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  • Our COVID Conjuncture: Critical Essays on the Pandemic1
  • Penelope Ironstone and Greg Bird

On the second weekend of March 2020, just before the Canada-wide lockdown for the COVID-19 pandemic was made official, we realized that we needed to take a snapshot of rapid changes that were unfolding around us. The biopolitical dimensions of public health and governmental responses to the pandemic were already clear, so we contacted Canadian-based scholars working in field of biopolitics to contribute short, rapid-response essays on the first, early stage of the pandemic. The editors at TOPIA and the University of Toronto Press graciously agreed to publish the essays online (Bird and Ironstone, 2020). In less than a week, 10 essays covering various biopolitical dimensions of the first week of the lockdown in Canada were published.

The first volume, COVID-19 Essays, was written in the middle of March 2020, at exactly the moment when pandemic measures were being operationalized and the new pandemic discourse took on dramatic intensity in Canada. The short essays published then reflect the pandemic moment in which they appeared. On the one hand, critical engagement was tempered by pessimistic premonitions, much like Agamben’s (2020a, 2020b), as our contributors recognized that our pandemic moment would be shaped by decades of neoliberal restructuring and would provide the justification of further extensions of governmental power into the everyday lives of people. On the other hand, our contributors expressed hope for new or renewed forms of social solidarity in which the stakes of life and death revealed during a public health crisis might inspire care, community and conviviality. Even with the incursion of complex social processes of pandemicization, the contributors argued, profound transformation and an ethos of care was also possible. Attention could be directed not simply to self-protection and preservation, but also to social transformation and enhancement where the conditions of life and living—captured, controlled, regulated and, as the pandemic made clear, unequally distributed—might be reconfigured. There were two paths that might be travelled, and which would win out was not clear. Months into the pandemic, it is still unclear.

One of the glaring issues with the first collection was the lack of diverse voices. As we discovered, “writing in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic” was not something to which our colleagues had equal access. As we wrote at the time: [End Page 5]

Not everyone has the luxury, social conditions, even frame of mind, that would enable them to participate in this project at this point in time. . . . This is to say, we know there are important voices missing here, and it is our hope that, as the dust settles, we will be able to include them in our future efforts to interrogate the significance of this pandemic.

(Bird and Ironstone, 2020)

We knew that our tentative first steps to critically engage the pandemic were partial and preliminary. We also knew that finding a way to include at least some of the absent voices had to be an ongoing priority if we were to grapple with the very real stakes of the pandemic, not only for those who could carve out the space for reflection, but also for those who for all sorts of critically significant reasons could not.

After over a month of lockdown, we began to consider how much our everyday world had been transformed, how our interactions with others had both contracted and expanded, and how the unequal experience of the pandemic was becoming more and more apparent with the economic and social shocks that had become regular occurrences. While our sense of time also seemed to contract and expand, it was Greg who pointed out that, after 40 days—the historical quarantine period—it was perhaps time to renew our intervention and once again take stock. To this end, we reached out again to those who had been unable to contribute to the first volume, many of whom now accepted our invitation, and extended our purview in order to engage scholars whose work we knew to directly engage some of the inequalities being exacerbated by the pandemic. While the first collection had a biopolitical emphasis, this second collection...


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pp. 5-10
Launched on MUSE
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