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'Viruses Show Us That We Are Connected'
Discourses with Steven Thrasher on COVID, HIV, monkeypox, neoliberalism, and 'The Viral Underclass.'
The Viral Underclass, the new book by journalist and academic Steven Thrasher, couldn’t be more timely in a moment when COVID still plagues us, monkeypox is spreading in the face of appalling government inaction, and even seemingly vanquished diseases like polio are making a bewildering comeback. Thrasher’s book is centered around a simple but powerful idea: that viruses expose, like few other things, the complex and interlocking systems of institutional injustice that form the building blocks of our rotten global order. Viruses themselves may not discriminate, but who they put at the greatest risk, who is the most shielded from their spread, who gets the best treatment to deal with them, who lives and who dies because of them—all of these things are affected by our existence in a hypercapitalist, white supremacist, patriarchal, queerphobic, militarized society that ruthlessly favors certain groups and lets the rest of humanity sink into the mire. These systems, Thrasher writes, have created a “viral underclass”—people whose exposure to the inequities of our world has also left them more exposed to viral infection, transmission, and death.
Equally importantly, Thrasher emphasizes how viruses break down the seemingly endless barriers that exist between people, and underscore our common and interconnected humanity. He posits that the things which would help eliminate the problem of the viral underclass—a real social safety net, universal healthcare, an end to anti-immigrant hysteria, dealing with environmental racism, and on and on—would also radically benefit humanity as a whole.
I spoke with Thrasher (who, full disclosure, is also a Discourse Blog subscriber) about The Viral Underclass last week. Our conversation has been condensed and edited.
Can you just describe what your theory of the viral underclass is?
A major thing that the [theory of the] viral underclass is is a way to use viruses to have a class analysis. And I think that we don't talk about class nearly enough in American media, society, politics, education. But there's very much a class dynamic to who's affected by pandemics, and I've seen this with HIV and AIDS. Most people know that it's disparately impacted gay men and people who suffer from addiction and use injection drugs, particularly in its early years in the United States. But it's also very, very classed. And it's Black gay men and poor queer people who are affected by it the most. Something very similar happens with COVID-19. It's not a pandemic that's a great equalizer, it's one that shows how unequal we are. And so a theory of the viral underclass can help people understand why it is that similar demographics of people are affected by very, very different viruses that have different biological characteristics. There are all these other social things that put them in front of the path of the virus and determine how well they're going to survive it, contract it, or become very long-term sick from it.
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Particularly in the United States, once you become infected, you move down in class, or you're much more likely to. So somebody gets a monkeypox diagnosis right now and has to quarantine for four weeks—the state mandates them to stay at home but does not give them any money to do. So that's going to have a really deleterious effect on their economic wellbeing. And so I hope that a theory of a viral underclass helps people be able to see and make these connections, and also helps them understand that many people in the middle class can be subsumed by this viral underclass, where [they're] maybe one infection away or one bad medical thing away from ending up further down the economic ladder. And I hope that that gives people a way to have a sense of solidarity. Even for people who think they're not as affected as other people, [viruses are] something that can affect any of us. And if we deal with who it's affecting the most—the viral underclass—and make sure that they are well and have what they need in society, that's going to have benefits for almost everyone in society.
One of the things I kept thinking about as I was reading the book was that it's an offer to deepen the conversation we have around the concept of intersectionality, which has been made so glib over the past five or six or seven years. All of these different factors that sort people throughout society, by race, by gender, by sexuality, they all merge together when you're talking about the spread of viruses.
Viruses show us how our American idea of being discrete individuals is a fiction. We're all connected to one another. Even the people who were most protected at home [during COVID] could not have lived if UPS workers and Amazon workers were not going and bringing them the things that they needed to survive.
In terms of intersectionality, I think it's become diluted in a lot of ways people perceive it. The term “intersectionality” itself was coined by Kimberlé Crenshaw, in a legal setting. But conceptually, it really comes from a document that helped me a lot while I was writing the book called the Combahee River Collective Statement. I often meditate on how this group of Black lesbian women are saying that they're going to use their identity and identity politics—that's the origin of identity politics—as a way to create a politics of liberation. And they say very clearly in the statement, they will do it in coalition with all kinds of other people around the world. They're not saying this is only Black women, but they do say that they understand their own positioning, and they understand that if Black women were free, everyone else would be free because if Black women were doing well, that would mean all these other systems of oppression had been obliterated.
And so I think about that, with a viral underclass, that if the people who are most likely to become infected and die of viruses were not, that would mean that the most disaffected in society had housing and had healthcare and access to education and clean water and good food, and weren't being arrested and locked up. And that would mean benefits for everyone in society if those systems were undone.
“Neoliberalism structures our society in a way that the government or your place of employment or your school are not responsible for putting HEPA filters and open windows and good ventilation in your workspace, [and then] you're blamed for breathing.”
Another way to think about intersectionality [is] to identify where people's identities come together and overlap, and when that's going to be compounding in difficult or negative ways healthwise. For example, with monkeypox, we know that worldwide, this version of the virus is almost entirely transmitting through men who have sex with men. But within that, the CDC data is also showing that two-thirds of those are Black or Latin, so we see that there's a racial dynamic within the sexual [dynamic]. That helps us have an analysis that's going to help the people most affected, but it's going to help the whole society if we want the monkeypox epidemic to end.
Monkeypox in some ways feels like a greater public health failure than COVID was, just in terms of the amount of knowledge that there was before this latest epidemic broke out, the fact that there was a vaccine already available. At least with COVID, everyone was sort of caught off guard. What the hell is the excuse now?
It's really frustrating. It's important to think about the particularities of the viruses—my book makes the case that sort of the same structures are under one level of how transmission occurs, but there are particularities to the viruses themselves. And in a way, monkeypox should be, as you're saying, much easier to deal with. It's a relatively small percentage of the population that's being affected, and there is already a vaccine. I do think the sense of urgency does not feel the same when it's something that's primarily affecting queer people and has something to do with sex—there's stigma and shame around that. And there's not the idea yet that it will take workers out of the workforce in a way that's going to threaten capital. But also, people have been studying this for decades, and there is already a vaccine. That vaccine has not been in the countries where this has been going on for decades. No vaccines have been sent to any of the 10 or 12 countries in West and Central Africa where there's endemic monkeypox.
There are a couple of things that you mentioned that I want to jump off of. The first is about how monkeypox has been around in Africa for a long time but has been completely ignored. That gets at one of the themes running throughout your book, which is how the priorities of capitalism and of the dominance of the West, the global north, call it what you want, have resulted in things like this happening over and over again, where humanity sort of shoots itself in the foot because of the refusal to prioritize people over profit.
Capital goes where it can exploit and extract revenue. So the countries where monkeypox has been, they're pretty poor countries, and it was not creating any kind of grand interruption to capital. The United States and other colonizing countries really have a sense that there are firm borders around their countries that nothing else can permeate—that they can extract capital when they need it and they can keep whatever they want out. And that's not true. We don't have firm boundaries between our bodies, and we also don't have firm boundaries between countries, and viruses show this quite clearly.
And then the United States has this weird idea of itself that it's a COVID-free zone, even though we have the most cases anywhere in the world. We have these policies like Title 42 that says we can expedite the deportation of migrants because they could be causing viral transmission. The U.S. will kind of imagine, in an ableist way, that there is no sickness and disease inside the country, it's only coming from other places, which of course, harms health in the U.S. When people in other countries are asking for aid and more research, the U.S. would do a lot more for the wellbeing of people in the U.S. and around the world if we put money into funding that research rather than putting a [military] base in their country.
It's really disheartening that medications and vaccines will become available that we know will work, and it's only for extraction of profit that they're not used throughout the world. When antiretrovirals became finalized in 1996, that have saved tens of millions of lives from HIV, it took seven years before they even started to show up in most countries in Africa and many countries in Asia. That was just because the U.S. manufacturers weren't ready to sell them and tried to hold onto the trademark. We see the same thing with the COVID vaccines. And we're on the other side of the equation now that the Jynneos vaccine [for monkeypox] is made in another country, and we're trying to buy it. The second something is developed and it's understood to be safe, that should just be manufactured everywhere in the world as quickly as possible and given to everyone who needs it. The only reason that it's not happening is so a tiny percentage of people can have more profit.
Another thing you mentioned was stigma. You mentioned that in the context of monkeypox affecting a stigmatized population, but in the book [you write about] how the neoliberal order and entities like the mainstream media and the political establishment use stigma and individual shame not only to isolate us from each other and prevent us from being in solidarity with each other, but also to block any demand for broader action that would help more people.
I tried to illustrate how disastrous it can be when individuals are bearing that responsibility. And a definition of neoliberalism that one of my professors told me once is that it's taking risks that should be shared across the population and putting it on the shoulders of one individual. It's you, it's your choice, it's your doings that determine everything. With viruses, it's really unfair to even imagine them as being individually conceived, because they are the definition of socialized. They transmit between people. There's no stork that shows up in any one person and drops a virus into them. And so what I tried to think about in the book was the famous cases—particularly the "Patient Zero" who was blamed unfairly for bringing HIV and AIDS into North America—but also people in my own life, particularly a former friend and lover of mine. This friend of mine died and was HIV positive. I didn't know until after he died how few people knew that he was HIV positive. I feel really haunted thinking about him feeling isolated with that, and how many people I've known who've lived with HIV just feel like they did something wrong. They got HIV from doing these things that make us human. [It's] the same with COVID. You're breathing around people, you want to hug people—these are very normal human things.
Neoliberalism structures our society in a way that the government or your place of employment or your school are not responsible for putting HEPA filters and open windows and good ventilation in your workspace, [and then] you're blamed for breathing. And the same with HIV or monkeypox now—I've known of at least two people who have gotten monkeypox after having tried to get the vaccine and not being able to get it. Neoliberalism wants to make them feel bad for getting horny when being horny is a part of being human. It's really good at giving everyone the sense that they're their own captain of their own destiny. [It] frames it all as individual choice, which dilutes the power of group action and dilutes the possibilities of solidarity while also leaving people at risk. That's also ableism and disability, which I think were two of my real learning areas in writing the book. We have a real problem with equating sickness with poor personal characteristics, so that if you are sick, you're made to feel like you're a bad person.
“This experience has really forced us to confront our mortality and our desire for community and connection. The possibilities of having that awareness give us the opportunity to create a more enjoyable and loving and beautiful world.”
I feel like I've seen this both with Trump and Biden in different ways that, when they got COVID, they were trying to project this bravado and this idea that you can just tough it out. And if you can't tough it out, it's on you. You're a failure. This is not only [with] viruses. It comes up a lot in cancer. My sister had cancer for 15 years and eventually died of it, and I observed often how people talked to her that there's this idea that if you are good and strong, you will get over this thing.
"She's a fighter!"
"She's a fighter," yeah. Biden's trying to do it. The idea of the president saying, you know, if you get this and you're 79 years old, you should rest! That's, like, forbidden in American politics. And so to suddenly have a condition [like COVID] which was affecting everyone at the same time—that's never happened in our lifetimes before, and you really get these dynamics of, yeah, but the good people are going to get over it, and it's bad people who are transmitting it, and letting it make them sick or kill them, which lets society off the hook for collective care and just keeps it on one person.
When I think about the last few years, part of me sees this monumental tragedy and missed opportunity. Even in the sense that, like, we have all been getting free, vitally needed healthcare from the government for years now in the form of tests and vaccines, but that has not led to a real strengthening of the case for Medicare for All. We seem to have firmly buried any vestige of universal care or broad-based solidarity that existed at the height of COVID. So on the one hand, it seems like this horrible return to form. But one of the things that has struck me over and over again is how people, apart from their governments, seem to want to help each other. And so in that sense, even as it exposed the horrors of the way that our society is constructed, it also exposed how, as human beings, we actually want to be there for each other. Do you see the past few years as this mass failure? Or do you see signs that something was planted that could lead to a better society, eventually?
I feel like I'm seeing it in very similar ways that you just described. You're right, there's free healthcare, healthcare with no fee at the point of service, which is exactly how we know in other countries it works best, particularly with dealing with epidemics. I hoped that it would break through some more of the roadblocks to universal healthcare than it did. To me, it was also significant that they started sending tests home to people, although that was needlessly complicated. But the idea of the government giving you anything, certainly for your healthcare, is like a red line that usually has not been crossed.
We've seen controlled interests be very effective at blocking that from becoming permanent—you know, the child tax credit was only for a year, which is very different than, say, when the Bush tax cuts were made for 10 years—and also, in the last spending bill, they did not make it so that people without insurance could keep getting tested and treated for COVID. [Some] states are still doing it, but nationally, the uninsured can't get tested and treated for free anymore. So the retrenchment to try and to make people accept what we had before COVID is really sad. Everyone just assumes [that with] monkeypox, there's gonna be free vaccines, and there are, and so at that level, I think the U.S. is at least staying and pointing in the right direction, but it's sad that it's not happening more structurally.
I do agree that what came out of this was a lifting of political consciousness, and a building of political power, of people wanting to take care of their neighbors. We saw mutual aid pop up all over the country, and I think people were generally happier. A lot of people do jobs that they don't like, that they think are bullshit, and a lot of what they're doing is bullshit. And I think a lot of people would be quite happy to live lives where you give your work and whatever you need to survive, but part of your time was taking care of your neighbors and making sure that the old people in your community got food and medicine. The concept of mutual aid expanded greatly, and even ideas like abolishing or defunding the police—all these ideas got a lot more airing. People did start thinking about a society that wasn't just spending money on constant war, and thinking about, what if we spent our resources in other ways? What if we spent our time and other ways that were more meaningful? So that's very helpful.
The powers that be are not moving in that direction. That's the real challenge. But I do think, broadly speaking, the experience of all humans going through some version of the same thing over the past couple of years, and engaging with these questions, there's a lot of power in that. And I think that a lot of people have taken that to heart. Some people just want to move on, but a lot of people took that to heart, and hopefully, there's space in that to grow, and to plant seeds for the next thing.
You get at this in your epilogue about how ultimately this is about our interconnectedness as human beings. Can you talk, just as a final thing, about the beauty that you see that can come from coalescing around these viruses and using them as a way to move towards each other rather than away from each other?
Sure. I recently interviewed a friend who is in quarantine with monkeypox, and also lives with HIV. And he said, "sex is the thing that will save us"—that, looking back on early AIDS history, when activists tried to find out ways to still have sex and affection, that showed that we can do it, and it forces us to be more creative and to create intimacy. And I think, taking it out of directly sexual or even interpersonal, familiar relations, I think that the viruses are applicable to think about what capitalism does to us. Capitalism will extract and alienate anywhere it possibly can, any relationships and connections. I think about this a lot when they're trying to force you to be a cashier when you go to CVS or something, to go be your own cashier to check out your groceries. Viruses show us that we are connected, and connection is difficult to negotiate, and it takes conflict and takes negotiation. But it's really necessary for us to preserve our humanity, and why it is that we're alive. And so these challenges that the viruses give us, they're very great, and of course the harms can be lethal. But they also are giving us this opportunity to hold onto what's really dear and develop it.
At my book talk the other night, everyone was masked and vaxxed, and I'm thinking, we're blessed in a way to live in this time where we're very aware of how precarious life is. This experience has really forced us to confront our mortality and our desire for community and connection. The possibilities of having that awareness give us the opportunity to create a more enjoyable and loving and beautiful world.
This blog is part of our interview series, Discourses. To read all of our interviews, click here.