9. 1. 2021
Organisms at the Edge of Life
The moments of greatest despair over my years of precarious employment were not the ones that involved standing in strangers’ apartments after an absurdly long and uncompensated commute and being berated for a small misalignment in the IKEA furniture I was assembling, or serving coffee to the handful of customers who scrupulously avoided any acknowledgement of my humanity and/or pretended not to know that the nose is a respiratory outlet and therefore should be located behind one’s mask during the pandemic. The worst moments weren’t even during the tedious summer after the concussion I sustained cycling home from my tutoring job in Scarborough – a contract position I was soon fired from – or the weeks following the injury I acquired during an unpaid agricultural position last summer where no safety training had been offered. The moments of greatest despair have actually occurred at my favourite gig, fairly compensated and with dental coverage, in the most comfortable spot in my home, free from all external danger, peering at an interesting manuscript and not having enough energy to care about it.
Apathy indicates that something has gone wrong, and probably that it’s been that way for a while. It scares me to feel that way, or rather not to feel in that way. In my not-too-distant past, apathy was a precursor of severely negative mental health outcomes that stuck around for quite a while before it was possible to feel at all un-burnt-out (which is a nice way of saying, before it was possible to have a will to live).
Capitalism tries to place a veneer of glamour and virtue on eugenic work arrangements.
Why “eugenic”? Labour inequity leads foreseeably to disproportionate death and illness among targeted populations. (Pandemic policy is but one among many mechanisms for this degradation.) The idea of meritocracy, which gives cover to this extractive process, is a social toxin: reassuring for the rich, a pollutant for the rest of us.
Though it wears us workers down, a labour dynamic of this sort is not exactly a process of attrition. “Attrition” would imply that our opponent is aiming at utter depletion of the working class. But the state needs labourers, at least in the aggregate. It’s fairer to say the relationship is parasitic. In that sense, it’s very similar to viral infection.
I contracted COVID-19 this spring. The weekend prior to symptom onset, you could catch me in a downtown emergency room writing up editorial comments on my phone. (One hour logged in my work timesheet.) I’d sustained a nasty puncture wound taking my cat to the discount vet.
Accessing medical care is not easy for me. A single instance of medical assault and unlawful detention was sufficient to give me years of acute danger responses in the clinical world.
There’s a certain performance that keeps you safe in medical settings. Steady affect, politeness, compliance. Performing whiteness. It’s shockingly easy to be construed as deviant; it can be dangerous to present as distressed, even when there is ample reason to be distressed within such environments.
At one point during this hospital visit, I had a panic attack and crumpled to the floor. Hearing murmurings from the hallway, aware of my vulnerable position with respect to the clinical staff, I braced myself to be typecast as a hysteric. It may sound like my position was only slightly compromising, but when it comes to the medical profession’s treatment of neurodivergent people, you can’t take for granted that the standard of care will be universal, nor can you assume that institutions’ lofty ideals of care will embrace you to the same degree as service users who are (or are read as) neurotypical. Results are unpredictable even if you are very calm and communicative about your psychological condition. So I was comforted when a nurse reassured a colleague, “She’s fine,” protecting me and misgendering me in the same breath.
Otherwise, I kept up the façade of composure. Nursing my perforated thumb throughout that weekend, I noticed again that humane treatment is doled out in accordance with patient respectability. I heard one would-be patient say he couldn’t hear and was in a lot of pain. Peeking out of my room, it seemed to me that he posed no threat to staff. But his voice was a touch too loud, private security guards assembled around him (white blood cells for hire), and the person was denied care.
Medics, like cops, sometimes allow their egos to interfere with threat assessments. Anything less than deference is seen as danger.
At the end of that weekend, back in the ER with severe though ultimately transient neurological symptoms from the newest antibiotic, I was given a COVID-19 antigen test. It came back positive.
I immediately took all necessary precautions. But I felt nonchalant.
In the context of profound fatigue or any sort of chronic sickness, there is a certain relief that comes with diagnosis or hospitalization, even if the thing that lands you there is not the same as the thing that had been wearing you down. It can be incredibly validating to hear from a clinician that there is, indeed, something awry with your body’s systems, and to be told to rest when you’ve been aching for that permission for far longer than you’ve displayed any objective medical measures of malaise.
Under current political arrangements, rest is prescribed only when things are very dire, if at all.
Coronavirus was not the most intense health scare I’ve had in my young adult years. Nor is the mild infection with SARS-CoV-2 proving to be the most sustained of my health challenges. Disabling circumstances have written themselves on my body. I am in recovery upon recovery upon recovery. It takes time to heal, and time, too often, must be purchased.
“A worn thing,” writes Sara Ahmed, “might eventually break.”
Viruses work by means of a kind of writing. Once a coronavirus particle makes contact with the relevant receptor in its prospective host, it injects a strand of RNA, its genetic code, into the host’s cell. It begins to co-opt that organism’s own resources to make copies of itself, transcribing ribbons of RNA that are then packaged up and emitted in a kind of viral assembly line. These nucleotide sequences are, among other things, instruction manuals.
If coronavirus had its druthers, each infected body would cease all its own functions and become a mere virus factory. But the virus, needing the host, does not want the host to die. (Exceptionally virulent pathogens, meaning those with very severe and sudden health consequences for the hosts, tend not to succeed in escalating to pandemic status.) The virus needs to enlist scribes.
What’s more, viral families are very proficient at adaptation. They change the code, revising the script when needed, in order to get ahead of the host population’s defences and continue to exploit the resources of our mammalian bodies for their own ends; hence, variants.
The dominant scripts of capitalism and white supremacy – scripts like the stylized depletion (“achievement”) neoliberalism offers, or any idea of superiority that inheres in biology – work in much the same way.
But one can recover from a bad story as from an infection. It’s possible to cut yourself adrift, shift allegiances, re-script your own performance.
Can a revised story serve to inoculate?
The phone rang at the voluntary COVID-19 isolation centre, a hotel by the airport operated by Toronto Public Health. The genetic sequencing test results had come back, and I was infected with a variant. OK.
I had finished up the freelance work that was on my desk and chosen not to take on any more for the rest of the week. As for my other two gigs, I’d emailed my supervisors from the acute care ward and told them I expected I’d need to take a week or two away from my desk. That was the respite I was able to afford, and I luxuriated in it. And even though I was mired in brain fog, sinus headaches, histamine responses, and a substantial helping of health anxiety, as well as deep and inexplicable plum-hued bruises on both palms, there was something incredibly restorative about those ten days. I filled a journal. Unlike in 2020, I had managed to take a week off before December.
Soeren (Sev) Taylor organizes with the Movement Defence Committee. They are a genderqueer somatics nerd, a sometimes musician, and a white settler who is subject to constitutional agreements such as the Dish With One Spoon Wampum Belt Covenant. Sev is in the process of divesting from the Protestant work ethic.