Positive, Negative. A COVID-19 case reflection
On Tuesday, September 15, 2020, I was informed I was COVID-19 positive.
Getting to know that I was infected with the virus is actually a very controversial story. Two of my ex-roommates decided to open the letter containing the results of my test without my consent. Yes, you heard that right. That basic line of privacy was trespassed, and even after asking for explanations about their actions, I didn't get a concrete one. I can only guess that the action was in the name of their security and their right to know. This is a very important point here, which I will further develop later: the installation of a new discourse on security, privacy, and the right to know. The story concluded when I finally received a call (by another roommate, also a victim of the actions of the two): "I don’t know how to say this… but yes, you tested positive".
That was it, I was positive. Another positive case in the millions of records and systems collecting data about this globally quoted disease. Positive of a sickness millions of people have been threatened by and fearing for months. Positive, and as one of them, on the side of the infected ones, the ones to fear.
After what felt like a long second, I breathed deeply and replied: "Alright love, thank you." As soon as I hung up, I stopped to realize how I was feeling, what information I was receiving from my body. Whatever that paper meant, the important thing was that I was feeling healthy. I was feeling GOOD and that was the most valuable thing at that moment. I am being told I am sick, but I feel healthy. Up to what point should this clinical diagnosis change my state of mind? To what extent is a sickness related to a third point of view about your state? What is the space in which the mind can negotiate how the body feels?
Lucky and Grateful
I couldn’t feel anything else besides being lucky and grateful. Lucky for having the privilege to access the medicine of the Earth that we have been given. Lucky for life in connection with the soil I have walked through. Grateful for having a roof under which to rest those days of quarantine and every day. Grateful for having blood and chosen family that looks out for me.
One day after the news, I had a phone call from the Corona Center asking about my symptoms, and telling me to fill out a contact tracing form, including the information of the people I had met in the 48 hours previous to the testing. I had a hard time finding people to consent to giving up their personal information since the use of the collection of the data was never clarified. Some people were even saying that once you fill it out, you could get a test for free later. The only truth was that they would not supply me with a sick notice for my job if I didn't hand in that document. It was a kind of data trade.
My Coronavirus treatment was staying home for 10 days until the symptoms were gone and in that case, I was free to go out again with no necessity of doing a second test, which at the time had to be paid by the person except they were having severe symptoms that justified a visit from a doctor.
Many of us don't know how far reaching the state control has been in Austria and what the use of our information is. For instance, I have one friend who got the virus together with her partner at the same time I did. We were exchanging our health status, and she mentioned she was worried not because of her health, but because she was not able to assist her boyfriend who was suffering from an extreme fever. He lived five minutes walking distance from her house, but officially she couldn’t be in another house than the one she was registered in. "Lia, I don’t know what to do. Are they controlling people?” No, but they are controlling our minds so that we don’t do it.
So far, in places like Austria, where people are used to following rules without much questioning, we haven’t heard of hyper-controlled policies like in other countries experimenting with surveillance technologies. Rather than the police arriving at your home because you left the house during quarantine, you will probably be controlled by your good citizen neighbors who will snitch on you in the name of the protection of law and order. Just as the ultimate aim of biopolitical theory, which is concerned about the self-regulation of power and the bodies circulating around a certain space.
No one knew anything about COVID-19 before. Everything is a new discovery, but there has been a need for sometimes incoherent measures (like the number of people, regardless of the use of masks) as if the government needs to justify itself as a regulatory entity to keep its valuable voice of truth. Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, there has been a process of restoring morality, which should be applied in the same way by billions of people living under different circumstances and conditions around the world. Aligned with an increasing legitimization of medical-scientific western knowledge, this intensification of morality establishes the categories of right and wrong, and the value of one unique truth, as fixed undisputed categories. In many cases, this has resulted in the victory of the pact between societies and government in terms of trust and protection in the countries that have followed the procedures of the WHO recommendations. Once again, there are only some that possess the knowledge, and therefore the truth, and as a consequence, the number of people that are in the position to make decisions is restricted.
In other countries outside Austria, where the population seems to not be so trustworthy, there has been an increase of control through technological surveillance. The COVID-19 pandemic has been the perfect occasion to put into practice a unique state of control in the name of the population’s safety. In countries such as the UK, Russia, and South Korea, the policies of control and persecution have been highly increased, and technologies are being used to record, identify, and detect the movements of people who, for different reasons, are not following state policies. The question here should be how much control are we allowing in the name of health safety?
The equation is simple: more rules, more control, more violence. But to whose bodies? It’s not hard to guess, considering, for example, the case of a man of African origin abruptly pulled down to the floor for not wearing a mask on the underground in Vienna. In another scenario in New York City, it has been acknowledged that 80% of those who were ticketed for violating social distancing requirements were Black and Latinx. Once again, we have a package of regulations used differently according to the segment of the population, and the individuals who present a threat to society are once again the same.
In the case of the European context, I ask myself, who are we protecting with these measures? Whose lives are we being asked to save? Are we racialized people living in Europe protecting the life of our communities or those of white Europeans? We must not forget that the system’s racial order is the same as before, and thus the ones standing on the top of the social pyramid. We know whose lives will be lost, if not to Coronavirus, then due to non-access to intensive care, the cost of medicine, police brutality, or simply not being able to afford to stay home.
In other words, what I want to say here is that even in an effort to save human life, since the world already has an unequal structural order in terms of class, race, and gender, there are and will be certain bodies that enter with priority the healthy side of the records. The threat and risk of having the disease are the same for everyone, but the possibilities of dying are reserved for populations with lower income that have no financial access or educational access to good quality, healthy food, and self-caring practices. However, following the logic of biopower and capitalism, certain bodies are constantly being asked to perish, so that others can continue to flourish. This is not new.
So, again, for whose protection is the discourse of care and safekeeping intended? And, who will be able to survive this pandemic?
Even in the context of quarantine, racialized people are more likely to get infected in service work positions, since they are the ones working in care, service, and production jobs. The fact that people have been protesting against corrupt governments, dictatorships, and police brutality all around the world, even in times of a pandemic, has a lot to say about priorities and urgencies. However, many day-to-day hustlers, people that cannot benefit from distanced work, have been accused of not following the protocols and spreading the virus.
What I am bringing up here is not a discussion of whether we have to protect ourselves from the virus, what I am instead proposing is an analysis of how accurate the idea is that the governments are protecting everyone’s lives when they haven’t ever done so in terms of wealth redistribution.
Coronavirus has to be read not only as a health problem but above all, an economic and political issue. The massive closing of shops and factories has made an impact on income and wealth, so a large part of society is desperate to return to our previous consumer normality as fast as possible. Overall, this pandemic has been a threat to the production of capital, and with it, it became so clear how every form of our lives has a financial transactional connection.
What is next? We now understand that Coronavirus will neither go away nor disappear, and it is one more of the several very contagious diseases that circulate within our societies. So, what are the new steps to confront it? How long will the lockdowns, the quarantine, the distancing last? Many say after the vaccine and then what? How long are we going to agree with measures that supposedly protect us? Will the COVID-19 experience bring us new forms for dealing with our economies, our health, our beliefs, our trust?
There is a very good example that potentially answers this last question in a positive way. During the first quarantine season in Santiago de Chile, there was this big social housing tower where many migrant and precarious Chileans lived in. Most of them made income through day-by-day hustling and service jobs. Of course, with the COVID-19 measures, no one knew how they were going to survive. After some weeks, they started commerce among themselves. They started offering food, different services, maintenance jobs, to each other and created a small economic system concentrated among themselves. Clearly, this was still a financial way of seeing trade, where there is a monetary exchange, but for me, it also meant the potential that a population can have if they propose themselves to reorganize the structures of profit.
I believe the past few months have been a time of establishing trust and better communication between ourselves and loved ones. I believe it has also been a time to concretely set, listen, and understand the ways we want to live, the things we are willing to risk, and take decisions.
Some people have preferred isolating themselves and being physically protected. Other people couldn’t mentally stand being locked down and still chose to gather with others. I wish we would not be attached to a hierarchy of physical illness above mental illness, and would be able to find an agreement that considers our choices. One thing should be clear, namely that only the people should be entitled to decide the how and the when. There shouldn't be and there are in fact not universal ways of coping and protecting us (both physically and mentally) from a disease. And because of that, we have to believe in the capacity of our communities to protect themselves. We are the ones that are going to be there for us when we are sick, when we are not able to pay rent, when we are grieving.
We have and we need no saviors. Racialized bodies have lived longer than we were expected to only because we trusted in our own medicine, intuition, connection to the body. Western medicine was never made for us, nor meant to save us. During my whole COVID-19 recovery, my grandmother’s daily calls gave me more information and advice than any of the Corona services or online doctors I contacted. Maybe it is time for us to reconnect to which we have been taken apart: our herbs, teas, magic potion, herbs baths, prayers, thanksgiving rituals. All the knowledge claimed for hundreds of years to be non-scientific, non-objective, non-accurate.
This is the new order of life, so what is it that we are looking for to saving us?
J.J. Sylvia, IV. "The Biopolitics of Social Distancing". Accessible on https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7417960/ (October 20, 2020)
Podcast Confinados con 1800 vecinos (El Hilo. December 1, 2020)
Serwer, Adam. "The Coronavirus Was an Emergency Until Trump Found Out Who Was Dying" Available on https://www.theatlantic.com/ideas/archive/2020/05/americas-racial-contract-showing/611389/ (The Atlantic. December 4, 2020)
Ábrego, Victor Hugo. "Bit_tácora COVID-19. Biopolítica, Contagio y big Data". Avaiable on: https://signalab.mx/2020/03/24/covid-19-biopolitica-contagio-y-big-data/ (December 16, 2020)