This article sets forth a theoretical framework that first argues that necropolitical power and sovereignty should be understood as existing on a spectrum that ultimately produces the phenomenon of surplus death – such as pandemic deaths or those disappeared by the state. We then expound this framework by juxtaposing the necropolitical negligence of the COVID-19 pandemic with the violence of forced disappearances to argue that the surplus dead have the unique capacity to create political change and reckonings, due to their embodied power and agency. Victims of political killings and disappearance may not seem to have much in common with victims of disease, yet focusing on the mistreatment of the dead in both instances reveals uncanny patterns and similarities. We demonstrate that this overlap, which aligns in key ways that are particularly open to use by social actors, provides an entry to comprehend the agency of the dead to incite political reckonings with the violence of state action and inaction.
When the COVID-19 pandemic struck in early 2020, it rapidly became apparent that older individuals were at greater risk of serious illness and death. The risk was even greater for residents in care homes, who live in close proximity and may be suffering other comorbidities. Such facilities also saw a high turnover of staff and visitors, meaning an increased risk of transmission. Data has suggested that care home residents may account for up to a half of all COVID-related deaths in Spain.
As morbidity and mortality for COVID-19 was increasing in March 2020, MSF offered support to Spanish care homes during the first wave of infections. Our intervention included different axes: advocacy, knowledge sharing, training and implementation of measures for a reduction in transmission and for infection prevention and control (IPC).
The situation for care home residents was dire, with many people dying alone, away from loved ones and without access to palliative care. Staff were overwhelmed and ill-equipped to deal with the scale and complexity of this tragedy.
Although technical interventions to reduce transmission were crucial, it became clear that other people-centred activities that supported residents, their families and staff, were of equal importance, including facilitating contact between families, providing emotional support and offering adequate pain management and palliative care.
Residents in care homes have the same rights as everyone else. In the event of future crises, the most vulnerable should not be neglected.
Despite a concerted international effort in recent decades that has yielded significant progress in the fight against HIV/AIDS, the disease continues to kill large numbers of people. Although there is still no definitive cure or vaccine, UNAIDS has set an ambitious goal of ending the epidemic by 2030, specifically via its 90-90-90 (‘treatment cascade’) strategy – namely that 90 per cent of those with HIV will know their status, 90 per cent of those who know their status will be on antiretroviral therapy and 90 per cent of those on antiretroviral therapy will have an undetectable viral load. These bold assumptions were put to the test in a five-year pilot project launched in June 2014 by MSF and Kenya’s Ministry of Health in Ndhiwa district, where an initial NHIPS 1 study by Epicentre (MSF’s epidemiology centre) in 2012 revealed some of the world’s highest HIV incidence and prevalence, and a poor treatment cascade. Six years later, a new Epicentre study, NHIPS 2, showed that the 90-90-90 target had been more than met. What explains this ‘success’? And given the still-high incidence, is it truly a success? MSF Deputy Director of Operations Pierre Mendiharat and physician Léon Salumu, Head of MSF France Kenya programmes, discuss the political, scientific and operational challenges of the Ndhiwa project in an interview conducted by Elba Rahmouni.
The COVID-19 pandemic has exposed multiple fault lines in the performances of health services at every level – from community to national to global – in ensuring universal, equitable access to preventive and curative care. Tragically, this has been to the detriment of those who have suffered and died not only from COVID-19, but also from the myriad other ailments affecting people around the world. Of those, we wish to highlight here some key categories of diseases that have caused a greater burden of illness and deaths as a consequence of the policies and political decisions made in relation to the COVID-19 pandemic. In our view, these should be considered epidemics or, more accurately, syndemics – the clustering and interactions of two or more diseases or health conditions and socio-environmental factors – of neglect.
This article explores the actions of Médecins Sans Frontières during the 2018–20 Ebola outbreak in Nord Kivu, in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Based on the experiences of practitioners involved in the response, including the author, and on the public positioning of MSF during the first year of the epidemic, it argues that although the actions of response actors were usually well intentioned, they could rarely be described as lifesaving, may have exacerbated disease transmission as much as limited it and had the perverse effect of fuelling corruption and violence. The article documents and analyses contradictions in MSF’s moral and technical positioning, and the complicated relationship between the organisation and the international and Congolese institutions leading the response. It argues that the medical and social failure of the response was the result of an initial belief in a strategy designed at a time when the only realistically attainable outcome was to relieve suffering, and of the later inability of the organisation to convince the authorities in charge of the response to adjust their approach. It suggests that for future success new protocols must be elaborated and agreed based on a better social and political comprehension and a better understanding of the tools now available.
In 2017, the UN raised the alarm on famines in North-east Nigeria, Somalia, South Sudan and Yemen. Starvation has been used as a weapon of war in Syria, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo currently has among the largest numbers of severely food-insecure people of any country assessed by the Integrated Food Security Phase Classification (IPC) system. Each of these sites of mass starvation or famine can be understood as a ‘political marketplace’. They are characterised by the dominance of transactional politics over public institutions, and elite politics is conducted for factional or personal political advantage, on the basis of monetised patronage. This paper examines the relationship between these systems of transactional politics and famine and other forms of mass starvation, and outlines the implications of the political marketplace framework for humanitarian action. It argues that both transactional politics and mass starvation emerge from particular political-economic configurations characterised by economic precarity and mismanagement, violent forms of peripheral governance and war economies. Applying the political marketplace framework can help improve humanitarian information and early warning systems, as well as programme decision-making, while helping humanitarians think more carefully about the constant trade-offs they are forced to make.
Two experimental Ebola vaccines were deployed during the tenth Ebola epidemic (2018–20) in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). The first, the Ervebo vaccine manufactured by Merck, was used as part of a ring vaccination in the epicentre of the epidemic in North Kivu. In 2019, the prime- (Ad26.ZEBOV) and boost- (MVA-BN-Filo) vaccine manufactured by Johnson & Johnson (J&J) became the second vaccine against Ebola, deployed by the DRC-EB-001 vaccine trial in Goma, North Kivu. There was international debate as to the value and ethics of testing a second vaccine in an epidemic context. This article examines how this debate unfolded among actual and potential DRC-EB-001 trial participants in Goma. Drawing on ethnographic observation, interviews and focus groups, it explores how the trial was perceived and contested on the ground and situated in broader debates about the ethics of clinical trials, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic. We illustrate how debates around the ethics of clinical research are not simply centred on bioethical principles but are inseparable from local political dynamics and broader contests about governance, inequality and exclusion.
This review essay focuses on two books, Heide Fehrenbach and Davide Rodogno’s Humanitarian Photography: A History (2015) and Lasse Heerten’s The Biafran War and Postcolonial Humanitarianism: Spectacles of Suffering (2017). It situates the books in relation to broader debates about similarities and differences between humanitarianism and human rights practice, with a particular focus on the visual cultures of and ethical debates surrounding representations of suffering.