I visit Uganda’s capital Kampala regularly, and so the city’s recent Ebola outbreak might have seemed relevant to me. And yet, oddly, I didn’t really think much of it. Indeed, despite the generally horrific deaths that befell those folks in that 1990s-era mass-contagion movie, and the fact that the film was inspired by real events in east Africa, my first reaction upon hearing the Ebola news was casual curiosity. It was only upon a doctor friend impressing Ebola’s “it will kill you” nature upon me did I even consider canceling my upcoming trip:
Are you in Kampala? Just don’t go to Mulago hospital, which you shouldn’t be going to anyway. And don’t go to Kitaale. Otherwise you’re probably fine. If it gets to more than a few hundred cases, I would get the hell out of the country. Ebola, when you take into consideration virulence, mortality, and treatment options, is the deadliest human communicable disease in existence. Good luck getting back into the US coming from Uganda during an epidemic, btw…
Upon considering Dr. Heath’s response, two models for understanding contemporary biopolitics seemed to collide: Heath describes the need for the separation of bodies in space (different hospitals, different bodies able to flee the malady, quarantines for those getting caught in flight) to prevent a disease impervious to cure from ravaging all in its path. My own initial subconscious inclination, however, was the inverse: while diseases might flow throughout Uganda they only devastate certain bodies; mine remains safe. This compelled a number of uncomfortable reflections: whence the arrogance that allowed me to dismiss a disease that causes death by the hemorrhaging of multiple orifices? Was it that I have international SOS MedEvac service that could whisk me away to safety at any moment? Perhaps, but it seems even more internalized: this insurance translates into assurance—the majority of the world dies from infectious diseases that I never encounter because modern medical innovations which are made differentially accessible due to profit considerations have become inscribed on my body itself[i].
Hence, while I never articulated this consciously, I may have implicitly assumed that not only would there be a vaccine for Ebola, but that it was entirely natural for me to have access to it while the people who live in the regions where Ebola is endemic do not. This was a sobering realization and left me wondering if my response exposed an insane-but-real kind of privilege shared by all those from the West with the resources and wherewithal to traverse the globe. (Humanitarians, development workers, academics, and transglobal capitalists exist in the same stratum—after all, they all stay at the same hotels, often eyeing each other with contempt across the buffet bar.) Do we constitute a class of globally immunized bodies, impervious to the threats of the under-developed world?
Political philosopher Roberto Esposito takes immunization and its political consequences as the structuring principle of modernity itself. In Immunitas, the third book in his series on biopolitics (the form of governance that puts the salvation, production, and regulation of life as its object of intervention), Esposito argues that immunitary tactics have developed in response to fears of contamination that plague the modern imagination.[iii]
In this rehabilitatory move Esposito seems to leave immunization under-theorized: if it can bring in new forms of communication why does it also stand as its opposite, that which separates and holds the Other apart, in a safe and stable orbit of separation?
But returning to the example of Western workers in Africa, immunized life described above seems different. It appears to foreclose on any potential communion, standing as immunized a priori, immunized before any interfacing with the Other. Esposito follows Foucault[viii] in conceiving the transformation from the medieval period to the modern one as defined by a move from a fortress model of deflecting or repelling life that threatens (the era of the cast-out leper) to a biopolitical model of incorporating threatening life to use it to immunize the social body against disease (the era of the plague where one infected body can infect all).
This reading contests a common (mildly hysterical) claim that elites subject to “globalization” are responding to anxieties about contagion by retreating into cordoned-off spaces. I wonder if it’s not the opposite, a great deterritorialization that extends to the biological. Can this explain the rising number of elites who refuse to immunize their children from common diseases (for fear of autism)? Does their rejection of participation in “herd immunity” signify not only that they don’t feel part of the herd, but that they have internalized immunization at the ontological level, it extending so far that they do not feel threatened by the re-emergence of plagues infecting normal people?
This inverts interpretation of gated communities: they are not reactive moves against diseased members of the community, but (a) a proactive move against unimmunized life that disgusts them and (b) a better way of experiencing life: cleaner, purer, etc. Whether it is elites in São Paulo maneuvering across the city by helicopter, Richard Fuld (CEO of one of the terrible banks that stole billions) flowing through Manhattan from penthouse to boardroom without ever having to engage public space at all, or Indian elites “seceding” from normal space in a move which Arundhati Roy describes as “vertical secession,” gates are after the immunization not part of it, and are oriented toward maximizing speed. The gate becomes a passageway that exists to allow some forms of life to keep going at the same speed because it slows others down. Elites enjoy immunization by disappearance: their spaces aren’t the walled city as much as the horizon, the steppe, the desert they can flee.
Contagion Films: Immunization and Imaginary Community
Yet if there is a certain swathe of humanity that qualifies as “immunized life,” how to also explain the rise in anxieties about contagion that increasingly permeate the developed world, present in the outsized collective reactions to non-events such as bird and swine flus,[ix] SARS, as well as in mass cultural imaginaries of diseases destroying the world with frightening speed and ferocity?[x]
So much rests on the terms of immunization in question. While those in the West are effectively immunized from the underdeveloped world, the seceding elites are further immunized against the rest of the West’s body politic. This has created palpable anxiety in those without private jets about the dissolution of the welfare state and the imagined community that declines along with it. So we might see films such as Contagion (dir. Steven Soderbergh, 2011) trying to perform the community back into being: look, we are all the same during a crisis! The argument that we are all at risk, that we are all in this together bare and naked against a transcendent virus, actually serves the opposite function. Rather than making us feel vulnerable, we feel safe in our shared vulnerability. However comforting that idea may be, we are actually being immunized from the reality that this shared-risk community enjoys a mostly imaginary existence.