FRAG-MENTs: An Emergency

By Andy Pragacz

As a proactive measure the normal format of Frag-ments will be disrupted. The normal rules and codes this series adheres to will be suspended in order to efficiently and effectively deal with a new situation (although it should not be seen as a response to ‘changing facts on the ground’ as this is a proactive measure). This situation is the enactment of the state of emergency by President Obama on Oct. 24, 2009, meant to handle the H1N1 crisis. The above paragraph is a deadly serious joke meant to highlight the irony and the uniqueness of the new state of emergency. It was inaugurated as a “proactive” measure against the threat of H1N1 not as a response to the growing number of cases in the US (something that we have already called into question). The emergency was established this way, I assume, to limit national panic over H1N1, by not making it a response to the growing epidemic, demonstrating the administration’s attention to it.

This state of emergency (the second one currently in effect), however, is a revisioning of the concept of a state of emergency, public health, and the role of public health in our lives. Such factors are what this article series has tried to make clear: H1N1 is part of a political project, which has the effect of intruding in our lives through regulating our behavior. This national state of emergency shows how political and how insane this whole situation has become.

To start, this is the first time in the history of the United States that a national state of emergency has been enacted in response to a national health crisis. National emergencies are usually established during times of war and states usually do so in the case of natural disasters. In the second place, this is a proactive measure very similar to the War on Terrorism. A state of emergency has traditionally been an immediate response to a crisis of some sort that allows certain laws to be suspended and large amounts of money to be dedicated to handling the situation.

Both the state of emergency declared as part of the War on Terror and the new state of emergency are similar insofar as they are preventative measures. This also means that the state of emergency is theoretically indefinite. Even though there is a two-year restriction on state of emergencies (meaning they have to be renewed after two years) they have no limit. When is a threat over? Just as with the case with the War on Terror, we find that there is always a threat both from terrorists and viruses. And to be proactive means the continued suspension of certain laws pertaining to public health and uncontrolled funding for matters of public health. The law ssuspended are said to “cut the red tape” but no one is asking what “good” laws have also been deactivated in the process. The state of emergency, however, has been used to fast-track Peramvir, a flu drug, owned by Johnson and Johnson (and not approved by the FDA yet) so that it can be used in hospitals.

While it is hard to tell exactly how this state of emergency will impact our lives and what new measures of control will be put into action, the only thing protecting us from full governmental control are definitions. While it may be absurd to suggest that the government would ever lock us up for our own safety we have seen in the case of Guantanamo how far the government will go in the name of (not necessarily in order to) protecting the American people. In reality, public health just like national security is potentially anything: almost anything the government can do can be justified in the name of “public health.” The only thing keeping the government from doing certain things is not the Constitution (which they have found ways around in the past) but reigning definitions of what is in the realm of public health and the measures taken to keep the public healthy. So public health officials cannot close down roads and highways, for example, because that is out of their jurisdiction. However, closing down roads and highways could be part of public health measures; it is only because of how public health is understood and the way the threat is defined that keeps highways open. And as we have seen, the government has recently re-defined public health through the use of a state of emergency, which highlights the uneasy protection these definitions have to offer.

One last note: as we have previously noted, H1N1 is a conspiracy to control our lives. The fact that it does and will continue to ever increasingly is a by-product of the biopolitical era denoted by the nation-state’s growing interest in the body politic. Through this process each body becomes political and open to political regulation. H1N1 is simultaneously a public health concern and a political form of regulation; in fact the two are one in the same insofar as public health is a necessity for the nation-state.

Next week the article that was meant for this week will appear (maybe).