Policing the Pandemic
In the name of public health, states have classified police as essential workers, who have since used their expanded powers and social presence to reinforce the uneven application of state violence along existing lines of social antagonism. In this interview with researcher Alexander McClelland, public health’s intimate history with policing and prisons leads to what we are seeing in our locked down cities and towns today.
McClelland and Alex Luscombe launched the Policing the Pandemic Mapping Project on April 4, 2020, cataloging the expansions of police power in Canada in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. McClelland’s work on the criminalisation of HIV primed him to understand the expansion of policing as a misguided response to a communicable disease. This interview was conducted at the end of April. Since then we’ve only seen more examples of police violence justified by the demands of public health. As carceral logics of shame and restriction dominate the response to those who do or appear to break the “rules” of a lockdown, we hope that this conversation might provide an insight into how the anti-state activity of mutual aid and care can provide an alternative.
Virgil B/G Taylor: I thought we could start with your definition of “public health”?
Alexander McClelland: I always think of Gary Kinsman when I talk about public health, who is an AIDS activist and queer scholar in Canada and also works a lot on anti-poverty stuff. A lot of his research is about how the Canadian nation state used queerness as a threat to national security to justify firing all of these public service employees in the 50s, 60s, 70s, and 80s. But he also did lots of activist work and was a main member of AIDS ACTION NOW!, which is Canada's equivalent to ACT UP. Gary always says that when we talk about public health, we have to think about who is the “public” in public health and whose health is being protected. And when we play that question out, we find that people living with HIV or queers are never the public in public health. They're always the subjects who the public is to be protected from. So we're framed as objects of risk that the public is to be protected from.
So when I think of the public health, I never think that that's something that I'm part of as someone living with HIV or as a fag. I'm someone who is constructed as an other, outside of the public health.
When I think about what is happening right now, there are very important things we have to do in the context of COVID to protect the general public health as well as our own. However, the further entrenchment of the idea of Public Health reinforces these othering or dividing practices between people, which is scary to me.
VBGT: For me that leads really clearly to the connection between public health and policing. That if public health is a system which entrenches these differences and modes of exclusion, then it must work hand-in-hand with the police.
AM: Yeah, exactly. In Canada, specifically, when the idea of public health was developing in the early 1900s, there was a massive outbreak of gonorrhea, syphilis, and herpes. And at that time, there was no public health infrastructure. But we did have prisons, and we did have police and we did have courts. One of the first public health measures they put in place to deal with the epidemics of what was then called venereal disease was to coercively arrest, test and put people in jail if they tested positive. So from the very beginning the entire project of public health relied on prisons and police and courts to do its bidding. And so the two have been hand-in-hand since the beginning.
VBGT: This period in Canada is quite similar to the systems of control of venereal disease put in place in the UK. Basically a system of lock hospitals, like these institutions which were euphemistically not-not a prison for people with syphilis.
AM: Lock hospitals are fascinating, and they also provided vocational training, learning how to knit and sew. While doing archival research, I found some letters from women who were in a lock hospital in the prairies. They would write letters back and forth to the judges who sentenced them to be there—although it wasn't a criminal sentence, they were still in jail with everyone else who was imprisoned. And they would write and ask for quilting supplies and ask for help with jobs afterwards. So there was this benevolent idea behind the lock hospital, but it was also still a prison. People were coercively put there. And so this intertwining of benevolence and punishment, which I think is the thing that cloaks public health at all times, benevolence covering this actually coercive structure that is very much linked to the criminal justice system.
VBGT: We’ve seen in the last few weeks that people outside of government or official responses to the pandemic form or return to different networks to engage in mutual aid practices. How would you define an anarchist approach to what we might call public health?
AM: You see forms of anarchism emerge in moments of crisis, during revolutions or pandemics, this is when you see a rise in anarchist organizing because people are just doing what they need to do to survive. Which is not to romanticize it, because it's a crisis, and it's horrific.
When Zoë Dodd and I wrote about anarchist responses to HIV and hepatitis C, we talked about ensuring that people have the means for their own survival. So things shouldn't be connected to capitalist forms of ownership, our bodies shouldn't be understood as forms of capital that people can make money off.
Any kind of emergency legislation that is locking us down should also enable massive welfare reforms. Buildings should be open so people who don't have a home to stay home in can access them, hotels should be open and people should be given money to survive. Medication should be free. If there's a vaccine it should be accessible to everyone. People shouldn't be making money off of it.
I think the beauty of anarchism is seeing the kind of mutual support for people and people just doing what they need to do to support each other. But I don't know if there is such a thing as an anarchist approach to public health. I personally think that the logic of public health needs to be completely undone because it's like a “Daddy Knows Best” way of looking at things where people are problems to be managed, and we have to intervene and tell them what they need to do to survive. And I think anarchism is about trusting people to know what they need, what they're going to do, what they need to do to survive without doing harm to anyone else.
VBGT: So an anarchist approach to healthcare is one that centers the person seeking care and the community they find themselves in, versus what you frame as the “Daddy Knows Best” approach of public health?
AM: I think one of the things Zoë and I were thinking about is, “Well, can I get my medication in an anarchist health response? How would that work?” Like, how do we make complex medications and that kind of thing? Anarchism is not chaos, and people still can organize. People will organize to do what they need, and we still need expertise, and we need people to delegate the activities and decision making to other people. But it's really just a way of organizing without forms of oppression on top of you, where people can make decisions and are trusted to live their lives.
If instead of rolling out punitive enforcement in response to COVID, people were provided the means to support themselves and make their own decisions, people are going to make healthy decisions. But, in our society we just don't have any trust or compassion for each other and use force when anything gets difficult. And so that's the problem.
VBGT: So when in the last few months, as this pandemic emerged, did the Policing the Pandemic project come together?
AM: I think part of it was first developed out of my own mania to figure out how to comprehend what was happening to the world. And out of fear for greater police presence, because as someone living with HIV, the virus is never going to be the thing that does any harm to my body because I have access, I have privilege, and I'm able to manage my health in Canada. The only things, as a result of HIV, that are going to do any damage to me or could do any damage to me, are people's stigma, the police, the criminal justice system and jails. So when I saw a rise of policing in the context of another communicable disease, it's just extra terrifying.
I wanted to figure out what was going on, and get a sense of what was happening. The police are always going to operate the way that they do. They are designed to target specific populations. And so I just knew that was going to happen and it's scary when the police now have unfettered power in Canada in certain places. Carding of people has become legal across the province of Ontario, so police can stop anyone and ask them for ID, which is also happening in other places in Canada. Police have access to COVID positive health data, and we also are the ground zero outside of the US for the use of Clearview AI. All of the police forces in Ontario that now have access to people's COVID positive data were recently using Clearview AI in a major scandal. They have stopped using it pending a federal review, well, they said they've stopped using it. The combination of these things, and this access to information that they have, and the ability to do things is just terrifying.
So I started the project with my friend and colleague Alex Luscombe, who is a policing scholar at the University of Toronto. Our interests in studying policing and my particular interest in tracking the containment of communicable diseases by police were aligned. Our work began with us just trying to figure out what was going on. And now it has grown into a near real time tracking of enforcement. It's been interesting for me because the way I had been understanding the pandemic was visually through the John Hopkins map. And so for us, it was a helpful tool to understand enforcement and also to intervene in the way that people will visually understand the pandemic.
VBGT: Are you basically combing through news reports for what's happening? how do you source the data points?
AM: We're doing very basic web scanning using multiple Google Alerts. And then we also, initially, had many, many people sending us information. When enforcement first started, we didn't really know what was happening on the ground. But we got lots of people sending us reports and anecdotes of what was happening. Reports of homeless people being ticketed and arrested in certain places, sex workers getting targeted. People were sending us information, but we pretty much rely on media sources. And also, the police are super excited about this new toy that they have and the new power that they have. They're also very public about all of the enforcement incidents that have happened. So they're publicizing that stuff on their social media accounts and in press releases: “This week, we gave out 2000 fines” or whatever.
Police have been positioned as such central actors in the whole thing, and have been given complete legitimacy in terms of being a central actor. And we wanted to put that completely into question. And I think this helps us do that. Because we have realized already that, in certain parts of Canada, there's a lot of enforcement where in other parts of Canada, there's none. And then those parts of Canada without police enforcement, you've seen them flatten the curve, just as effectively as places with enforcement, or even more so. The map is helpful to put into question the practice of enforcement by looking at it visually.
VBGT: How are these trends in enforcement racialized in the Canadian context? What have you been noticing?
AM: This was one of the number one things when we first started doing it, we were like, “We would love to understand how this is all racialized because it definitely is.” But one of the limitations of the project is that we actually can't figure that out. Because we're just given numbers from the media by police and often the numbers don't include demographic information.
What we do know comes from different more detailed qualitative accounts as more reporting comes out. In parts of Canada, municipal bylaw officers, someone who might normally be tasked with parking enforcement, have been given the power to enforce emergency legislation and are handing out [COVID-19] tickets. For example, a black man was in a park with his daughter and a bylaw officer asked him for his ID and the man in the park said that he wouldn't give him his name and the bylaw officer punched the man in the face. There was a Syrian migrant, also in Ottawa, who got targeted by a bylaw officer and was asked to show ID, and if you were non-status that's terrifying.
What is important to remember is that once you are issued multiple fines for alleged re-offences, it may lead to jail time. We are also seeing that there have been some indigenous communities that have been targeted pretty harshly by tickets, where police officers are specifically and repeatedly ticketing indigenous people. The fact that these tickets could lead to being put in jail is pretty shocking. Indigenous communities in reserves in Canada also have curfews now imposed at night, so then you can also get a ticket for violating the curfew. And then those could build up and, again, could lead to jail time.
We also know there have been some sex workers who were targeted, because there's a massive network of snitch lines that have popped up. These are official government lines, so in every small town or every municipality, they have their own COVID information line, which you're encouraged to call if you see non-compliance with the rules. Lots of people are calling the police on each other. There have been some instances of sex workers or massage parlors and a brothel getting called on because people in their neighborhood complained about them to a COVID information line.
But generally, right now, we can't get information on the over 4,500 tickets that have been given out. I don't actually know more than the information in these different qualitative reports we’ve received. We also know that in Toronto and Montreal, homeless people have been really targeted and ticketed. In Toronto, they closed one of the main supervised consumption sites for people who use drugs in the city out of fears for COVID. And that was a place that people would spend most of their day. When you're kicked out of the shelter at night, you need to go somewhere so people would go to this site to use and hang out. Now that the site is closed down, they go and hang out in the different parks in downtown Toronto. But those parks are being heavily monitored by police and you're not allowed to be in them right now. So these homeless people have nowhere else to go or are being given tickets of 880 Canadian dollars for being in the parks. We have lots of accounts of that happening, which is shocking policy but that is what’s going on.
VBGT: Our friend Tamara Oyola Santiago, from What Would an HIV Doula Do? (WWHIVDD), was sharing similar patterns she was noticing in the Bronx. She does harm reduction work with Bronx Móvil where she and her colleagues regularly go out in her neighborhood and visit people on the street who need resources. And basically it's becoming really hard to find people because they've been so heavily displaced by the intense ramp up of policing of the homeless in New York City. The usual work for vulnerable communities is gone—recycling centers closed, less opportunities to help in bodegas, less commuters on subways to donate for performances, less folks to ask for food or donations. The people who they can find just need food, and much more basic needs than usual because it's become such a hostile environment.
AM: Yeah, I mean because of the financial crisis that's been caused as a result of this lockdown and the precarity that everyone is experiencing means that other needs, like food and shelter, are much more urgent than COVID. But COVID is the thing that is being managed by society as its most pressing concern. I was actually talking to someone I work with who's in Malawi, and she was just saying, “people aren't gonna die here of COVID, they're dying here of starvation because the economy is completely stopped.” I think that's similar in urban centers for lots of under-housed and poor people.
VBGT: The ticketing system is really interesting to me, because it's quite different than how HIV criminalization works in Canada. Have you seen any links between those two modes of enforcement other than the kind of like implicit link of policing communicable disease?
AM: Since the lockdown, there have been just around 10 cases of people charged with assaulting a police officer for spitting or coughing on a police officer while being arrested for trespassing or stealing a bicycle or something like that. In Canada, we have seen HIV be used in the same way. People with HIV have been charged with assaulting a police officer by spitting in the past, and Canadian police love to use spit hoods on people with HIV, which they put over your face to block you from spitting when you're incarcerated. I don't know if they've used those yet on people in relation to COVID. Technically, under the law, spitting and coughing on someone is considered an assault regardless if you have a communicable disease, which is odd. With HIV, it adds an aggravating factor because they have this false idea that the virus can be transmitted by spit. Whereas with COVID, it actually could be. But in none of the cases that I've looked at so far, the COVID related ones, has there been actually any allegation that the person who was doing it had COVID.
The police are using the idea of communicable disease and the threat to justify forms of coercion and force, which is what we've seen with police in the past. They used HIV to justify the use of force, to justify tasering people, to justify incarcerating people and courts have used it to justify holding people in solitary confinement, for example, because of the fear of the risk of transmission. So I think similar things are happening with COVID, where a communicable disease is used to justify greater forms of punishment and coercion.
One lawyer who works for the Department of Justice in Canada wrote an article about how we could we should start criminalizing nondisclosure of COVID status in the context of sex, using HIV as an example. It was in this magazine called Lawyers Weekly, which nobody reads except for other lawyers. But a bunch of lawyers who work in HIV wrote rebuttals and have put the guy in his place.
VBGT: This lawyer was refering to the use of the sexual assault law in Canada to criminalize people with HIV through jurisprudence rather than a specific piece of legislation?
AM: It’s a wild context. Unlike in the US, where most often there are HIV specific statutes, so your point of advocacy can be, “let's repeal this statute that says HIV in it,” nowhere in the Canadian criminal code does the sexual assault law say anything about HIV anywhere. It's just how it's been applied in the courtroom. It's so complicated to figure out how you actually intervene.
In the UK, they have prosecutorial guidelines to limit what prosecutors can do. And we've started to have those roll out in parts of Canada, but that's also kind of a bandaid. It just kind of covers up the problem. And we inherited this problem through settler colonialism and inheriting the British legal system. Because the same mechanism is in the laws in the British criminal code as well, because of precedents happened before Canada was even a country. It's extremely complicated to organize around, because you have to fight in court and that takes forever.
VBGT: This reminds me of the history of the lock hospitals we discussed briefly, which developed out of the Contagious Disease Acts in the UK. That system was based on other, early even earlier models in the UK. We can even turn to the bizarre legal relationship the University of Cambridge had to the city of Cambridge dating back to the 14th and 15th centuries, when, for example in “1459 the Chancellor [of the university] was given powers to banish prostitutes for a distance of over four miles from Cambridge.” Eventually a spinning house, basically a women's prison, was established by the University, in order to imprison local women who annoyed the men in charge of the University or were, allegedly, distracting the young, male students. Or the lock hospital itself, about which you can read accounts of women in Portsmouth being sent to these prisons for having the appearance of a prostitute, to be held in effective prisons that they might never leave. It is an awful consequence of colonialism to see these systems, these legal logics put so far from their origin in a tiny place like Cambridge, which is basically a shitty small town in England.
AM: It's interesting, because with the Contagious Disease Acts, there was such a backlash against them in England. There was this massive social movement in response to them at the end of the 19th century. But by World War One, they started to have statistics on venereal disease throughout the military. The military was one of the first populations where people of people were mass tested. And so they tried to enact a law, similar to the Contagious Disease Acts, at the same time across the entire Commonwealth, but which was, in effect, “detain any woman who's having sex with a soldier.” There was immediate outcry in the UK and they backed down. But Canada was like, “we're going to do this hardcore.” In Canada, we didn't have the history of the [contagious disease acts]. And Canada also, I think, wanted to prove itself. So they became actually more conservative and led their own campaign to get Australia and Canada to do it together, even though the motherland wouldn't do it. They enacted these laws which were in effect the contagious disease laws of Canada, where they could just detain any woman whenever they wanted, and put her in a lock hospital or prison. And there they could give you arsenic injections, and rub mercury all over your skin until you either died of shock or were essentially cured by an assault of mercury.
VBGT: I was just thinking about the use of mercury. After Trump made his disinfectant comments, all I could think about was just like the deeply insistent use of mercury to treat venereal disease in the early 20th century, like years after doctors agreed it wasn't working. But the same doctors were consumed by this moralistic hatred of people who have interesting sex lives.
AM: I mean it doesn't do nothing—actually, it kills you. Like, I mean, it doesn't do anything for the venereal disease…
VBGT: On the bright side, because they hadn't invented gloves yet they all had gonorrhea of the hand. Which is a powerful image until you realize this also meant they would spread gonorrhea from patient to patient. So if you were sent to the lock hospital despite not having an STI you might end up getting one from one of the doctors with gonococcus in their fingers.
I didn't know that about the kind of overzealous Canadian response but it does track?
AM: It was extra conservative. There's not a direct connection you can make necessarily to HIV, but there is this really intense obsession with respectability, this hand wringing conservativeness that many Canadians have inherited over time, which I think is linked to the way that we deal with other diseases still.
VBGT: When I was preparing for this conversation the following questions felt more pressing, that is this threat of an immunity passport system being developed was more palpable. But in the past couple of weeks, it's also become clear that those antibody tests don’t work reliably or that antibodies wouldn’t indicate lasting immunity, and even the WHO has said countries should not depend on systems like that to control COVID-19.
But to approach these questions, I'd love to have you talk about molecular surveillance with regard to HIV and then maybe to think with you about the kind of the impulse to implement systems like immunity passports, and this desire for antibody tracing.
AM: Actually they are still talking about immunity passports in Canada. In relation to HIV and molecular surveillance, your questions focused on the molecular turn in public health. And I think this interest in antibody testing and immunity passports is indicative of this turn.
It's this idea that we can trace diseases by just looking and pinpointing molecules across the spectrum of the world as opposed to working with individuals who have those diseases. I think one of the things we need to remember when you've been a target of public health is that molecules are connected to bodies and bodies are people. I think that public health wants to evacuate those ideas and evacuate the social. But you can't do that because communicable diseases operate in society and proliferate through society, through people and social interactions.
Molecular HIV surveillance is being deployed across many places, but started in Canada, specifically in British Columbia, and in the US. Dr. Julio Montanger invented the idea of treatment as prevention [TasP] and high impact treatment as prevention. It’s a top down approach, with the idea that you can seek, test, and treat everyone, to get them connected to care. In Vancouver, which has a high concentration of people who use drugs, they would set up these testing fairs in parks and give people $5 gift cards to come and get an HIV test. I’m not at all against people testing for HIV, but the approach was to target specific neighborhoods and to target people as vectors of disease as opposed to collaborating with people. They also did away with a lot of approaches to healthcare that are consensual. They have worked to implement routine testing of HIV without the standard practices of informed consent. In BC, they have been caught testing people in emergency rooms for HIV without their consent, because they just think it should be something routine.
Essentially, molecular HIV surveillance is when someone tests for HIV and the following happens: after you’ve tested positive, you are asked to come in and get another HIV test under the auspices that this is for your own care. And usually what they do, during that second test, you get a resistance test to see what drugs your strain of HIV is resistant to. And that's used to determine what medication you would go on. But that blood is also taken without your knowledge or consent for further testing and genetic sequencing. This information is run through a computer program to determine how your virus’s RNA sequence relates to other viruses. The health authorities can then map these genetic relationships across space and time in order to figure out when transmissions are happening and when and where and who they relate to. And they use that information to target specific people at specific times. They use that information to determine clusters where HIV transmissions are happening at a faster rate. So in BC they run these computer programs three times a day, and every new HIV test goes into it. The idea is to get every person in British Columbia who tests HIV positive into this system, so far they have over 8,000 people in it.
Molecular surveillance has been used for many other diseases. But the risks with HIV, when the disease is criminalized, is that they're trying to determine what they call directionality of transmission, who gave HIV to whom, and then intervene in response to that chain of transmission with enhanced public health approaches. Those enhanced public health approaches could involve calling the police but can also involve other things like giving people a free cell phone so that they can access or call health clinics and getting them connected to care. So some of it's not evil or malevolent, but the clusters that they're trying to target are people who are not normally connected to public health or haven't been connected to public health institutions. And that could be for a whole bunch of different reasons that public health professionals haven't thought about such as that they're non-status, they don't trust public health, they're not interested in being connected to the institution of public health and having their information on the record or that they might be they might be taking the care of their health in their own way.
There was a big study done in California looking at trans women using molecular HIV surveillance; they plot out all of these people who have HIV, and then connect them to other people. And they have these big graphs where they do the mapping. One of the problems with this approach is it treats whoever they decide is the target of their analysis as though they're a vector of disease. So then this random trans woman is now the center of this cluster. But that's because of how they've analyzed it that way. They could have chosen someone else as the center of the cluster. Their approach of thinking treats the person that's a target as a vector of disease, and reduces any social complexity, because they just see these people as molecules. The outcomes of that kind of analysis, which they were super excited about, was, surprise, surprise, trans women don't just sleep with gay men, they sleep with straight men too. Which if you ever actually talked to a trans woman, you would know that that's the case. The logic of public health is that we can determine all this stuff in a laboratory. A laboratory far away from people's daily lives. But if you actually just went and talked to people, you would figure out what's going on with them,or that people are taking care of their health with their own means and in their own way.
Molecular surveillance of HIV raises a lot of concerns. People have been protesting it in the US, using the #peoplenotclusters or #clustersarenotpeople. And there's a big concern with data sharing with other authorities. Health authorities often cross reference their data with other areas, and there has been a concern that DMV records are being used to locate people. There could be links made with immigration databases and authorities could be notified. So that's one of the things I'm concerned about, for example, with seeing COVID positive data being shared with police and the use of things like Clearview AI. All of this health data that police now have on people with coronavirus is a perfect storm for really massive breaches of privacy and rights violations. Public health officials and the police have the ability to do all these things to target and surveil people in really intense ways.
VBGT: I think this also really speaks to where we began, how public health inherently excludes, and then that but it's also not only excluding people for a variety of reasons, but also excluding forms of information and ways of understanding. So much of the history of HIV/AIDS activism is and was about people with AIDS having to say, for example, “I'm a woman and I have AIDS” and then having the CDC respond with “Women can't have AIDS because we haven't studied it yet.” It's the exact same thing, 30 years later, with these researchers concluding “trans women sometimes have sex with cis het men!” And the response remains, “Yeah, you know you didn’t need to spend all that money on genetic sequencing to discover that. We could have told you.”
AM: Exactly. We didn't need to violate their consent and then sit in a laboratory and analyze their blood. We just needed to go talk to them or, actually, leave them the fuck alone. They're doing fine on their own like, just get out of the way.
VBGT: I am curious to know more about how molecular surveillance is used to police and violate consent. Where do you situate this desire to move towards immunity passports and other kinds of technocratic ways of controlling transmission as opposed to more social ways of preventing the transmission of communicable disease?
AM: The interesting thing about molecular surveillance is they can actually find these places where there are lots of transmissions happening and that information could be useful. It's not that I'm against using technology for the prevention of disease, or to help with reducing transmission. I think it's just that the approach, the entire approach of public health has to be undone. If these structures were community run, community owned and had consent as their basis, then we could deploy these technologies in our own communities.
The idea that there are just people sitting in a CDC lab, far away in a totally different city from these communities, looking at people's blood without their consent and thinking they have a right to do that, and then comparing people’s viruses and being able to figure out who gave HIV to whom is terrifying to me. Because those people aren't from these communities and don't have an ethics of relationships within that community. So I think it's about the logic of intervention and being disconnected and still thinking you have the right to do that kind of work. I think it has to be undone.
VBGT: Just to return to a small detail you mentioned, that when you have these molecular surveillance models and then the researcher selects the molecule or person to center the chart on that can then create an image of the cluster that assigns blame to that person. What interests me, and I think connects us to the question of immunity passports, is this desire to have a system that can assign someone as culpable?
AM: That's just the thing, that the logic of thinking that there is one person to blame, like the patient zero logic is fascinating. They used molecular HIV surveillance in the US, in Washington state to find a man who was resistant to PrEP and had given HIV to someone who was on PrEP, and so they were able to pinpoint pretty much who that person was, which is fascinating and terrifying. But also, maybe useful for people in communities to know: if you're on PrEP you probably want to know that there is someone with PrEP-resistant HIV out there. It's how we approach and engage with that community and work on it that matters. Also, in a context where HIV is criminalized this raises a whole other set of issues. And, so I think we have to completely get rid of the logic that there's anyone to blame in these situations. These are community communicable diseases that we all have to be accountable for collectively.
VBGT: Wendy Chun writes about the viral in the context of the internet. Her critique of the viral is that it is really oriented towards this patient zero approach. She offers “habitual new media” as a different way of thinking about what we might call “viral content.” Chun suggests that it's not about these viral moments of explosion, but actually these really important habitual networks, which are actually just describing a community of people who already have existing modes of relation to each other. And it's not that something moves through a cluster because it's special and powerful on its own right, but that there's these networks that already exist and reflect social relations.
AM: That brings me back to think of anarchism, because I think one of the things about anarchism that I am interested in is communities being accountable to each other and doing what they need to do to survive and being able to have the means to do that. Those communities could deploy some technologies to deal with issues that they have, but if it's done consensually with buy in from everyone That's the thing with molecular HIV surveillance or even the way COVID stuff is happening, like, everybody who tests COVID positive has lost their health privacy rights right away. I obviously want COVID to be halted, but what are the long term implications of that? In parts of Canada, you're on a police list if you test positive. This COVID positive data doesn't include the date you tested positive. You could be well clear, no longer infectious and no longer have COVID, but still on this list of COVID positive people. And when you're arrested,if you are on these lists, they'll use that against you in multiple ways.
VBGT: We, at Pinko, were interested in the question of immunity generally, and particularly in where this notion of being immune comes from?
When discussed in the context of HIV, immunity means a desire for a cure or vaccine. Often those desires have nothing to do with the people who are already positive, or with the people who have a meaningful risk factor for becoming positive. This coronavirus is a different virus that occupies a different kind of social position, but I think those questions of immunity and desires for cures and vaccines run parallel.
AM: It makes me think of the work of Roberto Esposito, an Italian biopolitical theorist who has his whole immunitas and communitas theory. To boil it down really quickly, it’s that liberal nation states are built on a notion of immunity, which is about the containment and exclusion of things; on the securitization of the nation-state, the life of the population and the individual, immunity from danger can be guaranteed through forms of surveillance, such as the pervasive systems of watching and listening deployed across the entire population to assist in the pre-emption of any potential threat. So the construction of a citizen, through the construction of a nation state, automatically creates a non-citizen who is excluded, and then with our rights as citizens, we can justify the denial of rights to the non-citizen in order to trump up our own rights. That whole liberal logic is the way that most countries in the Western world are founded. It is this notion of immunity, this notion of creating and excluding, making yourself immune to problems and putting individual rights over the rights of other people. everyday globalized management of life, which include processes of inclusion, exclusion, and containment, as seen through the vigilant institutional management of globalized public health emergencies such as COVID-19, and previously things like the ‘war on terror’. With the aim towards the neutralization and containment of external and internal threats, there is an increased need for integrated systems of data collection for the classification and social sorting of populations or individuals to identify those
There’s this immunity logic, for example with HIV/AIDS, we have the silver bullet that one specific thing will cure the virus or one specific kind of miracle could cure everyone and I'm always suspicious of that. I've had HIV my entire life, and whenever people talk about a cure for HIV, I automatically think that means that they want to eradicate me or are all people living with HIV from the face of the earth. I think some people would probably like to do that…
Basically, I think living with disease is a more of a complicated thing for people to figure out, as opposed to just eradicating it.
VBGT: One thing I was discussing with WWHIVDD is—What is the horizon of your engagement with this pandemic? Are you thinking about it as if it's going to end in a year, or are you like thinking about it as an enduring relationship? Whether or not the virus is eradicated it is going to shape our world and how we live in it?
AM: Yeah. And it's going to happen again in a different way. And what will we have learned from this?
VBGT: It seems increasingly like perhaps we will learn nothing but hopefully…
AM: No, exactly, exactly. Wild, very wild.