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Simone Abram (Durham University)
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Author:Christos Lynteris (University of St Andrews)
Paper long abstract:
Since COVID-19 first became the subject of international attention, in January 2020, ideas that behind COVID-19 lurks some sort of secret or mystery have become extremely popular across the globe. In particular, whether this involves Trump’s accusations of the laboratory of the Wuhan Institute of Virology as the source of the virus, or ideas that the virus had been circulating unreported in China for months, the idea that China is misleading the rest of the world, manipulating the WHO and hiding the truth about COVID-19 has reached epidemic proportions in the mass and social media, and is now officially endorsed by the American government. This paper examines the idea of “COVID-19 mystery”, and argues that in order to understand its symbolic efficacy and appeal to large sections of the general public we need to understand not only the ways in which it relies upon pre-existing imaginaries of China as a veiled empire (or the manner in which these imaginaries are turned into political weapons in the relations between US and China), but more importantly the ways in which, in the first place, since its emergence at the end of the nineteenth century, the concept of the pandemic has been invested with “mysterious” and “secretive” agencies. These forms of imagined agency, the paper will argue, rely, first, on a particular ontology of pathogens, developed since the bacteriological revolution, and, second, on the idea of pandemics as world-historical events that reveal hidden truths about the workings of “society”, “humanity”, and their deeper essence.
Author:Pooja Satyogi (Ambedkar University Delhi)
Paper long abstract:
In May 2020, Kent, a leading manufacturer of electrical appliances in India, advertised a new product–a flour kneading and bread making device. The advertisement asked the potential buyers of the appliance, “Are you allowing your maid to knead atta (flour) dough with her hands? Her hands may be infected. Let automation take care of hygiene this time!” Following public protests on the internet for the advertisement’s class and caste insinuations, the company apologized and withdrew the advertisement’s circulation. This time, as the advertisement mentions, is the time of contagion, which attaches a differential burden on women domestic workers in the Indian sub-continent. Their bodies, this paper contends, continue to be sites of caste pollution, often overriding their actual caste or religious statuses, with which intersects the possibility of contagion in the still unfolding pandemic. The ‘unlock’ period has allowed some domestic workers to return to work; this is amid government advisories of greater risk of contagion generally. Drawing on ethnographic work with women domestic workers in the city of Delhi, this paper will delineate how the formalities of ‘social distancing’ and ‘mask wearing’ at work have begun to inflect intimate and personalised labour relationships in a way that entrenches hierarchies enabled by caste practices. This can be evidenced, the paper argues, from a doubling of the idea of contagion—a culturally polluted person rendered even more pestilential because of contagion, but whose service/s are, nonetheless, needed to disinfect the space of the employer’s home. The paper will demonstrate (i) how the pandemic has inflicted additional moral burdens on the workers to protect themselves, and by extension their work spaces, from infection (ii) how they attempt to accomplish this amid declining reciprocities from their respective employers.
Author:Maythe Han (University of Edinburgh)
Paper long abstract:
What kinds of narratives and discourses emerge and spread when a viral crisis and a racial crisis coincide? Who is considered ‘contagious’, by whom, and why?
In this paper based on ongoing digital ethnographic fieldwork, I look at the strange and frightening intersection of the love of animals and the deeply entrenched racism toward Black people and people of colour endemic to Britain. My data come in the form of a meme and a long thread of comments in response to it. The meme depicts a protestor who is about to throw a brick at a police horse and calls for protestors throwing things at police animals to be shot, placing the pain of the horse, a nonhuman animal, above the life of a protestor, a human person. This meme made a brief appearance on a UK-based dog people’s group on Facebook before it got deleted by the person who originally posted it, so the comment thread only lives as a series of screenshots on my computer.
I follow multiple conversations in the comment thread to elucidate how the discourse surrounding, as well as the public fear of, viral infection has been co-opted by white British people who self-identify as ‘animal lovers’ in order to justify their racist stance: the kind of people who would move mountains for the rights and wellbeing of nonhuman animals if they could seem shockingly callous toward the systemic violence aimed at the lives of racialized people. I then argue that portraying Black Lives Matter protesters as spreaders of COVID-19 in the time of life-or-death struggle against racialized police brutality is a form of strategic racism that is painfully yet also easily compatible with love, empathy, and intersubjective kinship they share with their beloved nonhuman animals.
Author: Maythe Han