Interventions

In the late spring of 2020, as the Interventions editorial team debated themes for our forthcoming issue, I (Ella) was asked by the UK-based organisation Kanlungan Filipino Consortium to write a report on the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on Filipino migrants without ‘leave to remain’; alternatively known as illegalised, undocumented, or in Tagalog tago nang tago (loosely translated as ‘always hiding’). In part, Kanlungan’s request was prompted by the case of an elderly Filipino man known as Elvis, who had been afraid to seek healthcare for symptoms of COVID-19 and died at home, leaving his wife, a domestic worker, also suffering symptoms and refusing to seek medical attention.1 The couple’s decisions must be placed in the context of fears cultivated by the UK government concerning prohibitive charges for use of the National Health Service (NHS) based on visa status, and NHS data-sharing for the purposes of immigration enforcement, two facets of a suite of policies designed to make the UK a violently “hostile environment” for migrants.2 

My longer relationship with Kanlungan, and the request that I formally document undocumented Filipino’s accounts, speaks to the ways in which research and institutional privilege can be repurposed in the interests of community organising. In itself, the document I produced is conscientiously formulaic, combining qualitative and quantitative data (narratives with facts and charts) and adopting a language of careful neutrality and anonymity. Like many reports written for the eyes of policy-makers, it is a concealed attempt at performativity, passionately hoping that its recommendations will have efficacy, and simultaneously disavowing passion so as to speak the de-politicised language of “public health” – the theme of this issue of Interventions.

In the most generous reading, we might say that such documents – and perhaps we can speak more broadly of research and advocacy in public health – furtively smuggle what Harney and Moten call “planning” – “plans hatched darker than blue, on the criminal side, out of love” – into the language of policy, in their terms, “the dispersal and deputisation of state violence.”3 Policy change is what the eighty precarious migrants I heard from through the research were almost unanimously calling for; this demonstrates the ubiquitous force of the “hostile environment.” But where public health and racialised immigration policy intersect, an almost over-literal reading of Harney and Moten’s terms is pertinent in highlighting how “Policy is correction, forcing itself with mechanical violence upon [those deemed] incorrect, the uncorrected, the ones who do not know to seek their own correction.”4 In this sense, public health policy can be directly traced in modes of social and urban control which discipline through narratives of sanitation and pathologisation. Evidently, this has a far longer history than coronavirus, from the “racial hygiene” discourses organising colonised and immigrant bodies, to the “rehabilitation” narratives at work in institutional responses to HIV/AIDS, to the symbolic weaponisation of sport spectacles in the “war against obesity.”5 Documents such as my report dance precariously on the line between speaking policy for the purposes of fugitive planning (such as occurred in the ‘illegal’ UK Filipino diaspora amidst the pandemic), and assimilating planning into the dispersed violence of white supremacist, ableist state policy-making.

It was against these concerns that I suggested performance, politics and public health as a theme for this issue. The range of interventions in the issue help us to disaggregate the multiple meanings of public health: from the lived experience of mental and physical wellbeing and life, to a systemic and structural understanding of that experience, to a set of discourses that selectively “corrects” and prescribes. As Vanessa Damilola Macaulay writes in her contribution, “Putting public health in conversation with performance is useful as it provokes an engagement with bodies. It necessitates the visceral and material consequences that make bodies marginalised and legible in certain spaces.” On one hand, performance praxis’ attentivenesss to collective action and materiality underscore the always-political nature of public health. Through their consideration of different kinds of performances (personal and collective; ritual and quotidian), each of the interventions in the issue exposes the ways in which public health articulates the stratification of bodies, from the anti-black fungibility that Macaulay writes of, to Lobel’s critique of cancer charity whitewashing, to the exposure of Indigenous peoples to illness caused by agricultural chemicals in Calabias’ autoethnographic analysis.

On the other, public health is a useful interlocutor amidst theatre, dance and performance studies’ proliferating theories of embodiment, firmly situating the somatic in relation to inequities of access, insurance, logistics, ecology, law and others that can seem as prosaic as they are vital. It is clear that COVID-19 did not create health inequalities or exceptional questions for us to grapple with, but exacerbated longstanding and entangled modes of dispossession already astutely analysed by thinkers in disability studies, crip theory and elsewhere. As Sins Invalid cofounder Patty Berne explains, “white supremacy leverages ableism to create a subjugated ‘other’ that is deemed less worthy/abled/smart/capable. We cannot comprehend ableism without grasping its interrelations with heteropatriarchy, white supremacy, colonialism and capitalism.”6 Or, as Tuck and Yang assert in the context of North American settler-colonialism: white supremacy is a public health issue.7 This issue thinks performance, politics and public health together in order to deepen a material understanding of these three categories and their interrelations, and as the year ends, attempts to complicate the narratives of crisis and exception that have been applied to the events of 2020.

Vanessa Damilola Macaulay, in her visual essay “Between Stolen Breaths”, demonstrates how the very act of breath-taking has violent material consequences for those who are Black. On the afterlives of the murders of Eric Garner, Trayvon Martin and Renisha McBride, scholar Christina Sharpe observes, “In the weather of the wake, one cannot trust, support, or condone the state’s application of something they call justice, but one can only hold one’s breath for so long.”8 Situating her own experience of asthma in the context of the current COVID-19 pandemic, and within the broader climate of anti-blackness, Macaulay articulates, through her visual and textual practice, how “when we bring breath to our consciousness, whether through illness or state violence, we call attention to the temporality of life.” Her images locate breath—the mouth, its assemblage of breath and voice, how its movements gesture towards life itself, where the neck is visible in holding up breath and how that can be stepped on by state violence—as inextricably tied to Black life. “What is at stake in between my breaths?” she asks.

In conversation with Ella, Brian Lobel discusses tensions between a justice-focussed approach to cancer care inspired by disability activism and the charity model which currently dominates narratives and fundraising. In a critique that has much in common with Janie A. Chuang’s reading of ‘philanthrocapitalism,’ Lobel explores the gendered, xeno-racist marginalisations produced by charity drives such as the Jimmy Fund and the Lance Armstrong Foundation, which privilege hegemonic stories as fundraising tools.9 This effectively shifts cancer care from the remit of public (or at least publicly-funded) health into the realm of privatised donation. In this vein, Lobel discusses the future of public bodies such as the UK’s NHS in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic.

Finally, Jose Kervin Cesar B. Calabias provides an autoethnographic account of his family and community, the Kankana-ey village of Amgaleyguey, situated in the Cordillera Administrative Region of the Philippines, the mountainous, landlocked region on the island of Luzon, over 180 miles from metro Manila. An Indigenous community within the multi-ethnic nation of the Philippines (where over 150 languages are spoken), the Kankana-ey are a vegetable growing people whose traditional practices have transformed through their participation within an economy of intensive chemical agriculture. Through his writings and photos from his family archive, Calabias reveals the new precarities and risks to body and Indigenous selfhood of the Philippines’ neocolonial economy, while documenting with a sensitive eye the rituals and performances by which Amgaleyguey finds sustenance. As an Indigenous scholar writing about his Indigenous community from within the Filipino diaspora, Calabias’s contribution provides a multi-layered view of what it might mean to decolonize our research practices. 

Calabias’ contribution acknowledges the positionality of Indigenous Philippine communities in the context with which we began this editorial: the neocolonial economy of global domestic labour. Thus, across three very different contributions, this issue demonstrates how public health is rarely merely an issue of policy but one which circulates with and sometimes against the flows of global capitalism, troubling the boundaries of bodies, local communities, institutions and borders, and revealing our fundamental interconnection.

Ella Parry-Davies, Sharanya, Vanessa Damilola Macaulay, Broderick D.V. Chow, Stefanie Sachsenmaier, Azadeh Sharifi, Liyang Xia

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Notes:

  1. Reported in Bulman, May, ‘Undocumented migrants dying of coronavirus because they’re too afraid to seek health, MPs and charities warn,’ The Independent, 17 April 2020, available at: https://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/home-news/coronavirus-undocumented-migrants-deaths- cases-nhs-matt-hancock-a9470581.html
  2. May, Theresa, quoted in J Kirkup and R Winnett, ‘Theresa May interview: “We’re going to give illegal migrants a really hostile reception”’, The Telegraph, 25 May 2012, https://www.telegraph.co.uk/ news/uknews/immigration/9291483/Theresa-May-interview-Were-going-to-give- illegal-migrants-a-really-hostile-reception.html
  3. Harney, Stefano and Fred Moten, The Undercommons: Fugitive Planning and Black Study (Wivenhoe, New York, Port Watson: Minor Compositions, 2013). 77; 75.
  4. Ibid. 78.
  5. Anderson,Warwick. Colonial Pathologies: American Tropical Medicine, Race, and Hygiene in the Philippines (Durham: Duke University Press, 2006); McRuer, Robert, Crip Theory: Cultural Signs of Queerness and Disability. (New York: New York University Press, 2006); Cooper, Charlotte, ‘Olympics/Uhlympics: Living in the Shadow of the Beast’, thirdspace, 9 (2), 2012, http://www.thirdspace.ca/journal/article/view/cooper.
  6. Quoted in Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha, Leah, Care Work: Dreaming Disability Justice (Vancouver: Arsenal Pulp Press: 2018). 21.
  7. Tuck, Eve and K. Wayne Yang, ‘Decolonization is not a metaphor’, Decolonization: Indigeneity, Education & Society 1 (1), 2012, 1-40. 22.
  8. Sharpe, Christina, ‘The Weather,’ The New Inquiry, 19 January 2017, https://thenewinquiry.com/the-weather/
  9. Janie A. Chuang, ‘Giving as Governance? Philanthrocapitalism and modern-day slavery abolitionism’, UCLA Law Review, 62.6 (2015), 1516-1556.

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