In a press release announcing that her husband had tested positive for COVID-19 following the lockdown during the pro-Trump mob’s attack on the Capitol, Massachusetts Representative Ayanna Pressley did not mince words. She called out her “callous Republican colleagues” for refusing to wear masks in the “crowded and confined space.” Other lawmakers who were exposed and infected during the lockdown also called out their colleagues for their “callousness” and dangerous “inability to accept facts” on the benefits of wearing masks to contain the spread of coronavirus. Pressley expressed anger at her colleagues’ “arrogant disregard for the lives of others” and linked such disregard to the “criminal negligence of the current administration in responding to the crisis” that had, at the time of her statement, “claimed the lives of over 380,000 Americans.”
Pressley’s angry denunciation got to the crux of the issue: a willful disregard for the health and lives of others has formed the basis for denying and downplaying the deadly and disabling effects of COVID-19. Since the beginning of the pandemic, and encouraged by President Trump and other Republican lawmakers, we have witnessed people proudly and nonchalantly express their utter disregard for the suffering of others, especially elderly and disabled people, and the people who care for them. By refusing to wear masks and practice social distancing, people have sought to demonstrate—to show by action and display of feeling—how much they don’t care that people are dying in unprecedented numbers.
Disregard is both a verb and a noun. It refers to an action (“to pay no attention to” and “to treat as unworthy of regard and notice”) and a condition (“the state of being disregarded”). Disregard is not a passive thoughtlessness; rather, it suggests willful inattention. One chooses to ignore the suffering of others, both because one can and because doing so makes that suffering invisible. Pressley added the modifier “arrogant” to amplify the point she was making about the insouciant attitude of her Republican colleagues. But all disregard is an expression of power that implies arrogance.
In her book Regarding the Pain of Others, published in 2003, a year before her death, Susan Sontag identified the many opportunities “for regarding—at a distance, through the medium of photography—other people’s pain” as a key component of modern life. Sontag was of course renowned as one of our foremost critics of the photographic image and its circulation, as well as for her polemic against illness as metaphor, among other critical interventions. It is instructive to return to Sontag’s work in the present moment in which images are readily and easily manipulated, and in which denialism and disinformation circulate widely through social media. Sontag was interested in how we see and consume the pain and suffering of others. She was also interested in what images of death we see and don’t see.
In her earlier essay on the cultural politics of illness, Susan Sontag analyzed the phenomenon of illness as metaphor for individual and social weakness. Sontag’s short polemic chronicles a long history of the metaphorical uses of illness in literature, popular culture, and politics. Her motivation for writing Illness as Metaphor was not simply to explore a changing cultural and political landscape of illness. Instead, Sontag proposed to elucidate the uses of illness as metaphor with the goal of purifying the experience of illness of metaphorical thinking. For Sontag, this was the “most truthful way of regarding illness—and the healthiest way of being ill.” The act of regarding (showing interest, care, consideration, respect, and esteem), and the possibility mis- or dis-regarding, links Sontag’s early work on illness with her later work on the pain and suffering of others.
In the COVID-19 pandemic, what Sontag described as regarding at a distance has been necessitated by the highly contagious character of the virus. Because of this, hundreds of thousands of people have died in isolation from their loved ones. Our hospitals are over-flowing with COVID-19 patients, even as their suffering remains largely invisible or highly mediated by audio-visual technologies like Facetime and Zoom. Healthcare workers have become witnesses to extreme suffering and death in a way that is not typically part of their everyday responsibilities. Yet the trauma our healthcare workers have experienced is also ignored and even denied. Passively regarding at a distance has turned into an active disregarding of the health and care of others.
Indeed, this disregard for the health and care of others has become politicized. In the COVID-19 pandemic, disregard has been wielded and weaponized. Images of Republican members of Congress refusing to wear masks in the lockdown at the Capitol, even when asked to do so, enacts this politics of disregard: I do not have to care about you. The act of not caring and the image of mocking disregard work together to communicate a political message: See me not care about others.
The mask is a visible sign of regard for others. It communicates an understanding that one’s body is not autonomous from but interdependent with the bodies of others. That some would fixate on the requirement to wear a mask as somehow restricting one’s bodily freedom is a most cynical disregard for the specific practices of public health and healthcare in particular and for a parsimonious notion of the social contract more generally. The politics of disregard suggests that seeing oneself in relation to others is a sign of weakness. This is a debate about the kind of society we want to live in: one that prioritizes the care of others, especially the most vulnerable, versus one that politicizes disregard. As Representative Pressley made clear, the effects of such a politics of disregard are criminal and deadly.