COVID in North Dakota as Structural Violence

Over the past week, I’ve been thinking a good bit about the rising COVID numbers in North Dakota. Our state (and our community) have endured a good bit of ridicule and criticism because our political leaders have rejected calls for mask mandates and our citizens have refused to do enough to stem the spread of the disease (e.g. close schools and businesses, wear masks, social distance consistently, et c.).

I got to wondering about the conditions that made it possible for North Dakota’s political leaders and a segment of our community to reject even the simplest and least invasive approaches to preventing the spread of COVID. I realize that this is not JUST a North Dakota issue and its easy enough to blame the national political situation for the state’s problems, but I’d like to argue that there are some other factors that are more proximate and more distinctive to explain North Dakota’s situation. The main thrust of my argument is that the impact of COVID on our communities is a form of structural violence that is rooted in our colonial relationship to larger economic and (broadly) political centers and the 21st-century “development of underdevelopment” across the state. I’ll argue that the development of underdevelopment is tied the state’s recent relationship to the oil industry  and that industry’s desire to maintain in North Dakota a certain set of political, economic, and social conditions conducive to the profitability of extractive industries.

The Bakken Oil Boom of the 21st century brought a period of unparalleled prosperity to the state. North Dakota’s economic growth from 2008-2014 was both rapid and steep and national media outlets celebrated the “North Dakota miracle” even as the rest of the country slid into the Great Recession. Most of the capital that fed this economic growth came from outside the state and the region as did many of the workers who drilled the wells, built the roads, and hauled the oil. Communities experienced benefits and challenges during the “Bakken Boom,” as they coped to accommodate the arrival of financial and human capital. The state’s tax coffers filled. 

The work in the Bakken, as any number of national media outlets noted, was hyper masculine. It was dangerous, dirty, and physically demanding and the long-standing rhetoric of national energy independence lent it both a patriotic and militaristic feel. The work related injury and death rates in the Bakken ranked among the nations highest further emphasizing the risks associated with North Dakota’s prosperity. Many of the workers in the Bakken had left regions hard hit by the Great Recession and lived in temporary workforce housing that ranged from adequate to inhumane. The living conditions and the risk involved in the work reinforced the message that prosperity required sacrifice. The volatility of extractive industries created a sense of precarity that was also part of the equation of economic growth.    

The Bakken experience in some ways paralleled the national growth of the gig economy which reinforced the logic of independent contractor whose tenacity prepared them to face risks, volatility and uncertainty with steely determination and optimism. The companies that rose to profitability on the back of unorganized and unprotected gig workers mitigated the contingent character of this work with the glorification independence and calls for “personal responsibility” among their workers. 

They also produced an incredibly violent system of labor which promised prosperity in exchange for risk. For oil companies in North Dakota, the absence of organized labor and significant governmental oversight allowed them to manage the costs of extracting the relatively tight Bakken deposits and expand their correspondingly tight margins on North Dakota oil. 

The wealth that this system created flooded North Dakota’s political system and helped reinforce a single party state government which overlooked the human cost of the Bakken boom, ignored all but the most egregious environmental disasters, and reinforced the economically expedient message that economic growth required a masculine tolerance for risk and pain of all kinds.

As the global oil markets fluctuated and revenues declined, the state made ever deeper budget cuts, but argued that the sacrifice of austerity would ensure future profitability. The independent, risk-tolerant, hyper masculine North Dakotan did not need handouts from the state with its hide-bound inefficiencies and bureaucratically conservative ways. The pooling of the state’s oil revenue in the “Legacy Fund” which law makers have refused to tap, made clear that oil was not a source of revenue or wealth for the state as an institution. 

It goes without saying that the budget cuts hurt North Dakotans. They weakened social programs, education, and other institutions designed to provide stability in times of uncertainty or mitigate long-term risk by developing more diverse opportunities for the state’s residents. Austerity benefited from the rhetoric that connected personal responsibility and the tolerance of risk with financial prosperity even as oil companies continued to pump over a million barrels a day from the Bakken.

Risk meant profits before people.

~

With the arrival of COVID, the state stood by and watched the virus spread throughout the summer. State and city governments generally rejected calls to put in place mask mandates, to enforce a lockdown, to close schools, or to support contact tracing, widespread testing, and other known methods for attempting to limit the spread of the virus. In fact, our mayor compared a mask mandate to the policies of “Nazi Germany.”

It was easy to decry his understanding of Nazism as ahistorical, problematic, and offensive, but he wasn’t looking to the past when he made this comparison. His anxiety about the risk of eroding personal freedoms reflected his fear that responding to the risk of COVID might somehow call for efforts to mitigate other risks present in North Dakota.

It is easy enough to understand why something as simple as a mask mandate would create uneasiness. After all, massive amounts of oil money had cultivated the view that prosperity required risk and that safety a personal responsibility that could not be lefts to companies, the state, or other institutions. Our state officials do not function outside of the ideological, economic, ethical, cultural and social influence of a system designed to maximize the margins on oil production by limiting the reach of the state. These policies made it possible to extract as much labor as possible from the worker at the lowest possible cost.  

The risk tolerant, hyper masculine attitude toward masks (and COVID more generally) is the same attitude that fueled the Bakken oil boom. The deaths and suffering from COVID are the same as those in the oil patch.

It’s easy enough for us to blame political leader, our fellow citizens, or “North Dakota” in general for the ever rising number of COVID cases. It’s a bit harder to realize that COVID suffering and death are the product of the same structural violence necessary to create North Dakota’s ephemeral economic miracle. The oil industry (if not capitalism more broadly) requires the underdevelopment of institutions that would jeopardize profits for safety of the workers or the development of the expectation of security from the volatility of capital. The structural violence of capitalism and COVID locates responsibility in the individual in a misguided effort to protect potential prosperity at a time of intensifying precarity.

Our reluctance to act in the face of COVID isn’t bravado or ignorance, but fear.  

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