COVID-19

By Miriam Ticktin (The New School for Social Research)

The narrative about COVID-19 has firmly settled into one about war: political leaders regularly make triumphant pronouncements that we will defeat this enemy, we will win this war! As part of this story, there is the necessary Invasive Other—the evil foe who infiltrates and must be exterminated so “we” can “win.” This language has been used to conflate invasive pathogens and people—the “Chinese virus” is a case in point—and to close national borders, mixing up medical and political quarantine.

But framing the problem as the need to shut the borders of nation-states against invasive others is not only wrong, but deadly. “National quarantines” make no sense, as nation-states are clearly not “safe spaces”; those caged in prisons and detention centers have revealed this far too clearly, as have the recent videos of the police in the United States lynching Black men and women, such as George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, instead of protecting them. Using the pandemic to remove the right to asylum—and, most recently, closing the door to all immigration in the United States—only serves a white-supremacist neoliberal agenda that is deepening inequality and literally killing people, not saving them.

Understanding this virus requires that we rethink taken-for-granted political categories. While we may still need forms of medical isolation or quarantine, these cannot map onto existing political borders. Most importantly, viruses do not invade. They are not living entities; they are just bits of information that our cells bring to life (Napier 2020). And viruses are already an integral part of our body-worlds. Indeed, they have been a driving force in the evolution of the species: a non-negligible percentage of human DNA comes from viral infections (Brives 2020). Neoliberal regimes that defund health care, practices of deforestation, and the domination of agribusiness are key practices that make us differently and unequally susceptible to already circulating virus variants; but these are part of racial capitalism, which goes well beyond nation-states (Adams 2020; Napier 2020; Wallace 2016).

Recognizing that we live in a connected world is the only way to survive today: we are in a life-and-death embrace with each other that no one can wriggle out of. This is a not a dystopic statement; if we do recognize this, we might not only survive, but eventually might flourish in much more substantive ways than what our extractive and exploitative racial capitalist system currently allows. Indeed, we must take advantage of the fact that through COVID-19 our connections have been rendered visible in a way that is impossible to ignore.

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So, what are our options? There are already proposals to manage mobility beyond nation-state borders. In particular, “immunity passports” have been suggested for those who pass an antibody test. While that may seem like a reasonable way to reopen the world again without unnecessarily endangering people—if we can prove that we do indeed get immunity from having had COVID-19—we should be wary of such solutions, and their unintended effects. Rather than getting rid of borders, this proposal moves the border into the body. And indeed, using the body as a way to screen for movement has a long and sometimes treacherous history: from the most “well-intentioned” humanitarian clauses to help those who are suffering, to biometrics and the DNA measurements that purport to verify parentage or age.

My earlier work can be instructive here (Ticktin 2006, 2011a). In a climate of anti-immigrant sentiment in France in the late 1990s and early 2000s, which included closing all doors to immigration, a series of humanitarian exceptions were put in place to protect the human dignity of undocumented immigrants in the face of extreme suffering. These measures included one that I have called “the illness clause,” which gave legal residency papers to those already in France with life-threatening pathologies if they were declared unable to receive proper treatment in their home countries. In other words, the only people who could get papers to stay in France were those who were very sick. In the face of this focus on suffering, I found that immigrants were doing whatever they could to make themselves life-threateningly sick so that they could get basic rights. Indeed, the president of ACT-UP Paris told me that he had received phone calls from undocumented immigrants inquiring how they might infect themselves with HIV and thereby obtain legal status in France. The rhetoric of willed self-infection is part of a larger reality I witnessed that made physical injury or illness the necessary condition for certain basic rights.

In the case of COVID-19, we are already seeing this desire to self-infect, or to sacrifice certain populations, in order to get certain rights, like the right to work or to travel; former presidential candidate Andrew Yang suggested that soldiers could voluntarily become infected with COVID-19 to “provide an immune workforce and research antibodies.” And more recently, inmates in the Los Angeles County Jail seemingly deliberately drank from the same water bottle to infect themselves in order to have a chance at being released from custody.

There are two key concerns here. First, self-infection and sacrifice are the consequences of letting certain kinds of biological evidence determine political decisions; this is coupled with a humanitarian language of the absolute value of saving lives in the immediate present, to the detriment of all else. In particular, this makes immunity to COVID-19 the only thing that matters—the one thing that authorizes movement. Yet why does COVID-19 override everything else, every other type of vulnerability, need, desire, or form of suffering? Why does it preclude any other condition for mobility: to eat, to work, to treat other illnesses, to see loved ones? South Korea and Taiwan, with perhaps the lowest death rates from COVID-19, used a different strategy—of testing, contact tracing, and isolating—without shutting everything down. An all-encompassing focus on physical life itself in the immediate present seems dishonest insofar as people will likely suffer and die in greater numbers from the secondary effects of these measures but also because it appears to be offered as a remedy for the lack of care for so many, until now.

Second, the immunity-passport idea is based on treating the body—and biological evidence—as the primary source of truth about people (Ticktin 2011b). This logic has a long history in the world of migration and mobility. As Liisa Malkki (1996) wrote in her classic article “Speechless Emissaries,” wounds speak louder than words for refugees, as wounds are accepted as more-reliable sources of knowledge; the refugee is seen as either a victim whose reason has been compromised by their tragic experience or as “bogus”—someone deceiving their way into a country to take advantage of the welfare benefits. In both cases, there is a lack of trust—they are seen as unreliable narrators of their experiences.

Relying on the body as the source of truth places an unwarranted trust in technologies that measure the body and in the people and systems deploying those technologies. Both have their limitations. For instance, with the growing number of unaccompanied minors, governments are increasingly insisting on biological age assessments as a way to determine who is worthy of certain protections and rights. This occurs despite acknowledgment of the medical inaccuracy of these assessments.

Furthermore, people intentionally respond to these technologies, altering their bodies. Self-infection is just one example. Burning off one’s fingertips is another now well-known technique to avoid biometrics. One’s corporality is subject to different types of manipulation and choice depending on one’s positioning in relation to the circuits of capital and governance. What else might people do to alter their bodies and antibodies in the face of an immunity passport?

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The political imaginary invoked by the virus requires a very different political organization; it requires not closed borders or immunity passports, which will only open the way to new biological stratifications of the population, but no borders, supported by expansive planetary infrastructures. I say “planetary” because, as we can now see, we live and move with other entities, from commodities to nonhumans to microbes to viruses; we are biosocial beings, made up in and of our larger environments. This model is based on a commitment to—rather than freedom from—others.

On an immediate and practical level, we need what Yarimar Bonilla (2017, 333) has called a “global community of coordinated action,” one with shared health infrastructures. Elsewhere, I have talked about planetary infrastructures of care (Ticktin 2019). I want to suggest that the “commons”[1] could be a model for this, along with the idea of a federated set of autonomous zones, even if I do not have room to go into it here; this is already happening in a minor way by way of cities and their mayors. They have done this to challenge immigration policies, creating sanctuary cities and spaces, and to strategize about climate change transnationally in the face of climate change deniers. Sanctuary hospitals have been proposed in response to this precise need: autonomous, egalitarian health structures. And most recently, as part of the global uprisings for Black lives and against police violence, one part of Seattle, Washington, declared itself an autonomous zone, free of police. Following an abolitionist framework, the goal is to replace policing by a politics of care.

These are the various scales and levels at which we must be imagining. Finally, all of this work needs to go beyond the logic of innocence, which divides people into deserving and undeserving, pure and contaminated. It is far too late for that.

REFERENCES CITED
Adams, Vincanne. 2020. “Disasters and Capitalism…and COVID-19.Somatosphere, March 26.

Bonilla, Yarimar. 2017. “Unsettling Sovereignty” Cultural Anthropology 32 (3): 330–39

Brives, Charlotte. 2020. “The Politics of Amphibiosis: The War against Viruses Will Not Take Place.Somatosphere, April 19.

Dardot, Pierre, and Christian Laval. 2019. Common: On Revolution in the 21st Century. London: Bloomsbury, 2019.

Federici, Silvia. 2019. Re-Enchanting the World: Feminism and the Politics of the Commons. Toronto, Canada: PM Press.

Hardt, Michael, and Antonio Negri. 2009. Commonwealth. Cambridge, MA: Belknap.

Malkki, Liisa. 1996. “Speechless Emissaries: Refugees, Humanitarianism, and Dehistoricization.” Cultural Anthropology 11 (3): 377–404.

Napier, David. 2020. “I Heard It through the Grapevine: On Herd Immunity and Why It Is Important.” Somatosphere, April 1.

Ticktin, Miriam. 2006. “Where Ethics and Politics Meet: The Violence of Humanitarianism in France.” American Ethnologist 33 (1): 33–49.

Ticktin, Miriam. 2011a. Casualties of Care: Immigration and the Politics of Humanitarianism in France. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Ticktin, Miriam. 2011b. “How Biology Travels: A Humanitarian Trip.” Body & Society 17 (2–3): 139–58.

Ticktin, Miriam. 2019. “From the Human to the Planetary: Speculative Futures of Care.” Medicine, Anthropology, Theory 6 (3): 133–60.

Wallace, Rob. 2016. Big Farms Make Big Flu: Dispatches on Infectious Disease, Agribusiness, and the Nature of Science. New York: Monthly Review Press.

Acknowledgments. I want to thank Vincanne Adams and Julie Livingston for their invaluable comments and suggestions.

NOTE
[1] Hardt and Negri (2009), Dardot and Laval (2019), and Federici (2019). The commons has come to mean many things (and is being practiced by many people, from Indigenous communities to ecologists to anarchists), but it is often referred to as a struggle against enclosures, against the privatization of spaces of freedom, against exclusion, and, perhaps most importantly, against private property. It can also mean the sharing of wealth and resources on the basis of collective decision-making; sometimes it is spoken of as grounded on social relations built on reciprocity, respect, mutuality, and responsibility. Scholar-activists like Federici recognize the feminist nature of it, in terms of the communing of reproductive activities—meaning the day-to-day activities that are producing people’s lives—examples of which include the collective kitchen, urban gardens, squats.

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