Biopolitics and geopolitics in the pandemic

Without a doubt, 2020 will be a year remembered in history. Although there is still no notion of the full scope and impact of the pandemic that surprised us at the beginning of last year, and which still continues with no certainty of an end, it is very difficult to make a review on sexual rights, or any other topic, without focusing on this event.

It is not news, and this was stressed on many occasions, that the pandemic did nothing more than expose, accelerate or highlight many of the circumstances and dynamics that existed prior to its arrival and already impacted on the rights of people around the world, especially among the most oppressed groups. Regarding sexual rights, the pandemic was an engine and at the same time a pretext for state actors to not comply with their obligations in this area, clearly showing that when it comes to relegating rights, those related to sexuality and gender are among the first to become vulnerable. Evidence for this is provided by a UNFPA report that estimated as early as May of last year that 18 million women in Latin America will lose access to modern contraceptives; one of the direct consequences of this reduction in contraceptive use is the increase in the numbers of clandestine abortions and maternal and infant mortality.

It was not only healthcare that was threatened by the pandemic. The confinement measures, movement restrictions and curfews implemented by governments also had an impact on people's lives, and the absence of a gender perspective, of intersectionality and the lack of consideration of gender identity in these measures played a major role in this impact. In Panama and Peru, for example, the government implemented gender-selective curfews, a measure that proved to be ineffective and at the same time highlighted gender inequality and discrimination against transgender people. Regarding gender inequality, these measures made visible the burden on women's domestic work, since on the days assigned to them, the circulation was notably greater than on the days assigned to men and, consequently, crowds were formed in the supply centers, putting women's health at risk. Regarding discrimination against trans and non-binary people, this measure was the cause of episodes of discrimination and even violence by the police and other security forces.

Additionally, confinements, often forced, have caused an increase in domestic violence, femicide and other forms of sexual and gender violence. Calls received through women's emergency helplines in Chile and Mexico, for example, have increased by more than 50%. Confinements have also impacted the LGBTIQ + population, who many times and due to different circumstances were forced to return to or stay in homes where they suffer harassment, discrimination and violence. This, of course, contradicts the discourse that was reinforced during the pandemic that the home and family (in terms of the traditional family) are the safest environments to protect against contagion.

In this context, also in Latin America, neoliberal, conservative and anti-gender actors, within and outside the state, were very active in attacking policies and legislation that could advance sexual rights and rights to equality, including gender equality, to create barriers in their implementation or to establish measures of state control and authoritarianism. Although it is important to note that the ferocity of such measures was not as much as in Latin America as in Eastern European countries, Egypt or Russia, it is nevertheless true that these groups found new arguments during the pandemic to add to those they already used. They took advantage of measures adopted by governments to disseminate their perspectives in different ways; from demonstrations to social networks and other virtual media, their speeches included allusions to different conspiracy theories, invocations to restrict rights and distributed false information, all combined to confuse audiences. Although many of these discourses in Latin America have much in common with those used on the global scale and are imported from such places as the United States, Europe and the Vatican, in many cases they are adapted to specific national contexts, realities and political agendas. Thus, for example, in Argentina, in a document signed by three hundred people, the term "infectorship" was coined; the neologism alludes to the Argentine dictatorship of the seventies but refers in this case to professionals, mostly dedicated to infectology, who advised the government on the measures to be taken and which, according to the signatories, threatened freedoms and democracy.

In this context, it was quite common to hear conservative groups mentioning in the same speech the denial of the existence of the epidemic, the rejection of the use of masks, the dangerousness of vaccines and the populism and corruption of the left, and combining these issues with others focused on gender and sexuality, such as the “threat” of feminism, abortion or comprehensive sexual education.

Civil society movements working to advance sexual rights, underfunded for decades, faced unprecedented challenges. Activism and advocacy in many cases had to be relegated to focus on humanitarian aid and food security for women, LGBTIQ + people, sex workers and other groups particularly affected by the impossibility of working or who were dismissed from their jobs (usually informal) and who, due to confinement measures, suddenly lost their main income sources while facing serious barriers to provisioning. Additionally, the spaces for advocacy, including multilateral ones, were restricted to virtual meetings, with the difficulties that this implies, and in many of them the possibilities of interaction were reduced to a minimum. However, it is worth noting how the different movements, even with minimal resources and almost exclusively in virtual form, learned to deal with this new context by creating new ways of working, weaving support and exchange information networks, creating learning initiatives. and at the same time carrying out successful advocacy actions. An example of this is the case of Akahatá, which had already planned seven regional workshops on different topics in 2020 in different Latin American countries and was able to carry out most of them virtually, bringing together activists from all over the region and at the same time participating, with many challenges, in the virtual sessions of the Human Rights Council and in the General Assembly of the OAS, among other activities.

In addition to the gaps in state policies, which were exposed in the context of the pandemic, another challenge that the movements had to face was the lack of funding, especially for situations of urgent need that arose from the pandemic. The inefficiency, ignorance of reality or lack of sensitivity of some international donors was exposed in this context too. In some cases, their rigid and bureaucratic structures, especially at the beginning of the pandemic, did not allow organizations to change their budget lines to adjust them to new priorities, such as guaranteeing food for people in dire need; in others, they required organizations to comply with indicators impossible to achieve because they were defined before the pandemic. For example, an organization of trans activists in Peru referred to the demand by a donor to reach a number of people tested for HIV in the framework of a project, while they knew that these persons, mainly trans women, not only had no food to eat but also, and due to the confinement measures, that it was impossible for the organization to reach people or for them to access the HIV testing facility.

Of course, the pandemic also made it possible for geopolitics and biopolitics to increase their prominence on the global political stage. The latter positioned itself at the center of political debates, from arguments for and against confinement measures and the use of face masks to the production and administration of vaccines, and it seems that it will remain there for a long time. 

With regard to geopolitics, dozens of hypotheses have been disseminated on the global political scene since the beginning of the pandemic. We believe that it is too early to analyze the global future in geopolitical terms and any prediction would be mere speculation. However, although the pandemic has been a sudden event that has had a tremendous impact on the world and its political frame and dynamics, the trends observed during this year are not very different from those that had been observed previously and, in some cases, existing trends were made noticeably evident. Among them are the strengthening of nationalisms, the attack on progressive policies and the continuous growth of capitalism, neoliberalism and individualism. At the same time, the fragility of regional forums – in the case of Latin America, MERCOSUR, UNASUR, CELAC and ALBA-TCP – also increased, which during the pandemic became so weak that they were not even able to provide an outline of a joint response. Of course, this also impacted on their ability to constitute a solid and common block in international multilateral forums. This weakness also negatively affected pledges and agreements in several areas, including in the area of sexual rights, that the countries of Latin America had committed to for decades and in various instances such as the Montevideo Consensus on a common agenda and platform to influence decisions at the global and regional levels.

Most geopolitical analyses of the pandemic contain two significant data; on the one hand, most of them are focused on the United States, the main countries of the EU, China and Russia (the geopolitics of vaccines is a clear example of this), and, on the margins, they include the MENA region, some countries in Asia, Eastern Europe and a couple of countries in Latin America and Africa, leaving behind most countries of the world in these analyses, mainly those in the Global South. On the other hand, the predominant variables in these analyses are the economy and the political affinity between the countries being analyzed, overlooking critical aspects of politics such as human rights, environmental issues and climate change, among others.

Just at the moment when this piece is being written, on the early morning of December 30, 2020, Argentina's senate passed the law that legalized abortion, just weeks after it was passed by the Lower House and two years after the same proposal was defeated at the same chamber. After such a difficult year, this event is for Argentina – and should be for the region and for the world – evidence that even in such difficult times, even when it seems that due to the adverse context and tremendous opposition an advance in sexual rights is an unattainable dream, there is always hope, and that rights advances can be eventually achieved but not without struggle, unceasing work, articulation, sorority, insistence and a sense of community. 

Chapter by Akahatá - equipo de trabajo en sexualidades y géneros