January 21, 2021

COVID-19 in El Paso: A Spectacle of Injustice

By Amy Reed-Sandoval

The French philosopher Michel Foucault famously described the nature of a “spectacle” in Discipline and Punish, in which he explored 18th century public executions in France. The purpose of spectacle, he argued, is “to bring into play…the dissymmetry between the subject who has dared to violate the law and the all-powerful sovereign who displays his strength.” Such “Foucauldian spectacles” are about inequality and, above all else, power.

Despite the various forces striving to invisibilize COVID-19 as much as possible, COVID-19 has become, I argue, a Foucauldian spectacle in the U.S.-Mexico border city of El Paso, Texas, which is now being described as the COVID-19 epicenter in the United States. We need to study this heart-breaking spectacle in order to learn vital lessons from it.

First, let’s establish what’s being seen: devastating images of ten mobile morgues set up outside the El Paso medical examiner’s office, and circulated photos of prisoners carrying corpses into those very refrigerated trailers. El Paso’s grand convention center was converted into a makeshift medical center, while overrun hospitals have set up “heated isolation tents” to serve even more of the gravely ill.

Some patients are being airlifted out of El Paso, to hospitals in other Texas cities. And it’s not just El Paso: hospitals in Ciudad Juárez, El Paso’s “sister city” across the border, are also filled to capacity.

For it to be a Foucauldian spectacle, however, it has to be a display of state power and social inequality. But one might argue that this is a public health crisis best understood in terms of death tolls and hospitalization numbers—tragic, but not unjust, and certainly not orchestrated by the state.

However, the COVID-19 spectacle in El Paso sends a much bigger message that we must take care to understand. The mobile morgues and the airlifted bodies also constitute a spectacle about belonging, borders, and immigration injustice. To see why, let us step back and consider the background injustices that help shape it.

Note, first, that it has not been lost on international commentators that this spectacle is occurring on a highly politicized site: the U.S.-Mexico border, a spectacle in and of itself. Indeed, anthropologist Leo Chavez has described practices of U.S.-Mexico border surveillance in terms of a “spectacle in the desert” that serves to distinguish citizens from “illegal” Others.

And the U.S.-Mexico border is a “spectacle in the desert,” with its giant walls—many of which were constructed long before the southern border became Trump’s pet project—its military helicopters, its drone planes and militaristic immigration enforcement techniques.  In the United Statesian psyche, the southern border is a site of danger, and its residents—particularly Latin Americans and Latinx among them—are necessarily suspect.

As a result of this background injustice, public images of the pandemic in El Paso exacerbate an already-widespread sense that the Mexicans and Mexican-Americans in U.S.-Mexico borderlands are simultaneously vulnerable and threatening. This message is punctuated by current pandemic immigration policy, in which U.S. citizens and legal residents can freely cross the border in Ciudad Juárez, while citizens of Juárez, including those who have visas to legally enter the U.S., can only cross the border under very special circumstances.  

So even while COVID ravages the nation, the El Paso spectacle makes it seem like the COVID is “there,” at a border we all knew to be dangerous, while “we,” in comparison, are safe.

Here, one might object that unlike public executions in 18th century France, the United States did not purposefully orchestrate the El Paso COVID spectacle in order to, in Foucault’s words, “deploy its pomp in public.”

However, the background injustices shaping this spectacle were the result of a carefully orchestrated undermining of Mexicans and Mexican-Americans by government officials and white supremacists for much of U.S. history. The COVID-19 spectacle only serves to support this narrative in the eyes of such groups.

Furthermore, Texas governmental officials have, in fact, taken recent steps to perpetuate the tragic spectacle—such as when a state appeals court blocked El Paso County’s mandated closing of nonessential businesses through December 1st, generating an outcry from many locals.

Finally, the El Paso COVID-19 spectacle needs to be viewed against the backdrop of an extremely inequitable health care system in which wealthy and powerful people like Donald Trump are able to receive exceptional medical care if they contract COVID-19. While the city of El Paso sets up mobile morgues and exploits prisoners to heave corpses into them, the very U.S. President who called Mexicans rapists, separated immigration children from their families, and obsesses over building a U.S.-Mexico border wall received the best medical care imaginable upon contracting COVID.  Once again, the El Paso COVID-19 spectacle also reinforces ad unjust, racist social hierarchy that has been purposefully perpetuated by dominant social actors.

So, this is a Foucauldian spectacle—and we need to learn valuable lessons from this. The COVID-19 tragedy cannot be understood exclusively in terms of the devastating “numbers counts” of infections, deaths, and available hospital beds. It also makes a major public statement about who belongs, who is entitled to basic social services like health care, and which regions of this country ought to be regarded with ongoing fear and suspicion. While a great deal of this tragedy has occurred behind the “closed doors” of hospital rooms and quarantine shelters, to the frustration of public health officials pleading with the public to take the pandemic seriously, its public face—its spectacle in El Paso—should also worry us all.

Amy Reed-Sandoval is a former El Paso resident and current Assistant Professor of Philosophy at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, where she specializes in Latin American philosophy, immigration ethics, and bioethics. She is the author of Socially Undocumented: Identity and Immigration Justice (OUP, 2020), for which she conducted bioethics research in the El Paso-Juárez region.

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