It was Susan Sontag who, in the 1970s, made the point that the literature (both popular and scientific) pertaining to diseases such as tuberculosis, and later HIV, was associated with psychological traits (mania, depression, anxiety, repression), in which the latter were seen to give rise, potentially, to the former.
It was not surprising, for example, in the early literature on HIV to read about how homosexual behaviour (because both the sin and sinner are embodied in one body) gave rise to the disease, and that the disease served to function as a metaphor for the deviance (moral and natural) associated with non-heterosexual groups. In the same way, perhaps, historic writings about debilitations associated with gender and colour gave rise to a powerful binary language of racism and sexism by which a series of moral and scientific judgements could be made, legitimised and socially accepted.
In relation to the “weaker” sex, women were seen to be more inclined to hysteria, irrationality and a weakness of moral and physical character. leading to nervous conditions. “Weaker” races were inclined to depraved sexual appetites and an incapacity for labour and moral rectitude. A range of physical, educational and social delimitations could be justified and then designed to “protect” both the fairer sex and the weaker races — from themselves, and from further contaminating a mostly white and enabled male self.
Segue 2020, the Covid-19 pandemic, and a coalescence of writing about disease, disease groups, lockdown, curfews and curtailments of rights (association and movement) in the name of protection from the self and potential contamination from others. It’s difficult to assert, perhaps, that the emergence of global resistance to police brutality (framed as both are by the right to power over the powerless and the right to assert paternal protection), the Black Lives Matter movement and the fear of contagion associated with Covid-19, are causally linked. But that they have come together in history sheds light on the nature of discourse and action in a time of disease and disorder.
What do the events of Covid-19, the killing of George Floyd and the toppling of Bristol’s statue of slave-trader Edward Colston express about the human condition at this time of disease-anxiety and global economic recession?
For Sontag, the discourse of disease speaks to the moral shaming of the victim of disease. At the base of disease (the wilful denial of HIV by the Ronald Reagan and Thabo Mbeki administrations, in the United States and South Africa, respectively) is blame: homosexuals visited it on themselves in bath houses and loose women were to be taught lessons through it in their villages.
Stigma (a form of blame) is enabling for those not burdened by it: it enables a knee to bend that much more heavily on a neck, and for family members to chase Covid-19 or HIV sufferers from a family home because the disease is the fault and responsibility of the diseased. For those bearing it, comes the social shame of rejection (personal, communal, institutional and social).
Black Lives Matter has become a touchstone for those people refusing to be chased out. The toppling of a statue that stood for almost 150 years brazenly unnoticed is both a sign of imperial forgetting and the shaming of its dispossessed. But, it’s not enough. Imperial impulses (to control without accountability, to extract without compensation, to enslave without reparation) have not retreated under the cloak of Covid-19, but rather are felt by many citizens globally to have been emboldened, if not permitted, by the very state enjoined to protect and sustain a population.
Population-growth pundits and epidemiologists suggest that Covid-19 was well on its way to us, and we were, through our excesses, dangerously close to being deserving of its touch. Moral righteousness has followed on the heels of the medically justified disease controls, and human rights curtailments veered dangerously close to justifiable force needed to repress imminent disorder created by disease. Old patterns concerning control have re-emerged, but what is new is how these have been illuminated through, for example Black Lives Matter, to reveal old practices and an unease (or disease) that will not heal.
Resistance formations, having sparked the visible identification of symbols associated with historic forms of oppression, suggest a heightened and universal preoccupation with violence (whether institutionalised violence in form of exclusion, marginalisation or forceful removal of groups) and (racist) oppression: disease of other kinds.
What seems sometimes absent from the narratives concerning disease and disorder is that these old patterns of control and shaming point to a refusal by institutions of power (the police or indeed an Oxford College) to account for historically produced injustice, and beyond that, a concern that the injustices, both past and present, draw on diseased alliances between institutions of power and wealth, even when in the form of prestigious scholarships and philanthropy.
Robert Balfour is deputy vice-chancellor for teaching and learning at North-West University and professor of languages education