Interrogating our vaccine fetish

Bryan Mukandi believes we have fetishised the COVID-19 vaccine.

A couple of months ago, a friend died as a result of COVID-19 infection.

In a more just world, more people would know about Dr Surprise Matekere, or Shami, as I knew her long ago, when we were fellow medical students and then junior doctors at the United Bulawayo Hospitals.

In a more just world, the poor, rural communities she served would not have been so poor, or so in need of her generosity, nor the generosity of others like her. In a more just world, standards of living in Matabeleland and across the so-called ‘developing world’ would be much higher; COVID vaccines and other health supplies would be more widely available; and a remarkable woman, an incredibly dedicated health care provider, and a lovely human being would probably still be alive today. Sadly, it seems as though the world of our making is governed more by the maxim Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o laments in Petals of Blood — ‘you eat or you are eaten’ — than it is by any coherent conception of justice. Moreover, our primary imperative, our outworking of conatus or the will to persevere, is a striving to be on the winning side of the ruthless, governing calculus.

We are driven, it seems to me, by the impulse to consume others. It’s on this, our cannibalism, that I would like to dwell.

In his argument for conditional requirements rather than compulsion to be vaccinated, Simon Longstaff makes helpful allusion to ‘our nation’s response to the threat posed by terrorism’. He correctly points to the present negative consequences of the post 9–11 deployment of incorrect language and concepts in the justification of terrible policy. Instructive as that is, I think Operation Sovereign Borders is even more illuminating. Consider all the death and suffering that we, in Australia, were collectively willing to countenance to ensure that the risk of being eaten remained beyond our shores, externalized.

How many times did we hear the invocation of the formula, “We don’t want to see people dying at sea on their way here,” with absolutely no care taken nor provisions in mind for them, dying over there? Granted, many of us opposed the policy, but Charles Mills’ explication of The Racial Contract should give even those of us who protest/ed pause. At the heart of the racial contract, he claims, is ‘an epistemology of ignorance’. Hence, signatories acquire both: a share in domination; as well as the power to fail to understand their part in that same domination. That ability to fail to see those one consumes, to imagine oneself morally upright with clean hands, demands the expenditure of a great deal of power, Nietzsche tells us.

In practical terms, this means that we can critique and protest cruelty enacted on our behalf, all the while enjoying its benefits.

It’s interesting how the ‘Sovereign Borders’ logic has been deployed internally. The obvious parallels are between national and state boundaries. Today in Queensland, what will be in New South Wales will be — people will be locked down, vaccinated, or not; numbers will go up and down; elected officials will stay or go — so long as we are not locked down, and continue to receive all our goods and services. So much so, I’m not sure how meaningful the distinction really is between the person in Delhi and the person in Sydney. Having been convinced that our wellbeing is tied to the exclusion of the former, it was a small hop, skip and a jump to accepting the same argument regarding the latter. The pedantic reader will ask about the ethnicity and socio-economic qualities of these two individuals. Might the drive to keep consuming in peace trump longstanding prejudices? It might, and once this logic holds across state lines, why not across local government authorities, neighbourhoods, class or occupational lines?

Those in our society most given to eating and most practiced in not being eaten seem to be responding to the pandemic and all it portends in two main ways, dividing themselves into two broad groups. I would refer to the first group as petulant children, were they not so dangerous. Yet beneath the surface of anti-vaccine, anti-lockdown protest is the reality that there are among us those habituated to privilege — to being served, to tax breaks, cheap credit, relatively high wages, to the inheritance, accumulation and bequeathal of wealth, and to social and political institutions that seem to work to their benefit. So much so, these recipients of enough of a share of a machine — that extracts unsustainably and inequitably — have lost either the ability or the will to countenance risk, precarity, or even their own mortality.

The second group is as invested in the status quo, but instead of closing both eyes to the present state of things, gingerly advances with one eye open and an outstretched hand feeling out the future. “70% … 80% … single dose…double dose … when we get to 70% double dose vaccination…” These are their religious mantras, rather than, “Universal basic income … community development schemes … decentralisation … grassroots public engagement…” It’s fascinating to watch the government, which collectively belongs in this camp, wheel and deal to secure more vaccine doses. Names of pharmaceutical corporations have been made part of the national lexicon. Officialdom has decided that the COVID-19 plan is to keep calm and vaccinate. And while I think mass vaccination is eminently sensible and should be pursued rigorously, I wonder about how those charged with governing will address the small proportion of people who cannot get vaccinated due to medical contraindications; and the larger number who choose not to get vaccinated.

It is an unjust society that is indifferent to the former, sacrificing them to the satisfaction of the appetites of the many, regardless of how small their number; and it is a cruel society that is willing to disregard the latter, no matter how petulant.

Interestingly, I think these two groups are two parties, taking different paths towards the same goal: the satisfaction of the impulse to continue to eat rather than be eaten. One group demands the right to go on exactly as before, while the other wants to take some precautions, and then go on as before. For both parties, the vaccine is a fetish, understood in the sense laid out by J. Lorand Malory in The Fetish Revisited. He defines a fetish as “a material thing animated by the contrary models of society and the contrary personal expectations of the people who […] have rival relationships with that material thing”. A vaccine is a material object; it is a biologically active substance administered by needle and syringe. COVID-19 vaccines have been brought to life in ways that the measles, mumps and rubella (MMR) vaccine has not. This is because MMR vaccine does not raise existential questions regarding the possibilities of our ability to persist as before.

The COVID vaccination debate concentrates and reduces a complex, crucial conversation to the level of the inane.

It exempts us from consulting geographers, urban planners, architects, civil engineers, political economists, environmental scientists, sociologists and others on the urgent societal reconfiguration necessary. We can instead just reel off biostatistics, discover libertarianism, or engage in any number of activities that keep us focused on stop gaps rather than confronting the demands of redress. Fixation on vaccine and on anti-vaccine are different modes of the same evasion of thought.

In The Beast and the Sovereign, Jacques Derrida grapples with that beastliness which is a feature of the enactment of some conceptions of sovereignty. This maps onto, I suspect, the voracious, extractive monster — the demonic, open stomach — that Irene Watson describes in Raw Law. For the most part, this beastly monstrosity is who we are as a political community. Confronted with crisis, we demand the freedom to move about unvaccinated and spread illness where we go; or the freedom to compel or coerce others into taking the medical precautions that will hasten a return to our normal patterns of consumption, including the consumption of the labour of those we are compelling. Naked indifference on one hand, and callous disregard on the other.

In both cases, frighteningly sharp teeth are bare. In neither case is there the attempt to engage in politics, not of the political variety, but that deliberative, difficult, good faith engagement around what makes for a good society, to which Aristotle gestures in the Nicomachean Ethics. Thus, we ensure that the condemned of the world remain prey, in New South Wales, in Delhi, in Matabeleland, regardless of which of our ruling factions comes out on top.

To what extent have we ‘fetished’ the COVID vaccine?

Dr Bryan Mukandi is an academic philosopher and health humanities researcher, with a background in the practice of medicine in a resource-poor, sub-Saharan African context. Bryan was a panelist at FODI Digital, for The Ethics of the Pandemic.

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