Alexis Shotwell: The Virus is a Relation

COVID-19 is a virus; it’s also a relationship. Whether people live or die when they get sick depends on webs of social relations, the history of oppression carried in their bodies, what care is made available for them to receive, and so much that we don’t yet understand. One way for us to understand the pandemic is to look at what activities, what practices, it sparks. How might we think about this novel coronavirus as a relationship? If we do this, we can make ethical, political, and ecological evaluations of the relationships we proliferate in response to “the virus.”

From back in January, I had a student in my writing class whose family lived in Wuhan; each week during our opening circle she updated us on the effects of the virus. This connection with her helped me perceive the pretense of some places being immune to the virus that immediately became the policy for nation states. The close-the-borders approach stabilizes structures of containment, social surveillance and control, and underlines a conception of some places and people as contaminated that participates in an imprisoning logic.

Policing the virus manifests an understanding of it as a delimited, containable entity that can be kept out of a country, neighborhood, or body. Directing our energy to containment practices will fail us in two ways: First, these practices do not actually protect anyone, and second, they proliferate militarized policing structures that will still be in place when the virus is something with which we can be in relation without dying.

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