Humans and Non-Humans States, Bodies, and Epidemics Student Work

Student Podcasts

Avani S. Ashtekar recorded this awesome podcast focused on the politics of the current pandemic in India and around the world. It’s easy to listen to Avani go off! She has a lot to say and this podcast shows her sharp critical skills.

Nora Blanchard was registered for both my classes this quarter (poor Nora!) so she recorded one podcast where she addresses both courses and shares her reflections on the pandemic and this strange academic term. Highly listenable!

Listen to “States Bodies And Epidemics Final” on Spreaker.

Priya Pokorzynski recorded an impassioned, well-considered, and incisive podcast on COVID-19 and social inequality with regards to health care for her final reflection on “States, Bodies, and Epidemics.” A clear and urgent call for change in the health care system and for justice on a global level.

States, Bodies, and Epidemics Student Work

Ashtekar: Highlight on Student Work

COVID-19 and Migrant Workers in India

By Avani S. Ashtekar

Thinking about an epidemic, while we all are living through one provokes a vulnerability to be confronted. Human life as well as death is quickly and singularly associated with individual biological conditions in the Coronavirus’s context. Human mortality, as we are made to think about it by mainstream news portals and other information systems, is only linked to a bacteriological and viral entity that encroaches upon the body and feeds on human life –however, viruses and bacteria do more than simply modifying immunological information of the body and becoming entangled in etiological pieces of evidence.

As an epidemic renders morbidity as a part of the collective consciousness, it also exposes and at the same time reproduces injustices in socially lived places, within diverse contexts. Although viruses do have a “frighteningly arbitrary [tendency in] selection of victims” some populations at a micro and a macro or global level, are unequivocally more vulnerable (Rosenberg 1992, 296). In India for example, there is an ongoing exodus of migrant workers. As the daily wagers are hiking on foot on highways and jungles in the excruciating heat to reach home – the epidemic for them plays out differently, and quarantine means mass displacement instead of stagnancy within domestic milieus, making the active marginalization visible.

As we consider that an epidemic can mean different things to different people, in dissimilar geographical positions, and at distinct temporalities while inspiring the adoption of unique survival strategies, can we ask and even attempt to suggest a uniform understanding of what an epidemic is while capturing the varying realities of the populations and their lived experiences? How can we demarcate a singularized comprehension of the virus, when the realities are plural and polar? These questions may be of significance however, we need to understand an epidemic and the shock-waves it sends out by decentering individuals as ‘choice-bearers’ and instead look at states that intensify the imprints, that the disease(s) can leave on the human body which is made vulnerable.

In Merrill Singer’s (2010) essay, Ecosyndemics: And the Coming of Plagues of the Twenty-first Century he defines a syndemic in a “biosocial framework,” where “diseases interact synergistically” (25-26) and impact and infect bodies, and collective meanings of heath or the state of being healthy, by intermingling and crystallizing of two or more diseases, or epidemics. In this process, the interactions between the diseases rather than the individual sub-set of symptoms, become pivotal, and “co-infection” creates a palimpsest of layered oppression among subjugated groups (Singer 2010, 27). Instead of dissecting an epidemic into its various symptoms, its virus or vector, and its consequences on social, biological, characteristics, might it be useful to view them in a conglomeration along with the other disease(s) which already sap the body? In the process of doing so, we cannot remain oblivious to the effects of structural violence and other diseases on the body systems. In the Indian context, COVID-19 can be seen as an additive to the diverse pre-existing conditions like malnutrition, and others such as living in constant stress and compression. This is even more heightened for the migrant workers who are currently walking across state borders to reach their homes.

The nature of interaction amongst the factors becomes even more pernicious for the workers, as they carve out their long paths in the hottest month of the year of India. Singer in his essay points to faster rates of global warming, as “the poor migrate to megalopolises” where “ever-growing, concentrated populations are created and placed at risk of swift-moving infections” (32). In India, the migration of the poor due to COVID-19 is reversed, and there are different ways in which this configures. An urban exodus is used as a means to disproportionately criminalize them, like spraying them with chemical disinfectant liquid, moreover, the migrants become subjected to the extremely high temperatures. This can cause heat-strokes, and wearing inappropriate footwear like rubber-soled flip-flops often causes heat boils, many have rashes from the synthetic fabric of their clothing due to friction too. In this way, the migrants share an additionally oppressive relation with these material objects which adds a layer of subjugation, apart from the external factors. Something as intimate as clothing gives rise to a diseased condition.

The anthropocentrically (over)produced heat along with socially generated oppressions implicates that the syndemics and ecosyndemics in fact, cannot remain distinct subsets but overlap in the bodies and lives, here of the migrant workers’ which has “direct, indirect, multiple, interacting, and significant” (34) consequences, threatening mainly the structurally disadvantaged. Although Singer calls these disease “coterminous,” (35) in this case instead of being absolutely coextensive, they act together asynchronously as they affect and infect the human body, with different intensities at unique points in time which is constantly dominated by social structures that are hierarchically concretized. The migrant’s body is now made to become a host to a “supersyndemic” (Singer 2010, 30). The condition of a “supersyndemic” (30) is dynamic and fluid and exceeds the traditional meaning of what an epidemic may consist – apart from biology it is also the social relations that consist of it. This allows us to have an expanded understanding of an epidemic as an entity which when it comes even seemingly in contact with a human body, whether infecting it or not, can intensify the previously existing conditions and marginalize an individual or a population further. An epidemic acquires a social life of its own, and the narratives of the experiences suffer from lethal discourses from those in power.

A 90-year-old woman walks home in India. Photo by Tribhuvan Tivari/Outlook

In my attempt to conceptualize what the characteristics of an epidemic may consist, Charles Rosenberg’s tripartite dramaturgic model was of significance (1989). In India, it is significant to suggest that in fact, two different temporalities of the same model circulate(d). While a part of the Indian population followed the three acts of epidemiological pattern linearly, the migrant workers did not experience it in the same manner and temporality especially due to a lack of information.

As “Act I” “Progressive revelation” (3) unfolded, it created an equal amount of awareness and panic amongst people. The “Act II – managing randomness” (4) was a violent and instructional response of the state and affected populations disparately. As the lockdown was announced, with only four hours in advance the task of urban dwellers to store up essentials was relatively simpler than those who were forced to make the decision to travel thousands of miles to their home towns and villages.  We can begin to see how migrant workers slip away from the linearity of the model, and swing in between the Acts I and II, as the workers attempt to understand what the virus is and accept its predominant presence, they are constantly revealed to the consequences directly unrelated and at the same time linked to the virus while walking – like dehydration, starvation, and excessive fatigue, while also being subjected to the government’s (in)action as well as managing the randomness and unpredictability of the situations they face. In the deviation of the second act, the disparities become painfully visible and necropolitical in nature. Various times some migrant workers were not allowed to enter their home-towns or sent back or away from the borders.

Similarly, Act II and “Act III – Negotiating Public Response” (7) meddle as well. The special Shramik trains were announced finally in the first week of May to transport the workers to their home states. However, Karnataka state’s chief minister canceled them because multiple builder corporations expressed that the mass departure of the workers would slow down or completely halt the construction work that must jump-start after the lockdown ends. There was resistance and fortunately, the order was taken back. Embroiled in capitalist schemes of dispossession and dehumanization, we see the many gradations and tiers of the multiplicity of characteristics of an epidemic that cling to the socially marginalized communities, which may remain obscure if we insist on a model of a linear form.

The “Act IV” proposed by Adriana M. Garriga-López and Carlos E. Rodríguez-Díaz suggests a “phase of resolution” or “the establishing of the narrative” (91) to grasp the characteristics of an epidemic. This phase emphasizes the making of a narrative or a meaning-making post-epidemic, which is unique to each community, however, this does not have to be limited to the decline of the epidemic as narrative making is continual. Can we say that an epidemic is only what we remember from it? The fourth act becomes complicated as the authors suggest when we think about ‘who’ participates and ‘how’ they do in the course of remembering (Garriga-López and Rodríguez-Díaz 2019, 91). Significantly, but not solely, the Coronavirus discourses are presently dominated by those in positions of power. Active operation of the “narrativization” of the Coronavirus began for the government of India, within days of the quarantine period: The Prime Minister requested the nation to thank essential workers, first with claps and clamoring, in the following weeks by the lighting of diyas and phone torches, and most recently when the military showered flowers on frontline workers (Garriga-López 2020). In considering ‘who’ remembers and ‘how,’ government also gives meaning to a ‘when’ and ‘for whom’ this narrative is produced. Within the modes of the subjectivity of understanding an epidemic, there are constant interactions between these elements that are forming, de-forming, and re-forming a volatile “discursive field,” where the epidemic risks becoming a socially dictated memory itself (Foucault 1972, 28). The attention that the acts of the government receive, systematically fractures and conceals the narratives of the migrant workers, like the deaths of 14 migrant workers who were killed under a goods train, as they were exposed to bare life.

Image borrowed from

The spatial power dynamics also play a role in the making of the narrative, as much in present as in the future. Pathology induced spatialization reifies hierarchies of power, the body of the homeless migrant worker is criminalized, even though the homelessness it is a byproduct of the state’s choices. This spatialization offers a highly subjective “telling of the story.” (Garriga-López and Rodríguez-Díaz 2019, 90). As the workers are forced to the exterior – of the home, the home-city, and the home-state, they become storied instead of being story-tellers, by the government, and by us via Instagram, Facebook, and WhatsApp forwards. Paradoxically, as we are confined within our homes, our reach is pervasive by being connected to the virtual networks, as we move within the virtual spaces, whereas the workers on the outside are rendered stagnant due to the inability to voluntarily move and also by them being disconnected the networks. Thus, the relationship enforced upon an individual that is to be shared with the state evolves differently within the context of an epidemic. Criminalization is heightened and reflects a certain embodied understanding of a body that not only is or could be infected but one that could also infect. The narrative shifts quickly from the virus to the stigmatized potential infector.

Image borrowed from

Even when the individual is a temporary host, and the vector is permanent in the environment, the state’s politics are concentrated on the body. This is internalized and the epidemic also becomes a part of the embodied memory. Thus, as Garriga-López and Rodríguez-Díaz suggest, in the making of the narrative there are “discursive battles,” (91) implying not only the difficulty of the making of a narrative, but also sustaining it in the collective memory. To conclude, the virus and its discourses thrive on the unaccountability of the government in India, like in many other parts of the world. In the case of the migrant workers, they forced into a subjugation and perform it by the movements which interplay with the “supersyndemic” conditions, however, their actions constantly alter, mold, and memorialize the epidemic in ways that might show us if not what, then how an epidemic becomes what it does.

Reference List

Foucault, Michel. The Archaeology of Knowledge and The Discourse on Language. Translated by A. M. Sheridan Smith. New York: Pantheon Books, 1972.

Garriga-López, Adriana. “What is an epidemic?.” Last modified May 5, 2020.

Garriga-López, Adriana M and Carlos E. Rodríguez-Díaz. “Becoming Endemic: The Zika Virus Epidemic and Gendered Power in Puerto Rico.” In Gender, Health, and Society in Contemporary Latin America and the Caribbean, edited by Ronnie Anthony Shepard and Shir Lerman Ginzburg, 83-91. Lanham: Lexington Books, 2019.

Rosenberg, Charles E. “What Is an Epidemic? AIDS in Historical Perspective.” Daedalus 118, no. 2 (1989): 1-17.

Singer, Merrill. “Ecosyndemics: Global Warming and the Coming Plagues of the Twenty-first Century.” In Plagues and Epidemics: Infected Spaces Past and Present, edited by D. Ann Herring and Alan C. Swedlund, 21-37. New York: Berg, 2010.

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States, Bodies, and Epidemics Student Work

Bersot: Highlight on Student Work

Closing Thoughts

By Owen Bersot

We are all in the midst of transition as this wild term winds down…I’ll be taking a lot with me from “States, Bodies, and Epidemics” and I thought it would be appropriate to mark the end by sharing what I’ve been thinking about during this time.

As the weirdest and most unimaginable term of school winds to a close, my thoughts in general come to ending and closing- death in a certain way. Death is naturally a topic that is parceled into the landscape of pestilence. In navigating death and dying, we rely heavily on the shared meaning held in our communities and the histories of our communities to breathe meaning into our experience. Now more than ever, individuals and communities are faced with death and its significance on a totally unprecedented scale.

With the convergence of the COVID-19 pandemic and the recent wave of protests against the racist murder of Black Americans at the hands of state power through the police force of this land, death and dying in the Black community must especially be the voice of our collective listening, the suffering for which we must have space in our hearts, and the dignity which we aim to humbly uphold. The death care industry in this country is one made up largely of small businesses who serve local communities, and it is small businesses which suffer disproportionately by the hand of pestilence.

Furthermore, it is small businesses that were formed by Black Americans, create employment in Black communities, and provide services in the Black community that will suffer the most among those businesses. The terrible irony of the plague is that even small businesses in death care are put at grave risk, because not a single COVID-19 body may be taken into their care. And the dead are denied the appropriate rites of passage that give meaning to the living. The contagion and the state prevent it. Indeed it is in the name of public health, but what public health is there where people can neither make peace with their grief nor share the joy of life with family after the death of a loved one? How will we live our lives if we are forced to accept a grief which is itself half-buried? We MUST grieve to live, and there is no life, no health, in this.

A funeral procession in Monroe, Georgia, for George Dorsey and Dorothey Dorsey Malcolm, who were lynched in 1946 from Tiffany Stanley, 2016, “The Disappearance of a Distinctively Black Way ​to Mourn”, The Atlantic.

Any philosophical individual who wishes to understand the meaning of life must first understand the meaning of death, because it is from this that we fashion our glimpse at the world. They are of the same substance. And to jeopardize one’s path to making meaning in life and in death is to strike at the very core of their humanity- an offense that should deeply terrify us all. An offense made possible by racist institutions and the limits of human empathy, and magnified by pestilence.

This is an injustice acted out on the basis of our differences as human beings, but it strikes at that life-giving process of meaning-making that we all, though in different forms, are intimately linked together in. This is a call to justice- to act out of love for manyness and oneness- an injustice on the basis of difference is an injustice against what we all share, and to threaten what we share must be felt by us all. This is the call to justice and love in the time of the plague and the somber harvest we must reap from it in the time to come as well.

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States, Bodies, and Epidemics Syllabus

Syllabus and Mid-Term Paper Prompt for SBE

Without further ado, here’s the adapted syllabus for the “States, Bodies, and Epidemics” seminar for the pandemic spring of 2020.

States, Bodies, and Epidemics

Endemic Zika?

After reading Rosenberg’s foundational essays, we moved on to reading an essay I (Prof. Garriga-Lopez) co-authored with my friend Dr. Carlos Rodriguez-Diaz on zika virus in Puerto Rico. This essay, titled, “Becoming Endemic: The Zika Virus Epidemic and Gendered Power in Puerto Rico” was published by Lexington Books in an anthology edited by Shir Lerman and Ronnie Shepard called, Gender and Health in  Contemporary Latin America and the Caribbean.

This image shows the dominant media narrative at the time, which was concerned with the threat posed by people potentially infected with zika virus traveling to the continental United States.

In this essay, Carlos and I analyze the Puerto Rican state’s response to the zika virus epidemic in Puerto Rico. We pay particular attention to the ways that the bodies of working class women of reproductive age were targeted as the main points of intervention because of zika’s effects on gestating fetuses and babies. We were concerned to show the ways that preventing zika virus infection thus became the responsibility of women, while the state provided few resources and no structural transformations. In 2017, we published this (open access) article in the International Journal of Infectious Diseases, along with two other colleagues from Puerto Rico, but this one (“Becoming Endemic,” 2018) gave us an opportunity to attend to some of the gender-power-based dynamics we had observed.

Poster from a bathroom advertisement that was part of a governmental zika prevention campaign in Puerto Rico. Photo by Adriana Garriga-Lopez, 2016.

Additionally, in this essay we propose a fourth “act” to add to Charles Rosenberg’s dramatic reading of the stages of an epidemic. This fourth stage represents a narrativization of the epidemic, or a telling of “the story of what happened.” This fourth act is very important, for it represents the way that an epidemic is understood as part of human history. The story can be very different depending on who’s telling it and why, so this is also hotly contested territory.

Diagram of a four-part dramatic structure for comparison.

Students engaged deeply with this text, raising many tough questions and pointing out that gender power and reproductive politics affects non-cis gender, non-heterosexual, and non-gender conforming people, as well as cis-gender, heterosexual women, and expressing a desire for more information about those effects. I recorded two videos in response to student comments and questions, which you can see below.

As a bonus, you can also check out this video art I created in 2016 about zika virus in Puerto Rico.

Did you or someone you know experience zika infection? Or is there something about this reading that you would like to remark on? Feel free to leave your comments or questions in the comment section below!

States, Bodies, and Epidemics

What is an epidemic?

The first couple of critical essays we read in this class (after having read the Camus novel) are two classic articles by Charles Rosenberg, “Explaining Epidemics” (1992) and “What Is An Epidemic? AIDS in Historical Perspective” (1989). These two essays laid out a social theory of epidemics that still holds sway for many scholars in medical anthropology and in the history of medicine fields.

In the essay “What is an epidemic?,” Rosenberg proposes that epidemics can be ‘read’ like plays–that is, that their development can be understood to follow a certain dramatic arc. The three stages he proposes are 1) the “progressive revelation” of the presence of disease, 2) the management of “randomness” as a characteristic of epidemics, and finally 3) the negotiation of a “public response” to the disease.

You may be able to relate or apply this tripartite model to the current pandemic of novel coronavirus (COVID-19), as well as other epidemics. Look, for example, at the graphic below, developed by Prof. Mark Nichter that shows the phases of the 2009 Influenza pandemic.

In the essay “Explaining Epidemics,” Rosenberg discusses the different theories of disease causation that have been used over time to explain the origin of disease. He proposes the framework of “configuration” and “contamination” as the two main approaches. He closes the essay stating that, “these perspectives represent emphases, not answers–elements in a complex discourse about human-kind, fate, and social organization that is never answered, but only reconfigured by each new generation.” I discuss in more detail the relationship between these two theories of disease causation in the video below.

Here is a video I recorded responding to student questions and comments on these two essays. Please share your responses in the comments below!

States, Bodies, and Epidemics

“La Peste/The Plague”

The first book in our reading list for the States, Bodies and Epidemics class is Albert Camus’ famous (1947) novel “The Plague,” originally written in French and titled “La Peste”. This novel is a classic of European literature and represents a major literary work in the existentialist tradition, which considers the human experience of life to be fundamentally absurd.

The novel tells the story of an outbreak of bubonic plague in Oran, Algeria through the eyes of a physican named Dr. Rieux. Camus’ characters are archetypes, meaning they represent uniquely human responses to epidemics. They each present a particular form of moral or physical weakness or strength, yet their fate is always somewhat arbitrary. You can read The Plague free of cost through the Internet Archive here.

The Plague ends with a reminder that the disease never fully goes away, but merely hides or bides its time before sending out the rats to die again “in a happy city.”

Check out this video of me below responding to student questions and comments about the book.

We also watched the 1992 film adaptation of the novel, which sets the events of The Plague in Oran, Argentina, instead of the original Algeria. The film stars William Hurt as Dr. Rieux and the late great Raúl Juliá as Cottard.

Here’s a video of me answering questions and responding to comments from students about the film.

Have you also read this book or seen the movie? Let us know what you think in the comments below.

Assignments Humans and Non-Humans States, Bodies, and Epidemics

Pandemic Journals – first assignment

Write your story of this moment

Write a weekly journal for the next ten weeks. That’s it. Write at least 300 words once a week. Keeping your privacy concerns in mind, choose a medium for a digital journal. You decide how public you want it to be. It can be an Instagram account, or a Tumblr, Blogger, or WordPress blog. It can be a collection of pdfs. You decide what makes the most sense for you. Once you have created your Pandemic Journal, if you wish to share it with us, please post the address as a comment below (on this post).

In his diary of plague in Oran, Algeria, Albert Camus’ character the good doctor Rieux describes himself in the first few pages of the novel The Plague as a narrator with three kinds of data: “first, what he saw himself, secondly, the accounts of other eyewitnesses,” and third, “documents that subsequently came into his hands” (6). Through these, he will write the story of what happened and how plague tore through Oran and how it eventually subsided, only to bide its time until the day when again “for the bane and enlightenment of men, it would rouse up its rats and send them forth to die in a happy city” (308).

William Hurt as Dr. Rieux in, “The Plague” (1992) film Dir. Luis Puenzo

Like Camus through Dr. Rieux, many writers have used the form of the journal as a way to keep track of time, record events, and reflect on the human experience during outbreaks of pandemic disease such as HIV/AIDS or Bubonic Plague. The journal is an inherently reflexive genre, so it encourages the spilling of guts, so to speak. The journal brings its reader into the intimate experience of the narrator.

You can use different forms of data, both experiential and archival to analyze the events unfolding in this pandemic. That is, you can draw information about the human experience during the current pandemic of COVID-19 from the ways it is affecting your life, how it’s affecting the lives of those around you, and from scholarly sources, as well as from the internet and mass media.

Keeping track of your experiences throughout the next ten weeks will help you stay in touch with your emotions, which is helpful to mental health. It will also help you see patterns that may emerge that could be instructive or illuminating for you as you reflect on them later, and it can give you an outlet for your creativity, which is always good for your wellbeing. Don’t forget to drop your URL below in the comments! Also, take a moment to read and comment on someone else’s Pandemic Journal. In ten weeks, we will have a substantial human archive of this plague.

NOTE: Both classes will do this assignment. Folks taking the “Humans & Non-Humans” class, please pay special attention to how this pandemic is affecting non-human animals, landscapes, and the environment.