In the spring of this year, when toilet paper was a hot commodity and the US national economy was still working up the nerve to strap Grandma to Mammon’s altar, I had a scare that ran outside the course of usual pandemic-frights. It had to do with hydroxychloroquine. An antimalarial and immunosuppressant, hydroxychloroquine came to prominence in late March, after preliminary—and, since then, very much discredited—research suggested it might treat and even prevent COVID-19. The initial news found an enthusiastic audience. The press reported it widely, and President Trump, eager perhaps to look more in control of a global crisis than he actually was, hyped it into the stratosphere. As a result, patients and doctors began scrambling for prescriptions. Medical reserves depleted. Watching from the sidelines, I also panicked and began pressuring my wife, Jes, who takes hydroxychloroquine for an autoimmune disease, to call her doctor and ask him if he’d write her a bigger prescription—cut her 60 pills, maybe, instead of the usual 45. A hedge against a future, really, where demand for the drug outstripped supply.

Which it didn’t, of course. Demand, I mean. And he didn’t either, Jes’s doctor. Jes, whose only real fault is her willingness to indulge me, predicted her doctor would say no, and in the end she was right.

In the end, the crisis I fretted over, the risk I hoped to mitigate, never quite materialized.

In hindsight, this whole story—my panic versus the country’s panic, Jes’s unflappability versus Trump’s petty hucksterism—now seems a bit silly. Indeed, it folds quite tidily into any number of broadsides or sermons that center and center-left readers have been primed to receive. Ethics in science reporting! Trust in SCIENCE™! And indeed, to that point: hydroxychloroquine’s spurious status as a COVID-prophylactic remains a fixture in the right’s political consciousness. President Trump, for instance, has not disavowed the drug. Moreover, if comments by my friends and family on Face(“this is the Bad Place”)book are to be believed, hydroxychloroquine continues to be used preventively.

Yet as the first COVID vaccines, snug in their subzero refrigerators, begin to roll out to US health workers and the elderly, my thinking has tended in a slightly different direction. In contrast with the usual suspects of center and center-left politics, my thinking has instead gravitated more toward risk, and toward immunization itself.

Writing in the early 2000s, an Italian philosopher named Roberto Esposito published a book called Immunitas, in which he argues that a similarity exists between how the West understands biomedical immunization and how it imagines the law. Both, he maintains, are fundamentally about risk management.

In the former case, the biomedical case, risk management takes the form of the vaccine. Here, he argues, the body incorporates an inoculum—a genetic shred of that which is dangerous, of polio, for instance, or of smallpox, or even of SARS-CoV-2—in order to learn how to defend against future infection. Put differently, the body absorbs that which it believes to be the deadly Other in order to protect the sanctity of the Self.

A similar process, Esposito suggests, happens with law.

Against the risk of future violence—against the risk of infection by the people who make up a polity—the state adopts the law and, in particular, law enforcement. Itself an inoculum, law enforcement is a reduced form, a supposedly manageable form, of the risk the state wants to control. So, for example, against the disruptive energy of #blacklivesmatter, the state deploys—and has deployed—agents provocateurs to ferret out the “bad guys.” Likewise, the supposed dangers of antifa have become a warrant, from the perspective of the status quo, for an expansion of policing powers. Even gun ownership, enshrined in the Second Amendment, is really just a way of inoculating individuals against the threat of other people and/or the government.

And all this to say nothing of the times that biomedical and political immunization have coincided. Take the CIA during the early 2010s. Hoping to track down Osama bin Laden, the CIA set up fake vaccine clinics in Pakistan to collect genetic information from the populace. And while the scheme might have worked in the short term (“We got him”), in the long term, it also led to a serious—and seriously deadly—anti-vaccination campaign in the region.

At stake across all these examples—from the CIA and gun ownership to policing and agents provocateurs—is a particular vision of what it means to be secure. Of what it means to be safe, in control. In each of these examples, the version of personhood we hope to defend is assumed to be closed off—safe from interference and from the risks that we inevitably incur by being in community.

It should go without saying, of course, that this version of personhood—isolated from the people and environments it finds itself in relation to—is an idol. It is profoundly anti-ecological. It is also profoundly anti-Christian. After all, the prototype of Christian humility is a body torn open on a tree.

So what does this mean for us? Does it mean we embrace COVID? Does it mean we denounce vaccines—go full-on anti-vaxxer and resign ourselves to getting sick, all in the name of some supposedly moral commitment to vulnerability? No. In fact, the problem with a worldview organized around immunization is its tendency to reduce all distinctions to black and white, same and different, Self and Other. Instead, we have to learn to think flexibly. We have to learn not to value security and safety in themselves but to ask, “Security and safety to what end?” To my end? To yours?

Whom, in the final analysis, is served by my safety?

This is a question, I think, that US citizens have done a poor job of asking of late. It is a question that, in particular, US Christians have done a poor job of asking. Nevertheless, it’s one we need to learn to ask, if we’re to have any hope of arriving on the other side of this COVID vaccine in a place that is meaningfully different from the place where we started.

2 Comments

  1. Kyric Koning

    Binary systems certainly are alluring. Another question that may need to be asked is what exactly does safety look like? Is it helping someone else, interacting with those who need someone at the risk of exposing them? What, ultimately, is the biggest harm?

    Reply
    • Ben DeVries

      I agree. These are exactly the kinds of questions that need to be asked–and questions that the pandemic, as well as organizing around BLM and police disinvestment, have brought front and center for a lot of white middle-class Americans.

      Reply

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