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Medical Social Control in the Covid-19 era

Research Webinar 2023

Stigmatizing health narratives, along with the specter of plague, have historically been used by authorities to justify the suppression of civil unrest and liberties. European Jews, blamed for the bubonic plague, were scapegoated to manage class struggles in the late Middle Ages. Chinese ‘New World’ immigrants, blamed for tuberculosis in the 19th century, were scapegoated by authorities as sources of societal decay. The early 20th century witnessed ‘tramps’ blamed for smallpox, which distracted the populace from capitalist exploitation. In 2020, Covid-19, blamed by Western leaders on China, deflected public attention away from the 2019 worldwide uprisings, turning it against individuals of Asian descent. Finally, groupings of diverse ethnicities, religions, classes, and political affiliations, coalescing around scepticism about, or resistance to, official Covid-19 policies, have been blamed for prolonging the Covid-19 crisis. These narratives, unleashing hate and violence, are alike in that they require a dehumanized “other”, a feared enemy that cannot be tolerated and must be “civilized”, “educated”, “reformed”, and often disciplined, isolated, or eliminated, to “protect” or “save” humanity.

The organizing principle of this session is the belief that health policy is informed by not only the medical sciences but also by societal expectations, dominant values, conflicts of interest, and the imperative to secure its own institutional reproduction. It is hoped that a critical policy analysis that reaches beyond the boundaries of “acceptable debate” can promote better health, greater justice, and a more democratic governance.

Watch the recorded session

Organizer: Claudia Chaufan, York University


1. Sydney Chapados, Carleton University
Homelessness, COVID-19, and Discourses of Contagion

In March 2020, when the COVID-19 pandemic began in Canada, public health and medical authorities quickly identified emergency shelters and people experiencing homelessness as particularly at risk of contracting and spreading COVID-19 (Knight et al., 2021). Drawing on interviews with 28 service providers in organizations that serve people experiencing homelessness in Ottawa, we explored how people who worked in and accessed these organizations negotiated discourses of contagion and infection throughout the COVID-19 pandemic. This paper is informed by Goffman’s (1963) theory of stigma, complemented by Crawford’s (1994) the self and unhealthy other. We argue that people experiencing homelessness, the spaces they occupy, and the people they engage with have been discursively marked as dangerous vectors of infection who present a risk to the whole population’s health rather than as vulnerable to the health consequences and social disruption of COVID-19. Consequently, people experiencing homelessness have experienced further stigmatization as they have been separated from their communities, friends, and families, left without support or shelter, internalized blame for the spread of COVID19, and faced dehumanization, grief, and trauma resulting from uneven COVID-19 interventions.

2. Agnes MacDonald, Simon Fraser University
The Semmelweis Hypothesis: Lessons about Hygiene in the Age of Covid-19

The Covid-19 pandemic has created stigmatizing health narratives about the dangers of the virus and pushed for proper hygiene procedures in our daily lives across the Western world which have shaped new practices of behaviour for both medical professionals and the public. Medical sciences have forged dominant values about mask wearing, physical distancing and hand washing as important aspects of survival routines The most important and most valuable of these three basic measures is hand washing. In this paper, I trace the origins of modern medicine’s practice of hand washing as a hygienic measure of transmission prevention through the life work of the Hungarian obstetrician, Ignác Semmelweis (1818-1865). During his work at the Vienna Hospital in the mid-1800s, Semmelweis observed the high death rate of mothers due to childbed fever. Comparably, the second Clinic, tended by Midwives, had an insignificant percentage of mothers dying. His research findings led him to conclude that the infection mothers died from after childbirth was caused by the dirty hands of physicians and medical students who transferred deadly bacteria and viruses to the mothers during delivery. Semmelweis then discovered that chlorine added to water in washing basins to clean hands would prevent the transfer of deadly viruses. However, the medical establishment in Vienna did not agree with such ‘drastic’ measures of hygiene and dismissed Semmelweis’s call for making it compulsory in every hospital. Semmelweis was attacked by the official narrative of medical sciences to which he responded with his book Etiology in 1860. Twenty years after Semmelweis’s tragic passing, Louis Pasteur and Joseph Lister proved him right regarding the necessity of proper disinfection procedures. By turning the imperative for hygiene on its head, I consider Semmelweis’s contribution to medical research as a sociological biography of lessons about hygiene in our age of fear of viruses.

3. Piers Robinson, Organisation for Propaganda Studies
Mis/Dis/Malinformation and the COVID-19 'Infodemic': A case of Misdiagnosis?

Prior to the Covid-19 event which commenced in early 2020 there was increased academic and political attention to the question of false or misleading information, commonly referred to as ‘misinformation’ or ‘disinformation’. COVID-19 has seen a significant consolidation of fact-checking entities and active management and censorship of alleged and misinformation and disinformation. Primarily the assumption underlying the vast majority of this activity is that the problem of mis/dis/malinformation lies with ‘challengers’ voices as opposed to ‘authorities’. However, the case of Covid-19 provides strong prima facie grounds to question this assumption. Specifically, it is now becoming increasingly clear that core messages promoted by authorities during the Covid-19 response – Covid origin theories, mask efficacy, net benefits of lockdowns, efficacy and safety of mass injection programmes – are challenged by many scientists who are today citing a considerable body of evidence to be in their favour. It is also now evidenced that authorities actively sought to censor those scientists questioning the dominant Covid responses. The scale of error on the part of authorities during Covid-19, which inevitably impacted upon the accuracy of official claims throughout the Covid-19 response, is yet to be fully determined. But the fact that official certainty has now given way to significant levels of scientific dissensus highlights the critical point that authorities, for whatever reason, can act as spreaders of inaccurate information. Moreover, given the substantial resources and influence, authorities are likely to have by far the biggest influence. Accordingly, scholarly attention is more usefully focused on those authorities acting as primary definers and understanding why they might have become disseminators of inaccurate information. The current focus on relatively less powerful challengers is a misdiagnosis of where the biggest problem lies.

4. Manuel Vallee, University of Auckland
Ideological Tactics to Boost the Uptake of Experimental Treatments: The New Zealand Case

During the COVID pandemic many Western governments tasked themselves with rolling out experimental mRNA injection products to the vast majority of their populations. The product roll-out was problematic because the experimental pharmaceuticals had not undergone full safety testing and early reports from the manufacturer associated these products with a variety of concerning side effects, including myocarditis, pericarditis, stroke, cardiac events, paralysis, liver failure, Bell’s palsy and epilepsy. Nevertheless, numerous Western governments succeeded in achieving a high uptake for these experimental products, ranging from 70 to 95%. This paper concerns itself with understanding the strategies and tactics through which government agents sought their objective. To shed light on this issue I examined the New Zealand case, where the government achieved in getting 90% of 12+ citizens take the first dose. Drawing on scholarship around social control, the sociology of risk, and the production of ignorance, and informed by a content analysis of government communications associated with the product roll-out, this paper reveals the array of ideological tactics that were deployed, including: fearmongering, obscuring concerns about the treatments, bribery, shaming, scapegoating and threats to livelihood. Beyond the New Zealand case, this analysis gives us a handle to better understand the social processes through which governments in other countries sought to high uptake for the experimental pharmaceuticals. In doing so the analysis contributes to the larger issue of medical social control.