Anarchism in Crisis: Dealing With Pandemics

The end of the world is upon us, or so it may seem. With COVID-19 spreading rapidly worldwide, a mixture of fear, precaution, and opportunism has led state governments to react in predictably authoritarian ways. While some officials have been fighting for moratoriums on evictions and utility shut-offs, paid sick leave, subsidized childcare services, Medicare for All, the halting of deportations and enforcement of other non-violent “crimes,” the freeing of non-violent inmates from overcrowded jails, prisons, and detention centers, bailouts for the working class in the form of tax breaks and debt forgiveness, and many other arguably good reforms, few of those are being acted upon. Instead the bulk of the reaction consists of travel and trade bans, immigration restrictions, forced shutdowns of schools and businesses, curfews, corporate bailouts, regulatory barriers to necessary medical care, price fixing, increasing the surveillance state, rationing healthcare services in a blatantly ableist manner, and quarantine measures. Some of those measures may be effective or even necessary, but are they all?

Many believe that an anarchist society would be ill-equipped to deal with a pandemic since such a society would lack any solid method of enforcement for quarantines, travel bans, and similar measures, if they become necessary. The question is, however, are such measures actually necessary? The World Health Organization and other health experts actually question whether this is the case in most situations:

“Travel and trade restrictions take various forms. With this coronavirus, governments are warning citizens not travel to China, and instructing those already there to leave; closing borders and banning flights; barring visitors who have recently been to China from entering the country; and implementing mandatory quarantines for returning residents. In past epidemics, governments have also imposed trade restrictions, such as bans on importing pork during the 2009 swine flu pandemic. Such restrictions are ineffective and economically costly for all sides. Initial estimates are that U.S. travel restrictions against China will cost the U.S. economy $10.3 billion. They also have more insidious downsides: incentivizing countries to conceal outbreaks, hindering response efforts, infringing on human rights, and fueling the spread of xenophobia…

Coronavirus travels in people, so in theory, anything that reduces the movement of people should help reduce the spread of the virus. In practice, travel restrictions prove ineffective because they are imposed too late or because people circumvent them. Perversely, the timing problem may simply drive policymakers to impose restrictions more quickly. And people frequently evade general immigration restrictions too, yet this does not persuade governments to dispense with visas or border checks.

Modeling studies show that travel restrictions might slow, but cannot prevent, an epidemic. However, policymakers may well decide that slowing it is better than not slowing it.”

So while forced quarantining of the sick may be more difficult in an anarchist society and would technically violate a person’s freedom of movement, it cannot be ruled out altogether in the face of such disasters, especially in situations like ours where “flattening the curve” has become the main public health goal after the situation was exacerbated by misinformation, poor planning, and inadequate response times. That being said, in a stateless society who would decide when a quarantine was needed? Who would enforce it? How would they enforce it?

A more realistic option is to weaponize our freedom of association as a form of protection. We may not be able to effectively quarantine everyone who is sick, but a number of folks would self-quarantine out of genuine concern for the healthy and voluntary sick communities would likely spring up, similar to the leper colonies. But even more importantly, freedom of association means that a healthy community could close itself off from the sick. Instead of trying to keep sick folks from getting out of a community, it seems a whole lot easier to keep them from coming in.

Of course we could always take inspiration from the armed citizens in Vinalhaven, Maine who chopped down a tree and dragged it into their neighbors driveway in order to keep them from being able to leave using their car in an attempt to force them into quarantine for the safety of the rest of the community.

Communities could also decide among themselves to restrict gatherings or to restrict immigration and travel into their communities until the pandemic is dealt with, enforcing such measures via social pressure and exile.

But what if someone gets sick in a quarantined community of healthy folks? Well then they would be given the choice to seek treatment in a separate community-led quarantine of the sick, or if they are uncooperative, they may just be exiled from the community altogether for the safety of the others.

While some limited benefit may still come from restricting travel, curfews and similar measures seem to miss the point entirely. This is mainly because viruses don’t care what time it is and curfews do not effectively limit social interaction as expected, but rather ensure that everyone goes out at the same exact time, increasing the likelihood of such interaction.

Curfews, mandatory shutdowns, and other similar measures also increase the likelihood of panic buying, which leads to an increase in demand and oftentimes a shortage of various items. The main two ways businesses can respond to this demand are to either ration items by restricting sales to only a certain number per person per day or to raise the price to lower demand. Of course this second option arguably does not lower demand but rather leads to a situation in which the rich are more easily able to meet their demands while the poor are disproportionately left to fend without. This is why this practice is often referred to as price gouging and why many working class anarchists promote voluntary rationing instead and defend looting by those in need.

Social distancing is something most people are willing to practice voluntarily during such a crisis, as we have seen, but our ability to do so is largely limited by the state and capitalism. We might be willing to distance ourselves from others but our boss still demands we work, our landlords still demand we pay rent, and food and other necessities still cost money. Many of us would choose to stay home if we could but capitalism compels us to risk our health or wind up homeless and hungry. Not to mention that the houseless and prisoners don’t have the same ability to social distance.

This is why politicians are scrambling to save people in the fallout of capitalism with bandaids such as universal basic income and moratoriums on evictions and utility shut offs. This is why Ayanna Pressley and others are calling for the release of all non-violent prisoners. This is why we need housing first policies. But instead of bailing out people, most politicians are more concerned with bailing out corporations as if that would do much of anything to save the economy.

We should be focused on testing and medical care and yet the FDA and CDC are preventing those in the so-called united states from using the same tests already approved in other countries, trade restrictions make it difficult to import needed medical equipment from other countries, and corporations are still busy suing makers who violate intellectual property right laws to create open source versions of needed medical equipment. Dr. Helen Chu and others faced legal repercussions for testing people against the wishes of the state and have likely saved countless lives doing so. But on the bright side, the FDA did temporarily lift their restrictions on manufacturing hand sanitizer to help meet demand.

How would you deal with a pandemic situation in an anarchist society? Probably similar to how many are now. DIY biohackers are working on the CoroNope project to develop DIY vaccines, makers are developing 3D printed N95 masks (whose effectiveness have been called into question, recommending that folks instead make their own from form fitting cloth) and other medical equipment, workers that can are working from home, volunteers are sewing masks at home to meet the demands of understocked hospitals, parents that can are homeschooling and/or unschooling, stranded college students are banding together to find last minute housing and storage space for their belongings, and anarchists are setting up mutual aid networks to ensure people have access to food, medical supplies, and other necessities.

Anarchists are also currently helping folks survive the failures of this system via tenant and labor unions and other mutual aid groups, affinity groups, and freedom cells. In the footsteps of Occupy Homes and similar initiatives, people are banding together to stop evictions and help secure abandoned housing for the houseless, while others are helping workers fight for needed benefits and policies that will protect worker health.

Even some businesses are helping out. Pornhub is providing free Pornhub Premium to the citizens of Italy and other places during quarantine and pledged to donate a portion of their income to COVID-19 research. U-Haul is allowing college students to store their belongings in their storage units for a month free during school shutdowns. Domino’s Pizza is offering contact-free delivery service. Food trucks, food carts, and restaurants in Portland, Pensacola, and elsewhere are offering free meals to those suffering due to economic unrest. Zoom is allowing k-12 students to use their videoconferencing tools for free. General Motors even offered to repurpose their factories to produce ventilators. Imagine how much more companies would do if they were run by the workers in the communities they were established in instead of CEOs and business professionals far removed from the lives of everyday working people.

Of course there are also companies working with the government to collect supposedly anonymous data on smartphone users with the expressed hopes to help track the spread of the virus but there are obvious concerns over privacy and surveillance with such a partnership. Some police departments are investing even more into drone technology to help with policing and getting out announcements via attached loudspeakers while continuing to social distance. Between partnerships like these and the increase in surveillance measures and militarization to enforce social distancing, we must be vigilant in fighting against the increases of statism and the encroachment on our civil liberties.

The one big stumbling block to containing any pandemic are the skeptics. Whether it’s those who deny the existence of said pandemic or those who offer quack solutions such as colloidal silver or ingesting bleach or just those offering bad medical advice, they can all serve to spread such pandemics where they could be halted.

Of course, the root cause of many such conspiracy theories usually stems from a distrust of state and corporate power, something there is a noted absence of in an anarchist society. Greater openness of information would, in large part, put an end to such conspiracies and, without corporate or state barriers to access of information, people would generally be more informed about these things.

As to the skeptics that may still exist, we can again weaponize freedom of association to our advantage by making it a requirement to be vaccinated to take part in certain aspects of society such as certain schools or community spaces, while those who continuously put a community at risk with their behavior would likely be exiled.

There may still be folks yet who wish to weaponize such pandemics for their own oppressive causes, such as the white supremacists who were uncovered to have plans to infect Jews and other non-whites in order to kill them off and further their goals. Unfortunately the FBI has a history of ignoring white supremacist groups in so-called america. Thankfully, antifa doesn’t.

But we do not live in an anarchist society yet so we have to focus on surviving in the here and now. That means focusing on the simple things. Wash your hands, get some sleep, eat healthy, practice self-care, practice voluntary social distancing, avoid groups of 10 or more, make sure your neighbors have food and supplies, set up local mutual aid networks, form tenants unions to push for a rent strike, help that houseless person break into the abandoned house next door and watch their back, help provide medical care if you have those skills, join your local chapter of Food Not Bombs or any number of other local mutual aid groups in your area, and help support the unions and others fighting for the survival of working people during this economic crisis.

Oh, and one more important thing: help protect your Asian comrades by dispelling racist myths and combating racist violence.

We’re all in this together.

The Anatomy of Escape
Fighting Fascism
Markets Not Capitalism
Free Markets & Capitalism?
Organization Theory
Conscience of an Anarchist