Private Islands in COVID-19

Lottie Hughes reflects on the public, the private – and Kim Kardashian – during the COVID-19 pandemic

When the pandemic initially occurred, most of us inhabited confined spaces collectively. Public places became temporarily unusable and those with access gathered on the homogenous virtual realms as a substitute to locality. While breath and any form of shared corporeality was and is still a personal and collective risk, being virtual is a respite. During this time, social media usage across the globe dramatically increased. For myself, the Kardashian family became both simultaneously more appealing and more politically obscene. Aligning with the processes of neo-liberalism itself, their bronzed and contoured faces co-opted my isolation experience. I intermittently watched their television show, clips of them on Youtube, and visited their Instagrams.

Kim Kardashian recently tweeted that “After 2 weeks of multiple health screens and asking everyone to quarantine, I surprised my closest inner circle with a trip to a private island where we could pretend things were normal just for a brief moment in time”. Kardashian’s use of a “private” island to escape the omniscience of America’s COVID-19 outbreak, shows the relation between place and health. By her ability to cross-continents and move at will, she is able to freely exchange contexts of public health. She can even  choose her notion of normality over public strangeness. The “private” island will undoubtedly have its own local context. Online she remakes it into a blank space for her family photographs. She occupies virtual space to such an extent, she must continue to curate versions of edenic spaces untouched by the pandemic. Most of us are rooted to a place and thus far more rooted to the notion of local public health.

After her Tweet, I couldn’t help feeling like a kind of digital-Frankenstein. Through my engagement with them, my algorithm now deemed them significant. Then they had behaved in ways I didn’t want them to. This is the strange dialectic of digital celebrity that goes on between creating and despising. Feeding and then criticising. For the British Media in particular, her tweet has caused outrage. I thought about why. For obvious reasons it is ‘tone deaf’. From another perspective, perhaps she is a floating signifier of our own fears. As the UK’s healthcare system risks becoming a ‘private’ island, many of us hold longer-term fears for the NHS becoming a kind of transnational and anonymous entity. The growth of Kardashian’s following, alongside the growth of the private sector has happened during a time in which we are thrown into both austerity and collectivity.

Image credit: Jennifer Savage

In a report released by the British Medical Association earlier this year, it states that the UK’s response to COVID-19 has sped up outsourcing to private contractors. Following the need to quickly provide an infrastructure to tackle the pandemic, the government has pumped money into various contractors to do the job. The report lists them as follows:

  • “– DHL, Unipart and Movianto to procure, manage logistics of and store PPE.
  • – Deloitte to manage the logistics of national drive-in testing centres and super-labs.
  • – Serco to run the contact tracing programme.
  • – Palantir and Faculty A.I. to build the COVID-19 datastore.
  • – Capita to on board returning health workers in England.”

They point out that Serco runs the contact tracing programme. While the company’s programme has been consistently called unfit for use, there is a backlog of controversy around Serco. In 2019, the company received a fine of £19.2 million for fraud involving a contract with the British Ministry of justice. In addition to this, accusations of sexual abuse of immigrants in Yarl’s Wood Immigration centre operated by Serco have also emerged. Palantir, a US based company is not without its controversy. Amnesty International released a report in which they expressed concerns over human rights abuses of migrants and Asylum seekers in the US through the use of Palantir’s technology. Movianto is also part of a private US healthcare logistics company named Owens and Minor. They have been associated with controversy during this time.

The BMA report claims that since 2010, austerity policies and the 2012 Health and Social Care Bill have “sowed the seeds of the problems we now face” (10). Social democratic understandings of public health can’t be actioned if there is a continued dependence on private contractors who lack transparency and are driven by the prospect of turning over profit. Mark Fisher said it best when he described late capitalism as a “monstrous, infinitely plastic entity, capable of metabolizing and absorbing anything with which it comes into contact” (Fisher 2009: 6). The pandemic has been metabolised by private firms which have the technology to profit out of crisis. This process has taken place elsewhere in the gig economy with the emergence of a new app in America, ironically called Civvl. The app emerged in the wake of COVID-19 to offer up manpower to help evict people in their increasing numbers in the USA. Parasitical methods to make profit from a crisis is capitalism’s method of survival.

The family who embody this logic, outsource to a “private” place, perhaps, as a method for continued growth and relevance. When confronted with the notion that her promotion of certain products might be socially and physically harmful to consumers, Kardashian often falls back onto the kernel of logic within capitalism itself: She has to make money. Like the private firms the British government has employed, her “private” island is presented as placeless, untouched by the Pandemic. Though for one small indicator, in one of the photographs uploaded a member of staff in the background is wearing a face covering. This is the only visual indicator of the current pandemic. The only signifier of context, is a member of the public bearing the brunt of the private.

Lottie Hughes is a freelance writer based in South East London. Her writing can be found in publications such as ACHE and Away With Words. In her work she explores aspects of embodiment, feminist cultural theory and digital media. During her Masters at Goldsmiths, she specialised in the Anthropology of Health and Medicine.

Bibliography

Fisher, Mark. 2009. Capitalist Realism. John Hunt Publishing.

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