A Pandemic of Prediction: On the Circulation of Contagion Models between Public Health and Public Safety


  • Maximilian Heimstädt Weizenbaum Institute http://orcid.org/0000-0003-2786-8187
  • Simon Egbert Department of Sociology, Technische Universität Berlin http://orcid.org/0000-0002-3729-0393
  • Elena Esposito Department of Political and Social Sciences, University of Bologna; Faculty of Sociology, Bielefeld University (Germany)




pandemic, COVID_19, prediction, risk, contagion, health care, safety, predictive policing, contact tracing


Digital prediction tools increasingly complement or replace other practices of coping with an uncertain future. The current COVID-19 pandemic, it seems, is further accelerating the spread of prediction. The prediction of the pandemic yields a pandemic of prediction. In this paper, we explore this dynamic, focusing on contagion models and their transmission back and forth between two domains of society: public health and public safety. We connect this movement with a fundamental duality in the prevention of contagion risk concerning the two sides of being-at-risk and being-a-risk. Both in the spread of a disease and in the spread of criminal behavior, a person at risk can be a risk to others and vice versa. Based on key examples, from this perspective we observe and interpret a circular movement in three phases. In the past, contagion models have moved from public health to public safety, as in the case of the Strategic Subject List used in the policing activity of the Chicago Police Department. In the present COVID-19 pandemic, the analytic tools of policing wander to the domain of public health – exemplary of this movement is the cooperation between the data infrastructure firm Palantir and the UK government’s public health system NHS. The expectation that in the future the predictive capacities of digital contact tracing apps might spill over from public health to policing is currently shaping the development and use of tools such as the Corona-Warn-App in Germany. In all these cases, the challenge of pandemic governance lies in managing the connections and the exchanges between the two areas of public health and public safety while at the same time keeping the autonomy of each.


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How to Cite

Heimstädt, M., Egbert, S., & Esposito, E. (2020). A Pandemic of Prediction: On the Circulation of Contagion Models between Public Health and Public Safety. Sociologica, 14(3), 1–24. https://doi.org/10.6092/issn.1971-8853/11470