The history of vaccination seen from an economic point of view: A pharmacy up for sale; an outmoded inoculist selling his premises; Jenner, to the left, pursues a skeleton with a lancet. Coloured etching, c. 1800.

Bojan Srbinovski //

What has the COVID-19 pandemic taught the medical humanities about the body?

On Monday, November 9, the American pharmaceutical company Pfizer announced the encouraging preliminary findings of a COVID-19 vaccine study that suggested an efficacy of more than 90 percent. This welcome news came as a bright spot against the background of a devastatingly high number of new cases across the country. Immediately, the newspapers of record ran stories that tied the vaccine announcement to the bearishness of the market. The New York Times’s coverage went under the title “A Collective Sigh of Relief Pushes the Stock Market Up.” The article argued that the sharp drop in prices for government bonds pushed yields, reflecting “growing optimism among investors.” The Wall Street Journal’s story, “After Pfizer’s Covid Vaccine Bull’s-Eye, Stock Market Euphoria Is Justified,” made similar claims that “the general optimism is well-founded.”

The figurative-somatic language of these newspaper stories—the “collective sigh of relief” and the “justified euphoria” in relation to the stock market, both of which are couched in the affective stance of a “growing” and “general” optimism—raises familiar questions about the relationship between the human body and the market. The prospective health of the former would seem to shore up the optimism of the latter, suggesting that what is good for the body is good for the market.

But this pandemic has confirmed once again that the dependency of the market on the body can be parasitic. Tens of thousands of workers at warehouses across the United States have tested positive for the virus—a statistic that signals a distinct lack of care for the safety of the worker’s body. In North Dakota, one of the country’s viral hotspots, hospitals are at 100% capacity, and the governor has announced that coronavirus-positive nurses can stay at work. Across the nation and the world, the pandemic’s waves are crashing against the backs of waged and salaried laborers. In the United States, Black people make up a substantial and disproportional share of these rising cases—a fact that bespeaks the lasting presence of several intersecting histories of racial inequality. A multiracial working class has kept the global economy away from a perpetual freefall, all at the expense of the health of the worker and with minimal governmental support. As we consider what has helped the market arrive at this moment of “justified euphoria,” it seems imperative to recognize that what subtends the market’s growing and general optimism might, in fact, be an obstacle to the flourishing of many human bodies. To recognize this phenomenon should be a central concern of the medical humanities at this moment.

This putative porousness between the body and the market may just be a signature of all market economies. But the figurative way in which our culture talks about the market as a body—sometimes propelled upward with a sigh of relief, other times euphoric in its optimism—suggests that this porousness is only rhetorical inasmuch it is also material. It seems to me that the domain of fantasy, which enables this figurative practice, belongs most properly to the project of neoliberalism.

The pandemic and its attendant crises are all inimical to neoliberalism. As an economic form, neoliberalism withers the social state, destroys unions, privatizes collective goods, and promulgates deregulation. As a political form, it transforms how we understand human sociality—what Margaret Thatcher meant when she said, “There is no such thing as society. There are individual men and women and there are families.” Much has been made of this pulverization of the social. Among its signal strategies are the valorization of personal freedom as the last bulwark against the overreaching powers of the state, the financialization of the self as a prerequisite for the mere promise of success, the inscription of all human life within the logic of the individual, and perhaps also the nuclear family, and an understanding of justice under the banner of what Friedrich Hayek called “traditional morality” (see Hayek’s The Constitution of Liberty, 54-70, 162-75). But what we may have missed (or at least, what we have not accounted for enough) in this discussion of human sociality is how deeply neoliberalism cuts into the matter of the body.

What is the neoliberal body, and how are we to re-understand it against the backdrop of the COVID-19 pandemic? We know that “the body sits at the locus of th[e] neoliberal revolution,” as Michael Giardina and Joshua Newman have persuasively argued (527). We also know that the trajectory of neoliberal governmentality follows what Jason Read has called “a fundamental paradox; as power becomes less restrictive, less corporeal, it also becomes more intense” (29). We are also aware that the body becomes the site of neoliberalism’s didactic apparatus; as Wendy Brown claims, neoliberalism “figures individuals as rational, calculating creatures whose moral autonomy is measured by their capacity for ‘self-care’” (42). Individuals are tasked not with following the law or pursuing the good of society, but with the entrepreneurial venture of calculating bodily risk to maximize profit.

The pandemic, I would argue, surfaces these economic and political effects on the level of the body. Nobody should be surprised that the result of turning everything, from public goods to elections and democracy itself, into a market would dramatically alter what kinds of bodies the social realm produces: exhausted ones. Exhaustion—by virtue of unreasonable labor demands, growing medical debt, constantly shifting pandemic-related policies, and the unspeakable suffering of watching others die­—remains inscribed on the neoliberal body as a signal condition from which there is no immediate exit.

The pandemic has highlighted the extent to which the body’s health is a prize to earn and not a natural right. Many frontline workers across the nation and the planet understand this very well as they risk contracting the virus in order to pay rent or feed themselves. It is thus not so much that the neoliberal market has come to resemble a body, but that the neoliberal body, in fact, has revealed itself to be a market. Markets can be euphoric, relieved, even depressed, but they are never permitted to be exhausted. This reality does not inspire much optimism about the world after the vaccine.

Works cited

Brown, Wendy. “Neo-Liberalism and the End of Liberal Democracy.” Theory & Event 7, no. 1 (November 6, 2003). doi:10.1353/tae.2003.0020.

Giardina, Michael D., and Joshua I. Newman. “Physical Cultural Studies and Embodied Research Acts.” Cultural Studies/Critical Methodologies 11, no. 6 (December 2011): 523–34. doi:10.1177/1532708611426107.

Hayek, Friedrich A. von. The Constitution of Liberty. Chicago: Regnery, 1972.

Read, Jason. 2009. “A Genealogy of Homo-Economicus: Neoliberalism and the Production of Subjectivity.” Foucault Studies 6 (February): 25–36.

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