III. Pandemic in an Anti-Science Era: Reflections from and for STS
The Trump presidency and its relationship to science and truth have prompted both reflection and action by STS scholars, including contributors to a recent thematic collection published in early 2020 in Engaging Science, Technology, and Society. For this newsletter, we requested that the contributors to that collection re-visit the arguments made there in a series of brief commentaries in order to speak to our unfolding experience with the COVID-19 pandemic. Please visit the ESTS website to read the original collection, edited by Daniel Lee Kleinman, in addition to the commentary below.
Two Meditations in Coronatime
By Anthony Ryan Hatch, Wesleyan University
1. Inflamed and Afropessimistic
As the global scope and biosocial consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic were laid bare, an impressive parade of commentators and scholars, many of them sociologists, began to articulate and pontificate on the racist dynamics of the pandemic. State government agencies, news organizations, and university researchers have produced jaw-dropping morbidity and mortality data in ramshackle and patchwork forms. As a sociologist who had been thinking, writing, and speaking about the intersectional politics of health injustice, the pandemic should have been, in a horrible twist of fate, a real moment for me to join the professional cavalcade trained on the group-differentiated impacts of the virus on Black lives. The more epidemiological truth that’s out there about racism’s effects, the better, right? We have to shift the “policy” conversation, right? True to the grand tradition of liberalism, I also heard the call to enlist myself in the production and circulation of knowledge.
It should have been an ideal time for me to write a blog post about my research on the science of metabolic syndrome because many of the so-called preexisting conditions (e.g., heart disease and diabetes) that exposed Black people to heightened danger were things I knew about, both experientially and intellectually.
Equally, it would have been an instance where my thinking about unequal food systems would matter because of all the ways the virus is transforming systems of food production, distribution, and consumption, and their ecological and health consequences on Black communities.
It could have been an important moment for me to try to place a piece about my research on forms of carceral and institutional captivity, because prisons, nursing homes, and slaughterhouses were specifically designed to keep people warehoused—like Amazon fulfillment centers for wasted human capital—and were universally (and perhaps strategically) unprepared to mitigate the spread of a highly infectious virus in close quarters.
But I was unschooled in the measure and rhythm of Coronatime.
Instead of jumping onto my University-owned laptop and typing in fevered pace about all of the things I knew about that could matter for how American society was responding to the virus, I was stunned. Shell-shocked. I don’t know about you, but I could not think three thoughts in sequence apart from existential fear, followed by mournful dread, and then an incessant need to clean things. At best, I was good for a solid quarter of my administrative and familial tasks for the day, only to face the same to-do list the next day. Slow and considered thinking? Deep critical analysis? I faced the possibility that these would have to wait until Coronatime passes, if it passes. No, this wasn’t going to be a moment for me to say anything smart about the pandemic. As I told my students, I’m not trying to overachieve the pandemic, I’m trying to survive the pandemic.
Counting each and every brilliant opinion piece that I don’t really want to read, flagging all of the powerhouse Zoom-based webinars I wouldn’t attend, and scrolling past one thought-provoking social media post about race, inequality, and COVID-19 after another, I withdrew further into myself and began to experience deep bitterness over all of it. It was not my moment and, to be painfully honest, I started feeling a confusing yet seething resentment over what I judged to be a cottage industry organized around responding to the pandemic. It wasn’t your moment either, damnit.
I held on to some resentment for the people I see in my everyday life, so many of whom don’t care enough to wear facemasks or practice physical distancing, even some of the lovely Zoomed-out children who live in my middle-class neighborhood in Connecticut. I reserve special judgement for them.
And yet, I reserved most of bitterness, resentment, and rage for the power elite who have largely sought to transmogrify the pandemic into an economic and political opportunity, who stand ready and willing to kill others to save themselves. The monster King/President and his enablers in and out of government including the financiers who bankroll the “Open the Economy” “protests.”
I encourage you to remember the tactics they deploy in necropolitical war. First, they dehumanize human beings by treating them as instruments/things/objects and repeatedly call them enemies who are killable. Then, they declare a state of emergency, and enter into a state of siege where they use extralegal practices to suspend rights and segregate enemy populations. Once territorialized, they use overwhelming technoscientific force to sabotage infrastructures for living. And, finally, they plunder economic resources directly through theft and indirectly by the debt/finance relation and through that avarice make the production of mass death a vital part of the national and international economy. Once they do all this, they are positioned to destroy threats to sovereignty with impunity and to kill those populations whose very death makes sovereignty possible and legible. This is what is happening to Black people in Coronatime. This has become a completely legitimate and normal mode of government. It is not accidental nor fixable.
Standing with Frank Wilderson and others, I am struggling with feelings of profound and nearly irrevocable pessimism about the possibilities for Black survival in Coronatime.
I say all of this because this short essay, which I have been graciously asked to write for the humble newsletter for the Section on Science, Knowledge, and Technology (SKAT) of the American Sociological Association, is the first thing I have written in 3 months. Writing is a privilege. Not writing is also a privilege. Being more-than-less safely quarantined with my spouse, kids, and one-eyed cat with enough income to balance our monthly budget (don’t look at the mountain of debt on which this so-called dream rests!) and NOT writing anything in Coronatime has been a real fucking joy.
I think it’s time to clean the doorknobs again.
2. Counting the Dead is Not Enough
This second meditation emerges from a much longer-term series of concerns I’ve had about the problem of racialized epidemiological data and Black lives. Despite my rage, I’m grateful that many of my colleagues have entered Coronatime ready to speak truth to power, if that phrase accurately describes the practices that have produced the proliferation of racial discourses about the virus. The problem is that I don’t think that the forms of power that govern life in the United States are capable of hearing the truth we peddle.
The painstaking calculation of the pandemic’s effects on Black people is a necessary but insufficient condition for saving Black people’s lives. The data will not save us. Counting the dead is not enough.
It is true that the production of racialized epidemiological data collection is a necessary feature of an antiracism because we have to generate a metric that is legible to the racial state—that mechanism is numbers. Numbers can force a reckoning with racial inequity, but sometimes that reckoning can be a liberal fantasy. Producing racialized epidemiological data is critical in the development of antiracist action plans to close gaps in experiences and outcomes between racial and ethnic groups. When we measure the effects of racism, we are remembering and documenting intergenerational patterns of violence enacted on the bodies of racism’s victims. The beautiful people at Data for Black Lives are trying to keep this ledger. By drawing on the political framing of Black Lives Matter, this group uses data science to create concrete and measurable change in the lives of Black people. Dr. Ibram X. Kendi and his team at The Antiracist Research & Policy Center at American University aim to counter this failure with the COVID Racial Data Tracker.
With my training in advanced statistics, I can appreciate how important plain and simple facts are (or should be) to health policy making and scientific debates. I sometimes joke with my students that I’m a recovering empiricist—I used to be a numbers addict. I endured advanced training in statistics and demography during graduate school and nearly convinced myself that I wanted to do statistical research on Black people’s lives. Then, I had a spiritual experience and wanted to tell different kinds of sociological stories. Now, I go to meetings a few times a week.
Part of my recovery program involves entering into questions of saving Black lives through the lens of science and technology studies (STS), an interdisciplinary field of inquiry that turns an analytic lens back on scientific and medical practices, technologies, and knowledge systems. Approaching science and technology studies as a sociologist means that I am interested in how people create and circulate knowledge, design and apply new technologies, and intervene in the world in ways that are patterned, shaped, conditioned by social and historical context. The content of any scientific knowledge is always directly related to the social contexts in which and through which it was produced. The kinds of questions that a science asks, the varieties of research methodologies used to collect data, including what kinds of evidence are considered valid and legible, and the array of interpretive practices that aim to make sense of evidence are all shaped by the social positions and lived experiences of scientists and their institutional contexts. These questions are fundamentally about epistemology and the politics of knowledge, or the systematic study of how power shapes the things we know, and, relatedly, why we don’t know the things we don’t know.
There are lots of ways to enumerate Black lives and deaths in statistical terms. An entire body of research in social epidemiology analyzes Black life from what I consider to be a necropolitical point of view—remember that the whole point is to instrumentalize Black life through the process of abstraction and counting. The entire field of knowledge and practice seems to operate based on the presumption that Black life will be shorter, more diseased, more painful, and there will generally be more death in and around Black communities. Here, the hyper-fixation on racist numerology: rates, numbers, percentages, risk estimations, abstractions, instrumentalizations. Often times, it feels like we’re not even talking about fleshy human beings. What all of these racialized differences mean is the subject of deeply political interpretive work within and without the human sciences.
As a STS scholar who uses interpretive methodologies that tease apart the cultural meanings that epidemiology draws upon and produces, I understand that we also have to be keenly aware of the social context and epistemological underpinnings of epidemiological knowledge production, particularly as it relates to racism’s effects on health. There’s no such thing as a plain and simple fact. Facts are complicated by their histories, and this is especially true in the context of racism. We have to measure the effects that racism creates, but scientists also have to interpret the data in the proper context that avoids the old traps of cultural and scientific racism.
Yes, we have to engage in sociological analysis of the intersecting social structures of racism, sexism, social class, sexuality, disability, age, and immigration status as they constitute the social determinants of health and shape the lived experiences of individuals and social groups. We also have to engage in systems analysis of the political economy of health sciences and health care as they impinge differentially on Black lives. But that will not be enough to stem the tide. I feel despondent because the reams of racialized epidemiological data have not amounted to much. To my mind, we have yet to confront the modalities of racial capitalism and racist government that establish the institutional contexts that require the cannibalization of Black bodies
On this point, the preeminent historian of medicine Vanessa Northington Gamble, who chaired the Tuskegee Syphilis Study Legacy Committee back in 1997, published a truly insightful article showing how African American communities in Philadelphia responded to the 1918 influenza pandemic.
The sparse data collected about that pandemic suggested that Black people were less likely to contract and die from influenza compared to White people, perhaps as a direct consequence of Jim Crow which may have functioned like a “de facto quarantine” that protected Black populations. Black health professionals, disallowed from White medical spaces, cared for their Black patients in nascent Black-only hospitals and repurposed schools. White health professionals, medical researchers, and insurance companies crafted medical theories that tried to force fit the limited epidemiological data to white supremacist models that emphasized all of the wrong things about the differentials in influenza mortality. White people did not see and perhaps could not see how their survival was linked to the survival of Black people, even though the crisis offered precious few opportunities for a vision for racially integrated medicine and public health. And yet, as the pandemic abated in late 1918, Gamble notes that
“The epidemic also did not prompt white people to develop any major public health or medical initiatives to improve the continued poor health status of African Americans. It also did not overturn racist scientific theories about the inferiority of African Americans or conceptualizations of black people and their neighborhoods as disease threats to white people.” (p. 121)
One of my great fears is that the normal to which our so-called leaders want us to return will feel just like this. I’ve read the commentaries suggesting that the Trump administration backed off its already “inconsistent and incoherent” pandemic response once it learned that non-Whites, migrant workers, and prisoners were dying in large numbers. Perhaps, in this case, racial data are the very thing that enable targeted mass killing.