As the coronavirus pandemic continues to restructure our day-to-day lives, many have turned to the ongoing HIV/AIDS pandemic in search of meaning, clarity, and, quite possibly, a coherent politics. While the utility of HIV/AIDS as an extended analogy for Covid-19 has been duly criticised (since the transmission routes, infectivity, global spread, and communities affected differ markedly), one thing is certain: both HIV/AIDS and Covid-19 are political as well as medical crises.
In particular, risk is a political issue across both pandemics. Who is considered to pose a risk and who is placed in proximity to risk are underpinned by familiar and pre-existing structures of class, income, racial and sexual inequality. In the fraught war against Covid-19 transmission, the figure of the good and responsible coronavirus citizen is increasingly being weaponised in an attempt to discipline reckless risk-taking behaviour. If we are to develop a just and more ethical response to Covid-19, we need to address how these disciplinary modes of thinking obfuscate the way that certain privileges smooth the path to practicing ‘responsible’ pandemic behaviour. And it is here that looking to the politics of HIV/AIDS can be helpful.
The construction of a “good” coronavirus citizen who acts responsibly is, in part, the product of a widespread citizen-led disciplinary regime of hashtagging – #stayathome – and peer surveillance. Citizens are encouraged, and encourage one another, to practice social distancing and strict self-isolation in a bid to “flatten the curve” and mitigate the effects of a pandemic threatening the lives of some of the most vulnerable members of society. Users share photos or videos of themselves reading, exercising, cooking, and hobbying under the sign of #stayathome – asserting their own asceticism and the possibility of wholesome domestic bliss in the name of public health.
This disciplinary regime rewards good citizens with peer approval and the warm glow of virtuous action. Moreover, it affords individuals the opportunity to partake in new forms of collectivity or community structured around emergent ideals of civic-mindedness. Even Instagram, a social media platform that typically encourages users to craft unique online identities, now gathers #stayathome stories on its home-screen as a way for users to engage with and reward their friends’ pandemic practices.
These new forms of collectivity can be understood as a soothing extension of solidarity across individuals who are increasingly being asked to make uncomfortable sacrifices as a way of protecting others. From an ethical perspective, then, #stayathome might ostensibly be congratulated for its orientation towards society’s most vulnerable. But the disciplinary mode of thinking that manifests the “good” coronavirus citizen raises a set of familiar concerns: namely, it simultaneously imagines and punishes the “bad” coronavirus citizen as an unspeakable, irresponsible deviant. Just as they are called on to cheer on and facilitate the responsible practices of their peers, individuals are encouraged to monitor and punish those who violate these norms: those who fail to stay at home. With the hashtag “COVIDIOT”, for instance, Twitter users routinely share examples of bad pandemic practice, shaking their collective heads over reports of seemingly frivolous trips to the outside world or images of crowded streets or public transport that suggest imperfect compliance with social distancing.
This dichotomy is troubling and deeply flawed: it is wilfully ignorant of the privileges that facilitate the ability to #stayathome. While staying at home remains an easy choice for wealthy people in harmonious living arrangements, it is fraught for others. Celebrities, millionaires and billionaires preach about the importance of staying at home from sprawling, multi-million pound homes – sometimes sharing galling images of self-isolation from their super yachts.
But for those in imperfect living conditions, those in dangerous living situations, those without a permanent home, those with mental or physical impairments, those who have been asked to leave home, staying at home is not only troubling, it is often impossible. The “good” coronavirus citizen, then, might be de facto, people who already adhere to pre-existing norms of family and consumption – who existed, pre-pandemic, in states of relative domestic comfort and ease. The “bad” coronavirus citizen, who is considered bad or deviant, is, by extension, a queer, poor, racialised, disabled, Other.
Here, reflections on the HIV/AIDS crisis may offer some crucial guidance. Within the dominant regime of HIV prevention, agency – our ability to act and make conscious, autonomous decisions – is often unhelpfully inflated in relation to risk-taking behaviour. In situations where individuals are expected to behave rationally in relation to risk (that is, to avoid it at all costs), those that are deemed to take risks (to be a gay man, for instance, who engages in sex without condoms) are deemed irrational, irresponsible, or reckless.
As a counterpoint to this way of thinking, in his book The Gay Science, theorist Kane Race argues that where gay men who have sex without condoms have been figured as intentional deviates, ‘unsafe’ sex may be the outcome of a range of factors, including “erectile difficulty or frustration with condoms, getting carried away with the moment…, not knowing how to introduce a condom, being drunk or out of it on drugs, forgetting, an accident, personal turmoil – and this is only the beginning of an interminable list.”
Accordingly, an approach to risk-taking that over-emphasises individual choice or intention as the thing that determines our behaviour (i.e. inflating agency), overlooks the role of circumstance, contingency, and structures beyond our control. Such a limited and ultimately damaging way of thinking is consistent with the disciplinary culture of the coronavirus moment we find ourselves in now, where shame is the weapon of choice of the good coronavirus citizen against the bad one. Under a responsibilising imperative to #stayathome, precarious and low-income workers who have no choice but to travel to work are shamed by their middle-class peers who can comfortably work from home – as in the collective outrage of Twitter users sharing images of workers crammed onto busy trains (as if these people were on their way to a seaside jaunt rather than on their rush hour commute). Sex workers who have no choice but to work streets (if we move beyond the naïve assumption that internet-based sex work is an easy and financially viable alternative to street work) are shamed by those whose work is regarded as legitimate and who therefore would largely have the support of the state if their work was to fall through.
In addition, state authority is, more and more, being enrolled to police responsible behaviour – both in the sense that police powers have been expanded in response to the pandemic and that citizens are increasingly calling the authorities with concerns about their neighbours’ poor social distancing practices. Not only will an increased police presence, empowered by the mandate of public health, disproportionately impact and concern people of colour, but, where individual agency is dramatically inflated, instances of Covid-19 transmission and the violation of social distancing norms will be punished as acts of intentional and flagrant criminality rather than as a product of broader circumstance or necessity. The policing of coronavirus citizenship – as in the arrest of eight men hosting an orgy in Barcelona – already reveals that those who are most marginal are more likely to be targeted under the guise of public health intervention, since their behaviour is more likely to be considered a priori non-adherence to responsible practice.
Yet, within the many individual responses to this pandemic, there are points of tension that warrant attention. While many of the individuals who are labelled “bad” coronavirus citizens or “Covidiots” simply cannot adhere to the increasingly moralised norms of social distancing, others, who are far better equipped to adhere to these norms, violate them by producing and existing in states of exceptionalism. As we have seen over the past weeks, ironically, many of those who would otherwise easily display the traits that presuppose “good” coronavirus citizenship (e.g. wealth, class domestic comfort) are reported as frequently transgressing the norms of social distancing. In gentrified areas of London, it was recently reported that parks, farmers markets and flower markets were overflowing with people just days after the government and NHS advised people to maintain a distance of at least two metres apart in public.
For many of these individuals, populating public spaces and moving within dense crowds was made possible by producing states of exceptionalism: telling themselves they do not exist in proximity to risk of Covid-19 because they are young, well, wealthy, able-bodied, somatically ‘normal’. This behaviour departs from what I have suggested is the dominant intervention of HIV scholarship in the epistemology of risk-taking. Here, agency is not being inflated – as in the case where the “bad” coronavirus citizen may be falsely apprehended as having made the choice to go outside. Rather, from the seat of class, sexual and racial privilege, individuals who do have a choice (to #stayathome) are exploiting their agency – opting to leave their homes for the questionable motive of buying flowers on a crowded street or an overpriced lunch at a crowded market. Others, more vulnerable, are put at their mercy.
The lesson here is clear: the existing regime rewards those with the most privilege twice over, configuring them as “good” coronavirus citizens and enabling them to occupy states of exceptionalism. These positions are, paradoxically, possible concomitantly – as in Piers Morgan shaming “Covidiots” from the studio of Good Morning Britain. It is crucial, therefore, that we distinguish carefully between moments where agency is inflated – for example, where a low-income worker might violate the norms of social distancing out of economic necessity – and where agency is exploited – for example, where an affluent person chooses to violate the norms of social distancing by making an exception for themselves. Only by recognising these discrepancies can we develop a Covid-19 politics that is sensitive to the limits of agency structured by race, class, nationality, ability, sexuality, and so on.
Such a politics not only enables us to circumvent a sanctimony that merely serves to ego stroke, along with the escalation of situations by involving law enforcement, but helpfully points to the broader structures and issues – for instance, precarity, low income, poor housing conditions, limited state support, domestic violence, homopohobia and transphobia – that thwart #stayingathome and limit equitable approaches to flattening the curve.
Benjamin Weil is a PhD researcher in the Department of Science and Technology Studies at UCL.