Why Foucault would encourage us to criticise the Corona measures

by Nicki Günther

After about eight weeks of an ‘intelligent lockdown’, people in the Netherlands are looking forward to the first of June. Then, according to the press conference by the Dutch prime minister Mark Rutte on May 19th, restaurants, coffee shops, and cinemas may re-open for a maximum amount of thirty people at a time, excluding staff. Preconditions for being allowed to have a dinner at a restaurant, or to enjoy an ice cold beer on a sunny public terrace are that visitors make a reservation in advance and pass a pre-health check, which means that they declare to not have any symptoms which could be related to the corona-virus. Another precondition for the resumption of public life is by now so self-explanatory that it almost goes unmentioned; at all times, a minimum distance of 1.5 meter from each other must be maintained. If this is not possible, protective means such as mouth caps need to be used. Further regulations concern, among others, gatherings, sports and visiting old people’s homes (Rijksoverheid 19-5-2020).

© Paul Rapp. https://www.gelderlander.nl/nijmegen/bonnenregen-in-nijmegen-al-248-boetes-uitgedeeld-aan-corona-overtreders~afa0eba4/?referrer=https://www.google.com/. Accessed May 26, 2020.

Regulations and guide-lines that may sound clear in a press conference, create quite some ambiguities in practice. One ambiguous aspect was touched upon by Ulrich Beck long before the crisis. While politicians communicate the regulations by using terms such as ‘family’ and ‘household’, those concepts are no longer defined in a contemporary way (Wimmer and Quandt 2007). Cycling trough the city last week, I came across a group of four young people, discussing with two police officers about if they get a fine or not, for drinking beer together in front of a house. While the police defined this as a forbidden gathering, the boys explained that all four of them live together in a student house. As they would therefore count as a household, none of them had done anything wrong. I would have loved to hear the outcome of this discussion, but being aware of the prohibition of gathering, as an outsider to this conflict, I did not dare to stand still for too long and quickly cycled on when my eyes and the ones of the police man met.

Foto: Jaspar Moulijn. https://www.dvhn.nl/groningen/Studentenhuizen-en-corona-We-doen-elkaar-niet-in-bad-maar-voor-de-rest-zijn-we-een-huishouden. Accessed May 26, 2020.

This situation raises a number of interesting questions. The most obviously one, namely who is right, the police or the boys, confirms Beck’s claim that many societal concepts are no longer justifiable. However, much more interesting are the reasons why the boys did or did not stick to the rules, or why the Corona-crisis ensures that I suddenly no longer dare to stand still or move freely on sidewalks and cycling paths. Why do some people shout at you if you accidently cross their way on only one meter distance in the much too narrow supermarket aisles, while other do not seem to care too much about social-distancing measurements? An explanation can again be found in the writings of a philosopher, dating back way before the Corona-crisis.

Already in 1995, in his book Discipline and Punish, Michel Foucault wrote about quarantine during the plague as a means of discipling people. Even though people were physically able to go outside, different to inmates of asylums or prisons, people stayed at home. The mechanisms which ensured that people did not leave their houses were surveillance and the threat of the disease (Foucault 1995). While elaborating on these disciplining mechanisms at the end of the last millennium, Foucault could not have foreseen that his theories would be so topical and relevant again today. Suddenly, the concept of ‘biopower’ is on everyone’s lips again (Clover 2020, Latour 2020). Foucault describes biopower as “the set of mechanisms through which the basic biological features of the human species become the object of a political strategy, of a general strategy of power” (Foucault 1977-78, 16). This strategic implementation of power is exemplified in his analysis of states’ health care systems, through which states in the end decide who lives or dies (Foucault 1995). However, these power-structures are already noticeable far earlier. It begins with the fact that authorities such as doctors determine what is health and what is illness (Foucault 1988). Based upon their categorisation, the government, represented, for example, by the Dutch minister for public health, Hugo de Jonge, determine who may soon visit a restaurant, use public transfer or even leave the house for groceries.

“Lange rijen, volle karren en geen aardappelen meer in de Jumbo aan de Westduinweg.” © Frank Jansen. https://www.ad.nl/den-haag/lege-schappen-bij-supermarkten-het-is-idioot-dat-iedereen-maar-loopt-te-hamsteren

The reason why we (more or less) follow these rules lays in the fact that we, as a part of a society or population, form an active part of the dominant power-system we life in. “By means of a whole ensemble of regulated communications (lessons, questions and answers, orders, exhortations, coded signs of obedience, differentiation marks of the “value” of each person and of the levels of knowledge) and by the means of a whole series of power processes (enclosure, surveillance, reward and punishment, the pyramidal hierarchy)” (Foucault 1982) we have internalised social behavioural measurements since childhood. Contrary to what we are often led to believe, Foucault stated that all of these norms and regulations are not grounded in one universal true rationality, instead, there are many different realities, dependent on the different dominant power systems (Rabinow & Rose 2006).

Just as little are the current corona-crisis approaches and related government measurements based upon one universal truth. That different power-systems go along with different regulations can be seen by comparing the crisis-related regulations of different countries. Therefore, this current crisis invites every one of us to critically question the current measurements and driving forces of current developments. With this, I am not implying in any way that we should ignore the government regulations and thereby endanger the lives of our fellow human beings. Especially older people or the ones with poor health definitely need special protection. However, what I am asking for is that every one of us needs to use his/her common sense by following or implementing the rules, and should criticise them were necessary. In his last press conference, Rutte explicitly invited the younger generations to engage in a dialogue and actively participate in shaping the future during and after Corona. We definitely should follow up his call, as not all current measurements make sense if adapted to the practice one by one. Many people spoke up during the last weeks, criticising the no-visit policy for old people’s homes. Again, we should not endanger the lives of others, however, if our 90-years-old grandmothers still live on their own, we should discuss with them directly, if suffering from Covid-19 would really be worse for them than suffering from loneliness. Even though, we are supposed to minimalize our social contacts and keep a distance, if a young and healthy friend of ours is really sad, the most reasonable, in my opinion, is to give him/her a hug anyway. If only focussing on our officially home addresses registered on our passports, my boyfriend and me do not form a household and would therefore be supposed to keep a 1,5 meter distance in public. Off course, we don’t do this. Yet, this is not a case of us breaking the rules, but of implying them by using our common sense, and realising that ‘household’ is not a fixed concept. Instead, such as the other concepts and measurements, this rule needs to be critically evaluated by every one of us.


  • Clover, Joshua. 2020.The Rise and Fall of Biopolitics: A Response to Bruno Latour.” In Critical Inquiry. https://critinq.wordpress.com/2020/03/29/the-rise-and-fall-of-biopolitics-a-response-to-bruno-latour/. Accessed May 7, 2020.
  • Foucault, Michel. 1995. Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison. New York: Vintage Books.
  • Foucault, Michel. 1988. Madness and Civilization: A History of Insanity in the Age of Reason. New York: Vintage Books.
  • Foucault, Michel. 1982. “The Subject and Power.” In Critical Inquiry (8) no. 4, 777-795.
  • Foucault, Michel. 2007. Security, Territory, Population: Lectures at the College de France 1977-78. Ed. Michel Senellart. Transl. Graham Burchell. London: Pelgrave Macmillan.
  • Latour, Bruno. 2020. “Is This a Dress Rehearsal?” In Critical Inquiry. https://critinq.wordpress.com/2020/03/26/is-this-a-dress-rehearsal/. Accessed May 7, 2020.
  • Rabinow, Paul, and Nikolas Rose. 2006. “Biopower Today”. In: Bio Societies (1), 195-217.
  • Rijksoverheid. “Videos persconferenties coronavirus: Persconferentie 19-5-2020.” https://www.rijksoverheid.nl/onderwerpen/coronavirus-covid-19/coronavirus-beeld-en-video/videos-persconferenties. Accessed May 21, 2020.
  • Wimmer,  Jeffrey, and Thorsten Quandt. 2006. “Living in the Risk Society: An Interview with Ulrich Beck.” In: Journalism Studies (7) no. 2, 336-347.

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