A Week in Lockdown

By Jonathan Galton, former PhD student

An odd set of life circumstances has led me to spending the lockdown alone in a house in Chelsea. Here I share some notes (abridged and lightly edited) I made during the first week, mostly while out walking.

Tuesday 24th March

First day of lockdown. My neighbourhood streets weren’t quite deserted but they were very empty, and their sun-baked state called up memories of siesta time in small Italian towns. People finally seem to be getting the hang of social distancing. As I performed my close-hugging of one side of the pavement, a masked lady with a small dog gallantly stepped into the street to maintain a two-metre cordon sanitaire.
By the Serpentine in Hyde Park, I couldn’t decide whether or not the water looked clearer, and then wondered how much it would be affected in any case, not being suddenly relieved of a fleet of vaporetti like the canals of Venice. All this will do wonders for the air quality, though, won’t it?

Wednesday 25th March

Empty, shut up shops everywhere. Boots had an employee on guard to ensure compliance with its twenty people or less rule. The cloyingly Instagrammable café outside Knightsbridge Tube is now shut, window bereft of pink cakes. The little Italian deli on Walton Street is still open, one customer at a time per favore. Perhaps the strangest, saddest sight was a series of empty buses gliding along on the Brompton Road.
I am struck by two other things today: an irrepressible urge to scratch my nose, and a new way of engaging with space. I find myself actively seeking out empty roads, and feel a surge of joy when I see one stretching before me with nobody else in sight. I feel a strange fear when I look at a narrow passageway, or a pavement hemmed in by cars, and think nothing of stepping out into the street or crossing the road to avoid people, warily hoping I won’t die a prosaic, non-viral death at the hands of an oncoming vehicle. I’ve tried to perfect a “social distancing half-smile” to direct at people while backing off, although this is a work in progress.

Thursday 26th March

Last night I distributed a couple of hundred leaflets in the neighbouring streets on behalf of the local chapter of Covid-19 Mutual Aid UK. The idea is that residents stuck in their houses can contact volunteers to help them with shopping, or collecting prescriptions or even just a friendly phone call. This morning I had a call from David, who lives down the road with his partner Elaine, both in the age bracket that has been asked to stay at home altogether for 12 weeks. They are low on milk and potatoes and would appreciate my help in picking up these, and a few other items – “nothing exotic!” he reassures me – from Waitrose tomorrow. He also offers me some of his homemade isopropyl-based hand sanitiser but I decline for the time being. Later, I get a message from a 61-year-old man in the next road offering what help he can, although he makes a point of clarifying that he is “single” and “in good shape” and “available 24/7”. I wonder if he has misinterpreted the nature of the support on offer.
At 8pm, twenty or more households in the street congregate at their doors to clap and cheer for the NHS, part of a national flash movement. It is a magical moment and everybody seems buoyed by the temporary expression of community.

Friday 27th March

This afternoon I taught a UCL ethnography class over Blackboard Collaborate. After talking through the students’ forthcoming assignments, I asked them what observations they had made so far of the lockdown, wherever they might be. Two girls who had travelled back up north to be with their parents said that their friends from home were taking things much less seriously than people in London and were still going out partying by the time the students had both been self-isolating for a week or more. Another girl said that she found it fascinating to watch people react to approaching dogs in parks – the natural tendency to pet and stroke in obvious tension with the fear that a virus-carrying vector might be entering their personal space. We all wondered, with no obvious conclusion, about the shift of social life into cyberspace. Was this simply recreating existing social interactions, or were new forms of sociality being created here?
I thought about this question again in the evening during a Zoom call with a bunch of friends. Whereas a one-to-one chat I might have with my partner or a friend is starting to feel, with practice, quite normal and almost relaxing, the big groups still faze me for several reasons. The way that you can’t make eye contact with individuals, for example, meaning that so much richness is lost from the interaction. Or the artificial way in which a large group conversation remains just that: a conversation between an entire group. Although Zoom does have a “breakout group” function, there doesn’t seem to be a way of replicating the dynamics of a group of friends meeting in the pub, naturally splintering and coalescing over the course of an evening.

Monday 30th March

I’m feeling intense cabin fever today but it’s grey outside and the empty streets feel more like Pyongyang than Perugia. So much of what is comforting in walking the streets comes from the signs of life: open shops, people sitting in cafes, sauntering groups of pedestrians. Undeniably, there is beauty in the ghost city. In fact, I think the neoclassical wonderland of Chelsea is at its most lovely when deserted and in sunshine, but on a day like today it is overshadowed by bleakness and acts as a constant reminder of the situation we’re in. And as for the many parts of London that I love much more – Peckham, Brixton, Whitechapel etc. – these places compel me precisely because of the crowds and the activity. I imagine that they must feel forlorn at present, although of course right now they seem as far away as Auckland.
I took a brisk but half-hearted walk, feeling resentful of everyone I passed except the hospital workers outside the Royal Marsden who I grudgingly reminded myself that I admired. Approaching Kings Road from a side street and seeing a lady walking a buggy and several other people crossing in the other direction, I suddenly felt a lift of spirits. It could almost have been a normal Monday afternoon.

“Hacking” the Pandemic – Durable Hope or Brittle Hype?

by Montita Sowapark, MA Medical Anthropology

Once upon a time the term “hacking” might have conjured images of hoodie-sporting software savants operating out of a hidden back room conducting dubious-if-not-outright-illegal online activities. Nowadays, hacking is more likely to be associated with commercial hackathons and the sleek venues, corporate sponsorships, and high production value characteristic of these events. Originally conceived as competitions for computer programmers, hackathons are now held for a variety of product types and interest areas. Participants sign up for 1- to 3- day events during which they collaborate in small teams to make as much progress on an idea as possible, and at the end of the event present their results for judging. Take any technological, scientific, or social issue that occupies enough of the public imaginary, and there is likely a hackathon for that specific issue, from fintech to sustainability to breast pumps. While hackathons retain a connotation of novelty and ‘disruption’ for some, they have also become rather quotidian. 

The same could be said of hacker culture’s more materially-grounded sibling, maker ‘culture,’ which combines the self-reliant spirit of D.I.Y culture with the tools of desktop 3D printing, laser cutting, and other fabrication methods. I use ‘culture’ lightly because there is no one cohesive maker identity or maker culture, and while many companies that cater to makers promote a certain MacGyverish subjectivity and sense of community, people of all dispositions tinker with things at home to fulfill practical and aesthetic goals. In response to the widespread shortages of various medical supplies due to the COVID-19 pandemic, makers, crafters, and DIYers have organized platforms to develop, share, produce, and distribute supplies to hospitals and others in need. The largest forum of such initiatives, the Open Source COVID 19 Medical Supplies group on Facebook, estimates that over 5 million units of medical supplies, particularly face shields and cloth masks, have been produced by associated makers since the start of the pandemic. For some, this represents a futuristic vision of cyberpunk post-human assemblages, in which medical devices can be made at-home, circumventing profit gauging corporations and cumbersome insurance bureaucracies. For others, these responses are more illustrative of neoliberal dystopia in which civilians put bandages on bones broken by government ineptitude and corruption. 

It is hard to argue against well-meaning people dedicating time, labor, and, often, material costs out of their own pocket, to make supplies that are in great need. However, as much as the openness and fluidity of open-source initiatives allows for rapid iteration of ideas, they also entail uneven levels of device testing and variable production conditions. Face shields might seem like a straightforward and non-risky device to produce, but a too flimsy or too shallow design renders them useless. Luckily, critiques of poor designs and debunking of spurious claims are likely to come from other makers and DIYers themselves. While they have received celebratory media exposure, 3D printed masks seem to be at the intersection of a lot of hype with little follow-through. The first canary in the coal mine I saw to completely rebuke 3D-printed face masks was Naomi Wu, self-described as “China’s #1 Tech and DIY Youtuber.” Wu has a large following in the DIY and maker community and is known for her tech review and creative project videos. Wu has pointed out that 3D-printed face masks are unlikely to maintain a tight seal around the face and thus would work at-best like a cough shield. Even if one could form a tight seal, there is the subsequent risk of CO2 buildup because a much smaller surface area of 3D printed masks are permeable to airflow compared to N95 masks. One of the most well-known open-source face mask models, the Montana mask, developed by a physician and dentist in Billings, Montana, “recommend[s] using surgical masks or N95 masks, and cut into 2½ inch squares” as filter material, which, assuming anybody has spare surgical masks or N95s lying around, is a big gamble to take with potentially little to no payoff. Beyond issues of material sourcing and fabrication methods, the questions of what can be made and what should be made are embedded in a landscape of perceived risks and rewards. The inherently politicized and value-laden choices involved in answering these questions are being made increasingly visible. 

With every turn of the clock in the time of corona, we confront the fact that the certainties we lived with yesterday have become ghosts, while new, unpredicted challenges have taken their place. Despite the warnings from the CDC in mid-March that the U.S. would run out of ventilators and have to resort to rationing, these predictions have not transpired. This could be due to a looping effect – the prediction of shortages sounded the right alarms that ended up preventing ventilator shortages. In contrast, there may be a real shortage in the U.S. for ICU dialysis machines as more and more COVID-19 patients develop acute kidney injury during the course of illness, with reports of rationing dialysis care already taking place in immigrant and working-class communities in New York. Still, many highly visible and well-resourced groups are working on designing low-cost open-source ventilators, presumably for use in resource-poor healthcare settings. One such project at MIT, for example, explains their rationale by speaking of greater needs “in the emerging markets.” This status quo – conventional operational standards for countries in the Global North and unfortunate-but-inevitable crisis standards of care in the Global South – flies in the face of ideals of health equity and healthcare as a human right, but is treated as a fact of life. Furthermore, a recent review of open-source ventilator projects concluded that they were “either at the very early stages of design (sometimes without even a prototype) and were essentially only basically tested (if at all)” (Pearce 2020). A skeptic might regard this as the normal course for 90% of similar open-source low-cost medical device projects. Why is it that they continue to inspire such adulation.

No aspect of the medical device design process is immune from questions of potential patient/customer pool and profit margins, and the altruistic low-cost open-source projects are enacted with a place of perpetual crisis in mind. Moreover, perpetual crisis is often assumed to be somewhere else, over there, a not-yet-developed, emerging place, rather in our own backyard. One the one hand, it is dishonest to deny the material difference between countries that have thousands of ventilators and countries that have four. But it is also dishonest to promote and fundraise, again and again, for unfeasible projects under the guise of concern and with the assumption that such places will gladly accept whatever half-baked contraption is thrown their way. The other side of this exceptionalism presumes that “medical rationing is not something Americans are accustomed to” which is untenable; patients are denied potentially beneficial care all the time, especially those who are uninsured or underinsured. However, moral indignation at the idea of rationing medical care in the United States emerges when rationing becomes a perceived possibility for those normally shielded from the reality of U.S. healthcare inequity. 

Gui Cavalcanti co-created the Open Source COVID 19 Medical Supplies Facebook group initially to crowd source designs for an open-source ventilator. Once it became clear this wasn’t a viable project, he has changed gears to focus on other supply shortages. In an article titled “The Futuristic Solution the Internet is Crowdsourcing to Cure Coronavirus” Gui characterizes his approach as “trying to get the literal apocalyptic backstop in place.” Futuristic crowdsourced cures are a long cry from apocalyptic backstops. Most makers are aware that DIY medical supplies are not going to save the world, and PPE shortages are but one issue in the panoply of obstacles to address. Making vetted supplies for well-defined needs is a way to keep busy or to contribute to one’s community, but investing too much in the potential for “hacking” the pandemic, or for that matter “hacking” cancer or “hacking” global warming, might make one, well, a hack. 

Kinshasa Prepares for the Pandemic to Hit

by Joe Trapido and Saint Jose Inaka

In the Democratic Republic of Congo, the authorities lack the resources, the capacity, and even the public trust needed to respond effectively to COVID-19. Rich countries in the North must not leave its people to face the pandemic without international support.

Kinshasa, capital of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), announced its first recorded case of COVID-19 on March 8. The response to the global pandemic since then has been confused, fractious, and skeptical. One especially vocal skeptic was Nelemba Lemba, a Congolese MP and TV station owner. Lemba claimed that political elites had manufactured the panic over the virus in order to attract funds from international donors and steal public money.

This claim found a ready audience. Comforting theories about COVID-19 — that it is a minor illness, a disease of the “mundele” (an indigenous racial category that often includes South Asians and Chinese as well as white people), or simply does not like hot weather — remain popular in the city. One reason for this receptivity was a distrustful attitude toward authority that the Congolese people have acquired through bitter experience. In the last two decades, multinational companies have acquired a whole series of national assets worth billions of dollars for a fraction of their real value, while important political families bestride economic networks of incredible scope.

The current national president, Félix Tshisekedi (known as “Fatshi”), “won” the election of 2018 in very dubious circumstances: leaks from the electoral commission itself, as well as reports from independent observers, appear to show that he came a distant second to the real winner.

Test Case

Such problems are nothing new in the DRC. A long history of coercive insertion into the world system, with the most rapacious tendencies of contemporary global capitalism given free play, have made this culturally vibrant, mineral-rich country one of the poorest and most violent places on Earth. After independence in 1960, the country’s first democratically elected prime minister, Patrice Lumumba, fell victim to a CIA-engineered coup, and the coup leader, Mobutu Sese Seko, went on to rule for three disastrous decades with strong US support. In 1997, Mobutu was ousted from power, but the country then collapsed into a murderous regional war. The hemophiliac forms of accumulation that characterized Mobutu’s rule have continued.

Although GDP growth was strong for much of the period after 2002, the situation remains desperate for all but a tiny elite. In the financialized twenty-first-century capitalism of tax havens and vulture funds, the vast sums of money bleeding northward have actually increased since Mobutu’s departure. This flood of money abroad has left the DRC’s economy and health infrastructure in tatters. Alongside COVID-19, the country currently has two epidemics in progress: an ongoing measles outbreak that had killed six thousand people by the start of 2020, and an Ebola crisis in the far east — the second largest in history, and not yet over, although it has abated a great deal.

These outbreaks interact with the heavy burden of endemic disease: in a region where malaria takes a heavy toll on the population annually, there is a strong tendency to confuse its initial symptoms of fever and malaise with those of diseases like Ebola or COVID-19, causing patients infected with the latter to present too late or not at all.

The violent nature of political authority has also sabotaged trust in public health interventions, whether by Congolese politicians or by international agencies. A widespread (and eminently rational) mistrust of the local authorities has greatly hampered attempts to combat the most recent bout of Ebola. The mafia-like business class in the towns of Beni and Butembo, which were at the epicenter of the outbreak, is especially culpable in this regard.

Kinshasa has been spared the worst of the DRC’s social catastrophe, whose full force has been felt in the country’s regions. However, it is a very big and very poor city. With a population of perhaps 13 million — there has been no official census in the DRC since 1984 — Kinshasa is certainly the poorest megacity in the world. The city’s response to the global crisis, important enough in its own right, may also provide some clues about the ways in which much of humanity will confront COVID-19, in a world where catastrophic poverty and inequality are already pervasive.


Tussles over the status of the virus slowed government action by several weeks, but on March 18, Fatshi delivered a speech declaring a health emergency. He closed borders and banned social gatherings, including churches, schools, bars, places selling “nonessential” items, and some other workplaces, including certain factories. The government also banned any other type of social event that would bring together more than twenty people, notably matanga — funeral wakes that can engage hundreds in weeks of all-night lamenting, drinking, and dancing. Fatshi announced that a full confinement (lockdown) of Kinshasa would be imposed very soon.

These decisions have been in force since March 19 and have created a tense mood in Kinshasa. Many argue that starvation will kill more people than the virus, and while the streets are emptier than normal, there have also been many attempts to carry on trading, especially in outlying districts. The law is a space for negotiation here, with the police and the security services — themselves often very badly paid — seeking madesu ya bana (“beans for the children”) from proprietors to allow bars and traders to stay open.

Surplus Labour

The Kinois experience a particular kind of poverty: neither consistent wage laborers nor subsistence peasants, they resemble what Marx once called the “relative surplus population” — “surplus” not in Malthusian or ecological terms, but in terms of capital’s ability to exploit them consistently for a profit. If they are paid wages — in the city’s light industries, for example, or roadbuilding and construction — it is largely as day laborers, and such work is unreliable and intermittent. Others are paid piece rates, filling sacks or breaking rocks. In all cases, the price of labor is pitifully low. It is a common sight to see children and old women making gravel for building sites by hand, using iron bars to bash large stones into small ones.

Others rely on the money earned as petty traders on the streets: buying products at depots and covering miles selling them on, hawking everything from baguettes, peanuts, and cigarettes to rotgut alcohol and knockoff petrol. One particular form of cheap alcohol, known as supu na tolo (“chest sauce”), is made in a factory linked to a prominent politician and sold at truck stops.

Other common subsistence activities include transport — offering rides on cheap Chinese motorcycles, or in dilapidated secondhand vehicles bought by middlemen in Dubai — and porterage — pushing material to and fro in hand carts. Although the city is far from being self-sufficient in food, very large numbers of the urban poor work in small-scale agriculture. Again, these are not urban peasants. The maman bilanga (“garden mums”) who till the city’s vacant spaces are more like hyper-precarious market gardeners than subsistence farmers, selling on much of their crop within the city in exchange for other essentials.

Such farmers are precarious in part because their land is under constant threat from unscrupulous property speculators with links to the political class: like many cities of its economic level, Kinshasa has recently combined apocalyptic poverty with a speculative property boom, and small houses in the city’s downtown can sell for more than a million dollars.

Much of this is reminiscent of early capitalism elsewhere, from the putting-out systems of Europe in the nineteenth century to the sweat shops of East Asia. But there is also evidence that this time, it’s different. Such tendentially unemployed populations seem to be growing rather than shrinking. The economist Dani Rodrik has identified an increasingly common pattern of “premature deindustrialization,” whereby low-GDP countries are shedding jobs even under conditions of economic growth — especially the kind of manufacturing jobs that have historically been associated with broad-based development.

Police and Thieves

The poor majority struggled but mostly complied with the government’s initial diktats, but a number of subsequent decisions have provoked open resistance. On March 24, the government announced measures to isolate the province of Kinshasa from the rest of the country, prohibiting movement in and out of the city.

This decision increased the sense of unease, as the capital relies on a daily stream of food from growers in the neighboring provinces of Bandundu and Bas-Congo. Bas-Congo also contains all of the DRC’s sea ports: Kinshasa is heavily reliant on imported staples, notably wheat and rice. Reports multiplied of vehicles carrying food and other essential items being stopped at the provincial border.

Confronting the folly of obstructing food imports, the authorities modified their initial decision, allowing drivers and crew carrying provisions to enter the city, but not passengers. Again, this posed problems, since the boundary line between “passengers” and “freight” is highly mutable in this part of the world. Vans transporting manioc will supplement their income by carrying the odd passenger perched on top, while travelers from the provinces will subsidize the journey by carrying kilos of plantains to sell or share in the capital. Soon, the media carried reports of policemen taking bribes to allow passengers in and out of Kinshasa. The kerfuffle slowed the flow of food into the capital, and the price of goods has risen: it is hard to tell whether this is a direct result of the March 24 decree reducing supply or the product of a wider unease. Politically connected merchants are widely rumored to be hoarding staples for release later, when prices have spiked.

Abortive Lockdown

On March 26, the governor of Kinshasa, Gentiny Ngobila, announced his own set of measures. Ngobila proposed alternating periods of confinement and circulation, with the population confined for four days, then free for the following two days, and so on. This was due to start on March 30, but prices rose within minutes of the governor’s address, and long queues sprang up outside banks and supermarkets. In Tshangu, a vast, slum-filled area in the city’s east where confinement promised imminent starvation, word went around that looting would begin on March 30. This was no idle threat: periodic bouts of looting by Kinshasa’s poor, especially the bana Tsangu (literally “children of Tshangu”), have marked epochal events in the city’s history.

Congo’s independence came after football supporters whose team had just lost clashed with colonial police who were trying to disperse a banned independence demonstration. In the rioting that followed, the air of implacable command cultivated by the Belgian colonizer over decades dissolved in the course of a few days. Citywide looting in the early 1990s also constituted a point of no return for the Mobutu regime.

Most recently, attempts by former president Joseph Kabila to extend his time in office fell victim to repeated rioting, which involved the looting of ruling-class assets in the districts. In this state of popular menace, the governor annulled his decision on March 29, and confinement has been delayed in most of the city.

“L’Hiérarchie, C’est Moi!”

As things stand, the only area under confinement is the central commune of Gombe, a quartier that corresponds with the former colonial ville blanche (“white city”), then, as now, the most affluent part of town. In an echo of the colonial city, only a select few carrying a pass are permitted to go past the roadblock into the downtown area.

This has led to a series of fights over who’s allowed in and who isn’t. The most prominent was an altercation between Governor Ngobila and police general Sylvano Kasongo, which was filmed and reached a wide audience. In the clip, Ngobila, descending from his cortège, asks Kasongo why they are being held up. Kasongo replies that he is merely enforcing what “the hierarchy” told him. In a response typical of the DRC’s ruling class, Ngobila replies: “Who is the hierarchy? The hierarchy is me!”

The choice to isolate Gombe was ostensibly taken because more cases had been identified there. It does seem like a plausible point of entry for the virus, as a site where foreign aid workers and wealthy, well-traveled elites live and work. By now, however, the number of cases identified surely reflects where most tests have been carried out, not where the virus actually is.

Whatever the reality may be, the lockdown of affluent Gombe has strengthened the general Kinois view that COVID-19 only affects white people and the rich. It has also led some inhabitants of Gombe to flee their luxury apartments for “safer” parts of town, a dash greeted with widespread hilarity by the rest of the city.

Response Team

On a more serious level, the government has created an organization called l’equipe de risposte contre le coronavirus (the coronavirus response team), comprised of appropriate experts and led by the virologist Professor Jean-Jacques Muyembe, who previously spearheaded the response to the Ebola outbreak in the east. Even here, a series of conflicts have broken out that, in true Kinois style, are somewhat farcical, even as the country careers toward tragedy.

There have been a series of complaints about the makeup of the committee, which was selected by Professor Muyembe and is composed of biologists, epidemiologists, pharmacists, and physicians. Several politicians have argued that more of their number should be included in the team, while the pop star But Na Fillet — author of one of the better coronavirus cash-in records — identified a pressing need for more musicians on the committee.

Such a crush to “get in” on various national get-togethers has been a notable phenomenon in recent decades, when all sorts of hitherto unknown rebel groups, concerned “civil society” organizations, and “leaders of opinion” have materialized from thin air to demand a space at the table. They are mainly interested — or so a wider public assumes — in the per diem payment such events allocate to participants.

Professor Muyembe’s frequent media appearances have not been free from mishap. Muyembe had been closely involved in the use of an experimental vaccine in the fight against Ebola, and he announced that the DRC had been “chosen” as a site to test a new COVID-19 vaccine. Just what Muyembe intended by this, beyond professional excitement, is not clear. For most of the population his statement, which followed hard on the heels of some loose talk by French doctors about fast-tracking virus tests on Africans, indicated a desire to use the Congolese as “guinea pigs.”

Rumors swirled that the government had received $45 million from the World Bank in exchange for the bodies of the poor as sacrifices. Muyembe then issued a “clarification,” assuring the Congolese people that a vaccine would be tested in the United States and Belgium first, while the health ministry denied any involvement in negotiating vaccine trials.

Elsewhere, the experimental use of the drug chloroquine has been controversial, but the DRC has few other options. This familiar and relatively cheap (if extremely unpleasant) medicine — well known in the DRC as a somewhat antiquated antimalarial — has been accepted as an important treatment against COVID-19. Chloroquine’s intensely bitter taste — it is a derivative of quinine — has led many here to believe they can self-medicate with Congo Bololo, a bitter but otherwise unrelated local remedy sold on the street.

Muyembe again stepped into political hot water when he accepted a donation of eight thousand boxes of chloroquine from Olive Lembe Kabila, wife of former president Kabila. The very rich and economically dominant ex-presidential family is massively unpopular in Kinshasa, and Joseph Kabila himself is widely believed to be a Rwandan Tutsi. In a story that fuses elements of an anti-imperialist critique with outlandish colonial-era racial conspiracy theories, Rwandan “nilotiques” are depicted as the accomplices of Western capital in an effort to pillage the DRC of its mineral riches.

As with many of the most dangerous fables of national grievance, there is an element of truth behind this. Since the mid ’90s, Rwanda’s RPF regime has been deeply implicated in the plunder and violence that has scarred the DRC’s eastern provinces. That regime has enjoyed strong backing in the West, with Bill Clintonand Tony Blair especially keen to act as cheerleaders. In this context, popular wisdom asked how and when Mama Olive could suddenly find all this medicine. Many concluded that the boxes contained poison, dispatched by Rwandan Tutsis linked to her husband.


There is much about the government’s confused response, and the rumors and uncertainty among the citizenry, that is not so different from the experience elsewhere. Nevertheless, the Congolese situation is distinct. While it is often brutal, the country’s government probably lacks the infrastructure of repression needed to keep the urban poor in a state of very protracted lockdown, as has happened in India. The threat of riots in Kinshasa acts as a rough-and-ready popular veto over these kinds of imposition.

The country is resilient, and it has rolled with a series of terrible punches: AIDS was first identified in Kinshasa, but the DRC now has a rate of infection that is low by regional standards. Thirty years ago, the capital relied on the country’s far eastern provinces as its breadbasket. But with the collapse of the road network and the eruption of conflict blocking off that lifeline, Kinshasa’s neighboring provinces have adapted, and now supply most of the capital’s food.

Some other facts also give modest grounds for hope. The population is very young, with a median age of eighteen, a fact that may help it absorb the direct impact of the virus better than many countries. In the interior, many people travel infrequently and have been socially isolated long before COVID-19 came along.

But there is no denying the fact that the omens do not look promising. Kinshasa only has intensive-care capacity for a handful of cases; most of the country has none at all. Kinshasa is dependent on food imports, and the poor majority are very sensitive to changes in world food prices. The population has been adaptable, but if there are multiple price spikes in the coming months, there will surely be limits to such adaptation.

As global breadbaskets struggle with shortages of labor, and as chains of production and distribution falter, it seems likely that the DRC will be near the back of the queue for what is available. As Mike Davis has pointed out, the highest death tolls from the 1918 influenza pandemic occurred when the disease infected the chronically malnourished subjects of British India. Should the worst happen in the DRC, it won’t just be the Congo’s problem. You can’t control a highly infectious disease while letting it run rampant through half-starved megacities like Kinshasa.

In the 1960s, the DRC’s sabotaged and stillborn independence signaled the fact that new postcolonial states would not fundamentally alter the global imbalances wrought by imperialism and the capitalist world system. In the new century, the DRC is still the most vivid symptom of a global body politic that is profoundly diseased.

Joe Trapido teaches anthropology at SOAS in London. He is the author of Breaking Rocks: Music, Ideology and Economic Collapse, from Paris to Kinshasa.

Saint Jose Inaka was born and lives in Kinshasa. He is completing a doctorate in sociology at the University of Pretoria.

This article was first published in the Jacobin on April 20, 2020 and is posted here with the permission of the authors and the editor.

Coronavirus, Governance and Expertise

by Ben Bowles

What happens when two experts give you completely opposing advice?

This, for me, is the question at the heart of what many have called the confused, reckless, or even, in the opinion of some commentators, criminally negligent approach to the Coronavirus outbreak taken by the UK Government, especially in the early days during their dalliance with herd immunity strategies. It reveals assumptions about science and its role in society that I think are useful for the anthropologist to unpack.

There is an assumption, born out of the enlightenment, positivism, empiricism and all of the other troubling “isms”, that science is a repository of perfect and pure knowledge about the real world, out there, as it actually exists, represented perfectly through abstract models and ideas. When I say assumption, I do not mean that very many scientists hold this view. Indeed, most scientists will speak at length about all the things they do not know, the fragments of knowledge that they grasp on to as best as they can, the models that they understand only work as well as they work for now. They will talk about how science is always trying to prove itself wrong, never take anything for granted, and free itself from ideology and assumptions. Penny Harvey and Hannah Knox, in their book “Roads: An Anthropology of Infrastructure and Expertise,” make the distinction between the models (completely abstract and unrealistic) that engineers build in order to convince people to let them build roads in Peru, and the actual work that they do – messy, full of workarounds, rules of thumb, best guesses and imperfections, assuming nothing beforehand – in interaction with flattened road surfaces, to actually build the thing and stop it from collapsing. The engineers know that their models are just rhetorical devices; what they actually do in the end is not a form of expertise based on modelling or abstract formulae, but more one akin to muddling through.

This may well be true, but ideologies are sticky, especially when communities begin to assume that that they do not have them. The view of scientific thinking with which I opened the paragraph above is most commonly held by decision-makers, often in governments, a lot of the public, and many of the people who write about science. This makes it float around in the discourse (if I may borrow Foucault) and means that when things go wrong, there is an understandable tendency to call the experts in and expect accurate, realistic versions of what the world looks like. Models that we can then use for transformative purposes.

A detour into economics

This can be seen most clearly, for example, when in the aftermath of the financial crisis of 2007/2008, politicians in a number of states were replaced by “technocrats”; economists and administrators assumed to be more rational, less biased and to carry less ideology than the politicians. Now, anyone who knows any neoclassical economists knows that they are steeped in a very particular ideology of how the world works, based on the validity of particular models called “Computable General Equilibrium” (GCE) models. These models are used to predict the economy, but they do not work, not least because they assume rational actors (people who always want to maximise economic returns) and an economic system that returns itself to a harmonious equilibrium if it ever is upset. Adam Smith’s invisible hand informs these models, manipulating them into perfectly working order. Indeed, the world of economics is so divided that the whole of mainstream economics is concerned with tinkering with these models and applying them, whereas everything else that deals with… anything else, is sidelined entirely. This runs the range from Marxist political economists who want to consider how power and coercion works in the system, to the behavioural economists who want to look at people’s actual actions in economies (including the irrational stuff, coining for us such useful ideas as “confirmation bias” and “peak end bias”). These thinkers, often called “heterodox” or “pluralist” economists, are relegated to the edges of the discipline, from where they are unable to publish in highly ranked economics journals, or get jobs in most economics departments, or take their work out into the public sector. So much for “technocrats” being without ideology.

“People in this country have had enough of experts” – Michael Gove

What I have described so far is of course just another way into French post-structuralism. There is, as Foucault, Derrida, Deleuze and others tell us, no objective point from which to observe the world. Everything and everyone has a subject position from which they look out into reality. Ideas about how the world actually exist change and mutate. What is certain now will look strange or foolish in twenty years time, and was unthinkable twenty years ago. Foucault’s examples of how this works in the world(s) of science are especially revealing, and I would recommend his archaeology of how the idea of madness has changed through European intellectual history to any reader (Madness and Civilisation).

So, is there no truth then? We have had enough of experts because they just give us their own positioned and biased truth? Sounds a lot like one of the main devices of populism; the grand and worrying denial of facts in the post-truth world. And this is one of the major mistakes of populism: to equate the fact that 1) truth claims are contingent and positioned (yes, sure) with 2) that they are all as useful, for all purposes, as one another (absolutely not). I would rather cross a dangerous river on a bridge made by an engineer with an experience-led best-guess application of some set of models, even if they are slightly incorrect abstractions of reality, than a bridge made by, for instance, Michael Gove, or most anthropologists for that matter. Ideas and models are good enough to get jobs done; maps are not the territory, but can be useful enough to get you down the road. On the one hand, there are people convinced that the model is a perfect representation of reality (living in what Lenny Smith calls “model land”, a kind of utopia of mistaken thinking in which people live who take their abstractions of the world to be the world); on the other hand, some people are trying to tear down the ivory towers of the experts by ripping up the same models. Which gets us on to the bind that the UK Government found itself in…

“[We will] turn the tide” – Boris Johnson

The UK Government, many of whose members harbour populist and anti-expert tendencies, is currently headed by figures like Boris Johnson, Michael Gove and Jacob Rees-Mogg. What unites them is the way they seem to run their lives and political careers on narratives. Specifically, they are weavers of stories about the UK’s “glory days,” the days of Empire and power beyond the nation’s small size. This was of course the narrative content of Brexit. These ideas are behind the confused utterances we have been seeing from Boris Johnson, who seems to be focused on not wanting to impinge on the “freedoms” of the British people through acting like a (not so entrepreneurial, less stridently self-directing, continental! big state!) nation like France. It leads to the kind of absurd anti-action from the leadership that claimed the “tide will be turned” on Coronavirus within 12 weeks (as if viruses respond to rhetoric, and he is his hero Churchill making speeches against the Nazis).

At the same time, the Government has also expressed the opposite tendency that I described first: to call in the grownups. To call experts and to expect their abstracted models of the world to be accurate representations not just of what the world looks like now, but also what it will look like in the future. This led to the Government first following a strategy that was based on a very new form of modelling known as “behavioural science” that attempts to predict how large populations will react when they are scared and in danger. As an anthropologist, I am obviously skeptical about the use of these kinds of models, as was the Editor-in-Chief of The Lancet when he said “we are perhaps placing too much emphasis on behavioural science.” It led, it appears, to the Government following, for a time, a “herd immunity” strategy (although the Government do not now accept that this is what they were doing): the plan was to allow 60% of the population to become infected with Covid-19. The Government distanced itself from this plan after another paper, by another set of experts, demonstrated the shocking numbers of anticipated fatalities that such a strategy would cause.

Conviction Narratives

What happens when two experts give you completely opposing advice? One result appears to be mixed messages: Boris Johnson telling the public not to go home for Mothers’ Day then saying he hoped to see his own mum; encouraging us to not go for a walk, but also remarking that fresh air is good for you. The Government seemed not to recognise that models are anything other than perfect representations of reality and that not all experts are the same. Some experts give you material from the new and evolving Wild West frontier of behavioural science, others will give you their best guess of the course of a disease that everyone is trying to learn more about, given a wealth of experience, epidemiological data, models that are constantly being tested and updated, and educated best guesses. Science is not just simply science, an unvariegated vat of knowledge, and it certainly does not, in a simple equation, equal truth.

I worked on a project with some of the UK’s Cabinet Office last year and we were funded through a group called CRUISSE (Confronting Radical Uncertainty in Society, Science and the Environment) based at UCL. This group wants to enable decision-makers to accept that some decisions cannot be based on probabilities and modelling; some decisions involve radical uncertainty (also called “Knightian uncertainty”). This goes against, CRUISSE say, the tendencies of many sciences, and especially regimes of knowledge like economics, to put a probability to everything and to try to construct beautiful and useless models of a future that will never exist. David Tuckett, one of the leaders of CRUISSE, has helped to develop “Conviction Narrative Theory” that says, basically, when under the conditions of genuine uncertainty, decision-makers and modellers act based on how they think the world works (convictions) and stories (narratives). Are any anthropologists surprised by this conclusion?

The Government in the UK is caught between an un-nuanced and, sometimes paradoxically uncritical understanding of expertise on one hand, and a set of conviction narratives around the strength, durability and free-determining spirit of the nation on the other. This is because ultimately we don’t know very much about Covid-19, and that lack of certainty and knowledge goes against how people in power (and probably most people) hope that the world works. Living in radical uncertainty is not comforting. It is possible that the herd immunity strategy would have been better for most people in the long run (the perspective for arguing which implies a very specific Utilitarian way of thinking for a start, and one that is also entirely blind to social inequalities); but no-one knows, and under those conditions, such a strategy becomes unthinkable.

“This is my truth, now tell me yours” – Aneurin Bevan

So, if decisions are actually more uncertain than we like to think, and if experts can be (very, catastrophically) wrong, what on earth do we do? By we, I mean us, and I mean Government decision-makers, too. This is an argument for what I hope will be a new kind of knowledge worker. I’m not sure whether they need to be called anthropologists or not, but we urgently need people who can tell decision-makers what their own conviction narratives and half-hidden ideologies are so that they can try to think outside of them.
We also need to encourage the right kind of deference to expertise, one that is not uncritically consuming the advice of experts, but rather understanding what kind of experts, with what experience and ideas about the world, are giving the advice. We need to encourage a place for those experts with experience, with adaptable models that are not rigid and stubborn when new information comes in that invalidates them, and with practical workarounds and rules of thumb that provide us with useful tools for an uncertain world.

But most importantly, these knowledge workers need to stop expertise from becoming a place of monoculture like mainstream economics has become. When decisions are made by particularly positioned people (people who can think about “spending” lives during a crisis without thinking about whose lives, for example) it demonstrates the need for more experts with more perspectives and more experience, rather than fewer experts. These knowledge workers are needed in order to bring in perspectives from outside of what may look like the normal places that house expertise (for example, from anthropology, sociology, history, people’s own communities) that may be absent from the rooms where people receive expert advice and make decisions. With Nye Bevan, the architect of the NHS, we need to say “this is my truth, now tell me yours” and widen the number of (imperfect, contingent) truths we have at our disposal.

Decision makers need to be empowered to make difficult decisions under uncertainty, and that means a lot of carefully measured, and yes, probably conflicting, statements by experts. Which is scary; but, when we have been led to believe in either the infallibility or the complete redundancy of experts, it is unthinkable. We need it to be thinkable again. This type of decision-making is not what we have in the UK Government right now, and as a citizen reacting to an incoherent response to a genuinely unpredictable crisis, this scares me more than most other aspects of the pandemic.

Dissembling by Disassembling? 

The Case of Japan

by Fabio Gygi

For more than three months we have been following the spread of the coronavirus across the world. For those of us who are not working on the frontlines, the experience has been surreal, to say the least. If you are self-isolating and lucky enough to know no one who has been taken ill, the world outside looks incongruously peaceful and very much at odds with the anxiety that many experience. Only the daily broadcast of updated statistics pierces the complacency of splendid spring days. The most visceral reality of the pandemic reveals itself to us in its most abstract form: the number of deaths.

The first person who tested positive for Covid-19 in Japan was a traveller who returned from Wuhan to Kanagawa on January 6. He was admitted to hospital from January 10 to January 15. Later that month, a bus driver who had chauffeured a group of Chinese tourists from Wuhan was the first one to get infected without having left Japan. The Japanese government under Abe Shinzō reacted by restricting travel to and from Hubei province and banned anyone with a Hubei-issued passport from entering. Although it quickly became clear that infections were happening domestically, the Prime Minister drew on his strongest political instinct and focussed on drawing a strong boundary between a contaminated outside and a ‘clean’ inside. Some commentators and critics initially even toyed with the idea of a “close-the-country” policy (sakoku), the precedent of which kept Japan ’safe’ from much foreign influence from 1636-1853. For weeks, the news was dominated by the story of the Diamond Princess, the ill-fated cruise ship that was quarantined in Yokohama on February 2 after ten passengers tested positive. Although the passengers and crew in need for treatment were brought to shore and some of the 14 fatalities happened after passengers had been repatriated, the Japanese authorities still account for the number of deaths related to the ship with a special, “exterritorial” category.

It took a while for the language to settle, too: initially many media outlets spoke of shin-gata haien (new-type pneumonia), which is a familiar term because of the influenza waves that threaten Japan’s ageing population every year. The last such epidemic happened in 2009 with “new-type influenza” (shin-gata infuruenza), which in 2014 led to the roll out of an annual vaccination programme against streptococcus pneumoniae for the over-65. It was only in the second half of February when shin-gata coronavirus became the universally used term.
Despite all this, everybody kept going about their business as usual: wearing surgical masks is common in Japan in winter and during hay fever season; washing hands after returning home is assumed to be widely practiced. The consensus was that a population already well versed in public hygiene would find it easy to simply intensify the measures already in place. The Asahi newspaper even optimistically suggested that because of increased hygiene the normal seasonal flu numbers were going down at the beginning of February, usually the peak time for influenza hospitalisations. The influenza epidemic that Japan was on the verge of declaring in December 2019 had simply vanished. An eerie silence descended. Abe made the controversial decision to close down all schools on February 27, with a view of reopening on April 1, the traditional beginning of the school year; but apart from that no emergency measures were taken.

As the world witnessed the horror that first descended on Northern Italy and then on Spain, the unease in Tokyo grew. Distrust in the government is rife in Japan – the Edelman trust barometer 2018 indicates that only 37% of the public trust in the government to do the right thing – especially since the 3/11 triple disaster in 2011. It is widely understood that whatever happens, the government will be more interested in avoiding a mass panic than to take drastic measures. Cautiously positive voices pointed towards ‘culture’ to explain the different impact of Covid-19: Italians, who in the Japanese imagination are invariably friendly and excitable, thus constantly hugging and kissing, are naturally more prone to catch the virus than the Japanese, who are courteous and deferential, and thus more aloof and distant. But one only needs to take a rush hour train in Tokyo to be disabused of the illusion that cultural proxemics offer a convincing explanation. Critical voices argued that the Abe administration was downplaying the real extent of infections to keep the 2020 Olympics on track rather than to derail the massive financial and symbolic investment already made.

Fast forward to April 26: the Olympics have now been postponed and a state of emergency, first declared for Tokyo and the hardest-hit prefectures on April 7, has been extended to the whole of the country on April 16. Yet the reported numbers – 360 fatalities so far – remain suspiciously low (according to the Johns Hopkins coronavirus resource center on April 26).

One core insight of the anthropology of science is that in order to gain traction as a ‘reality’ in the world, an entity invisible to the eye such as a virus needs to be ‘assembled’. Symptoms and their distribution, tissue samples, microscopes, models of causality, genetic sequences, trajectories of contagion, testing regimes, tracking of patients etc. create data streams that together form the notion of the pathogen as the one possible element that connects all these different objects and procedures. My suspicion is that the Japanese case does not indicate straight-forward deception, but rather a more passive omission: if the virus has to be assembled in order to gain traction, it can also be taken apart. The key is to keep data streams separate. The rules that the Japanese health authorities have put into place contribute directly to this compartmentalisation: the capacity to run tests is very low and testing is actively discouraged; people are only tested for Covid-19 if they have had a fever for four days, thus delaying the identification of the underlying cause. If the patient passes away before a test has been administered, the death is likely to be counted simply as ‘pneumonia’ rather than as ‘Covid-19-related’. The approach appears to be “treat the symptoms rather than the disease” and not to bother with testing at all. Autopsies are rarely performed and require the consent of family members or relatives; Covid-19 tests are not administered post-mortem. Furthermore, comprehensive pneumonia statistics produced by the Japanese Ministry of Health, Labour and Welfare are published only every three years; the most recent set is from November 2019, meaning that any spike in pneumonia-related deaths will only become evident three years down the road.

‘Disassembling’ the virus may thus be a strategy to ‘dissemble’ how many people have actually died from the pandemic in Japan. “Why trigger a panic when there is no vaccine or cure in sight?” seems to be the rationale. Japan’s healthcare system is extremely well equipped to deal with the main cause of Covid-19-related death, viral pneumonia. It has the highest number of CT scanners, which can identify infected parts of the lungs early on (101 per 100’000 people), and the highest number of hospital beds worldwide (13 per 1000 people). As the number of fatalities starts to increase, we can only hope that this strategy works.

The COVID-19 Self-Love Manifesto

By Maiko Kodaka, PhD candidate

The COVID-19 pandemic has changed our way of life in many different ways. Since March, many governments all over the world have implemented rules of social distancing, which now regulate our everyday interactions. Many of us are forced to stay home to protect the vulnerable and our health care service; what can one do but to have sex? This is the perfect time to spend more time with loved ones, whether we like it or not. So why not dust of that Kama Sutra and have a go at position 56?

The current situation has already incubated its share of online memes. Neologisms such as ‘coronadivorce’ and ‘coronababy’ are trending on the Internet. Simultaneously, a global shortage of condoms was reported as the world-biggest producer of condoms, Karex Industries, had to shut down its factory in Malaysia under lockdown rules. While COVID-19 is also maliciously called ‘boomer remover’ by some due to the high mortality rate among those born during the post-war baby boom, the irony is that it might contribute to another baby boom a year hence.

But enough about those who are fortunate to have loved ones in their bed rooms. What about those who remain single and are literally left to their own devices? There is good news for them as well. Pornhub and xHamster, porn websites that provide both user- and studio-created content, are now providing free access for those who stay inside during the lockdown. It is obvious that in a pandemic that spreads between human hosts, self-pleasure is the safest way to cum.

Is pornography harmful?

Some people are skeptical of porn. Current anti-pornography debates are often based on three different arguments: a fear that easily available pornography on the internet will create addiction and unrealistic expectations, predominately in boys; the suspicion that there may be a causal relationship between porn consumption and sexual violence; and the older assumption that pornography contributes to the objectification of women. Although the Sex Wars – the debate between sex-positive and anti-pornography feminists during the 1970s – seem already archaic, the sociologist Gail Dines (2010) argues that the spread of porn culture is manipulating our own sexuality and that we should consider this to be a public health issue. In her analysis of our contemporary porn-saturated culture she warns against the over-celebration of the emancipatory potential of pornography. Yet to draw a direct causal link between porn and sex crimes, like in traditional behaviorists’ theories, is too simplistic. It is true that porn addiction has recently garnered attention as a social issue; but whether it should count as addiction in the pathological sense is hotly debated among health care professionals.
One thing often neglected in these debates is that contemporary pornography is no longer just a one-way traffic between producers and passive consumers. These days, the webcam market is facing a tremendous demand for 24/7 live-streaming of more or less sexual content. Webcam girls and boys are working extra hours and are also showing non-sex related activities, such as reading, cooking, and exercising. Many clients just want to talk to them.

Just as everyday sociality has moved online to “zoom-parties” and skype calls, so has erotic sociality. Online dating is literally happening exclusively “online” now. Media scholars often question the authenticity of the online realm and contrast it unfavourably with face-to-face interactions. But under the current regime of social distancing, we cannot but live in the moment of ‘the inter-indexical relationship’ (Inoue 2003: 327), in which online and offline, cyberspace and ‘meatspace’, become increasingly interchangeable.

Pornographic experience

Susanna Paasonen (2011) argues that online pornography is designed to trigger what she calls carnal resonance: it does “not simply involve sexual arousal but sensations ranging from disgust to confusion, surprise, titillation, interest, dismay, shame, boredom, amusement, curiosity, and many things besides” (2011:20). Since the invention of “modern” pornography, pornographic materials have stimulated and simulated our sexual experiences in various, technologically evolving ways. When I say “modern”, I mean the style of literature that absorbs its readers into the story and drives the narrative with the promise of titillation: the erotic page turner, so to speak. Such a format can already be discerned in Fanny Hill by John Cleland in 1748 and Juliette by the Marquis de Sade in 1797.
In reaction to the negative view of mainstream pornography as demeaning to women, we have seen in recent years an emerging movement of politicised forms of pornography: feminist and queer pornographies that challenge the depiction of erotic scenarios built around assumptions about male heterosexual desire. While those alternative forms are crucial for sexual and gender identity politics, the key to understanding the experience of pornography lies in the problem of identification and the dynamics of role play. In her analysis of pornographic comics, the sociologist Naoko Mori distinguishes three different sexual roles, the dominant seme (‘top’, lit. ‘attacker’), the passive uke (‘bottom’, lit. ‘receiver’), and the ‘peeping tom’, who enjoys others sexual play voyeuristically. While Mori points out that all pornographic experience is based on voyeurism, she also argues that at the same time the spectator can identify with either uke or seme. In other words, pornographic representations offer multiple possibilities of identification, which “do not alter the readers’ social identity…identifications and desire are not restricted to or contained within a binary” (Shigematsu 1999: 137). This suggests that there may be no direct, unambiguous line from the readers’ sexual orientation and identity to bodily identification and desire.

However, different forms of media may enable and delimit different processes of bodily identification. Live-action and cartoon-based pornography may engage the spectators sense of immersion and reality differently, as Mariana Ortega-Brena describes in her research on Hentai animation:

“our arousal to this spectacle of literally unreal sex and corporealities de-emphasizes the self-reflective awareness of our lived-bodies insofar as our identification with these non-live, non-fleshed entities might give us entrance into a world of imagined, animated sensations” (2008:28).

Whether acted in the flesh or cartoonishly animated, pornography has been a target of social concern mostly because it appeals to our bottom half, which people still often consider obscene, vulgar, or taboo. I would argue that watching porn is very much like other forms of cinematic escapism. Some people cry when they watch The Notebook (2004, Nick Cassavetes); other get goose skin when they watch The Shining (1980, Stanley Kubrick). So, go and enjoy your luxurious privacy. Explore what you like and get to know your body. The first hug after months of lockdown will be more than precious. But for now, let’s stay home and love ourselves.

Hairdryers and Silver

by Cornelis Rijneveld, PhD candidate

You may have heard of the MIT PhD who claimed one can kill the coronavirus with a hairdryer. Although the video has since been removed from YouTube in an effort to clamp down on pandemic-related fake news, Dr Shiva Ayyadurai elaborates here on his allegation that that the virus has been spread by the Deep State, which includes big pharma, philanthropists, the U.S. Government and international agencies like the WHO (even though the latter two don’t seem to get along as of late).

Ayyadurai himself challenged the Establishment when he ran against Elizabeth Warren in the 2018 Senate election as a Republican candidate in Massachusetts because ‘only a real Indian can defeat a fake indian’ (touché). The self-proclaimed inventor of email argued Warren was part of a ‘neo-caste system’ whose top layers comprised academics, lobbyists, lawyers and career politicians – another clever rhetorical move given Ayyadurai’s references to his own underprivileged caste background, giving him slightly more underdog-cred than, say, an orange billionaire. In line with this now-familiar populist rhetoric, Ayyadurai’s agenda revolved around secure borders and ending the sort of policies that helped his own family move to the U.S. when he was a kid. But perhaps his tough stance on immigration was a crowd-pleasing pledge that might help Ayyadurai achieve his real objective: ending ‘pay-to-play’ science research.

According to Ayyadurai, the imperative to market new drugs – and particularly vaccines – is the driving impulse behind our disease scholarship and definitions. It is because pharmaceutical interests dominate research and global policy agendas that we think of Ayyadurai as fringe figures (and not because he falsely claims to have invented e-mail). If the public understood that our sugar-heavy, vitamin-scarce diets and sedentary, indoor lifestyles were the real causes of modern ill-health and morbidity, the billion-dollar pharmaceutical industry would collapse overnight. Ayyadurai backs up this theory with research about the immune system and nutrition published in bioengineering journals (mainstream medical journals are controlled by big pharma).

The main villain in the conspiracy of silence around these kinds of insights about immunity is National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases Director & ‘Deep State Implant’ Dr. Fauci, who allegedly helped bring Covid-19 to the U.S. only to blow it up as a dangerous epidemic. This is the same man, Ayyadurai points out, who popularized the ‘myth’ that the HIV virus leads to AIDS. (Interestingly, Dr. Fauci was also the bad guy in the story of ACT UP’s sustained campaign for accelerated treatment research, although for very different reasons.) Gay men were dying as a result of the combined effect of partying and promiscuity on their immune-system, not because of Aids, argues Ayyadurai in the video, summarizing a theory that gained some traction with the emergence of ‘non-progressors’ (HIV-positive people who don’t develop Aids within ten years of their infection) following the advent of antiretroviral therapy (ART) in the mid-90s.

Maybe it’s because of all the gay group sex and my resultant diminished immunity, but I have a slightly allergic response to Aids denialism. An ugly part of me wishes the likes of Ayyadurai contract HIV and find out for themselves whether or not it leads to Aids. But the inner anthropologist protests I must suspend judgement lest it clouds my understanding of the phenomenon at hand.

It was in this spirit of relativism that one muggy day in February this year I went to meet a Mumbai-based ‘natural scientist’ who, for legal reasons, I shall give the pseudonym ‘Doctor Who’. Dr. Who had encouraged a friend of mine to gradually reduce her ART intake and substitute it for nano-silver treatment, all while boosting her natural immunity with ‘intra-cellular’ nutrition supplements (for sale at the clinic’s pharmacy). My curiosity was piqued. Though I knew I would not be able to use the experience in my PhD – covert research is a big no-no in Social Science – I decided to book a consultation.

In the clinic’s oddly retro, wood-panelled waiting room, I filled out a screening form listing aging ailments intended to persuade the visitor he has what one leaflet described as ‘Andropause’ (you guessed it- menopause for men). Under the rubric ‘Chronic Health/Beauty Challenges I Would Like To Overcome’ I scribbled ‘HIV/AIDS’. The clinic’s online and off-line reading material does not promise a cure for HIV/Aids, which would be illegal. I signed a long legal disclaimer, thus assuming “all responsibilities for my actions today and recogniz[ing] that all others are harmless.” (For the record: encouraring people to interrupt their HIV treatment is far from harmless, as this may lead to drug-resistance and reduced life expectancy).
 After some questioning (I presume to ascertain I wasn’t doing a covert investigation), Dr. Who explained that HIV – ‘like this Coronavirus everyone is talking about’ – is just another virus. The challenge is to boost our immune-system, battered by the poor lifestyle of modern urban dwellers. Pulling up articles published in bioengineering journals, Dr. Who also argued that nano-silver is proven to control HIV because the silver particles are able to enter the infected cell and destroy the virus, whereas ART can only inhibit its spread. Big Pharma is of course set on supressing this information through the self-serving research it funds, lest silver treatments priced at ten rupees a patient start competing with expensive, patented antiretrovirals. “You must understand one thing – the world runs on money.”

Dr Who told me he had offered to donate his silver treatment to government hospitals but was turned away because there were supposedly no Aids patients in Mumbai. “Can you believe that!?” What I could not believe, in fact, is that doctors would have made that claim, so I asked whether Dr. Who had gone to any of the overcrowded Aids wards that the government’s National Aids Control Organization had instituted in the main public hospitals. Instead of answering, Dr. Who responded to my question with a rhetorical one. “How come you are a PhD student who has been infected for fifteen months,” he said, sounding less than sympathetic, “and you’ve never researched alternatives to what the mainstream medical establishment tells you?”
The snootiness with which I entered the clinic had given way to a disorienting cocktail of confusion, anger, and hope by the time I left the premises. Was my scepticism a product of Western epistemological hegemony? Or perhaps it was a by-product of an unquestioning faith in medical authority, so different from early Aids activism’s DIY approach to science and treatment? If information about the harmful effects of smoking and climate change had previously been supressed by powerful industries… could there be a cure? Dr. Who’s strategy of exploiting existing structures of stigma and pharmaceutical profiteering had been partially successful. But while Big Pharma and Dr. Fauci may not have my best interests at heart, I remained pretty sure Dr. Who – who, by the way, charges around 8 lakh INR or USD 10,000 a year for a treatment he himself said costs no more than ten cents a patient – did not either. (Also, I kept reminding myself he also claims he can stop the aging process and…Andropause.)

I brought up my experience with an interviewee who used to work for the Lawyer’s Collective’s HIV/Aids Unit, which collaborated with local networks of people living with HIV to bring quacks to court. The expert on medical ethics laughed heartily. “There was a guy in Kerala like that,” she said, referring to Tamtan Abdul Majeed. Majeed’s ‘Immuno-QR’ income made him Kerala’s highest tax payer in 1998 before the former gold-miner was ordered to stop the manufacture and sale of this bogus Aids cure in 2007. “He built himself a bungalow on a beach near Kochi and called it Virus. Full psycho.”

I’m no expert, but the recipe for successful conspiracy theory appears to be something like this: take a few truths – shameless pharmaceutical profiteering, for example, or the fact that processed foods aren’t very healthy; add a generous pinch of legitimate emotions like anger, hope, or frustration; and then – just before serving – mix in something totally wack like reptiles or Aids-denial.

Yesterday I watched an interview with Bill Gates and Trevor Noah, in which the billionaire explains that his philanthropic foundation has started to invest heavily into the search for a Covid-19 vaccine. Noah points out, jokingly, that Mr. Gates’ prediction of an imminent pandemic in a Ted Talk sparked wild conspiracy theories. Predictably, the interview itself provided ample fuel for further speculation. With its connections to UN health bodies, the WHO and the health departments of countries all over the world, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation embodies Ayyadurai’s ‘Deep State’ .

But we don’t have to believe Bill Gates helped create Covid-19 to appreciate how his model of private-public partnership for biomedical solutions to public health problems benefits pharmaceutical companies and, in turn, possibly the Foundation itself. Lindsey McGoey explains the logic and infrastructure behind the Foundation’s ‘philanthro-capitalism’ in No Such Thing As A Free Gift – but who wants to read that when you can watch Ayyadurai claim that hairdryers offer a cure to Covid-19 on YouTube instead!

I shall end this blogpost by suggesting we draw a lesson from the history of Aids activism. This one is called ‘How To Stand Up Against Big Pharma, Biomedicine And Dr. Fauci Without Totally Losing The Plot’.