In the last few months, many countries have seen the lifting of numerous Covid 19 restrictions. While the pandemic is far from over and some countries are still opting for strict lockdowns, as in the notable case of China, in most of Europe and the US it has entered a new phase in which much of what made up life before Covid has resumed, at least for most people. A progressive return to the life before is also taking place in prisons. The time is right to have a look back at the last two years to review what prisons looked like during the pandemic, and what that can tell us about this fraught institution.
Author: Costanza Porro
The Covid-19 pandemic has tragically reminded us of our shared vulnerability and our need of care, and as a result, calls for care have been widespread since the pandemic began. Some of these calls to care, as well as celebrations of essential care workers, have appeared disingenuous when coming from governments and parties with a long history of carelessness. It is precisely this carelessness, which ranges from cuts to public health services to a general lack of concern for the fate of the most vulnerable in society, that has been deemed responsible for many of the difficulties and the failures in facing Covid-19. Many calls to care have been motivated precisely by this critique as well as the idea that care should be central in our societies. How, then, should we conceive of a caring society? In what follows, I address this issue by reflecting on the ambivalence of care and the idea of communities of care.
In the past few months, a central topic of discussion in Italian public debate has been the Ddl Zan, a proposed bill to combat discrimination and violence on the grounds of sex, gender, gender identity, sexual orientation and disability. The bill does not create any new crimes but extends to these categories existing criminal legislation that currently covers discrimination and violence on the grounds of racial, ethnic and religious reasons as well as incitement to commit such acts. Such acts of discrimination and violence and their incitement can either be punished with a fine or a prison sentence to up to 4 years or, in case these actions already constitute a more serious crime, the penalty can be increased to up to double. The Ddl Zan also includes measures to support victims as well as broader initiatives to fight discrimination and inequalities, including the creation of a National Day against homophobia. Unsurprisingly, the bill has been the object of a heated debate. The LGBTQ+ movement and the majority of the feminist movement as well as other progressive forces are fighting for its approval, while conservatives argue that the bill endangers freedom of speech and imposes a supposedly divisive worldview. Setting this aside, I want to address another issue in connection to this bill, namely that of whether the criminal law should be regarded as the right instrument to fight discrimination and this kind of violence.
The idea of vulnerability has been discussed regularly throughout the pandemic. This aligns with a more general trend towards considering issues in law, bioethics and philosophy from a vulnerability perspective – especially among those dissatisfied with human rights theory. Can thinking in terms of vulnerability help us understand the current crisis?
The term vulnerability captures cases of risk of harm. To restrict attention to morally significant forms of vulnerability, theorists often refer to harms to vital interests or needs. The concept of vulnerability carries an inherent ambiguity, which is reflected in both ordinary use and theory. On the one hand, we are all vulnerable due to our embodiment and our nature as social beings. This is what theorists call ontological universal vulnerability. On the other hand, particular groups or individuals experience heightened vulnerability in particular respects due to their specific circumstances. This is often called circumstantial vulnerability. An especially problematic kind of circumstantial vulnerability is pathogenic vulnerability, which is the product of injustice. People and groups experience different types of vulnerabilities arising from a variety of sources, which interact with each other, often creating new vulnerabilities.
Because it captures the idea of being under threat of harm and circumstances where an agent is not in the position to protect her vital interests, vulnerability seems to be particularly apt to describe the current situation in connection to the risk of contracting Covid-19, as well as the risks of socio-economic harms and social isolation that have accompanied the pandemic. Distinguishing between different kinds of vulnerability also helps us in reflecting on various aspects of the present crisis.