Viral Panic and the Politics of Quarantine

My students are probably tired of me saying that “everything relates,” even if I mutter about Hegel’s concept of totality. But I have proof: Recently, we emerged from our classroom only to find that a storm was raging, near Dallas, and trees were uprooted. A few days later, after taking a chainsaw to felled trees on my property, I slipped while carrying logs and dinged my wrist. An eventual trip to a Dallas hospital for an x-ray began with questioning, from every health-care provider I saw, about whether I had traveled to Africa recently.

This was hours after Dallas had become the ground zero of viral panic about Ebola. Within weeks, Governor Christie responded to emerging viral panic by quarantining medical workers returning from West Africa, leaving us with internment-camp images of the nurse who, a decade earlier, had attended the university at which I work in Texas.

The possibly-lone-wolf shooter in Ottawa was bumped from the news cycle by the sad news about the doctor returning from Guinea to fight Ebola, who, upon his return to NYC, had been diagnosed with Ebola and is now being treated at Bellevue Hospital. He has become the centerpiece of viral panic inasmuch as he ventured out in public before he came down with Ebola symptoms, leading some to rant on message boards that he should have his medical license revoked and even face prosecution.

Seeking the sensational, the New York Post just reported that he supposedly concealed his movements to medical detectives until police outed him with a credit-card statement and evidence of mass-transit travel, demonstrating that he was really a gallivanting cosmopolite. Not even the 87th school shooting since Newtown could squeeze Ebola panic off the screen for long, although some speculated that there is a parallel between the epidemic nature of school shootings and viruses.

For me, the storm raised my viral consciousness by sending me for that X-ray. By now, given climate changes, October storms in the Southwest aren’t surprising, suggesting what Max Horkheimer in 1947 called the “revolt of nature.” Here, I want to understand medical geography, viral panic, and quarantine politics in terms of nature’s revolt and also in terms of Marx’s, Lenin’s and Trotsky’s notions of uneven development.

These are two sides of the same global-capitalist coin. Newsfeed journalism, such as CNN’s endless “breaking news” announcements, under-theorizes the relationship between the local and global, dwelling on details and surfaces, such as the preference of the internment-camp nurse for Pizza Hut rather than the granola bar and water she was offered or the range of opinions about whether one could catch Ebola from the Brooklyn doctor’s bowling ball.

Horkheimer and the other Frankfurt School theorists argued that the domination of nature is a framework that can explain all manner of attempts to master the external world, producing what postmodernists call “othering.” This was a way for them to explain the stunning fact that the Holocaust occurred in Germany, which was also a site of the 17th century Enlightenment.

Faith in science redoubles mythology as the world is shorn of mystery by methodology. But method cannot do our thinking for us; everything is narrative. The Enlightenment “subject,” armed with method and technology, views the external and environmental “object” as a happy hunting ground. The Frankfurters don’t reject the project of modernity because they agree with Marx and Henry Ford that mass production can free people from hunger and the political skirmishes that hunger provokes. But in denying its own dogmatic tendencies, positivism becomes as dogmatic as the religions it displaces, leading to the mad admixture of Aryan blood worship and the scientific management of the extermination camps.

Theodor Adorno joined with several empirical social psychologists to produce the 1950 work Authoritarian Personality in which they explore the domineering-but-submissive character type who genuflects to those above and oppresses those below, all the while scapegoating “others” who don’t fit the dominant narrative.

There is emerging consensus that Ebola, possibly like HIV/AIDS, can be traced to animal-human interactions in sub-Saharan Africa, especially where we see both deforestation and urban slums. Bats and other bush animals such as chimps are food for people living in penury, and the absence of adequate public health allows a few isolated cases to tip over into an epidemic. This appears on biomedical radar, as did HIV/AIDS, when illness jumps from Africa to western countries.

Illness goes viral when exploration, trade, as well as capital and population flows marry with the domination of nature. This is not a new story. The devastating rat-born plagues of the late-14th century infected squalid city life via seafaring. The pandemic influenza that killed tens of millions between 1918 and 1920 was hastened by travel and the world war, which concentrated germs in barracks and involved troop movements. Global capitalism promotes global illness.

Doctors without borders are required when borders dissolve. What Marx identified as flight of capital in 1849 is matched by flight of germs – a consequence of a global capitalism that cannot readily reverse nature’s ravages. The bubonic European rat has been replaced by the African bat as the nonhuman agent of nature’s revolt.

Dystopian narratives, such as the 1971 film treatment of TheAndromeda Strain and the 2011 film Contagion, combine with newsfeed journalism and dire message boards to produce viral panic when nature bites back. In this context, one might notice that Ebola panic and other apocalyptic events such as rampage shootings increasingly pivot on a distinction between heroes and villains. Soldiers are heroes, as are, now, Ebola doctors in West Africa. Villains are the possibly ISIS-inspired lone wolves who killed in Ottawa, Oklahoma and NYC.

This demonology produced the surreal imagery of the Dallas nurse who contracted Ebola, but was cured, hugging President Obama in the Oval Office set against the images of the returning nurse squatting in the quarantine tent, implying punishment. She has since been rehabilitated by “evidence-based” public-health professionals, suggesting a clean positivist resolution, even as Governor Christie pushes back in defending her initial quarantine. In his own words: “She had a tent inside. There’s been all kinds of malarkey about this. She was inside the hospital in a climate-controlled area with access to her cell phone, access to the internet, and takeout food from the best restaurants in Newark.”

Even at that, facing a 21-day self-quarantine in her home in Maine, she warned that “[I]f these restrictions are not removed for me by tomorrow morning . . . I will go to court.” And the secular standard of empirical evidence is not always embraced by Ebola heroes; the second afflicted Dallas nurse, treated at Emory, explained her cure with reference to faith and prayer. Reversing a decision to home-quarantine the Maine nurse for 21 days, a district court judge is now allowing her to venture outside on the condition that she submit to daily monitoring for symptoms and coordinate her travel with officials.

As of this writing, two paradigms of Ebola containment clash: Isolationists would cut off travel from Africa and quarantine health-care workers from West Africa, while globalizers would avoid quarantine in favor of monitored symptoms, such as fever, to treat the West African epidemic at its source.

Ebola is not particularly contagious, typically affecting one or two intimates. Ebola becomes epidemic where a public-health infrastructure is absent, requiring global intervention by progressive doctors and nurses willing to intervene. And it is increasingly clear that there is a differential demography of death, with Ebola mortality much higher in West Africa than (so far) in the United States, where early detection, hospitalization and antibody transfusions from Ebola survivors have allowed all but one US-based Ebola patient to survive.

Of greater moment is how dominion over nature and uneven development produce illness, both communicable and noncommunicable. Hunger, malnourishment and scant resources mean that some sub-Saharan Africans consume far too few categories, whereas others live in areas saturated with primarily Western fast food options that promote ill health in other ways. Blurred boundaries will probably raise the rates of heart disease and diabetes in heretofore poor countries, even as those countries host communicable diseases readily transmitted by travel.

Africa has been allowed to fall so far behind because the United States and former USSR spent the years between 1945 and 1989 spending massively on Cold War defense, preventing the superpowers from transferring capital to pre-industrial regions, which could have spurred literacy, industrialization, democracy, public health and sanitation.

Cold War capital – and not just CARE packages delivered as “foreign aid” – could also have caused a demographic transition in Africa, Asia and Latin America, as newly affluent people voluntarily limit family size to spend on other things. Since the end of the Cold War, world population has more than tripled, exacerbating problems of under- and uneven development.

The end of the Cold War has not ended the permanent war economy, which plays out now in the context of Middle Eastern religious and ethnic conflicts framed by the Western need for oil. Again, everything relates: Our involvement in these new wars prevents us from addressing the desperate demography and ecology of poor regions that see eco-illness go viral. These are choices, not iron laws. We could have avoided internal combustion, meat, the Manhattan Project. It is not too late to quarantine capitalism.