latest from the magazine
latest journal issue
See Uli Beisel's most recent Society & Space contributions: Jumping Hurdles with Mosquitoes? and Provincialising Waste: The Transformation of Ambulance Car 7/83–2 to Tro-Tro Dr. Jesus
Sealed in a body bag, the deceased is carried out on a stretcher and added to the other bodies in the pick-up truck, waiting to be driven to the King Tom cemetery. ©EC/ECHO/Anouk Delafortrie
To begin with: my initial idea for this piece was to use the remains of body bags as a future fossil in order to interrogate the entanglements of epidemics, the Anthropocence and –what the New Scientist has recently dubbed the Plasticine— our love for plastics and its lasting legacy in the environment (Reed, 2015). Bringing two seemingly unconnected stories into friction with each other, I wanted to speculate, establishes both the Ebola epidemic and the plastics pandemic as central tropes of the Anthropocene. But this was in January 2015, and since then body bags have become associated with yet another catastrophe – what has become known as ‘the refugee crisis’. I felt my paper had to shift, and as a result the reflections on Ebola and plastics have to wait. This also means my future fossil remains in the present, as a way to be responsive to the unfolding events. In the current situation I felt I was not able to do the speculative move of putting myself into the future looking back onto the present responsibly. I am not suggesting this not possible in general, it certainly is. But somehow for me personally it was not possible at this time. So, apologies for throwing you out of the spaceship in this piece, I hope you read on nevertheless.
27,988 people have been infected with Ebola Virus Disease (EVD) in the West African epidemic since December 2013, out of which 11,299 people have died. The epidemic is ongoing, but it seems to be finally ending: the outbreak in Liberia is over, Sierra Leone has had no new cases over the last two weeks, and Guinea also only recorded three cases (WHO, 2015). 11,299 body bags had to be filled with Ebola patients. The picture this piece takes as its starting point is of an Ebola victim carried to her last resting place at King Tom cemetery in Freetown, Sierra Leone. As the picture caption puts it: ‘Sealed in a body bag, the deceased is carried out on a stretcher and added to the other bodies in the pick-up truck, waiting to be driven to the King Tom cemetery’ (European Commission/ECHO/Anouk Delafortrie, 2014). In this piece I reflect on the politics of sealing off in the Anthropocene, and ask how sealing oneself off might relate to global inequalities. I suggest that the relation between closedness and porosity is a crucial and highly political feature of the Anthropocene that we need to reflect on more deeply in order to reduce the inequalities that the EVD epidemic and the refugee crisis in the Mediterranean Sea – to name just two of the events that have required far too many body bags this year – have thrown into sharp relief.
A politics of sealing off seems common sense in the Ebola epidemic. After all, the body bags separate us from deadly contagion at the moment when the virus is most infectious. Ebola transmission requires contact with the bodily fluids of an infected person. Yet, as the results of a recent Ebola vaccine trial show, Ebola is not even that infectious compared, for instance, with airborne viruses like the common cold. Out of a high-risk control group of 3,528 people that did not receive the vaccine and had had close contact with a person who suffered from Ebola, only 16 people actually developed the disease (Henao-Restrepo et al., 2015). Nevertheless, one touch can be enough. Take Thomas Eric Duncan, the Liberian man who was the only person to die from Ebola in the USA. Duncan helped his neighbors to bring their seven-months pregnant, severely sick daughter to a hospital, carrying her by the legs. Extending compassion towards his neighbor and touching her – presumably feverish and sweaty – legs proved to be enough; this moment brought death for Duncan (The New York Times, 2014). We might call Ebola the epidemic of empathy.
Thus, sealing ourselves off from this virus seems self-evident and intuitive. However, the politics of sealing off have also revealed a number of troubling cuts that were performed. Let me name just some of the most poignant ones. Out of fear most airlines stopped flights to Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea, effectively putting those countries under an international quarantine. This made it much harder to bring in medical support personnel and much needed supplies including body bags. Neighbouring countries too joined in by closing their borders to effected countries, which quickly led to shortages in essential items such as food and fuel, and added an economic crisis to the public health emergency. The international community was quick to seal itself off. Their empathy only operates at a safe distance.
The only Ebola-infected bodies allowed out were those of aid workers employed by big international aid organisations that could afford the expensive medical evacuation. It is no coincidence that this epidemic only produced black bodies in body bags. While some white aid workers got infected, none of them died. Meanwhile 512 health workers in Sierra Leone, Liberia and Guinea died (WHO, 2015), because the international community could not decide quickly enough if they were worth evacuating. The most tragic victim of this neglect might have been the virologist Dr. Sheik Humarr Khan, Sierra Leone’s first virologist and an expert in viral hemorrhagic fevers, who died at only 39 years (Green, 2014).
In 2015 body bags paint a bleak picture of systematic neglect, but worse than this they are created by and met with indifference, racism and xenophobia. Take Fabrice Leggeri, the head of the European Union (EU) border agency, speaking on the refugee crisis in the Mediterranean Sea:
“Triton cannot be a search-and-rescue operation. I mean, in our operational plan, we cannot have provisions for proactive search-and-rescue action. This is not in Frontex’s mandate, and this is in my understanding not in the mandate of the European Union” (The Guardian, 2015).
Porosity and empathy dismissed through an operational plan. It was however in the EU’s mandate and budget to deploy war ships and drones: “EUnavfor Med is to cost the EU €11.8 million over its first two months” (EU Observer, 2014). The EU reacts militaristically sealing off its borders. Colleagues in anthropology have replied to this outrageous politics of sealing off with a petition on Epidemics and Xenophobia:
“Given the recent resurgence of xenophobia across the globe, and especially the increasing inability and unwillingness of governing bodies to assist the rising numbers of those in need, we the undersigned ask that decision-makers worldwide take concerted action to provide stateless peoples with human rights protection and to desist in treating them as potential bearers of disease.”
(Napier and The Bellagio Task Force on Epidemics and Xenophobia, 2015).
While in the case of the refugees porosity and empathy should constitute an ethical responsibility of postcolonial governments in a world economy built on (neo)colonial exploitation, the politics of sealing off seem much less problematic in a ‘natural disaster’ such as the Ebola epidemic. Nevertheless, a worryingly similar politics of Othering has been at play. The social and political features of these two tragedies are a stark reminder that if the signifier of the ‘Anthropocene’ is to trigger any change, our task merely starts with decentering the human. Indeed, thinking about what being human means in a more-than-human world might be the easy task. The body bags buried in West Africa and lined up on beaches of the Mediterranean are a call to focus on the inhuman in us. They press us to carefully think about the relationship between “infections and inequalities” (Farmer, 1999); the entangled histories of exploitation, environmental degradation, poverty, disease and death. In Rinaldo Walcott’s words:
“to critique coloniality’s most profound epistemic operations, which have produced knowledges of bodies ‘in’ and ‘out-of-place’ and its economic and material practices which have resulted in death-worlds for Black people. To acknowledge these death worlds is urgent. From that radical vantage point it becomes possible to conceive of forms of relationality and intimacy, of new forms of humanness beyond capitalist (post)modernity” (Walcott, 2014: 103).