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  • CSSAAME Editorial NoteOn COVID-19 and the Movement for Black Lives

We are, of course, in the midst of a global pandemic that has engulfed nearly every habitable terrain on earth. At the time of this writing, the Movement for Black Lives has also been leading demonstrations against antiblack policing practices in the United States and inspired demonstrations around the world in solidarity against police brutality and racism. Of course, the pandemic and the concern for black lives intersect not just in US news headlines but also in the broader world. This intersection between COVID-19 and the long-standing structural disparities and injustices that it exposes has worsened the conditions of life, security, and livelihoods for those who are already excluded and living in its margins. Both the effects of COVID-19 and the intersecting crises of state violence and economic collapse—along with the multiplex failures of governing institutions—are central concerns to the regions we address in the journal. The CSSAAME editorial collective stands strongly in solidarity with all pathways of protest and redressal from the Movement for Black Lives in the United States, with the shack-dwellers movements in South Africa, with the mobilization for social security for migrant and daily wage workers in South Asia, and with all who are risking so much to create a better world. We unequivocally support efforts to redistribute resources more equitably and to guarantee justice and concrete, lived rights.


Both pandemics and the deployment of state violence are central aspects of the resource extraction, exploitation, racialization, and stigmatization that continue to plague and constrain peoples of the Global South, as well as minority communities around the world. Indeed, the virus, its manifestation as a disease, its patterns of transmission, and its already staggering social and economic costs are at once highly local and deeply embedded in global networks. The very status of COVID-19 as a global pandemic throws into relief a moment of history characterized by both global interconnection and deep ambivalence about it. Patterns of disease transmission, travel, and trade—internationally, nationally, and locally—map onto COVID-19's epidemiology. They demonstrate the multiple dilemmas posed by the complex and uneven networks of power and production in recent forms of globalization. The urgent reminder that black lives matter highlights atrocities that haunt the present: the systems of terror and brutalization and the violence and displacement of the human trafficking, coerced labor, and material extraction and destruction that comprised the centuries of the Atlantic slave trade and modern colonialism. These have left deep scars, and they linger within the racialist ideologies they spawned. COVID-19 and the Movement for Black Lives thus both highlight urgent questions of the relationship between state authority and justice, as well as of the interplay between forms of freedom and unfreedom locally and globally. These times demand that we view present-day problems through the lens of their long histories.

Understanding past pandemics is instructive for precisely this reason. Colonial regimes developed racialized systems of knowledge in part through their attempts to control the spread of disease. In more than one instance, popular resistance to such initiatives directly fostered opposition to colonialism itself. Attempts to control yellow [End Page 401] fever, cholera, plague, and malaria in the Caribbean, Africa, and Asia, for instance, made the peoples of those regions the subject of intense scrutiny for a racialized medicine: disease transmission among "natives" and slaves was increasingly viewed through paradigms of differential immunity. The scientific "fact" of biological susceptibility to disease justified racial hierarchy, which then served as explanation for the perdurance of slavery and other forms of coerced labor. Meanwhile, past scientific inquiries into the origin of germs or "miasmatic" environments also gave rise to paradigms of governance over colonial subjects' compromised bodies that typically directed their attention toward the infected and their habits, transgressions, and constitutions. In turn, local movements responded to what they correctly took as interlocking threats: hence, messianic movements responded to plagues, famine, and colonization in North Africa, while riots and resistance to the plague formed an intimate part of the fabric of everyday life in colonial port cities from Mumbai to Alexandria and Cape Town. Disease...