrants from becoming vehicles of contagion and, at the same time, not exposing them to the infection. For months, in the name of Covid-19, asylum seekers have been obstructed in accessing humanitarian services and legal support, and their mobility was substantially restricted even if this paradoxically meant that they were forced to stay in a cramped space. Also, face masks became compulsory even in the premises of the hotspots, while this was not the case in other public space in Greece. Thus, “confine to protect” appears to be the formula which encapsulates the politics of containment in Covid times and, in practice, this means that instead of being protected from exposure to the virus, asylum-seekers have been forced to share a cramped space.
The production of the “irresponsible citizen”
Hygienic-sanitary measures have been addressed and imposed on national populations at large. Some of these – wearing a face mask on public transports and in the shops – have become compulsory in many countries, while some others – wash your hands, keep social distancing – are expected to be enforced in the best way by everyone.
In Italy, which was notably the first European country to go into lockdown, this expectation was shared among citizens: even when they were not compulsory, the compliance with hygienic-measures became the yardstick of the responsible citizen. Wearing face masks even where it is not compulsory – e.g. in an empty street – appeared as a marker of virtuosity and responsibility: “I sacrifice myself for the good of the collectivity”. Conversely, people were turned into irresponsible citizens not only if they violated the law but also if, more broadly, their behaviours appear as deviant with respect with the recommended hygienic-sanitary standards, including social distance. The increasing moralisation of the “irresponsible citizens” generated a hierarchical distribution of guilt: if a new wave of Covid-19 would come, the discourse goes, the fault is of both collective and individual irresponsible behaviours.
Thus, hygienic-sanitary measures turn into borders, as long as they produce internal differences among citizens and citizens’ mutual perception. Unlike the state’s medicine that Foucault and Castel spoke about, hygienic-sanitary measures have been mobilised by citizens themselves, as a yardstick to distinguish between responsible and irresponsible citizens. Citizens’ peer-to-peer policing has been by far more effective and persistent across the country than every top-down initiative. Actually, the very notion of common good, that has been repeatedly mentioned for justifying the multiplication of hygienic-sanitary measures, should be unpacked in light of the recursive blaming of “irresponsible citizens”: in fact, instead of generating a common ground for claims and struggles about public health, the generalised compliance with hygienic-sanitary measures ended up in an individualisation of responsibility and guilt.
Hence, coming to grips with hygienic-sanitary borders enables shifting the attention from an exclusive focus on surveillance and control towards political technologies for shaping conducts and multiplying racialised differences in times of Covid-19. In this respect, analyses which centre the critique on the paradigm of exception do not bring us far in understanding the emergence of new configuration of power and the reasons of the wide consensus around it.
Of course, we should not downplay the persistence of pervasive surveillance that might likely be on place also after the end of the lockdown. Rather, it is a matter of grasping how the pandemic contributed to shape people’s conducts, their relationships to the others – to other citizens as well as to those who are racialised as “migrants” – and demands about public health. Ultimately, Covid-19 is much more than a biopolitical struggle over life and death. Questioning of hygienic-sanitary borders does not involve refusing hygienic measures as such but, rather, it entails not flattening of health claims onto hygienic interventions. That is, the pandemic has multiplied racialised differences and inequalities across the globe as well as within countries. Yet, as the Black Lives Matter movement foregrounded, at the same time it can be seized as an opportunity for opening up a common ground to build coalitions and collective claims about public health; and, together, to rethink what “health” might means nowadays.
Castel, R. (1976). L’ordre psychiatrique. L’âge d’or de l’aliénisme. Paris, Éditions de Minuit.
Esposito, R. (2020) The Biopolitics of Immunity in Times of COVID-19: An Interview with Roberto Esposito. Antipode. Available at: https://antipodeonline.org/2020/06/16/interview-with-roberto-esposito/
Foucault, M. (2003a). Abnormal: lectures at the Collège de France, 1974-1975 (Vol. 2). Macmillan.
Foucault, M., & Ewald, F. (2003b). “Society Must Be Defended”: Lectures at the Collège de France, 1975-1976 (Vol. 1). Macmillan.
Foucault, M. (2000). The birth of social medicine. Power, 3, 1954-1984.
Lorenzini, D. (2020). Biopolitics in the time of coronavirus. Critical Inquiry blog. Available at:
 As defined by Marc and Esquirol in 1829 , public hygiene “is the art of preserving the health of people gathered together in society and which is destined to be very greatly developed and to provide numerous applications for the improvement of our institutions” (Marc, Esquirol, 1829: 116-17).