The Necropolitics of the Coronavirus: Who May Live, Who Must Die

Home News & Politics The Necropolitics of the Coronavirus: Who May Live, Who Must Die

As necropolitics predicates life on “the death of the Other,” certain lives are more prone to vulnerability under government dictates.

Postcolonial philosopher Achille Mbembe defines necropolitics as “the ultimate expression of sovereignty [which] resides, to a large degree, in the power and capacity to dictate who may live and who must die.”

The United States, as of today, has more than 82,000 confirmed cases of coronavirus — the highest worldwide. Yet the response to the pandemic is a practice of necropolitics, both nationally and internationally.

As emergency orders and stay-at-home directives were issued in state after state, lives considered disposable by the US government became quickly demarcated. 

24 million workers in “low pay, high contact” occupations, such as cashiers to nursing assistants, continue to exist in a considerable risk for the coronavirus. Only 51 percent receive paid sick leave, while only 1 percent can transition to a remote workspace. 

Previously defined as unskilled labor, unworthy of a survivable minimum wage, grocery store workers have assumed frontline positions in the domestic response to the pandemic. Only the states of Minnesota and Vermont have afforded emergency worker classification to grocery store workers, which already includes healthcare workers and first-responders, and accompanying free childcare.


The coronavirus, as it spread across the country, came to reveal the “fundamental interdependency and vulnerability of all lives” under capitalism. As necropolitics predicates life on “the death of the Other,” certain lives are more prone to said vulnerability.

In Dead Labor: Towards a Political Economy of Premature Death, James Tyner writes, “One’s exposure to death is increasingly conditioned by one’s position in capitalism.” As such, necro-capitalism “not only lets die but makes death productive as a vehicle for accumulation.” This is the most evident in Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin’s proclamation: “For long-term investors, this [the coronavirus] will be a great investment opportunity.”

Low-income laborers must die so that the lives deemed indispensable may live, occupying a purgatorial space of “death-in-life” or “treated as if he or she longer existed except as a mere tool and instrument of production.”

The United States does not govern over life; it dictates death. It does so domestically, but also internationally.

As the coronavirus killed 2,234 people in Iran, as well as 30,000 confirmed cases nationwide, the United States presented more sanctions — as late as yesterday on 12 Iranian nationals and five companies. 


In a joint statement to the Trump administration, 25 organizations from the National Iranian American Council to MoveOn explained that the sanctions have “harmed the public health sector in Iran by slowing or entirely blocking the sale of medicine, respirators, and hygienic supplies needed to mitigate the epidemic.” 

The United States, here, has enacted “the material destruction of human bodies and populations” central to necropolitics. 

Who may live, who must die: the United States has made its decision.