In 2017, the UN raised the alarm on famines in North-east Nigeria, Somalia, South Sudan and Yemen. Starvation has been used as a weapon of war in Syria, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo currently has among the largest numbers of severely food-insecure people of any country assessed by the Integrated Food Security Phase Classification (IPC) system. Each of these sites of mass starvation or famine can be understood as a ‘political marketplace’. They are characterised by the dominance of transactional politics over public institutions, and elite politics is conducted for factional or personal political advantage, on the basis of monetised patronage. This paper examines the relationship between these systems of transactional politics and famine and other forms of mass starvation, and outlines the implications of the political marketplace framework for humanitarian action. It argues that both transactional politics and mass starvation emerge from particular political-economic configurations characterised by economic precarity and mismanagement, violent forms of peripheral governance and war economies. Applying the political marketplace framework can help improve humanitarian information and early warning systems, as well as programme decision-making, while helping humanitarians think more carefully about the constant trade-offs they are forced to make.
Two experimental Ebola vaccines were deployed during the tenth Ebola epidemic (2018–20) in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). The first, the Ervebo vaccine manufactured by Merck, was used as part of a ring vaccination in the epicentre of the epidemic in North Kivu. In 2019, the prime- (Ad26.ZEBOV) and boost- (MVA-BN-Filo) vaccine manufactured by Johnson & Johnson (J&J) became the second vaccine against Ebola, deployed by the DRC-EB-001 vaccine trial in Goma, North Kivu. There was international debate as to the value and ethics of testing a second vaccine in an epidemic context. This article examines how this debate unfolded among actual and potential DRC-EB-001 trial participants in Goma. Drawing on ethnographic observation, interviews and focus groups, it explores how the trial was perceived and contested on the ground and situated in broader debates about the ethics of clinical trials, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic. We illustrate how debates around the ethics of clinical research are not simply centred on bioethical principles but are inseparable from local political dynamics and broader contests about governance, inequality and exclusion.
This review essay focuses on two books, Heide Fehrenbach and Davide Rodogno’s Humanitarian Photography: A History (2015) and Lasse Heerten’s The Biafran War and Postcolonial Humanitarianism: Spectacles of Suffering (2017). It situates the books in relation to broader debates about similarities and differences between humanitarianism and human rights practice, with a particular focus on the visual cultures of and ethical debates surrounding representations of suffering.
COVID-19 has reinstated the sovereign enclosures of corpse management that mothers of the disappeared had so successfully challenged in the past decade. To explore how moral duties toward the dead are being renegotiated due to COVID-19, this article puts forward the notion of biorecuperation, understood as an individualised form of forensic care for the dead made possible by the recovery of biological material. Public health imperatives that forbid direct contact with corpses due to the pandemic, interrupt the logics of biorecuperation. Our analysis is based on ten years of experience working with families of the disappeared in Mexico, ethnographic research within Mexico’s forensic science system and online interviews conducted with medics and forensic scientists working at the forefront of Mexico City’s pandemic. In the face of increasing risks of viral contagion and death, this article analyses old and new techniques designed to bypass the prohibitions imposed by the state and its monopoly over corpse management and identification.
The COVID-19 pandemic has brought about an unprecedented global crisis. To limit the spread of the virus and the associated excess mortality, states and governing bodies have produced a series of regulations and recommendations from a health perspective. The funerary aspects of these directives have reconfigured not only the ways in which the process of dying can be accompanied, but also the management of dead bodies, impacting on the dying, their relatives and professionals in the sector. Since March 2020, the entire process of separation and farewell has been affected, giving rise to public debates about funeral restrictions and the implications for mourning. We carried out a study in France and Switzerland to measure the effects of this crisis, and in particular to explore whether it has involved a shift from a funerary approach to a strictly mortuary one. Have the practices that would normally be observed in non-pandemic times been irrevocably altered? Does this extend to all deaths? Has there been a switch to an exclusively technical handling? Are burial practices still respected? The results of the present study pertain to the ‘first wave’ of spring 2020 and focus on the practices of professionals working in the funeral sector.
This article analyses the management of bodies in Brazil within the context of the COVID-19 pandemic. Its objective is to examine how the confluence of underreporting, inequality and alterations in the forms of classifying and managing bodies has produced a political practice that aims at the mass infection of the living and the quick disposal of the dead. We first present the factors involved in the process of underreporting of the disease and its effects on state registration and regulation of bodies. Our analysis then turns to the cemetery to problematise the dynamics through which inequality and racism are re-actualised and become central aspects of the management of the pandemic in Brazil. We will focus not only on the policies of managing bodies adopted during the pandemic but also on those associated with other historical periods, examining continuities and ruptures, as well as their relationship to long-term processes.
Epidemic disease regularly tore through nineteenth-century American cities, triggering public health crises and economic upheaval. These epidemic panics also provoked new racialised labour regimes, affecting the lives of innumerable working people. During yellow fever outbreaks, white authorities and employers preferred workers of colour over ‘unacclimated’ white immigrants, reflecting a common but mistaken belief in black invulnerability. This article chronicles enslaved burial labourers in antebellum Virginia, who leveraged this notion to seize various privileges – and nearly freedom. These episodes demonstrate that black labour, though not always black suffering or lives, mattered immensely to white officials managing these urban crises. Black workers were not mere tools for protecting white wealth and health, however, as they often risked torment and death to capitalise on employers’ desperation for their essential labour. This history exposes racial and socioeconomic divergence between those able to shelter or flee from infection, and those compelled to remain exposed and exploitable.