March 2020. The subsequent blur of months. Of spring into summer, fall into winter, a year into another and likely into the next. Like millions of humans around the world, 2020 itself feels infected, as if wrapped up with yellow caution tape. Virus dominates the current zeitgeist; pandemic won Merriam-Webster’s 2020 word of the year; vaccine in 2021.
We are all proto-virologists, sludging through the constant slew of “viral” media: novel variants, outbreaks, booster shots, mutations (a jargon in which we’re collectively fluent).
In the somewhat-receding wake of COVID-19, like floodwater, viral fear recently surged again when the World Health Organization began reporting monkeypox (MPX) outbreaks in Europe and North America. The stigmatization of MPX patients as “disease-spreaders” (in the media, on the internet, in conversation, etc.) suggests these individuals have a kind of authority over the virulent strands of DNA in their bodies. This belief aligns with the etymology of “virus” from the Latin “poison,” a word that functions as both noun and verb. Passive and active. Culpable.
I’m reminded of Jude Law’s fear-mongering character in Contagion, Alan Krumewiede, the conspiracy theorist who conjectured MEV-1, the film’s fictional virus, was “Godzilla, King Kong, Frankenstein, all in one.”
Of course, this sentiment did not bud from MPX or COVID-19 like a novel variant. No, it has existed in the United States for decades, if not longer, and it has not been dormant.
Dr. Stephen Thrasher, a scholar of the criminalization of HIV/AIDS at Northwestern University, stood in Duke’s anthropology lecture hall this month and drew parallels between the recent MPX/COVID-19 epidemics and that of HIV/AIDS in the 1980s-90s and stretching into the new millennium. He asked us to raise our hands if we personally knew someone with HIV/AIDS. A few did. If we knew someone who had died from HIV-related causes. A few less. What about COVID? The entire audience raised hands as if to signal the new era of viral infection.
Since the start of the HIV/AIDS epidemic in 1981, more than 700,000 people have died from HIV-related illness in the United States, a disproportionate number of whom were men who had sex with men and injection drug users (with poverty exacerbating the likelihood of acquisition).
As Thrasher historicized, the stigma that encapsulated HIV/AIDS significantly delayed life-saving interventions on the local and national scale. Prejudice hindered research funding, drug distribution, and government health agency mobilization. The rising tide of the HIV/AIDS epidemic was concurrent with increased violence towards the LGBTQ community, and gay men in particular, analogous to a king tide flooding the coastline.
Thrasher exemplified this taboo through the “patient zero” misconception, which was propagated by the media during the epidemic and embedded like a splinter in pop culture’s thumb (i.e. the film Patient Zero with Matt Smith, Stanley Tucci, and Natalie Dormer).
Gaëtan Dugas, a Québécois Canadian flight attendant, was inappropriately labeled “patient zero” of the HIV/AIDS epidemic in America. As Thrasher and other researchers have debunked, Dugas was, in fact, not the first person to bring HIV to the United States. Further, Dugas was not even included in the early infection group. And Dugas was Patient O (like oh), not zero, for Out-of-State. Yet, this contextualization of the virus endures despite being disproved. Upon diagnosis, many infected individuals will experience shame.
In the 1980s and 90s, HIV/AIDS was characterized as the “gay plague,” setting ablaze a moral panic in America comparable to that of the Satanic Panic, rock ‘n’ roll, and fear of razor blades stuffed into gooey 3 Musketeers bars at Halloween (and there’s an interesting overlap in the timing of these hysterias in the collective American consciousness). And just two months ago even, many people were characterizing MPX in the same accusatory and morally dubious way.
Like with the AIDS epidemic, Thrasher said the US government failed to mobilize public health initiatives early enough to proactively stifle MPX outbreaks in spite of the disease’s well-documented diffusion across Europe and into neighboring Canada.
“We could’ve tapped the Strategic National Stockpile,” he argued. Thrasher listed multiple public health interventions that could have and should have been implemented with the first faint smoke signals of MPX in the United States (as they were in the past for meningitis and polio outbreaks).
For context, the Strategic National Stockpile (SNS) is a cache of medicines, antibiotics, and vaccines that the government started to accumulate just prior to 9/11 in 2001 and, seemingly, in an exponential manner after — almost like doomsday preppers hoarding freeze-dried beef stroganoff and cans of beans in their underground bunkers. Born from the smoking rubble and smoke of New York City following the terrorist attack, fear of biological warfare, especially the weaponization of smallpox, paralyzed the US (i.e. the Anthrax scare).
The SNS was tapped after 9/11, for 12 major hurricanes, COVID-19, and the swine flu (to name a few), but not for monkeypox.
As historically evidenced, mass vaccination and herd immunity effectively prevent the spread of viral infections, especially for slow-mutating viruses like MPX.
“We should have quickly vaccinated queer men and transmasc people,” Thrasher said, “building on a very historic anomaly which is that adults have been socialized to take vaccines en masse in a way that has not happened in many decades.” And because MPX and smallpox are closely related viruses, a rollout of the stockpile’s smallpox vaccine could have nipped the outbreak in the bud.
A large focus of Thrasher’s research is on who is affected by viruses, and how, and why. Nearing 6.6 million COVID-19 deaths worldwide, many would argue that viruses — these ancient, non-life forms — are Earth’s “great equalizers,” as acknowledged by Thrasher in multiple publications. Evolution has pushed them to infect, replicate, and spread: machine-like and non-discriminatory.
But, he added, viruses are not great equalizers. Infection is inherently unequal. Again, we must ask the question who?
Viral infections disproportionately burden marginalized bodies and communities, a concept Thrasher framed as the viral underclass (coined by activist Sean Strub and reshaped by Thrasher to describe this phenomenon). Writing in his book of the same name, “… the viral underclass can help us think about how and why marginalized populations are subjected to increased harms of viral transmission, exposure, replication, and death.”
Let’s return to the MPX vaccine. The Biden administration did not tap the SNS for mass vaccination. Instead, it rolled out meager health interventions at a snail’s pace (like Sisyphus pushing his stone up the hill). Still, many at-risk individuals, in particular men who have sex with men, opted to receive a two-shot regimen to protect themselves from the virus. Considering the viral underclass, Thrasher posed the following questions:
Who is disproportionately burdened by MPX in the US? He answered, “Black and Latino men who have sex with men.”
And, who is receiving the medical interventions to protect themselves from the painful infection? He answered again, “I got one MPX vaccine shot, almost everyone in line but me and a friend were white.” He describes the discrepancy between those receiving the vaccine and those most at-risk of acquiring MPX in his Scientific American article “Monkeypox Is a Sexually Transmitted Infection, and Knowing That Can Help Protect People.”
And his years of HIV research corroborate this trend.
He spoke (and wrote in The Viral Underclass) about his time reporting the Michael Johnson court case in St. Louis, Missouri. Michael Johnson, a black, gay, former college wrestler, was sentenced to 30 years in prison after failing to disclose his HIV status to his sexual partners — a criminal offense. The prosecution had sought a maximum 60.5 years, practically a life sentence.
For context, in the state of North Carolina, the maximum sentence for voluntary manslaughter is a little under five and a half years. In the courtroom, Thrasher was privy to the prosecution’s smoking gun: Johnson had previously signed a legally-binding acknowledgment of his HIV diagnosis. With the flick of a pen, nondisclosure was a criminal offense.
In his interviews, however, Thrasher found that Michael Johnson was semi-illiterate and had not been properly informed of the legal implications of the document he had signed. Nor had he been informed of the consequences of breaking the legal contract. Nor had he been counseled or given any legal advice prior to being charged.
Michael Johnson was released from prison 25 years early after his ruling was overturned. His is a body in the viral underclass.
Concluding his lecture, Thrasher quoted AIDS activist Vito Russo’s Why We Fight speech from the 1988 ACT UP Demonstration at the Department of Health and Human Services. In reading the entire transcript, I found that Russo was aware of the viral underclass, as Thrasher theorized, despite the term not yet existing in the academic ethos. He said in his address:
“If I’m dying from anything — I’m dying from the fact that not enough rich, white, heterosexual men have gotten AIDS…. Living with AIDS in this country is like living in the twilight zone. Living with AIDS is like living through a war which is happening only for those people who happen to be in the trenches. Every time a shell explodes, you look around and you discover that you’ve lost more of your friends, but nobody else notices. It isn’t happening to them.”
Is it possible to ever resolve the viral underclass in the US? As long as systemic inequities continue to exist, no. This may seem pessimistic or even cynical, but Thrasher concluded his lecture (and his book) with reserved optimism. “Let’s get to work,” he implored.
If we can identify and actively dismantle the systems that disproportionately burden certain populations with viruses and diseases, like a spool of yarn, we can begin to unravel the viral underclass in America.
Yes, infections should be treated with accessible and affordable medicine. Yes, healthcare should be expanded. Yes, we should continue to improve the efficacy of drugs and diagnostics. But, health interventions alone do not cure communities of disease.
Thrasher found that marginalized bodies will continue to be infected, in spite of medicinal intervention, if the inequities from which the viral underclass emerge are not concurrently cured. Let’s get to work.
If interested, here’s a link to Thrasher’s website and book: http://steventhrasher.com/
Post by Alex Clifford, Class of 2024