Race, Contagion, and the Nation: A Dialogue with Pedro Valdez, Abril Saldaña-Tejeda, Jenny Reardon, and Felicity Amaya Schaeffer
This dialogue is the third installment of the series, Dialogues on COVID-19 and Racism, by UC Santa Cruz Science & Justice Research Center’s Theorizing Race after Race (TRAR) working group. The first two dialogues cover Black Geographies of Quarantine, and Metrics, Enumeration, and the Politics of Knowledge in Estimating Racial Health Disparities. In this third dialogue, Race, Contagion, and the Nation,1 which took place during August 2021, graduate students Lucia Vitale and Dennis Browe, and undergraduate Sophia Parizadeh, hosted a Zoom video panel with four scholars from around the Americas discussing how COVID has revivified or changed the existing debates about race and racism in different trans/national contexts. The panel was structured around six main questions, which Sophia asked and are marked here in bold. The transcript of the dialogue has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Corresponding author, Lucia Vitale
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Lucia: We are delighted to welcome you to this dialogue. Today we have a panel featuring scholars from different disciplines and based in different countries around the Americas. Drawing on the various areas of expertise of our panelists, we plan to explore how COVID revivified or changed the existing debates about race and racism in different transnational contexts, focusing on ethnicity, race, nationality, and their formations. Dennis and I have been honored to organize and host this panel for you all today. I’d also like to introduce our moderator, Sophia.
Sophia: A big thank you to all of our panelists for being here today. We’d like to begin with a general question for our group. Do you know whether and/or how data on race was collected alongside COVID data in your country? And along with that, more fundamentally, how is race as a category defined or treated in your country? Has the collection or absence of racial data sparked any debate?
Abril: Well, certainly there is data collected, especially on what are the most affected states in Mexico and what is the proportion of Indigenous people living in these states. Of course, the first four states that have been most affected by COVID have the most Indigenous population there, but there are other states such as Mexico City that are recipients of migration from Indigenous communities. However, there is not really a discussion in the media about this data. So I will say that in terms of race and COVID, it is very difficult to discuss race in Mexico because of mestizaje, which is this idea that we are all mixed and we are all the same; it has made us really blind to how these racial disparities work in Mexico. Mestizaje was one of the foundational myths of our national formation process, so every time that race is discussed within the media, there’s this denial about it.2 It’s not only about Indigenous communities being affected by COVID, but also the racist practices that happened within the Mestizo community in terms of degrees of colors, or practices such as food intake, for instance, that are heavily racialized. And that’s why there’s really very little written or discussed in the media about race and racism in terms of COVID in Mexico.
Pedro: The context of the Dominican Republic is very similar to what Abril mentioned. First, it’s about the myth of mestizaje, which is a foundational myth of our national identity and not only in terms of race understood as a biological or phenotypical aspect, but also in terms of the culture and the national, Dominican identity. Unlike other countries in Central America and Mexico, the island of Quisqueya, shared by the Dominican Republic and Haiti, does not have any direct descendants from Indigenous populations. The colonization and extermination of the native population led to a mix between the enslaved people from Western Africa and the Spaniards. This mestizo idea was reinforced heavily after our War of Independence because even though the Dominican Republic has had different independences, from France, from Spain (and to some extent from the U.S.), the one that the DR celebrates is our independence from Haiti, a predominantly Afro-descendent population in terms of both culture and phenotypical traits. The Euro/Afro mix gave us Dominicans this idea about mestizaje, but one that celebrates the Spanish identity more. One of the strategies that was used to maintain the unity that comes out of “mestizaje” is the invisibilization of ethno-racial diversity of the country. Specifically, nowadays there is no official (government) data collected regarding race. Not even in the census. The variable race or ethnicity, it’s not been collected since 1981.
So, there has been no data collected here on race and COVID, because there is no race data collected in any regard. After the last census held in 2010, there was this discussion based on the argument of the conference of Durban about the introduction of public policy directed to Afro-descendant people. And there was a discussion that was intended to introduce the question of race for the 2020 census, but in the end it didn’t happen. Some say that not including race invizibilizes Afro-descendent people, and it covers colorism, or pigmentocracy. On the other hand, others say that it will just create division among Dominican people who are racially and culturally equal and united.
Felicity: In the United States we’ve been collecting COVID data since the beginning in April 2020, but only I think seven states were collecting data based on race and ethnicity. And of course, what those categories mean by state is very different. Many states don’t really track for Indigenous or Pacific Islander that might be the “Other” category, so it’s kind of all over the map. More recently, there have been more states that have been collecting racialized data. I think only two states now don’t. But as I think about what both of you are saying, it’s still this idea of race as a biological-phenotypical or a cultural category. And I think as the media sort of honed in on the rates of COVID by Black, Indigenous, and Latinx populations, the question became, why? And that was a really important question for those of us who think centrally about race and gender, and I think this was fomented by all of the smaller discussions about structural racism (that were happening during spring and summer 2020) to say what are the structural reasons why certain populations are being affected by COVID? And that has brought really marginal conversations into the mainstream in a way that we haven’t really seen before in this country.
Lucia: It’s really interesting to hear these reflections on mestizaje and also Felicity your contribution of thinking of how we’re tracking race data. Juan Pedroza of UCSC’s Sociology department was interviewed recently for an article in the Associated Press that looks at how the US has been tracking racial data in the census, and only since 2000 have people even been able to mark multiple races. So I think it’s interesting that we’re sort of seeing this very different reaction in the US where for so long, we’ve been only officially been able to declare ourselves as one race. And recently we’ve been having this experience of being able to mark multiple races.
Jenny: To add a little more to what Felicity had to say about the US., the CARES Act in the United States required the collection of racial data, but it wasn’t enforced. Also, there’s an index in California, the Healthy Places Index, that was being used by the state to decide who got access to the COVID vaccines: 40% of the vaccines were being reserved for the bottom 25% of communities. However, racial and ethnic data was not being used to create the HPI index. This is because of the 1996 ban on affirmative action in California. Further, California does not share race/ethnicity data with the CDC for the purposes of assessing health equity nationally because California is one of a few states that prohibits the sharing of racial and ethnic data with the federal government, citing laws to protect patient privacy.
So in the US there’s two things going on, there’s the national-level policy and the state-level policy. And we saw people stepping in – scholars, media, like The Atlantic with Alexis Madrigal, saying, ‘we need to collect this data not because race is biological, but because race captures structural racism.’ But unfortunately, others framed the link between race and COVID-19 as physiological. For example, there was a senator from Louisiana who said, ‘there’s all these comorbidities because of higher rates of diabetes, et cetera.’ So, while reporting on COVID-19 rates by race and ethnicity did bring to the attention of the American public issues of structural racism, it also unfortunately started to reinforce some of the old narratives that biologize race.
Sophia: On the topic of race and predispositions, Abril, in your recent work you discussed connections among race and having predispositions to contracting severe COVID such as obesity and diabetes, but importantly, not by treating these chronic diseases as racial features of individual bodies, but by making the argument for treating social and structural forces, such as racism and poverty themselves, as pre-existing conditions. We want to ask you, what kind of reception does this type of argument receive from the media, and how does the media narrative play into these arguments about race as an individualized bodily health risk in Mexico? And then for the larger group, how else have you seen race be used in these conversations on predispositions for severe COVID in your countries and transnationally?
Abril: First I want to say, in Mexico one of the things that the media focuses on is the unreliable data that we have in terms of cases and deaths. If we don’t have reliable data, we won’t have reliable data on anything. Now, at the beginning of the pandemic there was a narrative of national genetic strength in Mexico that linked mestizaje (admixture) with a supposedly genetic strength against COVID. And there was this newspaper column written by García Soto where he described a special meeting between the President and the health team coordinating the national COVID strategy. According to Soto, at that meeting, the President was informed that due to genetics, and I’m quoting here, “the Mexican race was more resistant to this type of virus than other races such as the European.” It was argued that the resistance was linked to the Mexican genome, it was suspected that the race (mestizaje) was going to positively affect the impact of the new coronavirus among the Mexican population.
A few days later, Julio Granados Arriola, a renowned geneticist, backed this story and said that it was genetic admixture and not the purity of our population that was going to provide us strength in this global crisis. And this was all very interesting because national genetic admixture was previously linked to chronic diseases and food intake. So, food has always been central for the colonial enterprise from the very beginning. Rebecca Earle has done really good work on this. In the Mexican discourse and media, food has been used as a tool for racial differentiation that then finds another voice through obesity and other health risks that are already at the center of a lot of genomic and epigenomic research in Mexico.
So then things started to get really, really bad with COVID. And then the discourse of strong genetic mestizaje disappeared. And then the media, and especially the government, started to focus on obesity and other predispositions. We started to see cartoons from official media sites that were blaming and making individuals responsible for their own health, apparently people that were diagnosed or perceived as obese. Fatness was the center stage of blaming and shaming people for the national COVID statistics that were being reported. Meanwhile, we didn’t have mandatory mask use. We didn’t have vaccinations, we didn’t have any sort of COVID safety protocol. So, after the national strategy failed to protect people, the easiest way to go forward was to blame people that were suffering from these predispositions. The Mexican government published a cartoon to educate people on the risk of obesity linked to COVID and distributed it to 30 million households. So, of course they were not distributing tests, but they were distributing these kinds of cartoons that were feeding into the fat-phobic frenzy that now you can see emerging in Mexico.
Pedro: I am really glad Dr. Saldaña brought up the idea of intersectionality, because if we depart from the vision of racism as a structural problem, then we necessarily pass through this idea: racism interlocks with other systems of domination and other aspects of social life. In the Dominican Republic there is a huge interlock between race and class and there is overlapping discourse about racialized bodies and impoverished bodies and communities. In the Dominican Republic these racial imaginaries are related to cultural patterns, sometimes even with religious conceptions about divinity and a spirituality, such as Haitian voodoo.
I brought up the example of Haitian people because they are the main target of racism in the country. Since Haitians are by far the largest immigrant group in the Dominican Republic, they are often the subject of my work at the National Institute of Migration. There are ideas about illnesses in Haitian populations related to cultural and religious traits, such as not being Christian. Even despite the fact that more than half of the Haitian population is Christian, Christianity is not part of the imaginary about Haitians, and attention to the voodoo practices often hides this reality about Christianity in Haiti. And I mentioned this because other illnesses, such as the cholera epidemic they suffered shortly after the 2010 earthquake, are sometimes in the public opinion related to a divine punishment: they are having this situation economically, socially, and health-wise because of Haitian ‘witchcraft practices,’ pagan practices, or their lack of ‘God’.
And on the other hand, we carried out research at the beginning of the year (2021) about the impact of COVID on immigrant populations in the Dominican Republic. And one interesting point that arose in the focus groups is Haitians’ own perceptions on COVID. First, there was the idea within Haitian population about Black people being immune to COVID. Some Haitian people mentioned explicitly that COVID was an illness for white people or for non-Black people and they didn’t have to follow security measures because they were already immune due to their Blackness. They were not only somehow skeptical about the illness, but also skeptical about the vaccine. Because they say, “well, if I am already immune, why do I have to have a vaccine? Plus, what if this vaccine is a weapon used by the Dominican government to attack us?” And these discourses based on race and ethno-racial relationships definitely affect the way that they perceive their tolerance, their risk to illness. We also held interviews with health workers near the border who echoed this information, saying Haitians do not believe in COVID. And these factors do affect the ways both populations live alongside each other.
Felicity: I think what we’ve seen in the US maps onto what I think both of you are saying about this kind of easy slippage between those who are seen as more at risk, because they have a sort of medical or health predisposition, and then the ways that race itself works as a kind of predisposition to being contagious or a threat. We’re seeing this definitely happen in the mapping of territory, in the way that certain migrants get coded as threat at the border. And it has sort of allowed swaths of the U.S. population to think that they are immune and don’t have to worry about being contaminated by COVID, that it’s not going to affect them, without thinking about also how they spread COVID to others who are more at risk. As Jenny said, this cuts both ways: we’ve had these stories that come out that talk about, for example, why Indigenous peoples in the US are at the highest risk, versus media stories that focus on how health is related to environmental degradation that has long affected Native reservations. I think there is some understanding in the US about the relationship between environmental degradation and health risks. But then you see the focus just moving towards vaccines rather than thinking about how we address these structural issues. And that I think is the most damaging and shuts down the possibilities of these dialogues and a deeper understanding of health and environment that could have been possible.
Jenny: I’ve been thinking about how the environment is configured across these national contexts too. Early on, the challenge in the US was to not fall back on this biologizing discourse of race and to look at what you just said, Felicity, about environmental racism. Structural racism and degradation of environments had a big role to play, but then, related to what you had to say, Abril, the configuration of race as cultural-environmental, as Sebastián Gil-Riaño and others have argued, has been used in Latin America (and elsewhere) as a form of racism as well. So these things are very difficult to speak about. And certainly what is needed is a lot more nuance and complexity in these discussions. However, unfortunately–but predictably–what we saw in the middle of the pandemic was people pulling off the shelf the available narratives and using categories to try and box things in and contain COVID-19. There was a big desire to have a simple narrative and to believe we could control this virus. So I I think there’s an interesting discussion to have about what COVID-19 is doing to our transnational discussions about race. Is it an opportunity to open up the discussion, or is it actually creating less subtle discussions?
Early on in the pandemic I had to go back to Kansas because of a death in my family. And I was in a small town in Kansas, talking to someone there who said, ‘We haven’t had any COVID cases until now, but the one person who does have it is Native American, so I am not worried.’ This person felt protected by their ‘race’ (or whiteness). It was shocking to me just how simplistic some of that thinking was. But it should not shock. Historically, in these kinds of health crises, people gravitate to narratives that say ‘it’s them, not me.’ So I’m particularly interested in this transnational discussion, because I think it does pull out the importance of thinking contextually about how these narratives are being used and that there isn’t some universal good to some mode of understanding these issues.
Sophia: In all these conversations on race, it’s important to remember as racial identity theorist and counseling psychologist Dr. Janet E. Helms reminds us in her 2020 book A Race is a Nice Thing to Have, that ‘white’, too, is a race. She writes, “Finally, some White people are recognizing that they have a race. Part of the reason racism is so intractable in our society is that White people don’t think about being White; they just act White.” Considering this quote by Dr. Helms and considering what Paul Farmer calls ‘geographies of blame’ (i.e. Which places are thought of as ‘diseased’?). How have you seen whiteness show up in discourses on disease? If I may direct this question first to Pedro, in the context of the Dominican Republic, which as I understand is used to hosting tourists, how have white foreigners been received on the island?
Pedro: I’m really glad for your question, Sophia, because tourism has been a huge topic in the D.R. The tourism industry is pretty much the most developed economic activity of the country. With connected activities it accounts for more than 22% of our GDP and makes up more than 12% of the Dominican labor force. So it is important to the Dominican economy and due to COVID, it was heavily affected. The first detected case of COVID in the Dominican Republic was from an Italian tourist. When this happened, the question became: “Should we put health or economy first?” And the tension between health and economy drove the public policies and the decisions taken by the policy makers. And for us, tourism is inextricably related to whiteness because most of our tourists are either white or are coming from European countries and the United States. On the other hand, there were some claims from other groups who kind of compared the situation to the colonial times, specifically referencing Western colonizers carrying illnesses from Europe such as the smallpox epidemic on the island that killed thousands of natives.
In contrast to this situation, there is the story about the Haitian populations in the country. We have a porous border with Haiti with a high incidence of irregular immigration. Haitians don’t just come to settle in the country permanently, but also come to work in specific agricultural settings and then they go back to Haiti in cyclical, seasonal patterns. There are also those who come to the DR to trade with Dominicans and then go back, as with informal commerce at the border. Trade with Haiti is also an important part of our economy as Haiti is the second largest economic partner of the Dominican Republic. However, the discourse was different than it was when we were discussing tourism with Europe and North America. The idea spread that Haitians were intentional carriers of COVID.3 And this also created a different discourse in public opinion and in the media about the necessity of controlling the border, not only because of national sovereignty, but because of national health. So, European tourists and Haitian migrants and workers: two different cultural groups, two different racial groups, two different important economic sectors of the country. Two dissimilar situations about people being ill, going through borders, two different approximations because of their racial makeup, and because of the economic power associated with these racial and cultural groups.
Abril: In Mexico this is happening more within the Mestizo population. I think one of the most striking images in Mexico is restaurants where you can see who wears a mask and who doesn’t. Because if you think about masks, you use masks to protect others, not to protect yourself. One of the things that I was observing lately is the issue of domestic work. I mean, domestic work has been an occupation heavily and negatively racialized in Mexico from colonial times and we still see it everywhere, in film, media, soap operas. You find a lot of testimonies, sometimes in the media and sometimes anecdotes of domestic workers having to wear masks when they work, but no one else is wearing a mask within the house. So in a way, we are enacting whiteness through ideas of contagious bodies, you know, who has the body of contagion and who is not contagious.
Sophia: Thank you for that. I’d like to open this next question up to everyone, but specifically our migration and border scholars. The pandemic has halted travel and influenced migration patterns, both within countries and between countries. What is the role of the border during the pandemic? In what ways have you seen its meaning shift? How has it stayed the same? And in what ways have you seen borders, nationality, and geographies of citizenship mapping onto new formations of race and ethnicity over the past year and a half?
Felicity: Well, it’s so obvious when we look at the policies of President Trump and the ways that he really tried to strongarm some of the public health officials at the border to refuse any kind of entry from any refugees or asylum seekers, and only got traction with that when COVID hit. Since the beginning of COVID, I think there’s been something around 650,000 expulsions of those who are seeking entry based on their status as refugees and asylum seekers and migrants. And one of the things I think is important to think about the border is that it’s really just exacerbated as a very carceral space of containment and expulsion. And the quarantine is itself a kind of border, a kind of containment that I think is being mapped onto detention centers and jails. The border itself is actually becoming a super-spreading force that those that get sent to detentions and jails are actually contracting COVID. They’re not coming with COVID, they’re getting it at the border. And there’s been very little discussion about that. The kinds of precarity that our border policies are actually creating and the killing of many people and the making of many people really sick and in very dangerous situations is at the level of a crisis.
And President Biden has not stopped and halted any of the policies that Trump started and in fact has made them worse. He’s actually expelled more people than Trump did. And there’s also gendered effects of this. Nonwhite women who come across the border are especially suspect for being pregnant, for spreading diseases. We should also consider the long historical context of the border as a kind of quarantine, with the ships and the quarantine stations that sprayed migrants, especially from Mexico, with DDT. The ships that checked women for different kinds of diseases, right? This has a long history, especially in terms of who has been marked as the diseased bodies that the government has created laws to prevent crossing into the nation—the nation as a very white and sanitized space.
Pedro: I just want to add a little bit to that. A border’s role is to protect, right? To protect what a country considers its own territory or its own population. And within this pandemic borders still have this aim of protecting, but what has changed dramatically is how we can protect ourselves from an enemy who is not a body or a weapon in the traditional sense, but a virus. Borders have been reinvented dramatically. This week I have been going through different airports in the Dominican Republic to know more about migration controls, and I’ve seen how these watching mechanisms are not only confined to the territory of the Dominican Republic, but it starts way before a person leaves their own country due to airports’ communication. And the borders are not only seen in terms of “Oh! this is the division between my territory and your territory”, but also in terms of showing them the tests, showing the vaccine cards or the lists of the countries who are red. Many of these watching mechanisms are not part of the traditional mindset that we have regarding a border.
Abril: I was thinking about borders and this whole genetic research initiative that I think involves many countries that are looking into COVID predisposition and population genomics. And I was thinking about this idea, this name of the ‘super spreaders.’ I just cannot believe what’s going to be the consequence. What would happen if a population based on ancestry is described as ‘super spreaders,’ what would be the impact and use of that data?
Jenny: I’m glad you mentioned that, Abril. I was wanting to talk about this issue. It took a long, long time for even the World Health Organization to comment at all about the problem of linking population names to variants. I would have thought that after the histories that we’ve all been through, the AIDS crisis, from what we learned from what Paula Treichler has called the “epidemic of signification,“ and all the work that’s been done critiquing population genetics and the importance of understanding the social meanings that travel along with these supposedly just biological classifications, that the linking of disease to population categories would not have been accepted so easily. Why did it take so long for WHO to recommend using letters of the Greek alphabet, as opposed to associating all of these variants with countries like the UK or India? So yes, population genetics has been celebrated, there’s been this push to do all this DNA sequencing. And I think it’s really important to be thinking about how that is going to affect–now that we’re getting into this COVID passport mode–how that will go together with how we think about the borders of the nation. So, nation, population, race. It’s all kind of falling into place in a way that we could have predicted, unfortunately. I think it’s really important for there to be some kind of public pushback right now because of these issues that Felicity was so articulate about and Pedro too—about the power of the border and who can move and who has rights.
Abril: Yeah. You can start to see the rhetoric and if we go back to the idea of this national pride of the strength of Mestizaje, and it’s actually a colonial mechanism to deny our strength as a nation. And then genetics, because we supposedly have these genes that will protect us from this virus. How this initiative to research genetics and disease resistance will feed into some sort of weird contest of who has the strongest genes to resist a virus, and what kinds of discourses this will create. In Mexico, we have a terrible history of racism against Asians with a massacre of 300 Asian people, mostly Cantonese Mexicans, a century ago in 1911. So with COVID again, there was a huge social media and hate discourse against people from China. And we all know this is happening everywhere. Because again, they’re just being made into these contagious bodies. And we’re feeding that by naming variables that, as you say, Jenny, the WHO took way too long to address that issue.
Sophia: This next question actually speaks on legacies of colonialism. We’re in a moment where the discourse on health has been overcome with attention to the infectious disease of COVID-19. Lucia, I know you look at transnational health initiatives and how legacies of colonialism are present in contemporary multilateral agencies, such as the World Health Organization in binational diplomatic relations, and in spaces of transnational charity medical aid, many of which seem to be all consumed with COVID relief. What kinds of other crucial health conversations have you seen sidelined and how do you see these legacies of colonialism present in these conversations?
Lucia: I think this is an important question and it’s been brought up by a few of us so far in our conversation. We kind of see this “colonial hangover,” which is what the Director of the WHO, Dr. Tedros, has called it, present in a lot of national and transnational pandemic responses around the world. We’re sort of in the midst of this defining moment in global health and we’re seeing COVID-19 expose and exploit a lot of these health inequalities around the world. And one of the ways that COVID has become an x-ray of these health fragilities and inequalities is by showing us how unprepared these primary healthcare systems are to take on a proper pandemic response. And this unpreparedness is not happening in a vacuum. Black feminist theorist, Christina Sharpe, gives us this excellent way to think about the “colonial hangover.” Using the metaphor of the ship, she explains how these present-day exploitative relationships exist in the wake of colonialism and the transatlantic slave trade. And so when we place these pandemic responses in the wake of slavery and in the wake of colonialism, we can notice just how these historical patterns are showing up contemporarily. I think one such way, and this goes to your question, Sophia, is how public health systems in many Global South countries were subject to structural adjustment programs (SAPs) in the 1970s by agencies like the International Monetary Fund, which required a major defunding of these public services in order to meet these very austere loan requirements.
So what these underfunded public health systems have led to is this slew of international interventions that are typically focused on providing one service. For example, donations of COVID PPE to one rural community in the southern Dominican Republic during the month of June, 2020. So, we have these very targeted interventions that are existing in one location during one time and providing one singular health service. What this ends up engendering at the local scale is this unstable system of healthcare that becomes reliant on the charity of organizations in the Global North and is unable to therefore feed the development of a stable primary healthcare system. And so I think to answer your second question, Sophia, on the types of conversations that are being sidelined is that I see little interest or attention being given to addressing the root causes of ill preparedness, i.e. weak public health care systems. And these conversations, of course, are intimately bound up in conversations of colonial legacies as they are existing in the wake of the transatlantic slave trade.
Felicity: I think that’s also contributing to circulating images of the third world into the global north in the same kind of colonial racial scheme that we’ve been talking about. I mean, this happened in Ecuador. There were news stories of bodies all over the streets that circulated in the United States, but the backdrop is exactly what you just told us, right? The SAPs that have closed down hospitals, they’ve let go of workers. And there’s just nobody and no structures left to handle when COVID hits.
Abril: One of the most striking images of colonialism nowadays is the distribution of vaccinations. I’m really amazed about why we haven’t given this more attention. I was writing something on human genome editing and this insistence of engaging the public in the conversation and creating future publics. And I was thinking about the message that the (colonial) uneven distribution of vaccinations around the world is going to give the majority of people. Can we really think about a global public engagement with any debate around the future of health technologies after this? What can we expect if the benefits of science are not equally distributed around the world? How can we think about booster vaccines for the global north, when the global south doesn’t have any vaccinations, or not nearly enough vaccinations? You know, I was in Texas the other day and I’d look at people being vaccinated in H-E-B [a supermarket chain] and in Costco. And I was like, this is the most colonial image that I’ve ever seen. I can’t believe people can really go to H-E-B to have a vaccine. I mean, we can’t do that here. It’s not that we don’t have it, you know, there are places that are worse than Mexico, but I think that’s a huge image of having more than you need, right? It’s this consumerism where ‘we have it and we don’t need it, and you don’t have it, but we still won’t send it to you.’ And I think this colonial practice is going to have a huge consequence in the way that people trust science.
I think that this other huge colonial and kind of white enactment image is the issue of choice. Like, who has the privilege of choice? You know, ‘I have the privilege of not being vaccinated. I know I can go to H-E-B to be vaccinated, but I choose not to do so.’ It’s so white in a way that some people in some countries think that they are entitled to have the freedom to do something or not. You know, there are some countries in the global north that think that they are entitled not to be tested for COVID before traveling to places like Mexico. I know people that have traveled to Mexico with COVID, but they are not required to have a test because they have this political freedom to choose because they are, you know, individuals with autonomy. So in a way, autonomy is still a privilege of the global North and of colonialism.
Sophia: Yeah. I have family members in Iran who are quite literally dying to get the vaccine, and then you have the privilege of people here denying it. So for the last question and as one to encourage further reflection, as we all move forward with our own work at the start of another academic year, has the meaning of racial justice on a global scale and/or health justice shifted in your own work and projects since the start of COVID and the Black Lives Matter racial justice movement last summer? What have you had to keep up with and pay attention to, and how have your thoughts shifted in general?
Abril: I will say that it’s very unfortunate that it has shifted because it’s like COVID is everywhere, which is annoying because I wanted to focus on my previous project, but I just felt that I couldn’t see anything anymore without considering COVID. But at the same time is something I can keep talking about because everything that we were doing, we had to consider COVID. And because we have to consider COVID, we have to consider structural racism and all other things that are so visible with COVID. And it’s a shame because sometimes we lose track of the other things we were trying to focus on.
Pedro: I will say that in the Dominican Republic, the Black Lives Matter movement kind of sparked or restarted the discussion. The anti-racist movement has been working for a long time, sometimes in the shadows, and sometimes even being accused of being “pro-Haitian” or Afrophilic. And the Black Lives Matter movement kind of showed that the problem of racism is global. That structural racism is an inherent part of modern Western capitalist societies, and that there is a feeling of oppression and a public history of oppression among African-descendant people in the world. If it has shaped the work I personally do, yes it has made it feel a little bit clearer. However, it has been really difficult to introduce the conversation of racial justice within the Dominican state agenda because of the difficulties I mentioned earlier. I think that having people to discuss this topic is already a win for us who believe in anti-racism and who believe in pro-Blackness to some extent. I feel part of an African diaspora that is all around the world, that even people living in different societies and different cultural settings confront very similar problems because of our shared history.
Felicity: This has changed my teaching. I recently taught a class called “race as a pandemic” and looking at it in a kind of global, more transnational Latin American context. And as you mentioned, Abril, I think having to really keep our eye on the colonial history that still shapes everything about COVID as an exceptional event that’s not exceptional and that it shows us how much these structures have remained in place, unfortunately, as much as people like to think that we have progressed. But we have so much more work to do. I also think that it’s a moment in which we’re seeing evermore the importance of thinking about racial, gender, sexual justice in a comparative and transnational context. In the book I just recently finished I’m looking at the US-Mexico border, not just from the perspective of migrants, but from the Native Americans who actually live across the border and how that border has been shaped by a settler colonial history that is still affecting them today. And not a lot of people think about the border from an Indigenous perspective and how the actual technologies that are used to survey come from Indigenous perspectives, even as they’re very misappropriated and that a lot of their way of life, of living in this very relational way with land is being destroyed as they’re being occupied. So I think, yeah, COVID is getting me to think very much about land and how important and central land is in all of our discussions of health and justice, racism, and so on.
Jenny: I think about this pandemic as having so many different periods in it. I remember the early part where I had hoped there would be the revelation of the importance of the breakdown of the public health infrastructure, and this would be a catalyst for paying attention to it. But unfortunately, I think we’re seeing the re-entrenchment of a form of biomedicalization, the celebration of the vaccine. I managed to write a piece early on in this whole thing called V is for Veracity, because I was worried that everyone would be focused on the so-called victory day, the day we got the vaccine. Yet it was clear from the very beginning that vaccines were not going to end this pandemic. And I think it now has become really evident as the problem of the lack of trust in science and government has become strikingly evident. The core problem is that there’s a lack of collectivity. Without a collective, and with so much focus on the rights of individuals, you cannot solve a pandemic. A pandemic must be solved collectively, and we are woefully thin in our abilities to act collectively. So that’s my negative take on what happened during this. My positive take is that the Science & Justice Research Center engaged more with our colleagues around the world. Except for time zones, it is now just as easy to talk to our colleagues in South Africa or Mexico or Germany as it is to talk to someone in Santa Cruz or San Francisco. So I hope we will continue to engage more transnationally as a community of scholars, as we are in this dialogue.
Lucia: This is great. Thanks everyone for these really thoughtful contributions and answers to these questions.
- We thank TRAR member, Dr. James Doucet-Battle, for suggesting this fitting title.
- Vasquez, E. E., & Deister, V. G. (2019). “Mexican samples, Latino DNA: the trajectory of a national genome in transnational science.” Engaging Science, Technology, and Society, 5, 107-134; Moreno Figueroa, M. G., & Saldívar Tanaka, E. (2016). “‘We are not racists, we are Mexicans’: Privilege, nationalism and post-race ideology in Mexico.” Critical Sociology, 42 (4-5), 515-533.
- For parallels, see Paul Farmer’s early work, AIDS and Accusation: Haiti and the Geography of Blame (originally published in 1992), which details the ways in which Haitians, or the Haitian body, are represented as inherently contagious in the early days of the AIDS epidemic.