Reflections on the COVID-19 Rupture: Towards Transformation

Repost of my article written last year in early COVID and recently published in The European Sociologist.

In Spring 2020, we who are located within the geographic borders, and in the metaphorical borderlands, of the declining Anglo-American empire, witnessed a rupture. The Covid-19 crisis appeared in our societies, striking down first elders and middle-aged people, and then appearing in people much younger, causing inexplicable fevers, chills, coughs, body aches and fatigue, and a sudden and simultaneous grappling with our collective mortality [1].

This pandemic has been predicted by epidemiologists worldwide: I was made aware of its possibility via, of all things, Netflix, in an eponymous documentary series, and an episode of a Vox-produced pop-science programme called “Explained.” Whether others saw red flags in these drops in their content oceans, I am unsure. However, we know now that the US and UK governments had similar advance warning of such a phenomenon but irresponsibly chose to ignore it – to our great peril. Nonetheless, for those of us without experience of recent epidemics, or unfamiliar with the realms of virology and/or science fiction, the notion that an outbreak would compel us to cease visiting our friends and family, abandon our offices, favourite coffee shops, restaurants, co-working spaces and other gathering places, remain in our homes and six feet away from strangers, was, until recently, simply unimaginable.

I am a Filipinx-American woman in my late thirties, with Chinese, Spanish, and indigenous Malay ethnic roots and heritage. To this genetic mix I bring an American cultural sensibility – a laid back, nerdy-hippie, queer of colour West Coast vibe in particular – a product of my hometown of Seattle, an early pandemic epicentre. Once an immigrant graduate student, I am now an academic, reasonably secure on a permanent contract, taking a realist, sociological, engaged approach to critical digital entrepreneurship studies, and collaboratively developing anti-racist, decolonial, intersectional cyberfeminist philosophy and practice with international collectives like Building the Anti-Racist Classroom and the Decolonising Alliance. I maintain close interpersonal and online connections to American activists, especially artists, musicians, queers and crips of colour. The diverse scholar-activist-artist communities to which I belong, and the liminal cultural spaces I inhabit, enable me to view this unfolding crisis from multiple perspectives: my social media timelines have a split screen focus on both the US and UK/European dramas, with a picture-in-picture feature on the Asian origins and containment strategies around the virus, and the equally virulent Sino/xenophobia it has unleashed on people who look like me, in both my home and my host countries.

Black feminist Afro-futurist writers have warned us of these times. The ground-breaking science fiction writer Octavia Butler, and scholars of her work, such as authors and activists adrienne maree brown and Walidah Imarisha [2], and Alexis Pauline Gumbs [3], have used the art of visionary fiction to explore themes of human vulnerability and Earthling interdependency, through crafting post-apocalyptic imaginaries in which, during times of fascist resurgence and environmental catastrophe, the radical leadership and collectivist ethos of Black women protagonists enable another way of interrelating. Queer and crip communities of colour, who share important intersections with the above, have through necessity designed and utilised mutual aid and preparedness practices for their individual and collective survival [4]. As this crisis reared its head, politically engaged and socially radical artists, scientists, scholars, cultural critics, and healers snapped into action, producing cartoons, commentary, Twitter threads and memes reminding us that it’s ok to be human, scared and uncertain, and to prioritise our self and collective care practices, offering accessible suggestions for how to do so. These are the communities to whom I am now turning for advice on how to look after ourselves and each other. Their rapidly and collaboratively produced guides are the resources that I am copying into my WhatsApp chat groups and Padlets and Google Docs and Facebook groups where I am sharing information, commiserating, and communing. From them we have quickly learned important new terms: pod-mapping. Immunocompromised. Flattening the curve. I am heartened at the social solidarity that has arisen from this crisis, called for by everyone from the most ardent activists to the World Health Organisation.

This crisis is taking place at the crossroads of at least three eras in the Anglo-American imperial timeline: First, the digital gift [5], offering us instant access to the concepts and the language of this moment, making legible what we can ask of each other and demand from those in power. Second, the ‘needs must’ resurrection of a socialistic ethos, after more than a decade of austerity since the 2008 financial crisis. The UK Labour party manifesto ripped to shreds last autumn held promises – universal basic income, rent freezing – that are now being called upon to keep societies stable. These ideas are also espoused on the American left, epitomised by socialist Bernie Sanders as the US Democratic Party prepares for a critical election year. Finally, it is the era of peak meme, in which content is seemingly limitless and intertexuality and referentiality know no bounds. When US Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez spoke with prison abolitionist activist Mariame Kaba at a webinar on mutual aid, the infographic posted to illustrate the event quoted the anarcho-communist Kropotkin, an early theorist of the evolutionary significance of cooperation. The replies in the thread were meme heaven.

Yet, the occurrence of such a rupture does not necessarily precipitate transformation. Another stream of content – from chambers of commerce, the business community, academic institutions and entrepreneurs – is focused on maintaining productivity while working from home. I see this approach mocked in a self-deprecating way in another Tweet: Day 1 of quarantine – daily schedule, tidy workspace, nourishing meals; Day 4 – pyjamas, cereal and two hours of work constitutes a full day’s work. For many in the societies we live in, the neoliberal model of a quantified self with automaton-like focus and maximised productivity is all-consuming, such that this biological rupture threatening our basic respiratory functions and by extension all we hold dear is not enough of a disturbance to slow down and set aside ‘business as usual,’ simply a quantum leap in the direction we were already headed: full and seamless migration to online platforms and services.

In her book Emergent Strategy, adrienne maree brown draws on Octavia Butler’s ouvre, alongside her personal history of social justice movement facilitation, to advocate intentional adaptation, or the power to shape the future through small, directed efforts underpinned by principles of interdependency, collectivity and mutuality [6]. In this crisis we see that people whose work embodies such principles – health care workers, carers, teachers, farmers, bus drivers, street cleaners and supermarket clerks – rather than the financiers, hypercapitalist billionaires, or politicians – are, in fact, the ‘key workers’, those without whom the social fabric disintegrates. The refusal of those in power to prioritise these people is criminal. I sign with horror a petition on from a junior doctor pleading with the government to test NHS workers for Covid-19. I read threads from other health care workers who are expected to work, some even coming out of retirement to do so, and are both exposed to the virus and likely infecting others, and who have not been tested. Both American and British celebrity and sportspeople announce on social media that they have tested positive, sending staunch messages of hope to their fans and the public, seemingly oblivious to the ways in which their wealth and status has allowed them, as usual, to blatantly jump the queue.

There are other reminders that the world is still full of fear, greed, scapegoating and hatemongering. At the grocery stores, the shelves have been raided by panic buyers. The last time I was out in public, a middle aged white British man shouted at a young Chinese man wearing a mask: “No use wearing a mask now, you should have worn them before, then we wouldn’t have this problem”. The media has irresponsibly, at best, and intentionally, at worst, drummed up the Sinophobia that has led to Chinese students being assaulted across the UK – nearly every article I read online about the virus is accompanied by a stock photo of Chinese people with masks. To cap off the unconscionable decisions being made in the vacuum of a viral crisis without precedent, the powers of the police state have been significantly ramped up, with both the UK and US, as well as Canada who acts, for all intents and purposes, as a bit of both, all announcing harder border controls and permission to arrest and isolation of anyone suspected to be infectious. The Kleinean moment of disaster capitalism [7] we are currently facing will be officially accompanied by its equally terrible twin, disaster racism.

In this historical moment, labour of vastly divergent kinds is being negatively affected, and the effects of globalization on the information capitalist superstructure, interlinked with the various other institutions, from legal to political to educational, that allow for the day-to-day reproduction of society, are being brought into stark relief. Artists have had gigs cancelled, service workers have lost jobs and wages, lawyers report that prosecutors are protected behind glass but defendants and defence attorneys are side by side in the courtrooms. A project to collect anonymous voicemails about how people are being affected by the virus captures a message from a worker in California processing a raft of dead bodies whose cause of death is listed as acute respiratory failure; they are not provided with masks or other protective gear, and the dead were not tested for Covid-19. In this mayhem, no worker is left untouched, no boss will escape unscathed, but the UK measures to address this being brought in by the Conservative government can be expected to, as always, benefit the elite.

Critical sociologists, especially anti-racist, decolonial and intersectional feminists, have built a body of knowledge that allows us to theorise, with great certainty, what has led to this moment: the history and ongoing legacy of white supremacist colonization, patriarchy, and racial capitalism, which are wholly destructive, damaging, and exploitative to the masses, while enriching the few. Contrary to popular soundbites claiming that Covid-19 is a great leveller, emerging evidence demonstrates that instead, existing inequalities have been rapidly exacerbated. Poor and marginalised populations of colour, especially Black, Latinx and Asian people, are made more vulnerable through greater exposure to the virus combined with historic legacies of inequality, such that they are now critically ill and dying at dramatically higher rates. Critical legal scholar Anamika Misra encapsulates the international situation thusly: “Segregation, discrimination and dehumanisation are all baked in to the practice of structural social distancing that further exposes racialised, indigenous, queer, and Dalit communities to polluters, insecure housing, lack of sanitation, economic peril, and reduced access to healthcare.” In an online teach-in hosted by The Rising Majority, lifetime anti-racist, anti-capitalist feminist activists Angela Davis and Naomi Klein emphasised that it is only by intentionally dismantling these unequal and unjust systems, and building new, better structures in place of the old, that it will become possible to relate to each other and to our planet differently. Careless social reproduction is no longer an option. This rupture must lead to transformation.


[1] This reflective commentary was written in April 2020, prior to the most recent international popular uprisings for Black Lives. Although outside the timeline of this piece, they are undoubtedly informed by and interconnected with the issues of social and especially racial inequality, and the activist responses to them, explored here.
[2] Brown, A.M., Imarisha, W. (eds) (2015) Octavia’s Brood: Science Fiction Stories from Social Justice Movements. Oakland: AK Press.
[3] Gumbs, A.P. (2018) M Archive: After the End of The World. Durham: Duke University Press.
[4] Piepzna-Samarasinha, L. (2018) Care Work: Dreaming Disability Justice. Vancouver: Arsenal Pulp Press.
[5] Elder-Vass, D. (2016) Profit and Gift in the Digital Economy. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
[6] Brown, A.M. Emergent Strategy (2017). Oakland: AK Press.
[7] Klein, N. (2007) The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism. London: Penguin.

Lockdown Publications

During the UK COVID19 lockdown of Summer 2020, some new work of mine made its way into the world.

First is an ISBJ commentary on the expected effects of COVID19 on women’s entrepreneurship; second is a timely polemic piece in Organization written by the BARC Collective on the racist nature of Business Schools, which came out during the international uprisings in defense of Black lives. Both publications are available open access for free reading and download.

Next is a BARC chapter on the relationship between collectivity and radicality, in an edited volume on social justice work by women of colour in academia. Finally there are two chapters in a new critical realist gender reader, one of which is a reprint and a new one (written in 2017 – so glad it’s out!) on gender, trans politics and affordance from a critical realist feminist perspective.

An additional publication on sociological reflections on COVID19 life was accepted in August by The European Sociologist and is in press – I will update this post when it is published.

  1. Martinez Dy, A. and Jayawarna, D. (2020) ‘Bios, mythoi and women entrepreneurs: A Wynterian analysis of the intersectional impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic on self-employed women and women-owned businesses’, International Small Business Journal: Researching Entrepreneurship, 38(5), pp. 391–403. doi: 10.1177/0266242620939935.

Decolonial philosopher Sylvia Wynter theorises the human animal as formed by both bios and mythoi, or matter and meaning. This article adopts this ontological perspective to explore the effects of the COVID-19 crisis on UK self-employed women and women-owned businesses through an intersectional lens accounting for race, class and gender. We argue that unequal health outcomes from COVID-19 are not solely biological; rather, they are also the outcome of social inequalities. Drawing upon the Wynterian elaboration of Fanon’s work on sociogeny – the shaping of the embodied human experience by the norms of given society – to explain this phenomenon, we contend that the same inequalities emerging in health outcomes will be reflected in entrepreneurship and self-employment. Drawing on Labour Force Survey data for the past decade, we peer through the Wynterian prism of bios and mythoi to argue that marginalised entrepreneurs are likely to experience extreme precarity due to COVID-19 and so require targeted support.

2. Dar, S., Liu, H., Martinez Dy, A., Brewis, D. (2020) ‘The Business School is Racist: Act Up!’, Organization, 0(0).

In this essay, we call upon our fellow scholars of colour to recognise the ways Business Schools are structured by white supremacy and actively de-value our knowledge and experiences. Alongside this recognition, collective action led by scholars of colour is needed to build intergenerational support systems which will be key to dismantling racialised power structures as they appear locally and transnationally. White scholars are invited to listen and learn from this call.

3. Building the antiracist classroom: How the collective makes the radical possible. Deborah N. Brewis, Sadhvi Dar, Angela Martinez Dy, Helena Liu, Udeni Salmon on behalf of Building the Antiracist Classroom (BARC) Collective.

A sequel to ‘Inside the Ivory Tower: Narratives of women of colour surviving and thriving in British academia’ (2017). These research case studies by Black women academics describe the transformative work of contributors to the Ivory Tower project, adding intersectional voices from the United States, Canada and Australia, and LGBTQ perspectives. Privileging their lived experience, intellectual, social and cultural capital, they recount the self-defined pathways for social justice developed by women of colour. Drawing on critical race theory and Black feminism, the authors navigate challenging spaces to create meaningful roles in addressing race and gender disparities that range from invisibility in the academy to tackling female genital mutilation. Their research and practice, so often unacknowledged, is shown to be transforming teaching, research, professional and community practice within and beyond the academy.

4. Critical Realism, Feminism, and Gender: A Reader
Edited by Michiel van Ingen, Steph Grohmann, Lena Gunnarsson

Ch. 5 Gender Theory Non-conforming: Critical Realist Feminism, Trans Politics, and Affordance TheoryAngela Martinez Dy

Ch. 6 Developing a Critical Realist Positional Approach to Intersectionality
Angela Martinez Dy, Lee Martin, and Susan Marlow

In assessing the current state of feminism and gender studies, whether on a theoretical or a practical level, it has become increasingly challenging to avoid the conclusion that these fields are in a state of disarray. Indeed, feminist and gender studies discussions are beset with persistent splits and disagreements. This reader suggests that returning to, and placing centre-stage, the role of philosophy, especially critical realist philosophy of science, is invaluable for efforts that seek to overcome or mitigate the uncertainty and acrimony that have resulted from this situation. In particular, it claims that the dialectical logic that runs through critical realist philosophy is ideally suited to advancing feminist and gender studies discussions about broad ontological and epistemological questions and considerations, intersectionality, and methodology, methods, and empirical research. By bringing together four new and eight existing writings this reader provides both a focal point for renewed discussions about the potential and actual contributions of critical realist philosophy to feminism and gender studies and a timely contribution to these discussions.