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#TheologyinIsolation 14: Health Surveillance from the Cross

07:37 16/04/2020
#TheologyinIsolation 14: Health Surveillance from the Cross

Eric Stoddart gives a theological perspective on public health surveillance

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Surveillance saves lives.
Surveillance restricts lives.

Surveillance is invaluable to medicine.
Surveillance is seductive for government

Routine public health strategies rely on high-quality evidence that comes from monitoring infectious diseases, morbidity in ageing populations, and socio-economic inequalities. This is surveillance dedicated to people’s flourishing. It looks to the past, to identify trends. Data is gathered in the present. Analysts model future needs.

What is often highly sensitive personal information can be collected only after rigorous research ethics scrutiny; at least in most jurisdictions. Statutory responsibilities, in the case of communicable diseases are in place. Volunteers can be recruited to contribute their health data to small or large scale studies.

In this pandemic the graphs we are shown of transmission and death rates rely on recording systems that are as robust and efficient as possible – given the vast discrepancies of healthcare provision across the world. The success of treatments, vaccines and social distancing can only be evaluated effectively if surveillance strategies are in place to gather accurate data.

In the current crisis UK researchers have launched a Covid Symptom Tracker app to help track the spread of the virus and to understand better who is more at risk than others. In China, the government has launched a more intrusive app; Health Code. Users are assigned one of three colour codes indicating the need, or not, to be in quarantine. The Guardian has reported that a new feature will shortly be introduced allowing other residents to check the status of individuals in their city. There are reported considerations of an app for use in the UK that would alert people if they have recently in contact with someone who has subsequently tested positive for the virus. This would involve using GPS location data as we go about our daily lives.

It is tempting for governments to use extraordinary circumstances to lift the level of the new normal for surveillance. Cities that have recently hosted Olympic Games certainly dismantle much of the infrastructure but not necessarily all of the intensive surveillance technologies required for that major event.[i] Democracies face the challenge of balancing surveillance and its restrictions upon people’s freedoms with the technological possibilities now, or just around the corner. There has been criticism of the use of surveillance drones by the police in the Derbyshire countryside to film those who had travelled to exercise, and to publish this online as a public information warning.

Ought we have access to the health status of our neighbours or co-workers during this pandemic? Should anyone breaching restrictions on movement and assembly be fair game for being shamed on social media? What say will we, the public, have in the new normal that governments determine is necessary beyond the end of this particularly emergency?

I want to suggest some theological perspectives that might shape Christian thinking.

Surveillance from the Cross is a paradigm I have been proposing for a number of years.[ii] By placing surveillance ‘under the sign of the cross’ (to use David Hollenbach’s phrase for his social ethics more generally) I think we can better foreground Christ’s solidarity with those under oppressive and unjust surveillance.[iii] This is in contrast to conceiving the Divine gaze in terms of One watching from on high; Christ Pantocrator, often depicted in imperial glory. Surveillance from the Cross shifts the view point through 90 degrees; from above to alongside. It means asking ‘who is human surveillance for?’ prior to the more common questions, ‘who is surveillance of?’ or ‘what is surveillance for?’

This approach opens space for us to value surveillance and much of the work of many people who work in the surveillance industry. To watch over, or to practice surveillance for one another, is an expression of our fundamental interconnectedness. This means that watching over others is not disengaged or disinterested in others’ material circumstances. Surveillance under the sign of the Cross means looking out for others with the awareness that this is necessary in a contingent, and often unjust world. Crucially, this paradigm alerts us to the ways in which particular surveillance strategies might be reinforcing existing prejudice and/or producing new marginalizing of groups of people who are deemed to be more ‘risky’ than others.

When countries emerge from the covid-19 pandemic there may well be a legacy of fear to which, as in the threat of terrorism, greater surveillance will be the ‘something’ when politicians respond to the siren call, ‘something needs to be done’. Surveillance under the sign of the Cross will be a Christian contribution to resisting the stigmatising of groups of people. This paradigm will provoke critical examination of government policies by asking who is the new legacy of health surveillance really for? Will it be to assuage populist and ill-informed fears of our neighbours as ‘possible virus carriers’? Which companies will profit from any heightened health monitoring? Who turns out to be disadvantaged in the post-pandemic world?

Those are questions not just for the future, but require asking now. We can be thankful for public health surveillance whilst recognising the importance of solidarity with those for whom the monitoring of our lives required by the pandemic easily slides into being marginalised and treated unjustly.

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Eric Stoddart teaches practical theology at the University of St Andrews in Scotland and is currently writing The Common Gaze for SCM Press; a book on surveillance and the common good, due to be published in January 2021.

 

[i] Minas Samatas, "Studying Surveillance in Greece: Methodological and Other Problems Related to an Authoritarian Surveillance Culture," Surveillance & Society 3, no. 2/3 (2005): 181-97. https://ojs.library.queensu.ca/index.php/surveillance-and-society/article/view/3500/3454

[ii] Eric Stoddart, Theological Perspectives on a Surveillance Society: Watching and Being Watched (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2011).

[iii] David Hollenbach, "Social Ethics Under the Sign of the Cross," The Annual of the Society of Christian Ethics  (1996): 1-18.