“Individual Responsibility” and the visual rhetoric of COVID-19

As Jennifer Reich writes in her study of anti-vax moms in Colorado, “public health [is] in direct contradiction to neoliberalism.” Neoliberalism is all about transforming everything into a private market; from this perspective, public health measures create perverse incentives which insulate individuals from the true cost of their choices and behaviors. From a neoliberal perspective, health (like everything else) is a matter of privately assuming and managing the risks and costs you encounter as you exercise your free choice on various markets. Discourses of “individual responsibility”–or the ability of private individuals and families to assume the risks and costs of all choices and behaviors–is one example of this. 

In the US, state and federal responses to COVID-19 have emphasized ideas of individual responsibility over traditional public health measures such as widespread testing and tracing. For example, numerous higher education institutions have released statements about “Individual Responsibility and COVID-19,” or “Individual Responsibility,” and the Alabama newspaper The Moulton County Advisor published an editorial exhorting readers to “Individual Responsibility and COVID-19.” A March 9, 2020 report in The Lancet argues that “How individuals respond to advice on how best to prevent transmission will be as important as government actions, if not more important.” There’s even been a critical academic study already published on “Managing COVID-19 through individual responsibility.”

This rhetoric of individual responsibility circulates alongside numerous graphs charting the exponential growth of infections and the exponentially-downward collapse of the economy. For example, there are these graphs from Reuters about COVID infection rates:

And then there are these graphs from the Times regarding the world-historically imploding GDP:

I want to think about the coexistence of the rhetorics of individual responsibility on the one hand and charts tracking an exponentially-worsening snowball of morbidity and market loss. One way to interpret this is that the discourse of individual responsibility casts the ever-worsening doom as the failure to privately assume the risks and costs of the health/economic crisis. Those who are sick and/or out of work or business are in that situation because they didn’t take private ‘responsibility’ for their choices. Insofar as COVID infection rates are primarily non-white people, often those working ‘essential’ jobs that are often low-wage, the intersecting rhetorics could be marking a racial line between white and non-white. Do these graphs cast snowballing dives in the health of populations and markets as the opposite of ‘individual responsibility’ i.e., whiteness?

In her book The Economization of Life, Michelle Murphy discusses how visual and verbal rhetorics of both “blooming” and “bursting” (120) successfully-managed human capital and “ticking-time bombs of risk” (117) for unsuccessfully or irresponsibly-managed life. Here, the idea of individual responsibility, of privately assuming the costs of one’s choices and successfully developing one’s human capital, is what distinguishes good snowballs from bad snowballs. This framework is easy to apply to these charts of market and population health: badly-managed individual choices lead to bad snowballs.

Lester Spence’s theory of how neoliberalism cuts breaks in personhood identifies three status rankings: those who have successfully adapted to market logics; those who haven’t yet but possibly can adapt; and those who can’t or won’t adapt. Murphy’s “blooms” are the second group–human capital with bursting potential for growth. Her “ticking-time bombs” are the third group–danger in need of policing or disposal. But who or what, then, is in the first group?
Snowballing growth up or down characterizes as-yet-undeveloped human capital. Already well-vested human capital doesn’t need to and in fact can’t grow at the scale possible in the second group. The top group don’t really need to exercise “individual responsibility” because they have enough private wealth and racial and gender privilege (which is really what “individual responsibility” is code for) that they’ll be fine whatever they do, like go to a huge concert featuring The Chainsmokers and the CEO of Goldman Sachs. This group snowballs neither up nor down; they just, you might say, chill.